War Among The Stars

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The hiss of a poisonous snake warns the passer-by to keep his distance or risk a dangerous bite. Man’s hiss is far deadlier; a single one, uttered in Scotland, killed more than thirty people three years later in New York City. On March 2, 1846, the curtain of Edinburgh’s Theatre Royal rang up on Hamlet before an audience that, like all in that queenly city, was notable for its reticence. In the role of the youthful prince, William Macready labored under other handicaps as well. Only a few hours short of his fifty-third birthday, he had grizzled hair, a bony figure accentuated by habitually abrupt movements, eyebrows that shot up, and a nose that one viewer described as simply “queer.”

 

To warm the phlegmatic Scots on the other side of the footlights Macready was playing his role with particular intensity. He lit up his bursts of passion brighter than usual and brooded so in his soliloquies that the onlookers seemed to be eavesdropping. Between scenes he was able to assure himself that he had never done the part better.

 
 

In Act III, with the strolling players ready to portray the murder of the dead king, trumpets announced the royal couple. “They are coming to the play,” Hamlet told Horatio; “I must be idle.” He then did a great deal to show that he was doing nothing—sauntered back and forth, flirted his handkerchief above his head, and wagged his hips in the half strut, half dance of a perfumed dandy at a ball. It was his own piece of business; he had invented it. He was proud of it.

Suddenly the silence of the theatre was pierced by a hiss, explosive and sustained, as if blasted from a steam boiler.

The players stood still. Hamlet stopped his pirouette to stare in disbelief toward the row of boxes from which the sound had come. Recovering with a wrench, he tossed a contemptuous bow in that direction. From the students’ gallery someone shouted, “Throw him out!”

At the cry a man rose from the shadows of his seat and stood in the full glare of light reflected from the stage. He appeared in the prime of life—indeed, he was a week shy of his fortieth birthday—not tall, but massive as a stone tower. His face above the white collar was strong and fleshy, and from his head the dark hair mounted in a wiry tuft. He struck a pose of defiance, arms folded across his barrel chest, and for a long moment glowered through the thin grill that separated him from the gallery. The nearest spectators recoiled in their seats. Then he wheeled about with studied deliberation and left the box.

Below, a theatre guard blocked the exit, notebook in hand. The gentleman had made a sound from the box? Yes. The gentleman’s name? The answer came with practiced clarity: Edwin Forrest. Two r’s, you say? That’s right, said the resonant voice, two r’s.

A single hiss was the least sign of disapprobation that actors of the day might expect, but this one had a fatal distinction. It issued from the mouth of America’s foremost actor and was directed, with evident malice, at England’s greatest living tragedian.

Edwin Forrest had served his stage apprenticeship in the hard school of the frontier tour. In 1822, at the age of sixteen, he left home in Philadelphia with a small dramatic company westbound for the fringes of the nation, and during the next two years he played claptrap river ports, lived for a while with Choctaw Indians, did blackface, danced and sang in comic sketches, leaped through burning hoops that singed his hair, pawned his wardrobe for a meal, and fled the sheriff. After the company broke up, he wandered from theatre to theatre on his own.

The boy matured with astonishing rapidity. By 1825 he played Shakespearean roles only one step from the top, and the next year New York thundered applause to his Othello. At twenty years of age Forrest launched a dominance of the American stage that was to last four decades.

Muscular as a wrestler, calves bulging and arms thickly sinewed, Forrest relied on brute energy to carry his acting. He liked roles of armed revolt against oppression—Spartacus, the Indian Metamora, Jack Cade—and specialized in lifting villains off their feet in his frenzy and tossing them about like dolls. But he studied deeper roles with care, too, visiting so many hospitals in pursuit of understanding Lear’s madness that he claimed to know more than the doctors. To a young actor who praised his Lear as what one expected the broken old king to be, Forrest exclaimed, gripping his shoulder, “Lear! By God, I am King Lear!” His voice was magnificent, a very “Jericho-trumpet” that could rage or howl in awful pain, then drop to a whisper that errand boys in the last row heard clearly above the crunch of their buns.