EVERY DAY ANOTHER MEMBER OF THE NATIONAL media arrives in Austin, each one trying to answer two questions: Who is George W. Bush? And isn’t there something really bad that he’s done sometime in his life? That’s all right for them, but here at home, can’t we think about something else just for a moment? Here is a question that intrigues me: What is the relation, if any, between Texas and the great poet and playwright William Shakespeare?
This isn’t a random musing. We are confronted with the question because, as if overnight, Shakespeare is more potent and popular than ever. There’s Shakespeare in Love, of course. Ten Things I Hate About You is a teen version of The Taming of the Shrew. Michelle Pfeiffer is starring in a movie version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that will be released in May, and several other Shakespeare movies are in progress. The re-created Globe Theatre in London, where audiences in the pit stand during the performance as Elizabethan audiences did and where the plays are performed as nearly as possible as they were first performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, is consistently filled to capacity. This summer the Shakespeare festivals in Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Winedale are expecting record crowds.
It is not recorded—or at least I could not find—when the first performance of Shakespeare occurred in Texas. We can be sure, though, that it was early on, sometime not long after the first Anglo settlers began to leak into the forests of East Texas or show up in the humid port towns along the Gulf of Mexico. We can be sure because, from the time the first settlers arrived on the Atlantic seaboard, pioneers were not just striking out for new territory but were often rather self-consciously carrying civilization westward. To them civilization meant English civilization, and it is a cliché of history that that in turn meant the King James Bible and Shakespeare. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French intellectual who traveled through America in 1831 saw “hardly a pioneer’s hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare.”
Before there were many towns with enough people for an audience and enough civic ambition to build a theater, Shakespeare arrived in the saddlebags and wagons of men who came west. (Ronald L. Davis of Southern Methodist University, Richard A. Van Orman of Purdue University, and Michael Barnes, the theater critic of the Austin American-Statesman have all written interestingly about Shakespeare and theater in the early West.) Shakespeare was drilled into children in the frontier schools, so the plays were familiar even to someone with no more than a few months’ schooling here and there. Since normal speech of the time was rooted in Elizabethan English, the language of the plays seemed less remote than it does today. “Sticklers for the pure, stout English of pristine times would have here had their hearts gratified,” writes the historian Stuart Henry in Conquering Our Great American Plains. “. . . these roots of a conversational English, suggesting Shakespeare’s days when men spoke out quite as they felt, were here on this quasi Texan boundary weeded over by a growth of new slang and profanity.” To read Shakespeare was not only to be reminded of home and family and civilization but to find a pure language without the rough vulgarities of everyday frontier life. And, since it is impossible to overstate the tedium of life on the frontier, reading Shakespeare was something that could pass the time. And so was performing Shakespeare. In 1846, when the United States Army was camped in Corpus Christi before the beginning of the Mexican War, General Zachary Taylor built a large theater for the troops’ entertainment. They decided to perform Othello. James Longstreet, later a Confederate general in the Civil War, auditioned for the part of Desdemona. He was rejected since he was too tall. Ulysses S. Grant also auditioned for the part. He received more consideration but was finally rejected as well since he did not have “the proper sentiment.”
After the Civil War, cowboys who could read often declaimed to those who could not, and nothing in English is better for declaiming than Shakespeare. In Philip Ashton Rollins’ classic The Cowboy, he tells of a ranch that by chance had a small library of various books, novels, and a set of Shakespeare: “To the shame of owners and guests, cowboys alone attacked the Shakespeare… The vast intellectual vitality that came out of Avon arrested attention. It wrung from a top rider, first face to face with the play of Julius Caesar and its ‘Dogs of war’: ‘Gosh! That fellow Shakespeare could sure spill the real stuff. He’s the only poet I ever seen what was fed on raw meat.’”
As more settlements began to appear and grow along the frontier, Shakespeare arrived in the form of itinerant actors and traveling acting troupes. Before the Civil War, they performed along the Gulf Coast, typically taking a boat from New Orleans. One such actor was Joseph Jefferson. Later he became one of the leading actors of the nineteenth century, but in the 1840’s he was an adolescent touring with his mother and sister. In a new town he would paint posters announcing the small group’s arrival and post them in the hotel, the post office, and the barbershop. The Jeffersons stayed for a while in Houston in the 1840’s. There they met a former tragedian named Pudding “Pud” Stanley, who, though he was then living in San Antonio, convinced the Jeffersons he was so popular even in Houston that if he had a starring role, the house would be packed. They decided to do Richard III. Stanley made an imposing figure on the stage, and sure enough, the house was full. As Stanley played a love scene with Lady Anne, someone in the audience shouted out a warning that Lady Anne should be careful because Pud already had two Mexican wives back in San Antonio.