America’s Shakespeare: The Bard goes west to California’s Gold Rush mining camps

Theater was explosively popular in California’s Gold Rush era, and miners couldn’t get enough of Shakespeare. San Francisco and Sacramento had major theaters that were repeatedly burning down and being rebuilt almost immediately. Even the small gold-mining towns had stages or some kind of performance space. Actors followed the money, first to California, then traveling from camp to camp to perform.

Hamlet Wagon
Hamlet wagon pulling into Sonora, late 19th century. Tuolumne County Historical Society. Exhibited in America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West.

“The gold miners themselves were strikingly knowledgeable about Shakespeare,” says Stephen Dickey, who curated America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West, on exhibit at the Los Angeles Public Library through Feb 26, 2017.

It wasn’t unheard of for miners to correct actors’ lines, and an audience wouldn’t hesitate to ask an actor to perform a particular speech again if they really liked it.

Shakespeare performances didn’t always mean full-length productions though. If you look at broadsides from the period that show a full evening’s entertainment, “Shakespeare will be there, but he’ll often be there in a fragmentary state,” says Dickey. There would be a speech from one play, and then one from another. Or there would be parody and blackface versions of Shakespeare, mixed in with other entertainments.

In research conducted as part of a Works Progress Administration project, a census of the Shakespeare plays performed in San Francisco from 1850-1860 revealed a wide variety of shows onstage. Richard III and Hamlet were the most popular plays in the West at this time, according to Dickey, followed by Othello, Macbeth, Henry V, and Romeo and Juliet.

“The comedies were certainly performed, but they weren’t the warhorse performances that people looked to,” Dickey says. Of the comedies, The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It were most commonly produced.

In this time period just before the Civil War, Americans’ fluency with Shakespeare showed not just in the political language of the day—think Abraham Lincoln—but also in personal letters and diaries, at every level of society. “They make abundant casual allusions to Shakespeare, not even prefacing it with ‘as Shakespeare says’ or that sort of thing,” Dickey says. “It’s just part of the language, dropped in very casually in a formulaic way.”

Edwin Booth and Helena Modjeska

Two of the most notable Shakespearean actors of the day spent considerable time touring the West: Edwin Booth and Helena Modjeska.

Edwin Booth and Helena Modjeska in "America's Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West"
(Left) Edwin Booth with his father, Junius Brutus Booth, Sr. Folger Shakespeare Library. (Right) Helena Modjeska as Rosalind in As You Like It. Folger Shakespeare Library. Exhibited in America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West.

Edwin Booth, who belonged to a powerhouse acting dynasty that included his notorious brother John Wilkes Booth, matured his art in the mining camps. His older brother, Junius Brutus Booth Jr, was the first of the family to come to California, moving to San Francisco and taking over an acting company before inviting his father, Junius Brutus Booth Sr, and Edwin to join him. When he wasn’t acting, “Edwin’s job was to keep his father sober enough to be able to act in the evening performance,” Dickey says.

Later in his career, Edwin toured with Helena Modjeska. Originally from Poland, Modjeska was a seasoned actress and well-established in her European career when she immigrated to America in 1876. After the Utopian community that she and her husband helped establish in Anaheim fell apart, she went on tour to earn money, retreating in the off-seasons to an Orange County home that she named for the forest in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Arden.

Unlike the typical immigrant actor, who performed in their native language with an English-speaking cast, Modjeska learned English and worked hard on her accent.

Learn more about these two actors—and hear a recording of Edwin Booth reciting from Othello—at America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West.

The LA Library "America's Shakespeare The Bard Goes West" Exhibition Opening on November 15, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Nicholas Gingold/Capture Imaging)America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West, is on exhibit at the Los Angeles Public Library through Feb 26, 2017. A partnership with the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, this exhibition presents a broad range of items from the Folger Shakespeare Library, complemented by others from California collections, tracing Shakespeare’s ever-changing role in American culture, from westward expansion and the Civil War to stage, screen, and radio, debates over war, politics, and race, and the latest forms of digital media today.

The core group of items in this exhibition, originally curated by Georgianna Ziegler, appeared at the Folger in April 2016 as America’s Shakespeare.