Theater making real history

Richard II deposition scene
Richard II, act IV, scene I. Painted by M. Brown; engraved by B. Smith. London, 1801. Folger Shakespeare Library.

This is an excerpt from Yale professor Joseph Roach’s talk for the Shakespeare Anniversary Lecture Series at the Folger Shakespeare Library in October 2016. Listen to the full recording on SoundCloud.

The theater occasionally makes real history itself, materializing it for audiences by its own expressive means, especially so during an age of revolution and counter-revolution. And what age isn’t an age of that?

Consider, for instance, the consummately tactless revival of Shakespeare’s Richard II, including the harrowing and treasonous deposition scene, by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, during the Essex Rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in 1601—and then, by Nahum Tate at the height of the Exclusion Crisis against Charles II and James in 1681. In such instances, onstage performances may excite offstage behaviors that expand scenarios beyond the confines of the theater, even as they highlight the importance of what goes on inside of it.

Such meta- or paratheatrical performances, especially those derived from Shakespeare, have entered into the practice of everyday life, as non-actors find occasion to conduct conversation and lines taken from the plays—as Jane Austen’s characters do in Mansfield Park and many people still do today—or even carry out scenes that consciously or unconsciously mimic those enacted by Shakespeare’s characters. Imprisoned before his elaborately staged and well-attended execution in 1649, King Charles I read Shakespeare’s plays for solace and perhaps a prompt: “sad stories of the death of kings.”

In 1665, Samuel Pepys, the unforgettable diarist, cited Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy on the occasion of an especially memorable wet dream that he had ardently hoped to be able to dream again, even after his death. Pepys writes, “What a happy thing it would be if, when we are in our graves, as Shakespeare resembles it, we could dream and dream such dreams as this.”

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John Philip Kemble as Coriolanus. Folger Shakespeare Library.

In 1809, John Kemble revived Coriolanus in a doomed bid to suppress mob rule by shouting classist insults over the din of the jeering crowd during the Old Price Riots, in the process subjecting his managerial incumbency to exactly the rebellion of “the belly” he had imperiously tried to forestall.

Then, in 1824, in pre-abolition Jamaica, some of the brilliantly costumed actor boys, like Koo-Koo, the Actor Boy, used the topsy-turvy of John Canoe Christmas revels to turn the tables on their white masters. They acted out a pointedly upside-down version of Richard III, in which Richard, the masked and smiling anti-hero in fancy dress, but refigured as the Afro diasporic trickster figure Eshu-Elegba, wins the battle of Bosworth Field. That settles that historical point.

And then, finally, in 1865, John Wilkes Booth, after rehearsing assassinations for years on stage with his brothers Junius and Edwin, reappeared in Ford’s Theatre, not far from here, for his final performance in that genre.

For better or worse, these are actions a man or woman might play, and their documentable recurrence on so many occasions, momentous and quotidian, suggests that cultural history has a place in real history writ large.

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