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Shakespeare & Beyond

America's Shakespeare: The Bard goes west to California’s Gold Rush mining camps

Hamlet Wagon
Hamlet Wagon

Theater was explosively popular in California’s Gold Rush era, and miners couldn’t get enough of Shakespeare. San Francisco and Sacramento had major theaters that were repeatedly burning down and being rebuilt almost immediately. Even the small gold-mining towns had stages or some kind of performance space. Actors followed the money, first to California, then traveling from camp to camp to perform.

Hamlet Wagon

Hamlet wagon pulling into Sonora, late 19th century. Tuolumne County Historical Society. Exhibited in America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West.

“The gold miners themselves were strikingly knowledgeable about Shakespeare,” says Stephen Dickey, who curated America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West, on exhibit at the Los Angeles Public Library through Feb 26, 2017.

It wasn’t unheard of for miners to correct actors’ lines, and an audience wouldn’t hesitate to ask an actor to perform a particular speech again if they really liked it.

Shakespeare performances didn’t always mean full-length productions though. If you look at broadsides from the period that show a full evening’s entertainment, “Shakespeare will be there, but he’ll often be there in a fragmentary state,” says Dickey. There would be a speech from one play, and then one from another. Or there would be parody and blackface versions of Shakespeare, mixed in with other entertainments.

In research conducted as part of a Works Progress Administration project, a census of the Shakespeare plays performed in San Francisco from 1850-1860 revealed a wide variety of shows onstage. Richard III and Hamlet were the most popular plays in the West at this time, according to Dickey, followed by Othello, Macbeth, Henry V, and Romeo and Juliet.


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