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When the play really was the thing

In 1849, deadly riot followed staging of 'Macbeth'

A painting of 18th-century English actor David Garrick (right) as Macbeth. A painting of 18th-century English actor David Garrick (right) as Macbeth. ("Becoming Shakespeare"/HORACE HOWARD FURNESS MEMORIAL LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA)

The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America
By Nigel Cliff
Random House, 312 pp., illustrated, $26.95

Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright Into the Bard
By Jack Lynch
Walker, 306 pp., illustrated, $24.95

On May 10, 1849, the Englishman William Charles Macready performed his signature role of "Macbeth" at New York City's Astor Opera House. Hailed at home as "The Eminent Tragedian," he was widely considered the era's leading Shakespearean actor. But in New York, Macready's appearance provoked a riot that brought out the National Guard and resulted in at least 26 deaths. It was the largest loss of civilian life due to military action since the American Revolution.

Today it's hard to imagine anyone getting so worked up by actors in tights. We are force-fed Shakespeare at school, jaded by media overload, lured away from theater by movies and the Internet. Having at hand a Shakespearean catch phrase or two -- " To be or not to be?" -- hardly carries the weight of our forebears' intensity.

Nigel Cliff's delightful and instructive "The Shakespeare Riots " explains how ordinary Americans could be stirred up enough to throw eggs at actors and trash a theater. Jack Lynch's "Becoming Shakespeare , " though, attempts the broader, and more elusive, subject of its subtitle: "The Unlikely Afterlife That Turned a Provincial Playwright Into the Bard."

To appreciate Lynch, it's best to ignore that theme, which the author basically relegates to a single chapter. There, he describes 18th-century critics Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and the lesser-known Lewis Theobald elevating the Bard to the top of the English literary heap, worthy of the same attention as revered Greek classics. What he doesn't demonstrate is how and why they believed other writers paled by comparison.

Elsewhere, Lynch, a professor at Rutgers, scurries up every tree in the Arden forest. He darts from Shakespearean acting styles (from David Garrick to Edmund Kean) to the wacky editing of plays (sprucing up "Lear" with a happy ending) to co-opting the plays for political purposes (Shakespeare as monarchist, or republican ) to domesticating them ( expung ing the prurient bits) to forging them (via adolescent poseur William Henry Ireland or renegade scholar John Payne Collier ) to worship ing them.

In the final pages, Lynch tacks on a thesis : that Shakespeare achieved greatness by breaking the rules . "He turned 'unschooled' from an insult into a compliment and 'rule-bound' from a compliment into an insult. He was there at the beginning of the modern idea of genius, when 'neoclassical' ideas about propriety and decorum gave way to ' Romantic' ideas about individual expression and unbounded passion." This is, of course, only a small part of the story, and insulting in its smallness. To achieve greatness, the expression had to be exquisite, the passion earned, the thought precise. Despite this annoying coda, the book nonetheless does provide a handy introductory overview to perennial issues in Shakespeare studies.

If Lynch tends to wander, Cliff, by keeping focused, endows "The Shakespeare Riots" with a surprisingly expansive scope. To explain a single riot, he must clarify character (both personal and national), the social status of actors, the role of Shakespeare in cultures, and so on. This English journalist blends his gift s for both spirited narrative and insightful analysis. He's a marvelous storyteller, if occasionally not skeptical enough about a story's accuracy.

In mid-19th-century America, Cliff points out, Shakespeare's plays were produced more than any others and were "fought over, in frontier saloons no less than in aristocratic salons, with an almost hysterical passion." Inconceivable today, why was this so then?

The Bard's poetry, Cliff suggests, resonated in an America smitten with oratory. Likewise, the exuberance of his "outreaching Elizabethan tongue" connected with the inventive, frontier-driven American language. A now - outdated form of theater going also contributed: "Men and women of every class . . . watched the same medley of 'legitimate' plays . . . skits and songs . . . and acrobatic displays . . . and no one thought of removing Shakespeare to a separate category called Culture."

The roots of the Astor Place riot lay in political-cultural tensions between America and Britain and the rivalry between Macready and Edwin Forrest, his American challenger to Shakespearean supremacy. Macready was caricatured in the United States, inaccurately, as a champion of a stodgy, un-American aristocracy, while Forrest, 13 years younger, was touted as "a paladin of democracy."

Simmering in the background were Anglo-American clashes over the Oregon-Canada border, withering critiques of Americans as uncouth by British visitors like Charles Dickens, and the birth pangs of a distinctively American culture. Meanwhile, New York's Irish workingmen were ready and willing to add muscle to any anti-English demonstration.

Macready and Forrest had been supportive colleagues if not quite friends. But when the American's 1845 London tour was not well received, he blamed the Brit for poisoning the press -- unfairly, Cliff believes. In Edinburgh, Forrest responded by hissing at Macready's performance of "Hamlet." The relationship was over.

Four years later, Forrest followed his rival around America, doing the same plays, like a "truth squad" in a political campaign. So much jingoism had been whipped up that when he staged his "Macbeth" in New York simultaneously with Macready's, violence was entirely possible. Anti-English rabble-rousers, in the press and on the streets, made it inevitable.

As the Astor Place riot demonstrates, culture wars are nothing new on the American scene. What's striking is that Shakespeare could be the catalyst.

As he fled New York, Macready no doubt thought , "Et tu, Brute?" But give Puck the last word: "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

Dan Cryer is a contributor to "Good Roots: Writers Reflect on Growing Up in Ohio."