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The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century Americaby Nigel Cliff
Synopses & Reviews
One of the bloodiest incidents in New Yorks history, the so-called Astor Place Riot of May 10, 1849, was ignited by a long-simmering grudge match between the two leading Shakespearean actors of the age. Despite its unlikely origins, though, there was nothing remotely quaint about this pivotal moment in history-the unprecedented shooting by American soldiers of dozens of their fellow citizens, leading directly to the arming of American police forces.
The Shakespeare Riots recounts the story of this momentous night, its two larger-than-life protagonists, and the myriad political and cultural currents that fueled the violence. In an engrossing narrative that moves at a breakneck pace from the American frontier to the Mississippi River, to the posh theaters of London, to the hangouts of the most notorious street gangs of the day, Nigel Cliff weaves a spellbinding saga of soaring passions, huge egos, and venal corruption.
Cliff charts the course of this tragedy from its beginnings as a somewhat comical contretemps between Englishman William Charles Macready, the haughty lion of the London stage, and Edwin Forrest, the first great American star and a popular hero to millions. Equally celebrated, and equally self-centered, the two were once friends, then adversaries. Exploiting this rivalry, “nativist” agitators organized mobs of bullyboys to flex their muscle by striking a blow against the foppish Macready and the Old Worlds cultural hegemony that he represented.
The moment Macready took the stage in New York, his adversaries sprang into action, first by throwing insults, then rotten eggs, then chairs. When he dared show his face again, an estimated twenty thousand packed the streets around the theater. As cobblestones from outside rained down on the audience, National Guard troops were called in to quell the riot. Finding themselves outmatched, the Guardsmen discharged their weapons at the crowd, with horrific results. When the smoke cleared, as many as thirty people lay dead, with scores more wounded.
The Shakespeare Riots is social and cultural history of the highest order. In this wondrous saga Nigel Cliff immerses readers in the bustle of mid-nineteenth-century New York, re-creating the celebrity demimonde of the day and capturing all the high drama of a violent night that robbed a nation of its innocence.
"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.'" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"On the evening of May 10, 1849, a mob of more than 10,000 New Yorkers — some of them brandishing pistols and hurling rocks — faced off against city police outside the Astor Place Opera House. As the clash escalated, state militiamen opened fire on the crowd with muskets, leaving more than 20 people dead and dozens injured. The flashpoint of the riot, the bloodiest in American history to that point,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) was not military conscription or voting rights or even liquor licensing; it was Shakespeare. Specifically, fans of the American Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest wished to express their displeasure with supporters of his English rival, William Charles Macready, by cracking their heads open. It seems hard to fathom in modern terms — 'Judi Dench Launches Nuclear Strike' — but, as author Nigel Cliff demonstrates, there was a certain inevitability about the drama. 'In an age when theatres were the crossroads of a whole society,' he writes, the subject of Shakespeare inspired 'an almost hysterical passion.' Cliff argues persuasively that 'the Astor Place riot,' as it came to be known, marked a turning point in America's search for a national identity. 'Before American cultural imperialism there was British cultural imperialism,' he notes, and the tension between the two seemed 'inextricably bound up with the question of what sort of nation America would become.' Shakespeare's plays offered a platform upon which the debate could be staged. At a time when the Bard's influence in Britain was waning, America took his works very much to heart. 'Shakespeare had become American,' writes Cliff. 'America itself, many came to believe, was the ark in which the true Shakespeare would be saved.' Shakespeare's themes resonated even on the wild frontier, though an unexpectedly prim sensibility was occasionally brought to bear: 'Shakespeare's imagination might have spanned the world, his ear might have caught the legion tones of life, but the country boy from the English Midlands was also wild, vulgar, and bloody; his goriest scenes, the eye gougings, child murders, and wife suffocations, were too much even for frontiersmen and were banished offstage or whisked behind a curtain.' At the center of this fascinating story is the star-crossed friendship of Forrest and Macready, the foremost actors of the day. The brawny, rough-hewn Forrest overcame humble origins to become America's first homegrown star, 'a poster child for Jacksonian America.' His energetic, physical acting style contrasted sharply with that of Macready, whose intellectual rigor and adherence to the original Shakespearean texts made him a darling of British literary lights such as Charles Dickens. In time, the stresses of stardom forced the two actors into an increasingly bitter rivalry. Macready complained of the American's lack of discipline, while Forrest came to believe that the Englishman lacked creative fire. The American public, for the most part, sided with their countryman: 'People admired Macready; they loved Forrest,' says Cliff. 'Macready was the greater actor, but Forrest was the greater star.' Cliff, a former theater and film critic for the Times of London, gives due diligence to the historical underpinnings of the story, ranging from the politics of the war of 1812 to the horrors of the Five Points slum, but his narrative gains real heat when he enters the world of the theater. He relishes the surprising and often coarse details of stage life in the 19th century, from the makeshift theatrical barges working the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the 'alleys, bagnios, and brothels' of London's Covent Garden. Cliff is especially good at evoking the passions stirred by Shakespeare's tragedies, as when a theater patron in Albany tried to shout down an actor playing Iago: 'You damned lying scoundrel! I would like to get hold of you after the show and wring your infernal neck!' Occasionally, one wishes Cliff would rein in his verbiage. At times he seems to be consulting a word-a-day calendar — 'autochthonous,' 'magniloquently' — and many a sentence staggers beneath the weight: 'Despite his condescending gasconade and his vaunting faith in the meliority of the English stage, Macready had a point. ... ' An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told. Quibbles aside, 'The Shakespeare Riots' is an intriguing, thought-provoking book. 'If this were played upon a stage now,' remarks Fabian in 'Twelfth Night,' 'I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.' But it's all true, and to Cliff's credit, he turns this most improbable episode of history into a lively and compelling drama. Daniel Stashower is the author of 'The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder.'" Reviewed by Amanda SchafferDaniel Stashower, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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A rich social and cultural history bases on the notorious Astor Place Riots in New York City in May 1849--the dramatic, tragicomic tale of how a petty feud between the two most celebrated Shakespearean actors of their day exploded into one of the deadliest disturbances in American history.
About the Author
Nigel Cliff was educated at Oxford University, where he was awarded a double First in English and the Beddington Prize for English literature. He is a former theater and film critic for the London Times and a contributor to The Economist. This is his first book.
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