12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
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. And so when America produced its first theatrical star, it was Shakespeare that was his platform. Edwin Forrest was "a poster child for Jacksonian America," and his working-class or frontier audiences responded to his down-home brawny presence. The leading actor in England at the time was William Charles Macready, who was a quieter performer than Forrest, and audiences in both America and England got to sample the performances of both men. The two of them were able, initially, to enjoy each other's work, and were friends, with a friendly rivalry. There were tensions at the time that brought America and England as close to war as they had been since their battles of 1812, so that part of being pro-America at the time was being anti-British. It might have been inevitable, but the friendly rivalry between him and Forrest became unfriendly, and then bitter.
The clash between countries manifested in New York City, where the new Astor Place Opera House had been built as a temple to propriety to be frequented by the upper classes, but which was located close enough to annoy their inferiors. "The theatres had always been the great democratic gathering places," Cliff writes, "the only arenas where the people's voice was louder than the elite's, where the poor could sit in judgment on the wealthy folk below." That the Astor wanted to police itself of the Irish and any other gangs by instituting a strict dress code was bad enough, but that it booked Macready to play his brand of British-style _Macbeth_ made the crowds angry. On the night of the riot, Macready was able to get through the play with only some catcalls, but outside, a mob of 15,000 people surrounded the building, bombarding it with paving stones, and eventually enduring the rifle fire from the militia. Macready was able to elude the mob; it was his last American performance. Cliff points out that this was "the first time that two classes of Americans had failed to resolve their conflicting rights without resorting to muskets and brickbats," and it was the worst of riots until those protesting the draft in 1863. The riot also lead to police being issued their first lethal weapons, heavy clubs to be used, of course, in self defense. It was one reason that Americans changed the way they enjoyed Shakespeare; the riot promoted segregation of classes and depopularized the Bard, with scholastic veneration taking place of popular enthusiasm. An astonishing story full of period detail, _The Shakespeare Riots_ is a grand history of a forgotten episode that was surprisingly influential in American theater, class structure, and nationalism.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 2007
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.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 24, 2007
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. This act, seemingly trivial, would result in the deaths of about 30 people in the streets of New York. While this may seem an absurd sequence of events, Mr. Cliff presents it as frighteningly inevitable, as characters like Isaiah Rynders and Ned Buntline got into the act. Well-documented and referenced, "The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America" should be on the reading lists of anyone interested in American History, Shakespeare, or American Culture.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 19, 2007
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 27, 2008
When I heard this book reviewed on NPR, its premise--that Shakespeare used to be for all, the hoi polloi and the aristos--grabbed me; I immmediately ordered it (on Amazon, of course). I just finished reading the last paragraph to my wife, with tears in my eyes. "Shakespeare was a light in the darkness, a voice that spoke directly to [the nation's builders] hopes and fears". We are now more mature, more modern, more fascinated with the complexities of life, and thinking about them, than with life itself. This book brings you back to a time when how to live life mattered--life was passionate, and in every town and hamlet :-) stories well told and deep with meaning were worth something. Read it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2008
I don't read history as a rule, but my interest in theatre and literature drew me to THE SHAKESPEARE RIOTS. Still, I didn't think I'd like it as much as I did. The story is so engrossing that I found myself reading it every night like I do a novel. It isn't just a historical book, although it culminates in New York's Astor Place Riots, a mêlée between upper class theatergoers and ethnic gangsters which killed twenty civilians even though The National Guard was present, the first time they were used in United States history to quell a crowd. Rather, Nigel Cliff's debut is many things: it is an intersection of American and English history (from London to New York City to Mississippi barges to gold-mined California). It is theatrical biography, depicting the dramatic lives of the first American box office heartthrob, Edwin Forrest, a dashing, muscular native Hercules, and his rival, William Charles Macready, the more traditional English tragedian who boasted a most `dignified' stage presence (it's also a story of their amazing wives, both named Catherine, who are not without their own tumultuous lives). But most fascinating for me was that this book is literally a performance of the most unique staging of America's evolving cultural identity separate from its mother England. Theatres across America's ever-burgeoning cities in the years after the War of 1812 were jammed with eager crowds representing every tier of life--true democracy--as Tocqueville's quote opening the book testifies. One might think only American bills of fare were hot commodity, but American theatre was adopting Shakespeare for itself, and every playhouse clamored to have both Forrest and Macready as their revolving stars; often their shows piggy-backed on the other. But how long could American fans support two great actors with equanimity? You wouldn't think you could incite a riot with a hiss, but that's how it all began (at one point a sheep's carcass was hurdled at Macready on stage in protest). The public outcry arouses a pro-American patriotism that decides once and for all that American culture can take from England what it wants--Shakespeare's tales of family woe and fiercest will--and dispense with what it doesn't--an English air of austere authority. The story aptly presents various intriguing conclusions about theatre's place in the forging of American's democratic identity, and made me wonder if the fate that befell these two actors spotlights a seduction Americans have with fame--that to be pulled up by your own bootstraps is better than to be pulled up by your big brother--a fitting question seeing today's resurgence of American identity politics.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2008
It came as a complete surprise to me to learn that during most of the 19th Century workingmen in England and America could be aroused to passion and mayhem in support of, or opposition to, performances of the Bard, both in large urban centers and in lonely outposts on the frontier. This book, replete with meticulous scholarly documentation, establishes that fact with absolute authority, and suggests that changes in usage that took Shakespeare's language out of common speech turned him into a trial for English Lit students in secondary school. The long-running rivalry between two great Shakespearean actors of the time, one English and one American, and their partisans, gives a compelling narrative thrust to the accounts.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 17, 2008
I enjoyed 3/4 of the book. The first half was history, much of it new (to me) history regarding the popularity of Shakespeare in the frontier, the characters of that time and the rocus nature of theater up until the riots. The last quarter explained the riots and the aftermath which was also a great history lesson. Between the first half and the last quarter the author got bogged down in dialogue and a he said she said as to the falling out of of the two main characters. Much too detailed, for me. Glad I read the book and would recommend the 3/4 mentioned.
on April 26, 2014
Nigel Cliff's The Shakespeare Riots hearkens back with delight to an era when dinner parties lasted for hours and included toasts and speeches, when every poor frontiersman had a copy of King Lear or Macbeth in his log cabin, when traveling drama troupes performed for audiences of loggers and fur trappers and silver prospectors who knew every line as well (or better) than the actors. Being a thespian in those days was only barely a notch above being a gambler or a prostitute, and the occupation was populated with the desperate and the destitute.
Shakespeare was considered the voice of the common man in young America. People in the United States saw in his plays the brave struggle of the underdog against authority. The heroes were strong, honest and brave in the face of a hostile and pretentious world. It resonated perfectly in this brash upstart country.
The relationship between the United States and Great Britain has always been complex and conflicted. Never was this more obvious than in the theaters of the 1840s, where a strangely passionate battle was taking place: a cultural war over who really owned the Bard, and what his work really meant. This peculiar clash finally boiled down to two men: Yankee Edwin Forrest (1806-1872) and Englishman William Macready (1793-1873), whose friendship devolved into a deeply personal rivalry and eventually exploded into a proxy campaign between the working class and the wealthy, the Americans and the British, the common man and the privileged, in the bloody Astor Place Riot that occurred on May 10, 1849 at the Astor Opera House in Manhattan, which no longer exists. This entire book leads up to that moment.
After the riot, two great shifts occurred: first, Shakespeare was plucked away from the common man and appropriated by High Culture; it became something that inhabited the realm of English lit classrooms, endlessly analyzed and dissected by teachers. In short, it became boring. It became dull. It became something people had to seek, to discover on their own. It was no longer part of everyone's shared experience. Second, a great pivot in governmental philosophy took place, swinging away from freedom of expression and towards the protection of property. For a long time, periodic street riots were considered a normal part of the "letting-off-steam" social dynamic. After 1849, however, police trained in military-style tactics and equipped with military-style weapons became common in America, ready and able to quell civil unrest.
The Shakespeare Riots is a wonderful exploration of America's strange and dissonant relationship with Shakespeare in particular and the theater in general. It is also a marvelous overview of Nineteenth-Century American culture from an outside perspective.
The book can be neatly summarized by this passage from chapter 12, page 248, which ascribes blame for the violence:
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It was the fault of Macready's father, for educating his son as a gentleman and going bankrupt. It was the fault of the English writers, for stomping over American self-esteem. It was the fault of several American states, for causing Americans to be reviled as debt-dodgers.* It was the fault of journalists, for whipping up partisanship to sell papers. It was the fault of the British government, for is disastrous Irish policy.** It was the fault of Jacksonian politics, for pandering to gang leaders. It was the fault of the Upper Ten***, for building an opera house in a provocative location. It was the fault of the new mayor, unversed in crowd control. It was the fault of the irresistible flows of capital and population that had carved out a resentful and often violent underclass. And yes, it was the fault of Forrest, for bullying his way to self-vindication, and of Macready, for defending his respectability to the bitter end.
- - - - -
*America was a debtor nation in the 1840s, and some state legislatures had suggested that rather than raise taxes to meet our obligations, we simply ignore them and default. This, as you can imagine, made the U.S. extremely unpopular abroad.
**Which led to mass immigration to the U.S., many of which (as everyone knows) remained in New York.
***I.e., New York City's "Upper Ten Thousand," what we could call today "The 1%."
Oxford-educated, Nigel Cliff is a former film and drama critic who really knows his stuff. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in American history and/or the history of theater.
I do have two quibbles, and I sincerely hope that Mr. Cliff will forgive me. The first is the writing style, which can, at times, frankly, be a bit sludgy. The Shakespeare Riots sometimes reads like a Master's thesis or Doctoral dissertation. The material is fascinating, but the reader must sometimes plow through sentences such as this (from chapter 6, page 120, in which Cliff explains how American authors had trouble getting anything published because they lacked credibility):
- - - - -
Instead, they read English taunts that they had no talent for literature, art, or philosophy, that sitting around drinking mint juleps and chewing tobacco, talking up the glories of independence, and swearing that they were very graceful and agreeable people would not make them scholars any more than gentlemen, and nothing stung more.
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My only other complaint (again, a minor one) is that Cliff often (and sometimes slightly) changes the subject in mid-thought and occasionally rambles from the story of one person or event to the story of another person or event and then back again without clear transitions.
In chapter 9, on pages 178-179, for instance, Cliff discusses the life of Catherine "Kate" Forrest, Edwin's wife:
- - - - -
Kate was what was then pejoratively known as a bluestocking or an advanced woman. She was highly intelligent, a progressive thinker, and, in private, a subtle and powerful advocate for women's rights; the sepulchral ideal of middle-class American wifehood must have struck her cold. Fanny Trollope captured the routine with scalpel precision. Trollope's exemplary woman is college educated, marries early, and immediately vanishes into domestic insignificance...
- - - - -
The paragraph then continues at length, but do you see what happened in the third sentence? Cliff changed the subject from Kate Forrest to Fanny Trollope (English novelist 1779-1863). Not that it isn't relevant, but the transition is extremely sudden and unannounced, and unless you are paying very close attention it can be distracting or disorienting.
Aside from those two extremely small complaints, I found The Shakespeare Riots both entertaining and informative. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in drama or history, and highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in both.
While I think the author spent too much time fleshing out the varied and obscure disputes between the two actors featured in his book, it is still quite good. It is strongest when describing the significant social changes occurring as America evolved in the mid-19th century. The early theatre provides a nice platform for the talented Mr. Cliff to describe in lively terms such things as the movement West, the striking influx of immigrants to New York City, the emerging divisions between the upper and lower urban classes, and the rise of an American way of looking at Shakespeare.
With this successful effort at understanding early America, I suggest this friend of our country from England, Nigel Cliff, now turn his attention and skills to writing a book on the influence of William Shakespeare on our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln.