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The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century…

de Nigel Cliff

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883245,059 (3.56)6
One of the bloodiest incidents in New York’s 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 World’s 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. From the Hardcover edition.… (més)
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Late nineteenth-century Americans and Britons were pretty serious about their Shakespeare. Both claimed him as their inheritance, and most of the book is taken up describing the cultural role of Shakespearean actors and Shakespeare’s plays in the period; it ends in a big riot because of anti-British feeling in New York played out through the bodies of two actors in competing presentations and with competing acting styles, the more emotional and physical American versus the more thoughtful Briton. ( )
  rivkat | Apr 16, 2017 |
On May 10, 1849, English actor William Charles Macready gave his last American performance as MacBeth at the new Opera house in Astor Place, New York City. Inside the theatre supporters of rival American actor Edwin Forrest shouted so loudly that the entire first act had to be performed in pantomime. Outside a crowd of 20,000 packed the streets armed with cobblestones, ready to attack the National Guard troops who had been called in after the rioting of the previous night. The troops opened fire on the crowd, above their heads at first. The crowd responded, a riot ensued, and upwards of 30 people, many of them bystanders, lost their lives.

People don't care about Shakespeare like they used to.

The events and social circumstances that led to the Astor Place Riots, or Shakespeare Riots, are carefully examined in Nigel Cliff's book The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth Century America. Mr. Cliff focuses his study on a single, tragic event, but he also casts a wide net. His book is a history of theatre, of Shakespeare, of the rivalry between America and England. It is also a biography of Ediwn Forrest, of William Charles Macready, of New York City and America. There are many rewards to be found in The Shakespeare Riots.

One reason why William Charles Macready is an important figure in the history of theatre and of Shakespeare is that he made his career restoring Shakespeare's plays to their original form. 150 years earlier, Nahum Tate had revised King Lear believing he was updating a primitive genius, making his work acceptable to modern thinking. At the close of Tate's version, Cordelia and Edmund are married. She is crowned queen by Lear who has recovered from his brief period of madness and been restored to his kingdom. Lear then retires to become a happy grandfather to the new ruler's children. Tate's Lear has no fool. It also has only 25% of Shakespeare's actual script. It was the only version of King Lear performed for 150 years, until William Macready presented a restored version with Shakespeare's original ending and with the fool restored to his rightful place. Audiences loved it. Even American who jealously, and patriotically, argued the greatest Shakespearean actor of the day was their countrymen, Edwin Forrest.

The societal events and the personal rivalry between Macready and Forrest that led up to the riots make for interesting reading. Macready was supported by the upper classes, those with enough wealth to mimic the fashionable ways of London high society. Forrest was championed by the Bowery B'hoys, anti-immigrant gangs from the lower and poorer quarters of New York City. Forrest had shocked English high society and embarrassed American by hissing Macready during a performance of Hamlet. This led to the end of the pair's long friendship and to the beginning of the end of Macready's popularity in America.

Normally, this story would all be confined to the footnotes of history--not the sort of stuff one studies in a history class. I can promise you, it won't be on the test. None of the people involved were "great men"; what happened, though tragic, did not change the course of the nation. But what emerges from The Shakespeare Riots is a portrait of America that deepens the reader's understanding of the country. From the beginning, the United States has been a "melting pot," a combination of cultures and peoples, but from the beginning there have been groups fighting against immigration, against anyone outside of the norm. That those groups found a convenient target in an English Shakespearean actor is what makes The Shakespeare Riots so unusual. That Shakespeare once occupied such a central position in American culture says something. That he no longer does says something else. ( )
2 vota CBJames | Aug 13, 2009 |
Cliff’s debut as a non-fiction writer is both stellar and riveting. His description of both the landscapes and characters of the nineteenth-century theatrical arts compel the reader to learn more Shakespeare (I may just revisit his works). More impressive still, is how the British-educated scholar did not show bias toward the English actors and presented a forceful, balanced account of the Astor Place Riots. Truly a great achievement. ( )
  NielsenGW | Jul 5, 2008 |
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Wikipedia en anglès (2)

One of the bloodiest incidents in New York’s 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 World’s 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. From the Hardcover edition.

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