How did the inhabitants of the first successful modern democracy come to divide the experience of art into “highbrow” and “lowbrow?” In the old world, it was inevitable that court art would diverge from folk art. But why, in a regime in which, potentially, all could gain access to the best that has been thought, said, and sung, did citizens allow art to become once again hierarchically divided?
A partial explanation is suggested by a play now being performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon: Carlyle Brown’s The African Company Presents Richard III. The play tells a little-known story from American theatrical history: between 1821 and 1824, New York City hosted a thriving “African Theater” specializing in performances of Shakespeare. New York had passed legislation in 1799 and 1817 to end slavery within the state; and the population of free African Americans in New York City alone grew from under 4000 to almost 14,000 by 1830. This population was evidently hungry for dramatic entertainment. A newspaper critic of the time wrote, “The playgoing portion of our negro population feel more interest in, and go in greater numbers to see, the plays of Shakespeare represented on stage, than any other class of dramatic performance.”
This enthusiastic exploration of Shakespeare by African American audiences was to be brief, however, because of harassment by white theater managers who viewed the African Company as a threat.
In Brown’s play about the African Theater (which appears to closely follow the historical accounts), an entrepreneur named William Brown operates a 300-seat theater not far from present-day Broadway. It shows performances six nights a week and often plays to a full house. Its star is James Hewlett, who is performing the title role in Richard III, that of the hunch-backed schemer who plots and murders his way into the throne of England before being deposed by Henry Tudor.
Richard III was one of four plays known to have been staged by the African Theater; the others were Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Othello. Interestingly, each play’s hero poses a subversive challenge to reigning authorities. But the character of Richard is the most audacious. He uses his charm and wit to deceive and destroy the other characters in the play, yet, by gleefully unfolding his plans in soliloquies, he continually invites the audience to collude with him in the deception.
Carlyle Brown depicts the African Company’s staging of Richard III as the event that triggers retaliatory action by the white-owned Park Theater, whose manager Stephen Price has imported a leading British actor to star in his own production of the same play. He has promised the British talent an exclusive engagement, and is annoyed to learn that white New Yorkers have been frequenting the African theater (where they sit in a special gallery partitioned off for them by Brown). White viewers, it seems, attend the play expecting to laugh at inept performances, but stay to admire what turns out to be powerful drama. Hence, Stephen Price determines to destroy the rival theater, and he persuades the local constabulary to shut it down. The troupe sees its first venue shuttered, then promptly rents space in a hotel across the street from the Park Theater. The performance staged there is disrupted in the middle of the first act, when police mount the stage to arrest the actors on charges of disturbing the peace.
It seems that the strained legality of such police actions, confronted with the determination of men such as Hewlett and William Brown, could not permanently thwart the black American theatrical pioneers. The end of Carlyle Brown’s play shows the actors in prison cells, talking together about plans to mount a new production; but this time it will feature a drama written by William Brown himself, and it will depict a slave insurrection in the West Indies. Historical accounts do attribute to Brown the first known play by an African American, called The Drama of King Shotaway (although the script has not survived). It would seem from the modern play that the African American theater abandoned its pursuit of Shakespearean eloquence in the face of white hostility, or, indeed, as a way of defying white claims to exclusive possession of dramatic eloquence. The African theater drops Shakespeare and begins to forge its own creative voice. Some historians, however, argue that the reality was sadder and more complex.
Hewlett is reported to have starred as King Shotaway in Brown’s new drama. But he did not give up his love of Shakespeare, and reappeared in other New York productions of the bard between 1821 and 1824. After the African Theater’s last venue burned down in suspicious circumstances, he seems to have taken his act on tour, performing excerpts from Shakespeare followed by opera solos—he particularly favored Rossini’s Otello. Although white theater producers continued to disrupt black American theater by hiring mobs or corrupting the police, a more effective weapon soon emerged. Appealing to the derisive impulses of prejudiced white audiences, parodies of black actors appeared, eventually becoming part of the black-face minstrel show.
Hewlett’s dramatic prowess was such that he could be demeaned only by misrepresenting his actual performances, which one reviewer in the December 1825 Brooklyn Star said “would have done credit to any stage.” White producers at first attacked Hewlett through mock reviews and playbills for African Theater performances printed in such papers as the National Advocate (published by one Mordecai Noah, who incredibly combined the offices of local sheriff and journalist). These notices used an invented black dialect that would come to be standardized in later minstrel shows, with “th”s transposed into “d”s and “v”s into “b”s. Black performers were accused of mangling their lines, Hewlett of reducing Richard III’s final speech—”A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”—to the ridiculous “Gib me noder horse.” The reviews were lies, and when they failed at suppressing interest in African Company productions, a new breed of white actors began performing comic farces wearing black make-up which ridiculed black performance of Shakespeare. These skits frequently featured scenes from Othello, providing a comic exorcism for white fears of miscegenation.
But, as the scholar Robert Hornback argues in an essay* published twenty years after Carlyle Brown published his well-researched play on the same story, the rise of the black-face minstrel show accustomed American audiences to seeing Shakespearean eloquence itself reduced to parody. Hornback writes that “burlesque Shakespeare in blackface played a significant role in … the transformation of ’Shakespeare’ from being a fundamental part of popular culture in nineteenth-century America to something … increasingly ’highbrow,’ that is, an untouchable, even sacred possession of elite/high culture and thus something rejected by an emergent, nativist working class as both elitist and un-American.” Hornback cites another scholar, Lawrence Levine, who puzzles over the disappearance of popular American productions of Shakespeare during the 19th century, saying, “The more firmly based Shakespeare was in nineteenth-century culture, the more difficult it is to understand why he lost so much of his audience so quickly.” Hornback argues that the eclipsing of interest in Shakespeare had begun by mid-century, with the rise of blackface minstrelsy, and points to the preface of an E. P. Christy minstrel songbook, which congratulates itself on creating a new native art form.
Although they may have created a new popular art form, it was one which perpetuated old stereotypes rather than helping audiences recognize the deeper truths of their common humanity. The result was a loss for American culture as a whole, as well as a new dilemma for white theater producers. In acting to bar black access to serious art, they unfortunately undermined their own popular audience for the same art.
Carlyle Brown’s play does not go so far as to draw this ironic conclusion. He is more concerned with the thwarted aspirations of the black theater company. His play shows clearly what was at stake for African Americans in this theatrical war. Hewlett explains his passion for acting to his manager, Brown, in this way:
I get to be loved and to be accepted. To be openly admired. To feel myself, to be full of myself. To breathe air and give it back again. To make myself as if I were clay. To press my fingers against me and give me shape. The make-up, the costumes, the robe. It’s all glass that I know how to polish and make clear. So that any man can see that I am any man.
Brown, speaking in his own Caribbean-inflected dialect, responds by pointing out that Hewlett’s performance has a larger importance, uplifting his black audience and announcing the equality of black and white Americans:
You have it. It’s there in your head and here in your heart and in your hands. You got a mouth, it got voice. … We tellin’ everybody, that our ways, our ideas, our beliefs be just as good as theirs.
This idea is well expressed by Hornback, who notes that “whites who favored slavery intuitively understood that [the African Company’s] demonstration of mastery of Shakespearean English, conventionally termed ’the King’s English’ on both sides of the Atlantic, could also demonstrate self-mastery, rationality, and thus equality.”**
Sadly, subsequent theater history bore out the corollary: that when one group in society tries to prevent another group from mastering language—and the noble and beautiful ideas it expresses—they inevitably cheapen their own experience of the same.
*”Black Shakespeareans vs. Minstrel Burlesques: ’Proper’ English, Racist Blackface Dialect, and the Contest for Representing ’Blackness,’ 1821–1844,” Shakespeare Studies, 2010; 38, Research Library, p. 128.
**Hornback, p. 130.
Ellen Tucker is publications editor for the Ashbrook Center.