29. When Shakespeare Plays Were Taken Seriously Enough to Trigger Unrest and Rioting
With the superabundance of entertainment options available to us today, Shakespeare plays performed in a theater might seem quaint to many. Back before 500 channels on cable and streaming movies on the internet – and before movies were even a thing, for that matter – theater was it if one wanted to see acting. In the nineteenth century, however, theater was a mass phenomenon, and among theatrical productions, Shakespeare was king in both Britain and America. Star actors had not only loyal followers, but fanatical ones.
Today, it is hard to imagine Broadway attendees brawling over who they think is the best actor. In the 1800s, mobs of theatergoers were not above beating the daylights out of each other to express for preference for one thespian over another. Especially if nationalism was involved, as was the case in the first half of the nineteenth century. Back then, US-born actors were often seen as second rate. Especially when compared to British actors, who dominated American theaters. Then Edwin Forrest arrived – the first American superstar thespian who was considered just as good, or better, than Britain’s best actors.