Southern Cultures 7.4 (2001) 32-63
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Hamlet Rides among the Seminoles
Robin O. Warren
In 1835 Halley's Comet entered into view from earth, as it does every seventy-six years or so, or about once in the lifetime of most men and women. For Europeans, the comet's appearance confirmed the rational, mechanistic order of the universe. Edmund Halley had first charted its broad orbit around the sun in
1682. After searching archives and consulting his friend Isaac Newton's theories, Halley concluded that the comet had visited the earth's skies regularly as far back as 87 BC and would next appear in 1758 or 1759. It did, on Christmas Day of the former year. When the comet circled back toward earth in the summer of 1835, Halley's calculations were confirmed again.
In Florida, the Seminole Indians also observed the comet that summer, but to them it spoke not of Newton's grand cosmic order, but of chaos and disorder soon to come. To the Seminoles, Halley's Comet was a portent in an animate universe governed by the sun, the Great Spirit, and Earth the Mother and inhabited by both themselves and the spirits of their ancestors. The Seminoles' predictive model worked as well as Halley's that summer, unfortunately. Before the year was out, disorder arrived in the company of bloodshed and hunger, and in the war that came the Seminoles lost their homes and were exiled to Indian Territory, where Oklahoma is today. By 1842 only a few hundred Native Americans remained in Florida, taking refuge in the state's most inhospitable land--the endless swamps and glades of south Florida, which they called Pa-hay-okee, or the Grassy Water. 1
The Seminoles' fight for survival, known as the Second Seminole War, sometimes raged and sometimes smoldered between 1835 and 1842. Into the midst of this war rode William C. Forbes, the proprietor of a Savannah theater, and his company of actors. They arrived in St. Augustine in May of 1840 for a brief, two-week season, but before they had been in Florida for more than a full day, real-life Indians ambushed the play actors, killing two of their number and sacking props and costumes. The story of Forbes's trip touches on the theater, which was at its zenith in nineteenth-century America; on William Shakespeare's plays, which ruled the theater at that time; and on those costumes and props that the Seminoles plundered from Forbes's trunk that day in May. In the coming months, the Seminoles would don those costumes at one of the crucial moments in their history. To the American soldiers who witnessed them, the costumes were just that--costumes, though out of place. To the Seminoles, they were spoils of war, and they probably appealed to their aesthetic sense of clothing. Ultimately, the stolen costumes took on a larger significance that drew from Shakespeare's characters, nineteenth-century Americans' understanding of Shakespeare, and the Seminoles' own plight. Then as now the cosmos, tactile and real as it is, from the frozen dust of Halley's comet to the rags on the Seminoles' backs, was subject to a tangle of interpretations. [End Page 32]
Setting the Stage
When William Forbes arrived in Florida, he was already enjoying a steady, though hardly lucrative, theatrical career. In 1832 he began acting in Kentucky under the direction of the actor and manager Noah Ludlow. The next year Forbes went to New York and performed at the Bowery Theater. By 1835 he had become a leading tragedian with the Park Theater Company and had toured theaters in Boston, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. In 1836 Forbes struck out on his own. Recruiting a company of actors, he headed south to tour. Within two years he had made his home in Savannah, managing a theater there and another in nearby Augusta. 2
Forbes soon learned, however, that neither Savannah nor Augusta was big enough to support an acting company. In addition, the Panic of 1837 left much of the South short of...