Stepped through the magical doors of the Lincoln Center Library in New York City and into a celebration of Shakespeare’s productions—productions produced in America from colonial times through today. Through the use of broadsides, programs, engravings, photographs plus models of sets, costume designs, prompt scripts and annotated scripts—with handwriting legible and beautiful—used by the major stars of yesterday and today, the exhibition tells the story of Shakespeare in our nation. I traveled through history with Shakespeare’s words brought to life by his interpreters.
During the Revolutionary War the Continental Army lost control of cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and New York. The British Army presented shows at the Old Southwark Theatre—comedies, melodramas and King Henry IV while at The Theatre Royal British officers used scripts they had with them or had them copied at a local print shop. Both sides used quotes from King John, Richard II, Hamlet and Macbeth that would support the cause they favored.
Shakespeare came to America with family troupes like the Hallam-Douglas families and the American Company who played seasons in large port cities. In the 19th Century, Actors who were into their mature years chose to play Falstaff. The year 1839, saw Falstaff performed by James M. Hackett at the Park theatre for his farewell performance. Ben De Bar played his Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV at Union Hall.
Shakespeare was popular in the gold camps; a man might keep a treasured book of his works next to his bible and declaim a few lines for his fellow miners. Actors who specialized in melodrama and Shakespeare, authors, orators and elocutionists all played rural and western America—troupes entertained in Nevada City, Grass Valley, Rough and Ready—remote camps where the sound of a gun became as familiar as the sound of clapping. Actors gained a wealth of experience—the scarce supply of talent offered young actors like Edwin Booth the chance to move from theatre to theatre and mining camp to mining camp. The Bard of Avon came to California with the forty-niners; an estimated twenty-two of his plays were performed on its stages with Richard III the most popular. The Jenny Lind Theatre in 1850 was packed with miners who abandoned gambling and saloons to see Hamlet and King Lear. The Booths played Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello in addition to Richard III, and in 1856 Laura Keen came to San Francisco with Coriolanus and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In 1849, a gory riot broke out in New York City over methods of acting in a Shakespearean play. An energetic approach was thought democratic and American while analytical technique was considered patrician and English. Infuriated by a performance of Macbeth, a mob of 10,000 converged outside the Astor Place Theatre—taunts and heckling turned to fighting. Paving stones were thrown and the New York Militia opened fire shooting into the crowd. Twenty-two people are thought to have died and one hundred and fifty injured.
After World War II, communities all over North America developed theatre companies and festivals. Festivals have reflected social changes and practiced non-traditional casting—hiring the best performer for the role. Directors often alter the time and place of Shakespeare’s original work. Touring companies travel around cities and states reaching more and more audiences but the words remain. I believe William Shakespeare would have approved.