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Monday's HOT MIC

Monday's HOT MIC

Speaking of Shakespeare in New York City, did you know that the Bard was the cause of one of the biggest riots in Manhattan's history? You could look it up, but I've already done it for you:

Follow the global story of Shakespeare over the last four centuries and you find numerous occasions where his work has been a source of hostility—bitter national rivalries, aggressive repossessions. Nineteenth-century German scholars attempted to argue that Shakespeare was culturally German rather than English; after Hitler came to power, the Nazis issued a pamphlet entitled Shakespeare: A Germanic Writer (the British got their own back, with Laurence Olivier’s stirringly patriotic 1944 film of Henry V, dedicated to the Allied forces about to land in Normandy). On the other side of the world two decades later, Shakespeare’s works were banned during the Chinese Cultural Revolution for being a subversive influence. Premier Xi, then a teenager, has claimed he read the texts in secret.

But perhaps the most arresting example of Shakespeare’s role in stoking international conflict dates back to May 1849, and occurred in—of all places—New York City. The affair began as a grudge match between two actors, but escalated into a street riot outside the Astor Place Opera House in which at least 22 people died. The Astor Place Riot still counts as one of the bloodiest episodes in New York’s history. The cause of the incident seems, by contemporary standards, hard to credit: who played the better Macbeth—an Englishman or an American?

As with the performance of Julius Caesar in the park last week, there were underlying political tensions boiling beneath the surface of an actors' rivalry. It was also a time when, despite the low level of literacy in the U.S. at the time, most everyone could quote from memory passages from the King James Bible, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Shakespeare.

The performance had barely started before it was disrupted by protestors, who were arrested—news of which only incensed the substantial mob that had gathered outside. Swelled by ranks of criminal gangs of “b’hoys” from the Bronx, they tried to storm the theatre, but, finding the doors locked, pulled up paving stones from the streets with their bare hands and began to throw them through the windows. On stage, Macready soldiered on through the final act, “in the very spirit of resistance [flinging] my whole soul into every word I uttered.”

He was unaware that by then a detachment of cavalry had arrived in Astor Place and were attempting to disperse the mob, which had only increased. Panicking that they were losing control, the soldiers fired—at first into the air, then into the crowd. In the theatre, the audience thought the noise was firecrackers going off. In the confusion and smoke outside, some 50 soldiers were wounded, and more than twenty people left dead or dying. Among the deceased were an Irish laborer, a butcher, and a Wall Street broker. Macready was rushed away from the building in disguise, and would never act in America again.

If the theater is used for political statements -- and it is -- the proper response is a different political statement. Politicized art rarely outlasts the circumstances that gave it back. And if you doubt me, I can point you to a raft of Soviet plays and operas that no one will ever stage, see or hear again, except as a curiosity.