What is it with the European fascination with unearthing resting corpses? One might think King Tut’s Curse, or at least Raiders of the Lost Ark, might have cured them of their necrophilia. But continentals, who increasingly disbelieve in the souls of the dead, increasingly retrieve the bodies of the dead for the land of the living.
The latest victim of a rude awakening from eternal slumber is Richard III, if you can believe the scientists’ global PR machine. The hunched cadaver found beneath a parking lot in Leicester exhibits signs of a violent death. Richard, of course, remains the last English king killed in battle. And some guy in Canada, who a few years ago discovered that blood shed on Bosworth Field may now flow through his veins, shares DNA with the dead man.
American anthropologists, though our folkways are a relatively recent creation, could reveal an even more startling historical curiosity if they cared to look. Though Shakespeare hated Richard III, Americans once loved him — at least the theatrical presentation of him. Nineteenth-century America was a Shakespeare-crazed country that seized upon Richard III as the Shakespeare to go the craziest about. Americans once made Richard III — not Hamlet, As You Like It, or Romeo and Juliet — their favorite Shakespeare production.
Pop culture connoisseurs now celebrate the slut, the gangster, the addict. Were our pop-culture forbears even more susceptible to the glamour of evil?
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.
Americans didn’t come to celebrate. They came to hate, and the poor actor who uttered those villainous lines invariably became the means of their public catharsis.
In Highbrow/Lowbrow, Lawrence Levine detailed how our high culture once served as our ancestors’ pop culture. Rather than artistic content, audience conduct determined the popularity of performances. If the audience could behave as though at a monster-truck rally while at the symphony, to the symphony the audience did go.
When Richard gratuitously stabbed the fallen Henry in an 1856 performance, the Sacramento audience pelted him with cabbages, carrots, and even a dead goose. A bag of soot rained on the actors. Everything remained calm until Richard lecherously preyed upon Lady Anne, widow of the slain heir, Edward. Hecklers, intent on revising Shakespeare’s play to include a courtship more pleasing to them, loudly petitioned Anne to kill Richard. Theater-goers then unleashed firecrackers and a cornucopia of edibles upon the stage. A contemporaneous account noted that “a well directed pumpkin caused [the lead] to stagger, and with still truer aim, a potato relieved him of his cap, which was left upon the field of glory, among the cabbages.”
Even Englishman Edmund Kean, regarded as the greatest actor of his day, became a moving target in the eyes of his audience. Playing Richard on the stage, and Romeo to other men’s wives off it, Kean incited Bostonians in 1825. “A barrage of nuts, foodstuffs, and bottles of odorous drugs drove him weeping from the stage and the theater,” Levine relays, “after which the anti-Keanites in the pit and gallery turned on his supporters in the boxes and did grievous damage to the theater.” After receiving similar treatment in Baltimore, Kean stayed keen on staying out of the United States.
But Americans returned to the theater, at least until stiff and silent replaced brash and boisterous as spectator protocol. Then they lined up in the queue beneath the marquee at Andre the Giant wrestling matches, Andrew WK concerts, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, events where the audience becomes part of the show.
Playwrights exhibit similar wishes for their work — for their plays to replace the past and for literature to subsume history. Ricardians insist that no evidence links Richard to the murder of the two cute child princes, and point out that Richard was just two-years-old when the Duke of Somerset, one of his victims in Richard III, died. Richard may not have murdered all those people. Shakespeare certainly murdered Richard’s reputation.
There are worse fates than being entombed beneath an English car park. Unsuccessfully dodging rotten eggs and fresh tomatoes, and getting hacked to death on the battlefield, come to mind.
If the bones of Richard III could talk, he might tell you that watching your character become a caricature from the silent beyond surely ranks as a fate worse than death — or getting plunked with a potato.