Rival Actors Sparked Fatal 'Shakespeare Riots' Shakespeare's works inspire strong emotions both on stage and off. Author Nigel Cliff talks about his book The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama and Death in 19th-Century America, which tells the story of an argument between two actors that led to a deadly riot.
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Rival Actors Sparked Fatal 'Shakespeare Riots'

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Rival Actors Sparked Fatal 'Shakespeare Riots'

Rival Actors Sparked Fatal 'Shakespeare Riots'

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It all began decades before, when the plays of Shakespeare spread across what was then the rough frontier of early America.

MONTAGNE: You had Shakespeare popping up in the most extraordinary places. People would pay a chicken or a side of bacon to go and see his play being performed on what was essentially one of the boats moving down the Mississippi, and they would put a little shack on the back of it, put a gangplank to whatever town they - or little hamlet they moored up at. And the play, these little rudimentary creaking boats, would be crammed every night with people coming to watch "Hamlet" or "Macbeth" or "King Lear."

MONTAGNE: Yeah, it would run up a little flag that said theater.

MONTAGNE: Theater, because it was the only one. They didn't need a name for it. And right through the frontiers, the frontiers spread, the actors were really at the forefront - going out, finding the audiences. Even in the 1815s, you find family troupes, at that point most of them still English, right in the heart of Kentucky, really trekking through the wilderness to get to the furthest outposts where they would put on Shakespeare plays.

MONTAGNE: Now, I think a lot of people might be quite astonished today, given that Shakespeare is generally thought of as refined, lofty and often expensive, to know that back in the middle 1800s, he was viewed as a people's writer.

MONTAGNE: I think that's right. I think it's partly to do with the way the theater worked at the time. There was no real idea of culture on the one hand and popular entertainment on the other. It was all mixed together every night.

MONTAGNE: Let's go to New York and talk about what led up to the riots there. Now, the spark for this riot was a competition between the two foremost Shakespearian actors, one British, one American.

MONTAGNE: And then into the midst of this you have this personal feud, which centers on which of these two great actors is showing the way forward for America; whether the upper classes who supported McCready, the elites, were going to set the tone for the future of the city, or whether it was going to be the working classes who supported Forest.

MONTAGNE: Set the scene for us on the night of the riot. Who was there? What was happening?

MONTAGNE: So you had thousands of gang members massing on the Bowery, hundreds of troops massing, and in the middle of it this theater. And by about 6 o'clock, 7 o'clock in the evening, the mayor and the police saw this horrific vision of New York being ruled by a mob. So very quickly the order to fire was given, and the soldiers fired point blank into a mostly civilian crowd, really for the first time in American history.

MONTAGNE: How many people killed?

MONTAGNE: I think 25 that night, we know for sure. Dozens of people injured, all because two Shakespearian actors had disagreed over, originally, over one line from Hamlet.

MONTAGNE: What was the line?

MONTAGNE: And the line was: I shall be idle, which could either mean pretending to be mad or hanging back and not being noticed. Which sounds very banal but goes to the crux of who Hamlet is at that point and to how McCready and Forest portrayed him. McCready at that point did a little hopping jig around the stage with a handkerchief, obviously trying to look as if he was a bit bonny(ph). And Forest stood there and glowered in a very sort of macho way in the background.

MONTAGNE: Looking back, what would you say, that this was in some sense a low point but also in terms of Shakespeare a pinnacle in the sense that he never would matter so much to so many Americans again?

MONTAGNE: And you go into the realm of academic Shakespeare, taught as a puzzle in schools rather than someone whose speeches would be on everybody's tongues. Shakespeare certainly was never at the heart of America in quite the way he had been before.


MONTAGNE: That was Nigel Cliff, who wrote the book "The Shakespeare Riots." We expect to set off a riot of our own as we dare to ask: Did the man from Stratford really write the plays? And if he didn't, what would motivate a brilliant writer to use the pen name Shakespeare?

U: If Shakespeare, whoever he was, had put his own name to the works, he wouldn't have survived 10 minutes because of the satirical and political content of the plays. He needed to mask that in some way, whether through a pen name or through a pen name and a front man, which is clearly what he used, a Stratford man as a front.

MONTAGNE: Groundlings, get ready with your tomatoes. Over the next two days, we'll take up what's known in Shakespeare circles as the authorship question.

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