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A History of Violence

1206booksshak_riots Imagine 20,000 people rioting outside a New York theatre because a British actor possibly expressed pejorative views about an American actor they adore. Not that Americans have ever lacked a nationalistic streak, but this is the age not of theatre riots but of Red Sox rampages and screaming crowds at European soccer games, right? At the midpoint of the 19th century, though, agitated audiences were routine. And we recall the Astor Place riot in particular because its results were so bloody: 22 dead, dozens injured.

The major achievement of Nigel Cliff's meticulous, insightful history of that incident -- which took place on May 10, 1849, in New York City's East Village, down the block from today's Public Theater -- isn't that he traces the calamity hour by hour. It's that he delivers superbly clear, big-picture scholarship that fleshes out the riot's social and theatrical roots and implications. His narrative runs on parallel tracks, the first tracing the career of William Charles Macready, the distinguished doyen of the British stage; the second following Edwin Forrest, the pompous, hyperbolic, hugely popular star of the fledgling American theatre.

That Cliff examines the men's tetchy friendship makes sense: Forrest's jealousy of Macready, which Macready eventually learned how to stoke, forms the nuts and bolts of the story. But Cliff also plays sociological detective and cultural critic, analyzing not only the Shakespearean acting styles on either side of the pond during the 19th century, but how U.S. and U.K. political and economic trends informed theatregoers' reactions to specific performances.

Cliff populates his book with brilliant minor players, such as John Philip Kemble, the grand old man of the London stage, and Edmund Kean, who outfoxed Kemble to become the top British actor of his time. Novelist Charles Dickens, whose peripheral theatre involvement may surprise some readers, enjoys a long cameo. And it's fun to discover how Ned Buntline, creator of the dime novel, played a pivotal role in inciting the riot, enlisting the infamously rabble-rousing Bowery b'hoys (1840s slang for street toughs) and other working-class Lower Manhattan mobs to wreak enormous physical and psychological damage. In the riot's aftermath, there's Forrest's 1852 divorce, a supremely ugly affair that not only ruined the man's reputation but torpedoed his career.

Overall, it's a ripping good yarn and an expert presentation of history.

The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America, by Nigel Cliff, Random House, 2007, hardcover, 312 pages, $26.95.

-- Leonard Jacobs

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