By Monika Smialkowska
The United States of America maintained neutrality in the First World War for nearly 3 years, from the conflict’s outbreak on 28th July 1914 until 6th April 1917. However, this position was debated on both sides of the Atlantic, especially after the sinking of the British liner Lusitania, with 128 American passengers on board, by a German U-boat in 1915. Interestingly, both anti-war and pro-war campaigners enlisted a somewhat unlikely ally to help them make their case: one William Shakespeare. Shakespearean texts and adaptations (sometimes the same ones) were used during WWI for both pacifist and militaristic purposes, depending on the precise historical moment and political climate.
A particularly striking case in point is Percy MacKaye’s Caliban by the Yellow Sands, based very loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It was a mammoth outdoors show (involving over 1500 performers and seen by tens of thousands of spectators), written for the American celebrations of the three-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1916. It was first staged at New York Lewisohn Stadium between 24th May and 5th June 1916. It was so well liked that the second production was mounted at Boston Harvard Stadium a year later, between 2nd and 21st July 1917. Both renderings had roughly the same plot and structure, charting Prospero, Miranda, and Ariel’s efforts to civilise Caliban and turn him away from his initial brutish violence towards self-control and enlightenment. This plot was distinctly pacifist, casting War as one of the villains who had to be defeated in order for Caliban to progress in his development. However, the circumstances of the two performances differed dramatically: during the New York run, the US was still maintaining its neutrality in the First World War, while the Boston show occurred shortly after the country joined the conflict on 6th April 1917. Because of these changed circumstances, the Boston production became something very different from the earlier version of the show.
The New York production of Caliban was clearly intended to promote peace and harmony. In the preface to the printed text of the show, the author lamented the fact that in Europe the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was greeted by ‘the choral hymns of cannon’ and singled out the neutral US as the only place where his memory could be suitably honoured, creating ‘new splendid symbols for peace through harmonious international expression.’ Local newspapers commented that New Yorkers of different ethnic origins – among them English, French, and German – co-operated in the performance, united in their love of Shakespeare and community spirit. The purpose of the show was non-partisan, and any potential income was to go towards cultural aims: the erection of Shakespeare’s statue and the Actors’ Fund of America (see New York Sun, 17 Sept. 1915).
By the time of the Boston performance, things changed dramatically. It was decided that the proceeds of this show would go to war-related (though partly humanitarian) causes: the American Red Cross and the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Harvard. Moreover, participation in the production was now advertised in patriotic terms, as a ‘display of loyal helpfulness’, ‘aiding the State and the nation,’ and ‘doing [your] bit for Uncle Sam’ (Boston Post, 8th April 1917). Some newspapers went even further, inviting their readers to ‘See “Caliban” and Aid U. S. in the War’ (Boston American, 1st July 1917), and calling the show ‘a Bumper Patriotic Pleasure’ (Boston Daily Globe, 4th July 1917).
Besides this kind of newspaper coverage, the Boston show acquired extra features which made it not only patriotic, but distinctly pro-war. While the plot of the main performance remained the same as the year befor
e, the organisers introduced somewhat unexpected pre- and post-performance additions. They invited military units, naval officers and war veterans to make public appearances and to march around the stadium to the sound of an army band. Patriotic speeches were made, military drills performed, flags waved, and ‘Star Spangled Banner’ sung. Moreover, the shows were now used explicitly to promote recruitment to the armed forces and to emphasise solidarity among the Allied powers. On 12th July, the special guests were ‘the British officers in charge of the recruiting of British subjects in Boston’ (Boston Daily Globe, 12th July 1917), and the performance on 14th July, attended by the representatives of the British, French, and American armies, was described as ‘Truly a big brilliant Allied night’ (Boston Daily Globe, 14th July 1917).
In the space of a year, Caliban was thus transformed from a celebration of peace, harmony, and neutrality, into an expression of aggressive patriotism and militarism. The show’s focus shifted from US domestic policy (using theatrical art to unify disparate immigrant groups in early twentieth-century New York) to intervening in the global arena and forging alliances with Britain and France. And Shakespeare proved flexible enough to be used for both purposes.
The 1915-17 newspaper articles quoted here are available as cuttings in Caliban scrapbooks in the ‘Papers of MacKaye Family’ collection at the Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College. Sincere thanks to Dartmouth College Library for their courtesy in allowing me to use these materials.
Image 1: the cover of the New York Caliban programme; image 2: the Boston Caliban poster. Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library.
For a more detailed discussion of the topic, see Monika Smialkowska, ‘Conscripting Caliban: Shakespeare, America, and the Great War’, Shakespeare, 7:2 (2011), 192-207
 Percy MacKaye, Caliban by the Yellow Sands (Garden City and New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1916), p. xiii.