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Acting in the Night

Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War

Alexander Nemerov

Publication Year: 2010

What can the performance of a single play on one specific night tell us about the world this event inhabited so briefly? Alexander Nemerov takes a performance of Macbeth in Washington, DC on October 17, 1863—with Abraham Lincoln in attendance—to explore this question and illuminate American art, politics, technology, and life as it was being lived. Nemerov’s inspiration is Wallace Stevens and his poem "Anecdote of the Jar," in which a single object organizes the wilderness around it in the consciousness of the poet. For Nemerov, that evening’s performance of Macbeth reached across the tragedy of civil war to acknowledge the horrors and emptiness of a world it tried and ultimately failed to change.

Published by: University of California Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, About the Series, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-vii


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pp. xi-xi

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Introduction: A Drop That Dyes the Seas

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pp. 1-6

This book grew out of my wish to study a single night’s performance of Macbeth from sometime in the mid-nineteenth century in some American city.My plan was to understand events of that day in that place by the light, or darkness, thrown by the play, and I hoped newspapers, letters, and diaries would help me along. I wanted to see how a performance of the play ...

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1. A Stone’s Throw: Charlotte Cushman

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pp. 7-58

Charlotte Cushman arrived in Washington, D.C., on the evening of Friday,October 9, 1863, to play Lady Macbeth later that month. She had returned to the United States earlier that year from Rome, where she lived, to deliver a series of benefit performances of Macbeth to aid the United States Sanitary Commission. A fiercely pro-Union native of Massachusetts, ...

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2. The Flame of Place: Abraham Lincoln

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pp. 59-93

Abraham Lincoln had a power of being in one place only. He believed in a here and now of experience, a form of presence. In such moments he would gather and crush down his sight into single places and single visions of extraordinary and lonely intensity—melancholic, ecstatic, or both.How was this sense of presence manifest as the president sat at Grover’s Theatre ...

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3. The Glass Case: Interior Life in Washington, D.C.

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pp. 94-136

Did the performance of the play relate to other happenings in Washington that day? The readiest answer is no. Attending a play by the 1860s was an increasingly private experience, a ceremonial occasion when spectators were cut off from one another, left to lose themselves in their dreams and meditations about what they saw, and largely cut off from the world ...

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4. Acoustic Shadows: The Battle of Bristoe Station

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pp. 137-160

On Saturday, October 17, 1863, Owner was thinking about a much nearer location, a few miles across the Potomac. “On Thursday there was considerable skirmishing ‘all along’ the front of the army which occupies in part the Old Bull Run battlefield and accounts state that the enemy are moving a force on Leesburg. The army all night were in line of battle anticipating ...

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5. Center of Echoes: Castle Murray, Fauquier County, Virginia

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pp. 161-179

Within a few miles of bristoe station is Castle Murray, a Medieval Revival home designed and built for Dr. James Murray in 1857–58. Gouverneur Kemble Warren used Murray’s home as his headquarters on the night of October 13–14, 1863. At 2:00 a.m. on the fourteenth a messenger rode up to the castle with Warren’s orders from General George Meade, ...

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6. Ghosts: The Death of Colonel Thomas Ruffin, October 17, 1863

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pp. 180-199

Across the Potomac, in Alexandria, Virginia, the Confederate colonel Thomas Ru‹n died the night Macbeth was performed. Wounded in a skirmish at Auburn, Virginia, near Castle Murray, early in the morning of October 14—at the start of the fighting that ended later that day at Bristoe Station—Ru‹n had been taken to Alexandria as a prisoner of war and ...

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7. Sound and Fury: Nature in Virginia

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pp. 200-226

The play that night sent its signals into nature. As much as it hoped to affect the world around it—the city of Washington, the buildings and battlefields of Virginia—the play tried also, strange as that might seem, to imprint itself on the very leaves and streams of the natural world. To consider how it did this, and failed to do this, is to think of the work of art in ...

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pp. 227-228

So many people have helped my research on this book. In Washington, I thank Yvonne Carignan and her staª at the Kiplinger Research Library; DanMattausch, independent scholar;DonnMurphy, of theNational Theatre; Mari Nakahara, of the American Architectural Foundation; Richard Stamm, of the Smithsonian Institution; DavidWard, of the National ...


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pp. 229-265


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pp. 267-283


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pp. 285-287


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pp. 289-299

Production Notes

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pp. 300-300

E-ISBN-13: 9780520947443
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520251861

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 703138057
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Acting in the Night

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Theater and the war.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Social aspects
  • Theater and society -- Washington (D.C.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Theater -- Washington (D.C.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Macbeth.
  • Shakespeare, William, -- 1564-1616 -- Stage history -- United States.
  • Washington (D.C.) -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Social aspects.
  • Virginia -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Social aspects.
  • Washington (D.C.) -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Virginia -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
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