792: The Shakespeare Riots by Nigel Cliff

by Gerard

792.09747109034: Cliff, Nigel. The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Random House, 2007. 266 pp. ISBN 978-0-345-48694-3.

At the end of the 700s (Arts), we had the 790s for works on the recreational and performing arts. 792 is the place for books on stage presentations. This book gets a very specific call numbers because it focuses on a single event in a single place (all centered around a stage presentation). The -097471 is for an event in the Borough of Manhattan and the -09034 is for the 19th century.

In the 1840s, there were two big names in Shakespearean acting. William Charles Macready was a British stage actor was revolutionized the Bard’s public perception by returning the script back to his original writing. Edwin Forrest, thirteen years Macready’s junior, was a Philadelphia-born barrel-chested dramatic wunderkind who took America by storm with his stage presence.

To grossly oversimplify public sentiment, pro-American working class theater-goers lauded Forrest and British-loving upper-class folks were in Macready’s corner. Relations between America and England were already strained before this, but brought everything to a boiling point. On May 7, 1849, supporters of Forrest had had enough of Macready’s American tour and sent hundreds to the Astor Opera House to display their support during one his performances.

While everybody managed to calm down that night, three nights later, they came out in full force. Thousands of people surrounded the Astor and tried to bring it down.  Because of the large disturbance, the New York state militia was called down to pacify the crowd. This marked the first time such a force was pressed into action and fired against a crowd of civilians. By the end of the night, 30 people were dead. Ultimately, the riot led to both the damaging of Forrest’s reputation and the creation of an armed city police force.

Nigel Cliff’s Shakespeare Riots is engaging and deftly written. This is his first book and I am eager to read other works. The most interesting part about the whole book is an implied one. Back in the day, if the audience had a reaction to the onstage drama, they were well within their rights to voice it. Patrons regularly yelled at the performers in the 1800s, but nowadays we are supposed to sit back and save our reaction until the end, and even then, even if the production is only moderately well-done, the performers get applause. Imagine how the cultural landscape would change if ticket-holders were given license to heckle the action on the stage. It’s this kind of visceral energy that started the whole riot in the first place.