- Historic Sites
War Among The Stars
April 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 3
Meanwhile English visitors to the United States returned home to rush into print with stories that made Americans writhe. The earliest commentators were the most scathing- notably Mrs. Trollope and Basil Hall —but in 1837 Captain Frederick Marryat, arriving for the express purpose of discovering if “the faults of a people arise from the peculiarities of their constitutions, or the nature of their governments,” kept his eye fixed only on the faults. To conservative Britishers the Americans were indecently familiar with their betters, spit streams of tobacco juice on the floor, whipped their male slaves by day, and bedded down with black females by night. They were so lawless that a human death in New York rated less attention than that of a dog in London. Their vaunted egalitarianism was obnoxious at best and mobocracy at worst—”a miserable failure,” Marryat declared- and they would commit any chicanery for a dollar.
Against these aspersions from abroad Americans defended themselves with relentless chauvinism. Everyone was wildly, madly patriotic. Edwin Forrest rode this wave of national pride in all sincerity. He liked to be billed as the “American tragedian” to distinguish him from touring English actors. He sponsored play contests by American writers and sent a hundred dollars to an Albany library for the purchase of “books purely American.” During a two-year tour in Europe (1834–36) he had professed to find everything either effete or minuscule. The Alps? He preferred the Alleghenies any day. Vesuvius? Niagara would put out her fires in two minutes. At Genoa he knelt on the deck of an American warship to kiss the folds of Old Glory. He was, said one glowing account, “American every inch.”
Too easily Forrest fell into the role of the challenger cocking his fist at the champion from overseas while the whole nation rooted in the stands. When Macready toured America in 1843 and 1844, Forrest scheduled competing performances, “got up,” growled Macready in his diary, “in opposition to me, and so carried through.” Back in Philadelphia after winter tours Forrest met Macready head-on—the same play hastily announced to match Macready’s opener. “He acts Hamlet on Monday in opposition to me,” cried Macready, “and I hear, made this engagement to oppose me! This is not the English generosity of rivalry!” Newspapers made the most of it. “Native Americanism vs. Foreignism,” trumpeted the Philadelphia American Advocate . “Which of the two to choose? Why Forrest, of course.”
Good manners still glossed over the growing breach. After his Philadelphia run ended, Macready spent the afternoon with the Forrests. He admired Mrs. Forrest, who was English. As for her husband, he told his diary, “let him be an American actor —and a great American actor—but keep on this side of the Atlantic, and none will gainsay his comparative excellence.”
As we know from the Edinburgh episode, this solemn wish was one that Forrest did not fulfill. He had first gone to London in 1836 to prove that an American could hold his own on the boards of that city’s theatres; he returned in 1845 obsessed by the same goal. At home his countrymen prepared to exult in another triumph.
Instead Forrest ran into trouble from the start. There were little bands of hissers and groaners bunched in the audience, making disturbances too consistent and too concerted to be spontaneous. There was Macready’s friend John Forster calling the American’s Macbeth laughable and his Lear a “roaring pantaloon.” There was Macready’s friend Bulwer-Lytton putting up insuperable conditions to the performance of his plays, and Macready’s friend the manager of the English company in Paris (where Forrest hoped to play) refusing to grant an interview.
In all this unpleasantness no evidence suggests that Macready had a hand. But Forrest, a suspicious nature, became convinced that the English tragedian was at the root of his misfortunes. And Forrest was not the man to forget an injury or forgive one. Enthusiastic acclaim on a tour of the provinces persuaded him even more firmly that the plot was in London, and Macready the instigator. He sent one of his cast back to her make-up box with the most crushing insult that he could think of—her face looked as if Macready had sat on it.
Forrest’s resentment gnawed at him until he could contain it no longer. Macready was playing in Edinburgh when Forrest finished his stand in Aberdeen. He bought a ticket for Hamlet on March 2 and with one hiss announced that he and Macready were now open enemies.
“I do not think that such an action has its parallel in all theatrical history,” Macready fumed. “The low-minded ruffian!” Forrest answered in a letter to the Times . Signs of disapproval from the seats, he said, must be counted an inalienable right of those who pay their money, “a salutary and wholesome corrective of the abuses of the stage.” Macready’s silly little dance in Hamlet was an abuse. He had moved to correct it and had no regrets.
There the affair slept, as a fanged serpent dozes in the sun.