A Shakespearean Ark
One day in the fall of 1814 a traveling actor named Noble Luke Usher presented himself at the door of the theatre in Albany, New York, and offered his services for a few nights; Macbeth, he added, was his preferred choice for his debut. Usher was known to have performed in at least three eastern cities and he was engaged on the spot. Soon he had befriended the theatre’s stage manager, an Englishman in his mid-forties called Samuel Drake, and confided in him that his real motive in coming to Albany was to engage a company of actors to follow him to Kentucky, where he had three theatres waiting to welcome them. Drake agreed to put the word around and quietly assemble a small group, which he would lead out in the spring. Nothing more was heard of Usher until a letter arrived from his uncle, informing Drake that Noble Luke had died on a ridge of the Allegheny Mountains on his way back to Kentucky and asking whether he was willing to take over the theatres himself. Noble Luke, who had once acted with Edgar Allan Poe’s parents, would later be immortalized in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Meanwhile Samuel Drake found himself en route to deepest Kentucky while the ashes of the War of 1812 were still smoldering all around.1 The War of 1812 had been muddled together from the almighty mess of the Napoleonic Wars, with a large dash of unfinished business from the American Revolution. The Royal Navy was being ravaged by deserters, many of whom had jumped ship for the better pay and less grisly conditions of the American merchant fleet, and their Admiralty’s solution, which proved as gainful as it was tactless, was to board vessels flying the American flag, often when they were barely out of harbor, and haul off every sailor found cowering behind a capstan. In the process, since Britain classed British-born American citizens as British subjects, several thousand American seamen were impressed into military service with the motherland. Several more were cut down in the cannon fire, and the headless corpse of one helmsman was put on display at a New York coffeehouse, a more effective propaganda ploy than any amount of vituperation in the morning papers. When the United States found itself caught up in the Anglo-French trade wars, which cost it nine hundred ships and plunged its industry into recession, the call for action became irresistible. America declared war in June 1812, and marched into Canada, fulfilling a longstanding urge on the part of the hawks in Congress which they had used the dispute as a pretext to satisfy. In 1814 the British burned down the White House, and though Andrew Jackson’s forces won an overwhelming victory at New Orleans in January 1815—two weeks after the two countries had signed the Treaty of Ghent, but a month before news of the peace reached American shores—the hostilities ended with neither side having achieved its aims. American public opinion, despite near military disaster, rumbles of secession in New England, and awakened nationalism in Canada, saw things differently: the United States had defended its honor against the mighty British Empire, and national pride was noisily on the march.2 All in all, it was not the most propitious time for an English impresario to set out for what was then the wildest west. Drake, like the good pioneer he was, took it all in stride. Early in 1815 he signed up a new recruit, a nineteen-year-old Albany boy named Noah Ludlow, to his fledgling company and sent him on ahead to scout out places to perform along the route. Ludlow, who ran away from home without a word to his family, had set foot on a stage precisely twice in his life, but he had a hunger for the greasepaint. More to the point, Drake had had trouble finding experienced performers who were willing to put their livelihoods—maybe even their lives—on the line in the untamed wilderness they imagined was waiting out west. To be precise, he had found none at all, for the party that finally got under way comprised Samuel Drake Senior; his sons, Samuel Junior, Alexander, and James; his daughters, Martha and Julia; a carpenter; the carpenter’s wife; and a handyman, along with another runaway novice, the daughter of the innkeeper whose hospitality the Drakes had been enjoying, named Fanny Denny. Like the troupe of the great Vincent Crummles in Nicholas Nickleby, whose wife, children, and dog were in the profession and whose chaise-pony went on in Timour the Tartar, the Drakes’ company was a family affair. Samuel Senior’s plan was to lead his myrmidons by land through New York State, take a boat down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh, and strike out for Kentucky just as the legislature was returning to Frankfort for its winter session. Off they set, forging ahead for a few days and stopping to perform in any barroom or back room where they could rig up a stage. It was a perilous route—indeed, somewhere in the rough country between Canandaigua and the headwaters of the Allegheny they briefly lost an actress. Between them the company owned two wagons and three horses: most of the little group had to walk, though the foot soldiers took care to maintain their professional dignity by hanging onto the carts until they were out of town, or by getting up at the crack of dawn to make their escape before anyone was awake to see them. The one-horse wagon belonged to Lewis, the carpenter, and its designated role was to bear the substantial weight of his wife. One day Mrs. Lewis was stricken with cramp and heaved herself out to walk for a while. Soon she was lagging behind, and when she failed to appear around a bend Lewis wheeled back and careened up and down the trail, hollering his wife’s name. A couple of strangers rode by and sent for a search party, and actors, strangers, and scouts scattered through the woods, carrying burning torches and calling to the misplaced thespian. By the next morning it was generally concluded that she had been eaten by wild animals, but then another stranger rode up and asked if anyone had lost a woman. A joyful reunion was effected; Mrs. Lewis, no doubt pulling herself up in her grandest tragic style, recounted how she had lost her bearings and wandered off into the woods, where she was forced to haul herself up a tree to avoid being eaten by a pack of wolves. After scaring them off with a volley of twigs she had come upon an empty log cabin, where she tucked into a pot of maple sugar with such gusto that she had been sick, at which point a dog had sniffed her in the act and chased her out into the arms of her savior on his horse. Reading these picaresque tales, as broadly comical as anything in a Henry Fielding novel, it is easy to forget how genuinely dangerous the hardscrabble life of these pioneering actors could be. Fever was rife, the extremes of temperature wreaked havoc with soft constitutions, particularly English ones, and the transportation was bone-rattling at best. As they bumped across the prairies in open wagons, clinging to trunks covered with the skins of circus horses and rubbed so smooth that passengers regularly slid off the side, they must have looked strikingly similar to the strolling players who trudged around England in Shakespeare’s time. But their Elizabethan forebears were never called on to cross the frozen Mississippi and watch as their baggage, complete with scenery, props, and the stage curtain, disappeared under a thin patch of ice. That misfortune befell the Jeffersons, another family troupe that followed the Drakes; at the end of their disastrous trek, they were reduced to performing in a pigpen whose regular inhabitants poked their snouts in halfway through and set up a dismal squealing, while a few months later the father of the clan died of yellow fever and his wife, who had once been a popular leading actress, was turned out at the side of a country road, too poor to pay the wagoner for the ride. Theirs was far from the worst fate. In Florida one actor was eaten by wolves, and another troupe was ambushed by Seminole Indians.3 Most escaped to a nearby fort, but two were captured and cut up into pieces. “The theatrical wardrobe belonging to the company fell into the hands of the Indians, who, dressing themselves up as Romans, Highlanders, and Shakespearean heroes, galloped about in front of the very fort, though well out of gunshot,” one of their more fortunate brethren recorded. In the end several of the ambushers were seized, and “as they were robed and decked in the habiliments of Othello, Hamlet, and a host of other Shakespearean characters . . . their identity as the murderers was established, and they were hanged in front of the garrison.”4 The Drakes plowed on. When they reached the Allegheny they traded their wagons and horses for a broadhorn boat, a small flat-bottomed vessel with wood plank sides and a roof just above head height. Two cabins were partitioned off, one for Drake and his wife, the second for the other three women: the remaining men begged beds or floor space in farmhouses or barns along the banks, or camped around a fire where, after making a show of home comforts with supper, some coffee, a cigar, and a song, they were kept awake by howling wolves. It was a sultry summer, the water was low and sluggish, and little by little they made their way as well as they could, reading, sewing, or getting stone drunk to pass the time. The calm was punctuated by occasional bursts of excitement—one of the company falling overboard from the roof while asleep, an irate shepherd taking potshots at them from the bank after they stole one of his flock, a near fatal encounter with a waterfall after they took the wrong fork in the river—but after several months and plenty more adventures they reached Kentucky and opened right on time. There in the Bluegrass State, at the heart of the frontier, the English troupe quickly became a local institution, though the theatre that Noble Luke Usher had talked up turned out to be nothing more than a cramped room above a brewery. Yet even in the wake of two British-American wars, what was unusual about the Drakes was their intrepidity, not their nationality: since the prohibition on the immigration of entertainers had been relaxed in the middle of the previous century, actors had become one of England’s most reliable, if least official, exports. The trade had been interrupted for a dozen years by the Revolution: during the Stamp Act riots in New York, the Sons of Liberty had turned up in the middle of a performance, chased the audience out through the windows with a barrage of brickbats, sticks, and bottles, and carted the whole theatre off, plank by plank, to stoke a giant bonfire. But, largely thanks to the theatre-mad George Washington, the English influx was soon underway again, and as opportunities expanded in line with the burgeoning population, it turned into a steady flow. New postulants for fame arrived every year, among them real stars like Thomas Cooper, and many more who billed themselves as stars and filled their purses before they were found out as impostors and packed off home, where they passed on the good news about the “easy gullibility of the hospitable Americans.”5 Society, and not just what was left of the third of the population that was still Loyalist in 1776, continued to look to England for its fashions, and genteel actors reaped the benefits. Cooper, a dashing man though an erratic performer—he was famous for forgetting his lines—married the reigning belle of New York society, while Charles Mathews, a suave English comedian, was astonished to find himself treated like an ambassador on a trip to New York: generals, commodores, judges, and merchants left their cards for him, and for his benefit night, the traditional occasion on which the featured performer took the lion’s share of the profits, a large party of gentlemen chartered a steamboat to carry them the three hundred miles from Albany and back.6 For years frustrated patriots and Anglophobes had little choice in the matter: the new country had more pressing things on its mind than establishing its own theatrical tradition, and London remained the undisputed entertainment capital of the English-speaking world. Even by the mid-1830s virtually the entire supporting company, as well as the stars, at New York’s Park Theatre, the leading playhouse in the New World, were English imports.7 All the competition sent the smaller fry heading for the hills. The Drakes were the first English family to make it out west, but it was left to another clan to take England’s penetration of American culture to its most far-fetched lengths. the chapmans had been well-known theatre folk back home—old William Chapman had once played at Covent Garden’s august Theatre Royal alongside the equally grand Mrs. Siddons—but the London stage was hopelessly congested, leaving them constantly on the edge of bankruptcy, so they set out for the great golden yonder. At first William, along with his mother, wife, three sons, two daughters, one daughter-in-law, and a grandson, had followed the usual routes between the eastern cities, but soon they were forced to split up to find engagements, and one trail of work led William to Pittsburgh. Already a sooty black mass of booming capitalism squatting at the strategic point where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers join to form the broad trunk of the Ohio, the Smoky City had become the main boatbuilding center, supply station, and embarkation point for travelers setting off down the whole Mississippi system, and as he stood watching the convoys of river traffic wind through the gateway of the west, Chapman had a brainwave.8 Several months later, in the late summer of 1831, with the early morning sun slanting through the ancient forests of cypress, maple, and oak, a curious little craft appeared on the great muddy flood of the Mississippi River. To a lumberman leaning over his ax on the distant bank it must have looked as impressive as a twig in a typhoon. A plain white pine raft with a ridge-roofed shack balancing on its back, it was just the sort of thing he would have knocked together himself when he sold his plot of farmland in Cincinnati and floated his family downriver to their new home, mooring up by a patch of pristine forest, chopping down trees and opening a wood yard to feed the insatiate steamboats. Soon, if all went well, he would buy himself a coffle of slaves and become a prosperous planter.