New York. 1849. The Astor Place Opera House. 22 or more people killed in a riot. Over Shakespeare.
Two different actors were in the city, simultaneously playing Macbeth. One English, one American. Different heads on the same role are always going to produce different results, but these two actors were sufficiently distanced in style and personality to cause a rivalry that boiled over, alongside poisonous international relations at that time.
Many factors were at play here, of course. But people wound up dead. And I’ve just found out about it. Shakespeare riots. Who knew?
How did I find out? Well, a professor gave a lecture about it as I stood by him ready to join his class. I’m an “Actor From the London Stage”. That’s how we are billed. So I’m the only English person in the room when he gives this short lecture.
In 1849 the mannered Victorian actor William Macready was programmed at the swanky Opera House in New York, built in colonial times still darkly remembered.
He was terribly English by the sound of it, William Macready. Awfully restrained. I know the type. Every gesture thought of beforehand and practiced. Every word practiced, worked, reworked and crystallised. Bug-eyed. Devoid of emotion. Incapable of actual truth, but masterful at the semblance of truth. Strangely hypnotic. A lizard.
Meanwhile, Edwin Forrest was the working man’s choice in the USA. An American actor at the height of his popularity. Another type I know well. A fighter. Every word becoming about action. Squat and angry, he would’ve roiled with rage and bombast, his Lady Macbeth no more than an accessory. Testosterone and fury. Attack over nuance. Reaction above thought. A bull. William would’ve been strutting and fretting. Edwin would’ve been sound and fury.
The thing is, both of these approaches can work for the part – (given the actor is good enough). Every actor’s way brings food for thought. These two it’s the old school manufactured war: head vs body. I expect the lizard Macbeth would’ve been as interesting as the bull Macbeth. But the two polarised approaches highlight the difference in our cultures. “Excuse me,” in London means “Fuck you!” in New York, and vice versa.
Somebody whipped up a storm though and made it about old conflicts. Suddenly it was about ownership and history and colonialism.
So. Because of a production of Macbeth with two very different already rival actors from different countries and idioms with very different approaches, people took to the streets. And as usual over here the police started shooting, which is where the death toll came from. NYPD: “If in doubt, panic and kill innocent people.” I understand that was the motto back then – it still is now in some states.
Edwin Forrest had toured the UK in 1830 and Macready had been overbearing and high handed about him, dismissing Forrest as having no taste. Macready was the UK establishment player, with nothing really at stake considering their different approaches and types. He might have chosen to bury his pride – to see the things Forrest did that he couldn’t do. It feels like Macready wasn’t capable of that leap of empathy though, being a lizard. It feels to me like his privilege blocked him from empathising with someone so immediately unlike him in approach. He had had a fortunate beginning, dear William. It’s SO much harder to look backwards from privilege than it is to look forward.
By being antagonistic – and how could be not with all that privilege? – he made a very patient enemy.
Forrest went and sat on the front row and booed Macready’s Hamlet, then he seduced Macready’s wife effectively enough for it to come up in court, then he fomented enough distaste at home against the man to get a dead sheep thrown at posh English Hamlet in Cincinnati. Then he stirred up his New York gang friends to fuck up Macbeth properly, once and for all. It worked. Macready slunk off back to England after the show on the night of the fatal riots. He didn’t come back.
The professor today just touched on all of this, like it was a living cultural rivalry still, just before the class we had. (I researched it since and found the deeper detail included here.) But with THAT introduction: “and now, here’s Al. From England. To teach you about Shakespeare.”
I dropped my intended class, and instead did a class about how different a scene can be to different actors based on multiple factors. I spoke about different approaches to things like conflict, culturally, between England and America. I examined how different humans bring whatever their past is to their lines. It was a lovely lively class about helping people read out loud from a personal place.
But it was a very very strange introduction. Admittedly he tried to then read the CV I’d sent the company but I stopped him because it makes me want to stick toothpicks in my eye when they do that.
I don’t think he intended to frame me in such an awkward way: the representative of a defeated colonial power whose subject matter and approach had since raised people to the streets and caused fatalities. I think it was done with an intellectual sensibility that fails to take into account the fact it would be weird for me to be brought into the room like that.
It was a hell of a way to be introduced to a room full of strangers, to have an expert talk with slides about a fatal riot against an English actor by Americans (clearly, in his talk and his slides, favouring the American.) “And with that in mind, here is an English actor to work with you on Shakespeare.”
On the subject, I think that an inevitably shared culture has homogenised our approaches to craft now either side of the pond in acting. My class today was about finding individual voices. The styles come from the individual not the culture.
English actors and American actors are working in roughly the same field, and there are SO MANY MORE of us than there was back then when it was even worse in terms of “oh he’s good let’s let him play everything”. (Although the funneling still goes on.)
Perhaps emotional “state” is still preferred over here as a starting point. Perhaps active “target” back home. Or perhaps I’m working with younger people over here than I would be back home. I’m certainly having to push target over state when I work.
I’m seeing a lot of emotion with no basis.
I’m trying to give help that’ll stop their acting just being therapy with somebody else’s words, and make sure they are making stories that other people might engage with. We all know instinctively when someone is faking an emotion. Toddlers do it when they want something. We know we are being manipulated, because we have all tried it. “I want to STAY HEEEEEEEEERRRRRREEEEE”
I’m an English actor but in approach I’m closer to the bull than the lizard. So I know bull. And I dislike lizard. Even if I see and understand both.