Shakespeare and the Elks

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g.w. thompsonThe early Elks came from virtually every niche of stage entertainment in the mid-nineteenth century: comic singers, musicians, actors, acrobats, ethnic performers, and managers and promoters such as Tony Pastor, an Elk acknowledged as “the father of Vaudeville.” Surprisingly (at least to us today) many of these popular entertainers, not just the actors, would have had some contact with Shakespearean subject matter. Shakespeare was an integral part of 19th century popular culture, and was performed in ways and settings that would perplex, or even alarm, today’s audiences.

To begin with, it is difficult to overestimate how well-known Shakespeare’s characters and plays were. The frequency with which his works were parodied is a good indication of this, since parody depends on familiarity with the original. Tony Pastor and his troupe, which included many Elks, presented performances like “Richard III, the Crookedest Man in New York.” And Elk G.W. Griffin penned farces such as “Hamlet the Dainty.” In this play the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells his son that he was murdered, but not by poison in his ear:

One afternoon, as was my use,
I went to a gin mill to take a snooze—
When your uncle into my mouth did pou
A gallon of brandy smash, or more. (SW 121)

To these audiences, Shakespeare was not the remote representative of elite culture that many people think of today. As anyone who has attended an OSF performance knows, Shakespeare’s plays are funny and entertaining, complete with opportunities for slapstick, jokes, and sexual word play. Sadly, today many view Shakespeare as a figure demanding mandatory reverence, a sort of theatrical museum piece, isolated and inviolate, but dead nonetheless.
In the early to mid-19th century, audiences attending shows at venues such as the Bowery Theater saw Shakespeare not as remote from day to day culture, but as part of it. A Shakespeare performance would include not only the play but also a farcical afterpiece and a variety of specialities between acts, including comic songs, acrobats, humorous sketches, and shows by trained dogs and monkeys. In short, the very kinds of performances that many early Elks performed. As one cultural historian puts it, “Shakespeare was performed not merely alongside popular entertainment as an elite supplement to it; Shakespeare was popular entertainment.” (LL UP 146)

As the 19th century moved into the 20th, this rough, democratic Shakespeare was gradually replaced by a more revered, if less well-known figure. A key part of this change was a change in the make-up of audiences and the behaviors expected of them. As the Elks evolved, their performers and venues reflected these changes.

Writing of the performances before the Civil War, Walt Whitman recalled “any good night bowery theaterat the old Bowery, pack’d from ceiling to pit with its audience mainly of alert, well dress’d, full-blooded young and middle-aged men, the best average of American-born mechanics—the emotional nature of the whole mass arous’d by the power and magnetism of as mighty mimes as ever trod the stage—the whole crowded auditorium, and what seeth’d in it, and flush’d from its faces and eyes, to me as much a part of the show as any—bursting forth in one of those long-kept-up tempests of hand-clapping peculiar to the Bowery—no dainty kid-glove business, but electric force and muscle of perhaps 2000 full-sinew’d men ...” (WW 595)

Theaters were good venues for Whitman to encounter able-bodied workmen because all classes of male society were in attendance. Boxes were reserved for wealthy patrons, workmen and the “middling” classes occupied the main floor, while the third floor galleries were set aside for newsboys, free African Americans, and prostitutes and their patrons. (DG 46-76)

Especially before the Civil War, audience behavior was more likely to be dictated by the pit and the gallery than the boxes, and this made for a boisterous time, more like attending a football game today than politely listening in silence. Audiences were also prone to interact with whatever was happening on stage. In one performance of Richard III at the Bowery in 1832, when Richard and Richmond began to fight, the audience “made a ring around the combatants to see fair play, and kept them at it for nearly a quarter of an hour...” (LL UP 151). In New Orleans, as Othello grieved that Desdemona had lost his handkerchief (which functioned something like an engagement ring), a boatman exclaimed “Why don’t you blow your nose with your fingers and let the play go on?” (DG 60)

In Sacramento, when actor Hugh McDermott deviated too far from the sense of Richard III by stabbing Henry after he had fallen, the stage was pelted with “cabbages, carrots, pumpkins, potatoes, a wreath of vegetables, a sack of flour and one of soot, [and] a dead goose ...” This revitalized the dead Henry, who fled the stage along with Richard. (LL UP 150 -51)

edwin forrest19th century Shakespeare was sometimes a source of violent cultural and national antagonisms, and nowhere was this more apparent than the rivalry between the American Edwin Forrest and British actor William Macready. Edwin Forrest’s vigorous, over-the-top style of acting was well-suited to his boisterous audiences, but these traits did not serve him as well when he played in London to unfavorable reviews. Talented but egocentric as King Lear, one of his best characters, Forrest accused Macready of stirring up hostility and hissed at his rival’s performance of MacBeth in an Edinburgh production. The dispute spilled into the press and came to a head in 1849, when Macready and Forrest were slated to appear in rival productions of MacBeth in New York.

william macreadyOn his first night at the Astor Place Opera House, Macready found himself confronted by Forrest’s working class supporters, who drowned out his lines with cries such as “down with the codfish aristocracy.” In the third act he was driven from the stage by a barrage of eggs, potatoes, and, finally, chairs. Macready planned to leave the country, but a committee ofdismayed citizens, including writers Washington Irving and Herman Melville, persuaded him to try a repeat performance, this one protected by armed policemen. Troublesome members of the audience were ejected, but a crowd of as many as 10,000 gathered outside the building. When the crowd attempted to storm the building, the police fired warning shots, then over the heads of the crowd, which then dispersed. Unfortunately, onlookers and passersby were struck, and at least 22 people were killed, and over 150 injured. (LL H/L 63-66, DG 67-75)

astor place riotsThe riot was a watershed. As the century progressed, middle class audiences moved to more upscale theaters and began to enforce a quiet, respectful attention to performances. Shakespeare began his American journey from popular to elite culture, from entertainment to edification. As they pursued their careers on stage, the early Elks had to negotiate these changes. Shakespeare and popular theater, and the Elks performing them, headed for separate audiences and venues.

--Warren Hedges, BPOE 944, 2004


DG: David Grimstead, Melodrama Unveiled. LL H/L: Lawrence Levine, Highbrow / Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. LL UP: Lawrence Levine, The Unpredicable Past. SW: Stanley Wells. 19th Century Shakespeare Burlesques. vol 5. WW: “The Old Bowery.” Walt Whitman, Prose Works of 1892. v2.