Shakespeare and America have had a long love affair. While the early American writers were struggling to find a form and a style that would give the United States a literary voice there was already a national literature of sorts, provided by the works of Shakespeare, which by the time of the War of Independence enjoyed great popularity. The welding together of so many diverse peoples into a nation, with all its conflicting beliefs, its vast geography, its bleak and desperate periods, was accompanied by a standard to which everyone could relate – the universal experience contained in the plays of Shakespeare.
The young William Shakespeare was growing up during the time of the great explorers: Francis Drake was sailing around South America and the world, Martin Frobisher was searching for a northwest passage across North America, and John Hawkins was going to the West Indies. The British empire was establishing itself around the globe.
Shakespeare left his home-town of Stratford-upon-Avon for London around the time that the English were fighting the Spanish and he would have seen ships sail down the Thames on their way to the New World. Travel journals were as popular as theater-going, and stories from the new world abounded. Shakespeare’s plays make constant reference to them, for example, the Anthropophagi mentioned in Othello, whose heads grow beneath their necks.
The first recorded production in America of a play by Shakespeare took place in 1730 in New York City – an amateur performance of Romeo and Juliet. Although Shakespeare’s plays often figured in the collections of early colonists, they did so only as literature, hardly as performance scripts. This was mainly because the dominant Puritan and Quaker religious beliefs prohibited acting, but once Romeo and Juliet made its first appearance more followed in Philadelphia and Charleston. Richard III and Othello were popular choices, as was Romeo and Juliet.
In 1751, the London Company of Comedians, under the direction of Lewis Hallam, landed in Virginia where the ban on the immigration of actors had recently been lifted. Their first production was The Merchant of Venice , which played to mixed groups of settlers and Native Americans, and over the next ten years they added Richard III, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Hamlet to their repertory. By 1754, the company had toured prosperous cities like Fredericksburg, Williamsburg, and Annapolis. They spent four years in Jamaica and returned to Philadelphia and New York in 1758 with new productions of Cymbeline, The Taming of the Shrew, and Macbeth.
As a young man, George Washington was an avid theatre-goer and even attended one of Hallam’s s performances in Williamsburg. After the war ended, however, Washington spent much of his time restoring his home in Mount Vernon, VA, until 1787 when the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia gave him ample opportunity to attend the theatre. During his presidency that began two years later, Washington encouraged theatre-going. Despite the continuing animosity towards anything British, citizens of the new nation continued to love Shakespeare who was now equally fashionable on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the 19th century travelling companies spread the plays into every corner of the United States. The American public now had the opportunity to see most of the plays. Shakespeare served as a unifying force throughout the century: his works were one of the few things that were constant while the country and its people were expanding. No other writer was so quickly assimilated into the wilderness, perhaps because his works could be presented in the easily accessible form of drama. The blood and violence, passion and basic comedy must have had a strong appeal to frontiersmen.
As early as 1810 there were theater companies established from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico; from the mouth of the St. Lawrence to the western tip of the Great Lakes; from the northern Ohio territory down the Ohio River, through Kentucky and St. Louis. These companies produced their own plays, as well as welcomed-primarily British-touring stars. Charles Kean began his tour in 1831 in New York and eventually returned 15 years later through the Mississippi Valley.
Ellen Tree came in 1838-39; William Macready arrived in Philadelphia in 1843. Charles Calvert and Charles Rignold came in the 1870s, followed by the famed Frenchwoman Sarah Bernhardt in the 1880s, giving her own renditions of Hamlet and Cordelia. Touring continued into the 20th century, notably by Johnston Forbes-Robertson in the 1910s – the definitive Hamlet of his day – and Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who landed in California in the 1920s and began the definitive push for Shakespeare films. The concept of celebrity was on the rise, as were actors’ profits; the star system was gaining unprecedented status in the United States.
There were innumerable tours like the Chapmans’, especially once steam had arrived. Edwin Booth arrived in California for the 1848 Gold Rush, performing versions of The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, and Hamlet on a redwood stump. Ben Mouton took his troupe and their production of The Taming of the Shrew from gold mine to gold mine in a wagon decorated with scenes from the play. The Chapmans even continued their own expansion up to the Oregon territory. Junius Brutus Booth took his Hamlet to San Francisco in 1851, while his three sons (John Wilkes, Junius, Jr., and Edwin) also toured, most often in the South and mid-Atlantic. John even gave the famed Edwin Forrest a run for his money in Philadelphia with a rival production of Macbeth, but the careers of the entire family were ruined when John shot President Lincoln in 1865.
In the second half of the 19th century there was a blossoming of American Shakespeare scholarship.
As the first decade of the twentieth-century advance, everything was becoming commercial, and artistic integrity became secondary to that. Shakespeare fell out of favour because of large casts and high production costs. However, the 1909 opening of the New Theatre in New York presented Antony and Cleopatra to acclaim and brought Shakespeare right back into the mainstream.
During the interwar years, acclaimed productions with John Gielgud, Maurice Evans, the Lunt-Fontanne duo, Margaret Webster, and Paul Robeson re-inforced the rebirth, and Orson Welles’ 1939 production of Julius Caesar in Nazi uniforms proved Shakespeare’s modern relevance. In 1953, the festival at Stratford, Ontario, opened, and a similar company opened in Stratford, Connecticut, two years later.
The latter’s 1960 tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set the precedent for modern style tours, with a Student Audience Program that offered study materials, question-and-answer sessions with actors, and reduced ticket prices. The play stopped in 13 cities between Boston and San Francisco, including an evening with the Kennedys in Washington, D.C.
In 1956 Joseph Papp opened his first season in New York’s Central Park, and the following summer began with a city-wide tour of Romeo and Juliet staged on a truck. By that time, the regional theatre movement in the United States was galloping apace, with the founding of major theatres in Houston (1947), Washington, D.C. (1950), and Minneapolis (1963). Hundreds of cities followed, each incorporating Shakespeare as a major component in their season-planning.
America’s love affair with Shakespeare is long and lasting, and numerous festivals take place each year in the USA, such as Shakespeare In The Park.