Caliban by the Yellow Sands: Shakespeare and immigrant communities in New York – Excerpt: Here in This Island We Arrived

book cover with Statue of LibertyHere in This Island We Arrived: Shakespeare and Belonging in Immigrant New York is a 2019 book from Elisabeth H. Kinsley that explores Shakespeare performance in late 19th- and early 20-century Manhattan during a time of profound demographic change, when New York City’s foreign-born population grew from under half a million in 1880 to almost 2 million by 1910.

The book’s title comes from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the excerpt below from the book’s conclusion examines a Tempest-inspired “community masque” in 1916 called Caliban by the Yellow Sands.

For New York’s part, the city sustained a yearlong Shakespeare Tercentenary Celebration that encompassed thousands of commemorative events and culminated in a sweeping “community masque” titled Caliban by the Yellow Sands, written and directed by playwright Percy MacKaye. The spectacle premiered at the Stadium of the College of the City of New York, convening thirty speaking actors and more than two thousand chorus members, dancers, and artists from civic and ethnic groups across the city in an effort to fulfill “the desire . . . of democracy consistently to seek expression through a drama of and by the people,” as MacKaye framed it. Translated into Yiddish, German, and Italian, the Tempest-inspired masque represented the theme “of Caliban attempting to learn the art of Prospero—‘the slow education of mankind through the influence of cooperative art.’” Given its occurrence at the close of the Progressive Era, its proximity to a period of radical immigration restriction, and its resonance with the four-hundredth Shakespeare anniversary celebrations that overlapped with my work on this book a century later, MacKaye’s masque also offers a fitting culmination to Here in This Island We Arrived. Indeed, the masque beautifully figures how Shakespeare linked different social groups from around the city in a scene of social exchange.

Caliban by the Yellow Sands program
Percy Mackaye. Caliban by the Yellow Sands. New York, 1916. FOLGER PR2923 1916.M2

That said, the masque is just as easily construed as an Anglo-American claim to Shakespeare. Close analysis of MacKaye’s script alongside English-language press coverage of the masque and the event’s official program booklet leads one to conclude, as Shakespeare scholar Thomas Cartelli has, that “MacKaye was selectively attempting to privilege and promote a construction of Shakespeare that was consistent with the paternalist ideology of his own caste.” Or, as Kahn puts it, “Drawing from . . . a [Progressive reform] model inflected with the idea of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority, MacKaye call[ed] upon Shakespeare to resolve” the “ideological ambivalence at the core of the concept of Americanness.” Despite MacKaye’s pluralistic ambitions, then, recorded accounts taken at face value reveal his masque to have been an Anglocentric cultural event—Cultural with a capital “C,” where Culture may be understood to stand in for an idealized body of knowledge, obtained through exposure to (largely Western) art and literature, and generally associated with moral value and social advantage. Charles Sprague Smith, for one, drew on this sense of “Culture” in his vision that the People’s Institute would bring unity to Manhattan’s “world of culture” and its “world of labor.” Unlike Shakespeare’s Caliban, whose defiant assertion against Prospero (and by extension, against the unquestioned authority of Western thought that Prospero represented) inspires the title of this chapter—“This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother”—MacKaye’s Caliban reverently kneels at Prospero’s feet in the masque’s final stage directions; or, rather, at Shakespeare’s feet, as the Bard himself appears as a surrogate to deliver Prospero’s closing lines. Here, according to the event program, Caliban is surrounded by the thousands-strong ensemble, now arranged in “national groups” to represent the “Theatres of the World.” An orchestra accompanies this last scene, finally transitioning into “strains of the national anthem, in which all the assembled Pageant, Participants [sic], and the Spectators in the audience join.” The message is clear: as anxiety about foreign-born populations peaked among U.S. elites, Shakespeare made manifest the American melting pot in immigrant New York—at least, insofar as the program notes dictate—assimilating thousands of different social groups in a unison show of national belonging.

Imagining the lived rather than scripted experiences of the masque’s participants and spectators, however, conjures a cultural encounter in a messier, everyday sense of the word “cultural.” Thousands of individuals from across New York gathered in an actual arena to celebrate the three-hundredth anniversary of the famous playwright’s death and, in the act of coming together, forged new associations between Shakespeare, race, and national belonging. For example, many spectators could not hear the English verse spoken from the stage, as Kahn points out, and others simply did not understand English well enough to follow aurally, hence the foreign-language translations of the production. Certainly, then, informal (and informing) side conversations took place among the “thousands of auditors” who, Kahn notes, “sat as far away as ‘the distance of two city blocks.’” Moreover, hundreds of amateur performers—many recruited from settlement house clubs—participated in dance and choral interludes, likely inventing a step or fudging a cue from time to time. And despite “MacKaye’s central role as auteur,” which Kahn amply demonstrates, those in attendance from the Lower East Side Yiddish community doubtless felt personal pride and ownership over the event when they turned to page 2 of their programs and saw “Jacob P. Adler” listed fourth among the hundred-plus public figures appointed to the Tercentenary Celebration’s Honorary Committee by Mayor John Purroy Mitchell (in company with fellow committee members Brander Matthews and Norman Hapgood, as well as Emma Sheridan Fry and Isabelle Dwight Sprague Smith—or “Mrs. Charles Sprague Smith,” as the program put it—both of whom gained mention farther down the page). All such scenarios suggest that, however tainted MacKaye’s democratic intentions may have been by his Anglocentric nationalism and Prospero-like control over the masque’s choreography, Caliban by the Yellow Sands nonetheless pulsed with unscripted performances. Indeed, the Shakespearean masque occasioned countless opportunities for New Yorkers to assert, in all manner of expressions, “This island’s ours.”

Courtesy of Penn State University Press. (c) Elisabeth H. Kinsley 2019.