My Shakespearean Kicks Your Shakespearean’s Ass

This is actually a tragic tale, but regardless, I find it amusing.

In the early to mid 19th century, American theater was dominated by British actors. Especially in the 1840’s, which was a period of American / British conflict, this did not sit well.

The leading Shakespearean actor of the time was a Brit named William Charles Macready. He was known for his sensitive, finely crafted roles. In America, this was much appreciated by the finer sort, otherwise known as the Upper ten thousand.

On the American side was Edwin Forrest. He was a large, brawny man who gave overwrought performances full of physicality. At one point, Forrest toured England by following Macready around performing the same roles to prove he was the superior actor. At one show, while Macready was performing Hamlet, Forrest stood and hissed him.

It probably goes without saying that the mudsills and greasy mechanics of America preferred Forrest.

So, there you have it, the sensitive, effeminate British actor competing against the uncouth, virile American actor. I guess that stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason.

Macready tours America. He gives a performance of Macbeth, at Astor Place, a theater located dangerously close to the border between the New York gentility and the New York unwashed masses (close to the Bowery). Some of the unwashed managed to sneak in and pelt him with fruit, rotten eggs, and if reports are true, half of a sheep carcass, amid catcalls and cries of “down with the codfish aristocracy”! Macready finished the play performing pantomime since he could not be heard over the shouting.

He is convinced to give it another try. Ten thousand people surround the theater.  Again he is pelted down, shouted down, and has to finish in pantomime. He sneaks out of the theater in disguise.

Outside, the city militia has gathered. The crowd jostles the militia. Do you see where this is headed? The militia threatens the crowd. The militia fires into the air. When that fails, the militia fires point blank into the crowd. Ultimately, around 25 people are killed and over 100 people are injured.

Now, there are obviously deeper issues here. This was a time of deep divide between “the classes and the masses”. New York City was divided by class, and Astor Place was provocatively located near the masses. This also was a time of intense anti-British resentment.

But still…can you imagine a violent, deadly riot today caused by dueling Shakespearean actors? This makes the whole East Coast – West Coast Hip Hop rivalry seem almost quaint.


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