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Wednesday, December 10, 2008


"…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Macbeth; Act V, scene v
I wonder if there has ever been a good reason for a riot? The dictionary says a riot is “a violent disturbance of the peace by three or more persons”, but that definition doesn’t seem to really define the subject fully. The “Zip to Zap” riot of 1969 remains the only public disorder in North Dakota history, but the primary violation of public order there seems to have been ‘group vomiting in public’. The Sydney Cricket riot of 1879 consisted of 2,000 outraged Aussies rushing the “pitch” and stripping the shirts off two English players; the entire “riot” took less than 20 minutes. And the English “Calendar Riots” of 1751 are the answer to the question, “What if they held a riot and nobody came?” But of all the stupid reasons to have a riot, the stupidest, the dumbest and the single silliest reason has to be because you found an actor’s rendition of Macbeth was “too English”.
"I bear a charmed life". Macbeth: Act V, scene viii
This stupidity began in 1836 with a then 20 year old athletic stone-headed ego maniac from Philadelphia named Edwin Forrest. He was a sort of full-back version of the “Lord of the Dance”, Michael Flatley. Humbly, Forrest described himself as “…a Hercules.” As an actor, “…baring his well-oiled chest and brawny thighs…” Forrest milked every ounce of histrionics out of “Henry V” and every pound of pathos out of “King Lear”, bounding about the stage to liven up the "slow" parts of Shakespeare. By the time he was twenty, Forrest was earning $200 at day (today’s equivalent would be $4,000). Then Forrest decided to conquer the London stage, and parenthetically to study at the foot of the giant of Victorian Shakespearean over- actors, Edward Kean.“If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak” Macbeth; Act I, scene iii
Forrest was a minor hit in London playing supporting roles. While in town he wined and dinned the other giants of the English stage, Charles Kemble and William Charles Macready, and paid them homage. And as a memento of his trip, Forrest took home an English wife, the lovely and wise Catherine Norton Sinclair. Forrest's return to America was greeted with packed houses and raves by most reviewers. There were some voices of dissent, such as William Winter, who wrote for the New York Tribune that Forrest behaved on stage like a maddened animal “bewildered by a grain of genius”. But such discontent was drowned out in the applause from Boston to Denver. American audiences liked their actors larger than life in those days, and Forrest was just about as large as he could get. In fact, everything would have been perfect but for two small details. First, Edwin could not resist sharing himself with every woman who swooned at his manly thighs (the vast numbers of whom Catherine had a little trouble dealing with), and second, Edwin decided to make a triumphal return tour of England in 1845."Fair is foul, and foul is fair". Macbeth: Act I, scene i.
Forrest opened at the Princess’s Theatre in London, where he billed himself as “The Great American Shakespearean Actor”. That was his first mistake. Importing leading Shakespearean actors to England is like bringing coals to Newcastle; they don’t really need any more. When Forrest performed his Macbeth, the audience had the audacity to “boo”. Forrest then made his second mistake when he decided that the negative reaction was a conspiracy hatched by William Macready."What 's done is done" Macbeth: Act III, scene ii
Oddly enough Macready (above) respected Forrest, even though their acting styles were diametrically opposed. Macready even thought of them as friends. Which only made Macready all the more shocked when, during his “to be or not to be” speech in Edinburg, he discovered that the foulmouthed baboon hissing at him from a private box adjacent to the stage was none other than his erstwhile friend, Edwin Forrest. Forrest even wrote to the “London Times” to justify his gauche behavior as every audience members’ right to critique a performer on the spot. That lit up the press from Leadville, Colorado to Inverness, Scotland. Every yahoo had an opinion as to who was the more objectionable, the vulgar American, or the stuck up Limey.“Let not light see my black and deep desires” Macbeth; Act I scene iv
In 1849, when Macready, “The Eminent Tragedian”, began what he intended as his farewell tour of America, he found that Forest (above) had sown salt ahead of him. At every major city he played, from New Orleans to Cleveland, Forest was headlining in another local theatre, performing the same plays.
When Macready opened on May 7th in “Macbeth” at the Astor Place Opera House in Manhattan, Forrest was opening in “Macbeth” at another theatre just a mile away. And the instant that Macready stepped from the wings that first night it was, in the words of a modern critic, “Groundlings, garb your tomatoes!” The audience began to boo, and then to throw things. After a chair just missed beheading Macready, he took a quick bow and ran for the wings.
“...When the battle 's lost and won". Macbeth: Act I, Scene i
If the troubles had ended there it would have been a mere footnote in theatrical history. But the next morning Washington Irving and Herman Melville stuck their gigantic egos into the mess. They circulated and published a petition signed by 47 ‘distinguished’ New Yorkers begging Macready to stay for just one more performance. Against his own better judgment, and facing threats of lawsuits if he quit early, Macready agreed to one more show.
“If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me.” Macbeth; Act I, scene iii
Overnight handbills blossomed on every lamppost in the Bowery; “Workingmen! Shall Americans or English rule this city?” The question was posed by something called “The American Committee”, obviously not a bulwark of artistic objectivity. But I still wonder who really paid for those posters? The city fathers ordered up 325 policemen, and called up 200 members of the 7th regiment, New York Volunteers, to guard the Opera House. And they needed them. On Thursday, May 10, 1849 the troublemakers were kept out of the theatre, but perhaps 10,000 future New York Yankee fans gathered across Astor Place hurling first insults at the cops, and then moving on to rocks and bricks. Eventually the shower of stone shattered the plywood that protected the theatre’s windows and audience members inside were dodging missiles bouncing between their seats. “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” Macbeth; Act II, scene i
Then the crowd charged the cops. The cops beat them back: twice. A handful of “Bowery Boys” tried to set the Opera House on fire. And the next time the crowd charged the police, the 200 members of the 7th let loose a volley. When the smoke cleared, some 22 to 30 people were dead and more than 100 wounded, including some police officers. As at Kent State a century and a half later, many of those shot were innocent bystanders. But enough of the troublemakers had been scared enough to leave Astor Place. The Shakespeare Riot was over."All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” Macbeth Act V, Scene i.
It would be comforting to say that Edwin Forrest suffered for his egomaniacal gambling with other people’s lives. But he didn’t. He just got more famous and more popular. And in 1850 Edwin even had the gall to sue Catherine for divorce, charging her with adultery.

Yes, the biggest horn dog in America was claiming his English wife had been unfaithful to him. She hadn’t. But the press - on both sides of the Atlantic - published every nasty innuendo and allegation. In the end, Justice Thomas J. Oakley awarded Catherine her freedom and required Edwin Forrest to pay her $3,750 (the equivalent of $92,000 today) every year for the rest of her life. It doesn’t appear as if Edwin really missed the money because he never paid it. True to his character he simply avoided New York State and kept his fortune. And when he died in 1876, alone in his Philadelphia mansion, most of his estate went to Catherine because of unpaid alimony. At least she outlived the old jerk.

“Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.” Macbeth: Act I, scene iv.


It all brings to mind the old English music hall ditty, “…They jeered me; they queered me, and half of them stoned me to death. They threw nuts and sultanas, fired eggs and bananas, the night I appeared as Macbeth.”

- 30 –

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