Wild, wild Will
Shakespeare in the Old West
In the southwest corner of New Mexico, three miles below the sleepy little city of Lordsburg, sit s what remains of t he town of Shakespeare. The place had previously been named Ralston or Ralston City, in honor of t he California banker who established a silver mine there. The mine failed and the banker died, an apparent suicide, following a scandal involving investment fraud. The town was ripe for a rebranding. Its new head citizens, William G. Boyle and John Boyle (it’s unclear whether they were related; their shared surname may have been a coincidence), arrived in 1879. They launched the Shakespeare Gold and Silver Mining and Milling Company and applied the Shakespeare label to the town itself. Their mines had a short life, too, closing around 1893. The death knell was sounded when a railroad line built through the region missed Shakespeare by three miles. The city, which had once been home to at least 3,000 inhabitants, became a ghost town, and it remains one today. Now situated on private land and further reduced by a devastating fire in 1997, Shakespeare is currently open to visitors just two days every month.
The story is not entirely unusual in the annals of pioneer days, but what does stand out is that a town in a remote, rugged, and almost lawless corner of the New Mexico Territory should have been named after an English playwright whose works occupy the summit of European culture. In fact, the whole place was a civic tribute to the Bard; at its height, the town of Shakespeare boasted a Stratford Hotel and its main street was called Avon Avenue. The connection may be paartly explained by WilliammG. Boyle’s Britannic originns; he had i mmigratedd to America from Londoonderry, Ireland. But even bbarring a direct link to Great Britain, building a town in homage to the play wright would have seemed logical. Strange though it may seem at first glance, Shakespeare was honored by multiple namesakes in the Wild West. Although Shakespeare, New Mexico, may have been the only town specifically named for t he playwright, one finds also Shakespeare Canyon, a geological formation between Socorro and Magdalena, New Mexico; Shakespeare Cliff, a mountainside in Nevada; Shakespeare Tanks, a reservoir just east of El Paso, Texas; and Colorado mine claims with the Shakespearean names of Ophelia, Cordelia, and Desdemona.
These reflected the passion that many 19th-century adventurers carried with them as they forged into the American West. In 1863, an adventurer named Jim Bridger, possibly the first non-Native to set eyes on the Great Salt Lake, headed out from an Army camp in Wyoming hoping to locate a westward traveler on the Oregon Trail from whom he might acquire a volume of Shakespeare. He succeeded, but it cost him a yoke of cattle, the equivalent of the wages he earned in a month as an Army scout. We don’t know what gave rise to his craving for Shakespeare, but it proved to be an ongoing expense. After he bought the book, he hired a young man at $40 per month to read it to him — because Bridger was illiterate.
Then again, literacy rates were not universally impressive on the American frontier at that time. Whereas we moderns probably made Shakespeare’s acquaintance by reading Macbeth or Julius Caesar in high school, our mid-19th- century forebears were as likely to have encountered his works first and
foremost in performance — as flesh-and-blood plays rather than as “literature.” In his book Highbrow/
Lowbrow, historian Lawrence Levine recounts that “In Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1845, soldiers of the Fourth Infantry Regiment broke the monotony of waiting for the Mexican War to begin by staging plays, including a performance of Othello starring young Lt. Ulysses S. Grant as Desdemona.” Shakespeare scholar Jennifer Lee Carrell expanded the account in an article in
Smithsonian magazine: “Before opening night, however, his superiors had to send off to New Orleans for a real woman, because Grant failed to show ‘the proper sentiment.’ ” The earliest Shakespeare performance in the far West seems to have been a much-abridged rendition of Othello put on in August 1847 by members of the Seventh Regiment of New York Volunteers, who were stationed in Santa Barbara, California. The show must have been a success, since they followed up shortly with Richard III. George R. MacMinn, a historian of theater in California, suggested something about the production values of these pioneering performances: “Lack of properties and of other concomitants of the drama was no deterrent to actors who had the temerity to attempt … Shakespeare. Ingeniously they made wigs of lambskins; for orchestra they were happy to have a violin, two guitars, and a drum; and for a curtain they required nothing but two red and two blue blankets. The theater that gave opportunity to all this enterprise and adaptableness was a large adobe house.”
At the outset of 1849 another regiment of soldiers arrived in California, transferred there from the recently concluded Mexican-American War. This contingent settled in Los Angeles, which pioneer journalist J.E. Lawrence described as “the centre of civilization in California under Mexican rule [and] … the focus of dramatic interest upon the advent of the American arms.” The thespians in their ranks opened with Hamlet (Acts 1 and 5 only) in February 1849. By then, the cultural center of California was on the verge of shifting nearly 400 miles to the north; in early 1848, a few flakes of gold had been found in the Sacramento River. As prospectors rushed in from around the world, California’s economic and artistic muscle moved to San Francisco, the supply center and jumping-off point for the Gold Rush.
Notwithstanding the tough living conditions, the 49ers wanted to be entertained when they weren’t panning for gold. As the population of San Francisco swelled from 459 in 1847 to more than 20,000 in 1850, theaters sprung up like mushrooms after a flood. The first was the Olympic Amphitheatre, which opened its doors on Feb. 4, 1850, with a production of Othello — the new city’s first Shakespeare production. A variety of plays were presented, to be sure, but the inclusion of
Richard III in the lineup a few months later meant that two of the Olympic’s initial season of five plays were by Shakespeare. “During the city’s first theatrical ‘golden era,’ ” wrote theater historian Misha Berson,“the most popular playwright on the San Francisco stage was William Shakespeare. In the decade from 1850 to 1860 a total of twenty-two of the Bard’s thirty-eight plays were performed, and several were given repeatedly.” Among the actors who staked their bona fides treading the boards of San Francisco during those early years were Edwin Booth, his father, and his brother (both named Junius Br rutus); brother John Wilkes stayed back East. Othe er storied names of Shakespearean rosters wo ould follow, including Laura Keene, Joseph h Jefferson, Charles Kean, and Edwin Forr rest.
The Shakespeare craze arr ived at the interior from both direct tions, from the east through pion neers seeking opportunity and spur rred on by Manifest Destiny, fro om t he west by fortune seeke ers moving on after the Californ nia Gold Rush petered out. Boom mand- bust communities dotte ed the western landscape, with t he boom times often leading to thet construction of an “opera hous se,” an appellation that may strike e us as rather grand for what were ofteno very modest theaters — butt they were theaters nonetheless. Som me were indeed quite imposing, as tes tified by such surviving examples as th he Central
City Opera House, built in Central City, Colorado, in 1878, and the Tabor Opera House, constructed the following year i n Leadville, Colorado. But even t he l ack of an actual t heater was not an insurmountable impediment. Actor Walter M. Leman, who toured settlements in the California Sierras during the 1850s, penned a recollection of performing Richard III in t he town of Downieville. Since no stage existed in the structure at which the play was booked, “we had to improvise one out of the two billiard tables it contained, covering them with boards for that purpose.”
Whether i n established theaters or on more makeshift stages, Shakespeare was dependably represented among the offerings, with Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet generally being the most popular. The productions could prove unpredictable. In 1854, at San Francisco’s Metropolitan Theatre, the title role in Hamlet was portrayed by Anna Maria Quinn, described by a newspaper as “a bright-eyed, beautiful little child, not yet seven years old.” In ensuing weeks she would play Fleance in Macbeth and Prince Arthur in King John. Prodigies followed in her wake: Alexina Fisher appeared as Prince Arthur, as a prince in Richard III, and even as Shylock in The
Merchant of Venice — at the age of ten; and the Denin Sisters, Susan and Kate, were incipient teenagers when they portrayed the Antipholuses in
The Comedy of Errors.
Often these plays represented only part of an evening’s presentation, the entertainment being rounded out by songs, dances, farcical skits, or animal acts. The depth of Shakespeare’s popularity was confirmed by the number of parodies that were mounted. Audiences needed to know the originals to appreciate the jokes in such new concoctions as “Julius Sneezer,” “Hamlet and Egglet,” or “Much Ado About a Merchant of Venice.” By the time Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published — in Great Britain in December 1884 and in the United States two months later — Americans were very familiar with the sort of mangled Shakespeare that pours out of a theatrical entrepreneur plying the Mississippi: “To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin / That makes calamity of so long life;/ For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane.”
In 1932, at t he ceremonies marking t he opening of t he Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., the organization’s director of research, John Quincy Adams (no relation to the earlier U.S. president, who was also a Shakespeare fanatic), gave an address titled “Shakespeare and American Culture.” Some distance into his speech he considered how “Shakespeare, bearing the scepter of cultivation, moved in the dusty trail of the pioneers.” His presence, Adams felt, played a far-from-incidental role in the shaping of American culture. “However shallow in places that culture might be, as shallow as it inevitably was in a frontier life, it retained, like gold beaten to airy thinness, its original virtue; and from ocean to ocean it served to give American civilization something like homogeneity.”
Clockwise, froom top, actor Joseeph Jefferson (182291905), courtessy Library of Conngress; Ulysses S. Grant, general, president, and amateur actor,a photo Matheww Brady, circa 188601865; actor Chharles Kean (1811-18868); opposite pagee, top, Shakespeeare, New Mexico, 2012;2 Leadville, Coloorado, late 1800s
Actress Kate Denin, circa 1855-1865; courtesy Library of Congress