- Here In This Island We Arrived: Shakespeare and Belonging in Immigrant New York by Elisabeth H. Kinsley
Here in This Island We Arrived takes readers on a vivid tour of Shakespearean performances in New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as Elisabeth Kinsley closely scrutinizes “documented scenarios in which Anglo-identified people, perspectives, and experiences intersected with non-Anglo [End Page 585] people, perspectives, and experiences via Shakespeare in Progressive Era New York, the entry city for most immigrant groups and the vanguard of American stage culture at this time” (5). By making fresh connections among intersecting categories of Shakespearean performance, publicity, and reception, Kinsley’s study reassesses what it meant to produce, perform, and enjoy Shakespeare in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, and the implications of this material for how we understand key questions of nationality, ethnicity, and race during this period.
Kinsley’s meticulously researched monograph revolves around four bodies of material. Chapter 1 examines the production, marketing, and reception of performances at two reform-minded institutions on the Lower East Side: the Cooper Union People’s Institute and the Educational Alliance. To parse the agenda behind these organizations’ Shakespeare productions, Kinsley undertakes close readings of theatre programs, manifestos, and other public statements about the organizations’ goals, details about the composition of their audiences, and production photos reproduced in official publications. With the latter material, Kinsley demonstrates an eye honed to the subtlest of details, as she unpacks not only what the photos can tell us, but the significance of where they are placed within their publications. She repeats this semiotic analysis at other points in the book, persuasively drawing conclusions from, for example, where an ad appears in a newspaper or where in the landscape of New York City a particular production was produced, and why the location matters.
A central conclusion of the first chapter is that Progressive organizations tended to place more emphasis on the audiences they served than on the artistic choices they made in their productions, and that press coverage of such productions tended to exhibit a similar focus. Reviews of these productions often included condescending remarks about the supposed benightedness of immigrant audiences, which critics assumed to clash with the refinement of Shakespeare, even though they approved of bringing Shakespeare to “the masses.”
One of Kinsley’s central themes, however, is how flexible the concept of “Shakespeare” was, even as so many people invested in these productions saw his plays as fixed and immutable. Progressive-era views of Shakespeare tended to see him as a fixed entity that could aid in the process of Americanizing immigrants—in other words, primarily as cultural capital. But chapter 2 shows a very different side of Shakespeare during this period as produced by German, Italian, and Yiddish theatre companies. Although staged contemporaneously with productions at settlement houses and in the same neighborhoods, the goals and outlook of these immigrant-led productions were radically different. Immigrant directors saw Shakespeare as a source of everyday culture rather than of cultural capital. Where Progressive educators directing productions focused on the audiences they intended to reach and the impact they meant to have, immigrant companies emphasized the artistic qualities of the productions, which represented “a form of community building rather than nation making” (61). Once again in this section, the author mines a wide range of sources, including highly sensitive analyses of theatre posters and a virtuosic reading of the piano score to Jacob Gordin’s 1892 Yiddish drama The Jewish King Lear. Here, Kinsley scrutinizes every detail of the sheet music, including its illustrations, bilingual text, price, and the music itself, to show how it “addressed and appealed to multiple audiences who otherwise might not have gravitated toward the same forms of cultural expression” (78).
Chapter 3 goes “Slumming with Shakespeare,” as Kinsley follows high-minded theatre critics like Hutchins and Norman Hapgood, Alan Dale, William Winter, and Charles Corbin “downtown” to immigrant and African American treatments of Shakespeare. By laying...