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.
It wasn’t until later in the century that the railroad made towns in the interior more accessible. A town, to be a town at all, had to have a newspaper, a hotel, a school, and finally, an opera house. (The word “theater” then implied a place that gave racy performances, or “varieties.” Houston broke the pattern, having had two theaters before it had a church.) The presence of an opera house showed that the community, though it might stand isolated on the Texas prairie, was civilized. Shakespeare’s plays were by far the most popular fare at the opera houses and his tragedies were more popular than the comedies, which by comparison were seldom performed. The tragedies were seen as elevating and moral. There were not many opportunities for culture on the frontier, so when one arose, the audiences wanted culture full-force—Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth. The plays were cut and their spectacular aspects—duels, suicides—were played up. The audiences were rowdy and frequently shouted curses and warnings at the actors, not unlike audiences at the Globe. Between acts there would be a running vaudeville show with a juggler, a singer, even a trained bear. To leave the audience laughing, the productions often ended with a burlesque of some sort. It could be a parody of the tragedy that had just been performed or it could be some set piece or something specially written about some local controversy. Women were few on the frontier, so the presence of a woman on the stage—a respectable woman playing a role in a great tragedy—had great appeal in itself. Less-respectable women put on shows in the variety theaters. By the 1880’s towns in Texas were large enough to attract touring companies with the greatest stars of the day. Edwin Booth toured in 1888. He began in Galveston, then proceeded to Houston, Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso, and then California.
The final route for Shakespeare to the frontier was through local amateur societies. Even before the Civil War, Paris boasted an Othello Club and towns as small as Fairfield were presenting amateur productions of Macbeth. Corpus Christi had its Thespian Society and Marshall its Histrionic Society. The Dallas Shakespeare Club devoted six months’ study to each of the plays. Many of these clubs, or their direct descendants, are active today.
Just out of college, I knew someone who said he intended to write a series of westerns based on Shakespeare’s tragedies. The idea struck me as brilliant at the time, since those doomed castles transform easily in the imagination to doomed ranches. Since then I’ve learned that others had the same idea and actually did it. The fifties western Broken Lance, for example, follows the plot of King Lear. And movie cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers always had their comic sidekicks, a role parallel in every respect to the role of the Fool in Shakespeare. The correspondence between Shakespeare and old Texans seems to be something more to me than mere chance. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to imagine that some old ranchers, often quite familiar with Shakespeare’s plays and comfortable with the rhythms of his language, might have felt on occasion, as they stood alone against a stark night sky as nature swirled around them, a kinship with the tragic heroes whose lives were the distillation of civilization itself, which they had brought west with them. Shakespeare’s power didn’t fade as America moved west. If anything, it increased. Strange as it may seem, we owe our sense of ourselves not just to Houston and Travis, to cowboys and cotton farmers and oilmen, to slaves and Spanish missionaries, but also to a poet and playwright of the London theater four hundred years ago.