William Shakespeare was the most popular playwright in 19th-century America, 300 years after his plays first appeared onstage in England. His plays had been staged here as early as 1750, attracting broad audiences. European commentators as diverse as Alexis de Tocqueville and Oscar Wilde noted that the pioneers had volumes of Shakespeare and the King James Bible among their few precious books. Performers and audiences alike knew Shakespeare’s plays, which were taught in school as recitation. At that time, an oratorical mode of delivery was prevalent in most entertainment.
Productions of Shakespeare’s work were regularly supplemented with other forms of amusement. Two favorite acts of a play might be performed with variety songs, slapstick farces, or illusions and magic tricks inserted between acts. All types of attractions were received with equal enthusiasm: audiences recited speeches along with actors, sang the popular songs, stamped, whistled, and clapped in time to dances, minstrel shows, and other novelty acts. The work of the Bard carried no strains of elitist or high art with which it would later come to be associated.
As immigrants from every profession entered the United States, Shakespearean actors from England arrived, too, eager to join the numerous troupes that toured the country. American theatrical families such as the Starks, Chapmans, Bakers, and most famously, the Booths, were the earliest stars of the West. Their reputations were made in East Coast cities, England, and even Australia. Junius Brutus Booth, English by birth and education, was the greatest actor of the time, a genius, and a mentally unstable alcoholic. He and his son, Edwin Booth, dominated the American stage for a halfcentury. Edwin, too, was an alcoholic. Wild and undisciplined, he drank constantly, gambled, rode his horse like a madman, and was beset by bad luck. In California, the whole town of Placerville burned a week after he played there, then Georgetown and Diamond Springs suffered the same fate. The Nevada City theatre went up in flames the day before he arrived, and the neighboring town of Grass Valley burned, too. Edwin became known as “The Fiery Star.” His brother June was an important actor-manager who produced the best Shakespeare in California. A final family member, John Wilkes Booth, remained in the East, and found infamy as the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.
Stars and leading players had colorful stock pieces of costumes such as tights, capes, swords, and plumes that were worn for any role. McKean “Buck” Buchanan, a real-life actor who appears in character — as himself — in Richard Nelson’s How Shakespeare Won the West, distinguished his wildly popular Macbeth by sauntering onstage wearing a flowing cape with Western riding boots, yellow gauntlets, and a slouch hat. Famously popular child actors Little Ellen and Kate Bateman presented major Shakespearean scenes clothed in crowns, ermine, and tiny, fitted armor to play Richard III (Ellen) and Richmond (Kate). These historic girls, too, are recalled in Nelson’s play, another case of either art imitating life or the truth being stranger than fiction.
In California theatres and throughout the West, plays’ historical and textual accuracy were considered unimportant, but Shakespeare was still taken seriously. Audiences were rowdy but not uneducated, and amateurish performances garnered a rain of refuse instead of applause. Poor actors were occasionally driven from town, only to appear soon after in the next venue on the circuit.
But bad actors’ reputations were wellknown by the also-transient miners. Richard III was a ubiquitous choice of melodramatic amateurs. One determined poseur, Hugh McDermott, called himself a master tragedian and played Richard to an unhappy but well-equipped audience in Sacramento. “Cabbages, carrots, pumpkins, potatoes, a wreath of vegetables, a sack of flour and one of soot, a dead goose…simultaneously made their appearance upon the stage,” the Union newspaper reported. The stabbed King Henry rose from death and fled the stage when hit by a “well-aimed potato,” and McDermott as Richard exited the stage with “his head enveloped in a halo of vegetable glory.” A week later in Nevada City, McDermott’s Richard “was interred under a fusillade of vegetables.”
The rough young male audiences of Forty-Niners loved forceful delivery, energetic action, and powerful conflict in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Their own lives of hardship and epic struggle mirrored those of characters like Richard, Iago, Lear, and King Henry. Violent conflict laced with deeply felt emotions in the plays was not so different from daily life in towns such as Poker Flat, Hangtown, Hell’s Delight, and Skunk Gulch. But the miners were sentimental in their reception of female players. Alexina Baker’s Juliet earned her $30,000 in gold dust from the adoring audience. But many actors failed, as did thousands of miners who didn’t strike it rich.
Early Western stages were primitive, makeshift, and dangerous affairs. Rats and fleas infested all buildings. Nevada City’s Dramatic Hall was formerly a barn, Grass Valley’s theatre was a room above a saloon, and Rough and Ready’s venue was the second floor of a hotel. Saloons and hotels were the only buildings that could accommodate audiences. In Richard Nelson’s play, the saloon’s attached privy became its theatre — not as far-fetched as one might imagine.
In 1849, the Eagle in Sacramento was California’s first real theatre, built of canvas, wood, and tin as an addition to a saloon. Its stage was packing boxes lit by kerosene lanterns. Candles stuck in beer bottles were often used as footlights. Horse blankets were hung as wings or to cover holes in the stage’s playing surface. The floor was dirt, with seats of rough planks placed on beer kegs. A balcony, reached by an outdoor ladder, was reserved for modest ladies who didn’t want to enter the saloon. A flood washed the entire structure away within three months.
San Francisco was California’s theatrical center, with three to seven theatres in 1850, depending on the outcome of nearconstant fires. The impresario Thomas Maguire built three successive Jenny Lind Theatres between 1850 and 1852. The first burned down in six months, the second after only two weeks, and the third was sold to become City Hall before it burned to the ground. By 1853, Maguire opened the gas-lit Metropolitan, which didn’t burn down until 1857. He replaced it with the Opera House, his most elegant theatre among the many he opened throughout California and Nevada. Operating theatre companies was a gamble of great profits and great losses, as was every other enterprise in the West. But as the actors find at the conclusion of How Shakespeare Won the West, the show must go on — and it did.
- Kristen Gandrow