Thursday, July 26, 2007

Macready pauses

Michael Dobson has a great piece in the latest LRB on the Astor Place Shakespeare riots. Really the whole thing is just great, beautifully well-written and full of well-selected details; and in any case I find this topic of the strange afterlife of Shakespearean drama one of those magical subjects I can never get enough of...

In fact, even before the rebellion of the colonies, some had linked the imaginative scope of Shakespearean drama to the liberating possibilities offered by the New World. An ode by William Havard, recited at Drury Lane in 1757, identifies Shakespeare as the Columbus of world drama, anticipating the installation, more than a century later, of statues of the playwright and the explorer opposite one another in Central Park, as two proto-founding fathers. The value of Shakespeare’s work had been recognised more pragmatically on the frontier itself, where in 1764 the explorer Thomas Morris, venturing into what is now Illinois, discovered to his surprise not only that he was not the first anglophone to have got so far west but that the locals already knew exactly how much the crown jewels of his culture were worth: ‘An Indian . . . called the little chief . . . made me a present of a volume of Shakespeare’s plays; a singular gift from a savage. He however begged a little gunpowder in return, a commodity to him much more precious than diamonds.’ Morris later had the good fortune to be lingering in his canoe, absorbed in Antony and Cleopatra, while the little chief’s tribe efficiently massacred the remainder of his party, perhaps in an unsuccessful bid to repossess the book so as to be able to repeat the transaction should any more of his kind trespass on their lands.

The War of Independence ended British imperial control over these violent and unpredictable territories, but it did not evict Shakespeare from them, despite the fact that one of the things the Puritan Pilgrim Fathers had emigrated from England to escape was Shakespearean theatre. Although the British military authorities who took over the John Street theatre in New York during the hostilities must have wondered whether the productions of Richard III, King Lear, The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth that they staged there between 1777 and 1783 were the last performances of Shakespeare or of anything else that would ever be seen west of the Atlantic, their local enemies were already getting in on the act. The rebel army mounted Coriolanus at Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1778, thereby founding a tradition of American military performances of Shakespeare that was to survive for many years. Awaiting action against the Mexican army in Texas in 1845, the young Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant played Desdemona.

I must get Nigel Cliff's book, it sounds excellent...

1 comment:

  1. Well-spotted, Jenny! Loyal Dobson fans able to pick up BBC radio over the web should note that he has a 2-part radio series starting tonight, Jul 27 2007, on BBC radio 3 at 8.20pm London time, and then concluding at 8.30pm London time on July 30.