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The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 17, 2007


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This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (April 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345486943
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345486943
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #786,504 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A dispute over Shakespeare resulted in a deadly riot on May 10, 1849, at New York City's Astor Place Theatre, where armed militiamen clashed with theatergoers, gangsters and bystanders. In the melee, some 50 soldiers and 50 civilians were wounded and more than 20 civilians killed. Cliff, a former theater and film critic for the London Times, sees the riot as symbolic of a young America trying to find its cultural voice and resentful of what some saw as British cultural imperialism. The fatal dispute was between two Shakespearean actors, the intellectual Englishman William Charles Macready and American working-class hero Edwin Forrest and began when Forrest hissed at Macready's performance of Hamlet in Edinburgh. This book ranges widely, from the 1809 riots at a Macbeth performance at London's Covent Garden to Shakespeare's popularity on the American frontier, where his plays helped pioneers wrestle with fundamental questions about human nature, and America's old and new money classes as immigrants flooded into the country. Nicely illustrated with contemporary photos and cartoons, Cliff's informative, engrossing if somewhat scattered debut recreates a time when the Bard inflamed passions in lower classes and gentry alike, and when America's theaters "were a crossroads of a whole society." (Apr. 17)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

During the evening of May 10, 1849, a massive riot broke out in Astor Place in New York City, involving at least 20,000rioters, causing scores of fatalities, and leading to the use of the military in quelling the violence. But this was no typical street quarrel between ethnic gangs, and it certainly wasn't a case of have-nots driven to rage by their poverty. Rather, the rival gangs were fighting on behalf of two unlikely antagonists, both of them prominent Shakespearean actors. William Macready was an aristocratic, foppish actor acclaimed by elites in New York and London; Edwin Forrest was the darling of working-class theater fans. Cliff, the former film and theater critic for The Times of London, tells their story and the story of their followers with considerable verve and a consistent sense of irony. He supplies a wonderful portrait of mid-nineteenth-century New York as an emerging metropolis, and the tale set there is an enjoyable but unsettling mixture of farce and tragedy. Both general readers and those with a special interest in the period will find much to enjoy here. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

More About the Author

Nigel Cliff is a historian, biographer, and critic. He was educated at Oxford University, where he was awarded the Beddington Prize for English Literature. He is a former theater and film critic for the London Times and a contributor to The Economist and other publications. His first book, The Shakespeare Riots, was a finalist for the National Award for Arts Writing and was selected as one of the best nonfiction books of 2007 by the Washington Post. He lives in London with his wife, the ballerina Viviana Durante, and their son.

Customer Reviews

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Well worth the read--grab this one.
Aunt Charlotte
America's breaking away from Great Britain was more than a political and military one: it was also a cultural upheaval.
Rocco Dormarunno
The story is so engrossing that I found myself reading it every night like I do a novel.
Midwest Writer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on August 21, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Not long ago we had movies of Shakespeare's _Hamlet_ starring Mel Gibson in the first and Kenneth Branaugh in the second. Imagine that Hollywood blundered and released both at the same time for premieres in New York City to compete with each other. Now imagine that this made fans of Gibson and fans of Branaugh so furious that there was a clash between thousands of them, throwing stones and lighting fires, and that when the police and militia were called in, more than twenty people died. If your imagination can't pull all that off, you can stop trying. It all really happened, only it happened in 1849, in New York City outside the Astor Place Opera House, where respective fans of an American Shakespearean actor and an English Shakespearean actor caused what is known as the Astor Place Riot. If it still seems improbable, the precedents for the battle are comprehensively set up in _The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America_ (Random House) by Nigel Cliff. This brilliant and entertaining book looks back at early nineteenth century acting traditions, the importance of Shakespeare to Americans, the culture wars between England and Britain, and the class conflicts within New York City, so that the riot itself occupies only the last quarter of the book. The riot may still seem an implausible historical episode, but Cliff has so thoroughly plumbed its many roots that in the book's final chapters, the riot seems like a sad inevitability.

For us, Shakespeare represents a lofty realm of academic reverence, but it is surprising that frontiersmen wanted not melodrama or farce, but the Bard. Shakespeare's plays were fully a quarter of all the plays put on in America, and on the frontier there was no more popular playwright.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Aunt Charlotte on June 18, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Many New Yorkers have heard of the Astor Place Riots, and this book really brings them back in colorful detail. The riot itself is almost an afterthought: this is a dual biography of two of the mid-19th century's most eccentric actors, and a vivid glimpse at America and Britain of the time. A real "can't put it down" rip-roaring read. If I had to find something to complain about, it would be "not enough illustrations."

Well worth the read--grab this one.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Rocco Dormarunno on August 24, 2007
Format: Hardcover
America's breaking away from Great Britain was more than a political and military one: it was also a cultural upheaval. For the first decades of the young nation, America's intelligentsia still aligned itself with British traditions. But as the nation grew and matured, it was eager to carve its own culture, and forget England's--except when it came to Shakespeare. America was going to keep the Bard, but it was going to be performed their way. Nigel Cliff records the nation's struggle with its Anglophilia among the rich and Anglophobia among the working class in his gripping book, "The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America".

Please note, this is not entitled "The Astor Place Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in 19th Century New York", although that tragedy is the focus of the final pages. This book covers generations of Americans, from New York to California, and the compelling effect Shakespeare had on them. And it covers it well. Mr. Cliff takes a very close look at how and why Shakespeare was an important element to the American way of life, and comes out with some intriguing and convincing conclusions. He also does a great job of mirroring the volatile theater lives in London and in New York: and it was not a great life, to say the least.

Wisely, Mr. Cliff focuses on the lives of two Shakespearean actors: the British William Charles Macready and the American Edwin Forrest. After an amiable camaraderie between the two, members of the press and of the theater world poisoned their ears against each other, and being extremely egocentric, the actors took the rumors to heart. At the climax of their rivalry, one hissed at the other during a performance.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By James S on August 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover
In his impressive debut, Nigel Cliff takes an unlikely but fascinating episode in New York history - a few days when the city was under martial law, troops were marching through the streets and thirty people were shot dead, all over whether an American or English actor was better at doing Shakespeare - and uses it to paint a captivating picture of nineteenth century America and beyond.

Moving between decadent London, the Mississppi frontier and New York gang hideouts, Cliff brings to life the hero worship of the first American star Edwin Forrest. All muscles and fire, Forrest promised to rid America of England's cultural hold on its old colony - amazingly, decades after independence the entire entertainment business was still a British affair. He soon became enmeshed in a first comic but increasingly bitter feud with his arch rival, Englishman William Macready. At first friends, the two chased each other around America and England, and such was the celebrity of star actors that they came to stand in for their countries. It all ended with America's first class war, between an elite that supported the refined Macready and nativists who hated the old world and everything it stood for. It seems extraordinary that Shakespeare was at the heart of all this - but clearly he was: a figure so omnipresent figure in the young republic that towns, mountains, mines, even drugs were named after him and America was determined to adopt him, thinking that his heart would have lain here rather than with degenerate England.

What made this book especially enjoyable to read was the wonderfully visual writing, which takes you straight into the middle of events. Despite the research behind it, it reads almost like a novel, and the author has an engaginly conversational style and dry humor. Recommended for anyone interested in Shakespeare, social and cultural history, or just a good tale skillfully told.
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