Xavier University professor talks Shakespeare in N.O.
One need only recall the 2016 Carnival season to recognize the influence that William Shakespeare has had on New Orleans, said Dr. Oliver Hennessey, associate professor of English specializing in Shakespeare at Xavier University of Louisiana at “All the World’s a Stage: Shakespeare on the Stages and Streets of New Orleans” May 18 at the Historic New Orleans Collection.
The lecture coincided with the museum’s exhibit (through June 4) to promote the national traveling exhibit “The First Folio! The Book that Gave us Shakespeare,” held in May at Tulane University’s Newcomb Gallery commemorating the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death.
“The history of Shakespeare in New Orleans is unique,” Hennessey said. “New Orleans‘ Shakespeare history in the 19th century offers us a window in the emergence of the city’s Anglo elites, and a sense of the play of high and low culture which New Orleanians still perform.”
Hennessey showed the popularity and impact of the English bard’s works in New Orleans first on stage and then in Carnival parades in the 19th century through photos, including this year’s Comus parade and an 1898 Comus tableau (highlighted in the THNOC exhibit).
Calling himself a Shakespearean and amateur historian, Hennessey drew heavily from published works by historians Nell Smither, “A History of English Theatre in New Orleans (1944)”; Joseph Roppolo’s 1950 dissertation “Shakespeare in New Orleans, 1817–1865”; and Dr. Richard Rambuss of Brown University’s work on Carnival, especially the Krewe of Comus.
N.O. becomes American
He said New Orleans’ shift from a mostly French-influenced city to one more Americanized with English-speaking residents coincided with Shakespeare’s popularity on the local stage. Shakespeare’s plays performed a dual role – entertainment and rituals – giving “a cultural authenticity on Anglo New Orleanians,” he said.
“References to Shakespeare’s work are some of the most visible evidence of English traditions finding their way into the largely French tradition of Mardi Gras,” he said. “Tracking them sheds light on the perpetual mixing of cultures that takes place in the most visible spectacle New Orleans has to offer (Carnival).”
“Shakespeare was big business in New Orleans,” in the 19th century through the Civil War, Hennessey said, attracting packed English-speaking audiences from all cultures, including free people of color, “who cared less about ideas or culture and more about people, characters, actors and oratory.”
An emphasis on melodrama, oratory and violence propelled Richard III and Macbeth as the most popular Shakespeare in New Orleans, he said. Between 1845-61, 550 Shakespeare performances were held – Macbeth was staged 73 times; Richard III 61; Hamlet 48; Romeo and Juliet 46; and Othello 43.
It was only natural that Shakespeare crept his way from stage to Carnival, he said.
“But both on the stage and in the streets, New Orleans’ Shakespeare was structurally and thematically about the creative tension between order and disorder,” Hennessey said. “It’s one of the driving narratives of New Orleans history.”
During the 20th century, Shakespeare was Carnival’s favorite subject – used by all classes in their “imaginary kingdoms” and continues today.
“Shakespeare signifies both high and low culture,” he repeated, “and, due to the elasticity of his works, the range of potential themes and puns is endless.”
“Shakespeare can be used to speak to the concerns of the moment, but can also stand for a timeless order. In his plays, even the most subversive and Carnivalesque characters can conform ultimately to order imposed from the top down.”
While Carnival krewes had featured Shakespeare characters on floats since the mid-1800s, the 1898 Mistick Krewe of Comus’ 22-float parade was the first with a Shakespeare theme, “Scenes from Shakespeare.” Others followed suit.
After Hurricane Katrina, Carnival itself stood for the restoration of order, he said. An irreverent rendering of “Much Ado About Nothing” in the 2016 Krewe of Hermes’ themed parade of Shakespeare’s “Tempest” illustrates this.
Hennessey also explored “Othello,” mentioning that it and Henry IV were the first Shakespearean plays performed in New Orleans in 1817. He suggested that “Othello” was the most New Orleanian of Shakespeare’s plays. With a story involving an interracial marriage, he said it was a peculiar choice to perform for New Orleans audiences since slavery existed and the African-American populace was then almost double that of whites.
But, he said no other American city has such a complex history of racial intermingling between Creoles, Native Americans, Anglo-Americans, Caribbeans, Europeans and Africans as New Orleans. Local audiences did not confuse tragic performances with real life.
“Southern audiences understood the roles as a mask” just as the city’s racism was masked, he said. So, Othello on the stage here (mostly by a white actor in black face makeup common in the 1860s and ‘70s) played for the ‘slaveocracy’ slaves and free people of color alike “must have made a kind of sense.”
He concluded by saying that there is no singular truth in Shakespeare’s works. “Each audience, each society, each generation finds itself reflected. Shakespeare is always reinvented, retold. That’s the story of the past 400 years on both sides of the ocean. We went to Shakespeare and found ourselves there.”