By Ferington, Esther | Humanities, March/April 2007 | Go to article overview
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Ferington, Esther, Humanities

On May 10, 1849, a riot broke out in New York City near the Astor Place Opera House. The state militia fired on the angry crowd, which numbered in the thousands, killing at least twenty-two people. The dispute was over the right way to perform Shakespeare on the American stage.

The trouble grew out of a long-standing rivalry between two leading men: British actor William Macready-a cool, cerebral performer-and American actor Edwin Forrest. known for his muscular build and forceful acting style. "Forrest really captures the popular imagination," says theater historian Heather Nathans in the NEH-supported radio documentary Shakespeare in American Life. "He's asked to run for senator; he speaks at Democratic Party rallies. He really fuses this kind of public persona of democratic righteousness and heroism with who he is on stage."

In early May 1849. the actors' differences came to a head in New York. Forrest was starring in Macbeth at the Broadway in his usual dynamic style, while Macready portrayed the role at the Astor Place Opera House. To Forrest's supporters, the idea of letting Macready play Macbeth in the same city as their hero was just too much to swallow.

The Astor Place tragedy is one of many Shakespeare stories with an American twist in the three-part radio documentary, a production of Folger Shakespeare Library funded by NEH. Distributed through Public Radio International, the three one-hour shows begin airing April 1.

As conceived by producer Richard Paul, Shakespeare in American Life is a subject as big as the country itself, taking in performance, advertising, education, the movies, race and ethnic identity, and even pop culture (don't be surprised to hear a line or two from Bruce Springsteen's lyrics, or from Star Trek).

The story covers the sweep of American history, from John and Abigail Adams comparing King George to Shakespeare's villainous Richard III. to Cold Rush-era performances in California mining camps, to how Shakespeare influenced recent political figures. Walter Mondale, Alan Simpson, and Janet Reno are among those interviewed for the documentary.

The documentary examines how a British playwright became an American icon, and the way that leading figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson helped make that transformation through essays and lectures. For Emerson, who once called Shakespeare "the father of the man in America." Shakespeare and his fellow Elizabethans were just as much the ancestors of American culture as of British.

Exploring America's relationship with Shakespeare became a two-year odyssey for Paul, who conducted more than forty interviews with scholars, theater professionals, and public figures; located rare audio recordings; and worked with actors to evoke the sounds of old stage performances. The project inspired, a companion Web site produced by Folger Shakespeare Library and funded by NEH. Among other offerings, the site provides photos, prints, an interactive timeline, maps, children's games, teaching ideas, links to Shakespeare resources, and longer excerpts from the documentary's interviews.

The contrast between the familiar-Shakespeare's playsand the unfamiliar is a continuing theme in the documentary. For example, nineteenth-century theatergoers did not restrain their reactions to a Shakespearean production. If audiences didn't like a play, says historian James Cook, "you're going to hurl rotten vegetables at the performer. You're going to shout and demand that certain kinds of things will take place on the stage.

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