Andrew Dickson on Shakespeare in the Wild West

dust-storm-ahead

Andrew Dickson is a Guardian journalist currently working on a new book on global Shakespeare. Here he offers a fascinating overview of Shakespeare’s long-term presence in the culture, history and politics of the Wild West…

 

It’s common knowledge that Shakespeare is one of the most popular playwrights in the present-day United States. What is less known is that without Shakespeare the US might not look quite the way it does today. Investigate in any depth the history of the western US – particularly as the continent rushed westwards in the 19th century – and Shakespeare is there almost everywhere you look.

As early as 1764, the English explorer Thomas Morris, mapping what would become Illinois, was rightly astounded to be presented with a volume of Shakespeare’s plays by a native American in exchange for gunpowder. Morris called it “a singular gift from a savage” – a phrase that might have given him pause about who exactly was savage in this exchange.

Sometimes the transaction went the other way: there is a vivid story, repeated in the autobiography of the actor Joseph Jefferson, of a company touring Florida in the late 1830s – right on what was then the frontier. They were set upon by a band of Seminole Native Americans. The Native Americans had got hold of the company’s costumes, and proceeded to continue the attack dressed as Julius Caesar and Macbeth.

Then there are stories of Shakespeare being read alongside the works of Byron and Walter Scott by trappers on the Yellowstone River in the 1820s. There’s an account of surveyors acting out scenes from the plays while exploring Lake Superior. There are even said to be mines in Colorado named after Shakespeare’s plays. The critics Alden T and Virginia Mason Vaughan argue that Shakespeare was “the favourite playwright at almost every location on the moving frontier”.

Particularly this was true in California, where after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill thousands upon thousands began to head to California – and among them were entertainers and actors. Almost the first permanent structures raised in San Francisco were theatres, catering for a restless young population hungry for entertainment and enjoyment. According to theatre historians, there were well over a thousand performances put on in San Francisco between between 1850 and 1859, the first decade of the first gold rush.

The surprising thing – at least surprising to us – is that at least 900 of these were plays: serious dramas imported from Europe and the East Coast, a mixture of contemporary Victorian melodramas, skits and satires and – perhaps more surprising still – serious plays. The most popular playwright of all? Shakespeare.
There are many reasons why. For one, Shakespeare’s plays were a standard part of the theatre repertoire across the United States and England, and touring actors knew them back to front. Scripts were expensive, new scripts more expensive still, and not everyone you were acting with would know them; safer to stick with the classics. Shakespeare was also a cornerstone of the education system in nineteenth-century America: entire generations could recite plays (or excerpts from plays) from memory. I suspect there was probably also a bit of western chip-on-should going on: what was good enough for East Coast swanks was good enough right here in California, thank you very much. I wonder also if there’s something about the immensity of the Gold Rush: the Myth of the West. These were big, dramatic times in big, dramatic country; they called for big, dramatic stories.

Whatever the reasons, over half of Shakespeare’s plays were performed in the American west during the Gold Rush, and theatres began to stipple the countryside, not just in instant cities such as San Francisco and Sacramento, but up into the Sierra Nevada mountains and across into Nevada and Colorado. Some were little more than improvised stages – a room above a saloon or a converted tent – but others rivalled anything being built back in New York or even in London. The huge three-storey Tabor Opera House in Leadville, Colorado, built in 1879 by a mining magnate, still stands – a monument in iron and oxblood brick to the vaunting artistic ambitions of the west.

Still unpersuaded about the history of Shakespeare in the wildest bits of the Wild West? Well, get a map and look south, towards New Mexico, close to the borders of Arizona and Mexico itself. There in Hildago County is a ghost town, a former mining community originally named Mexican Springs after the water source that made it a coach-stop. After the Shakespeare Gold and Silver Mining and Milling Company moved in in 1879, the town changed its name too. It’s now known as Shakespeare.

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