Wild, wild Will

Shake­speare in the Old West

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.