Lorenz Hart (1895–1943) & Morrie Ryskind (1895–1985)
From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now
This week we celebrate the 458th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. We don’t know for sure exactly when he was born, but we do know he was baptized in 1564 on April 26, and that’s often the date the occasion is commemorated.
“Shakespeare’s afterlife as the greatest playwright who ever lived is now as much an American as a British phenomenon, and integral to the crazy fabric of life in the U.S.,” writes Robert McCrum, a British author who was for many years the literary editor of the London Observer. It has been that way for two centuries. “There is hardly a pioneer hut in which the odd volume of Shakespeare cannot be found,” Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s after his visit to America. The 1849 Astor Place Riot, in which as many as thirty people were killed, was caused by competing productions of Macbeth, pitting the devotees of British actor William John Macready against the working-class fans of American actor Edwin Forrest. And then there was vaudeville, which used Shakespeare both to ward off charges of immorality and to inspire some of the more popular burlesques of the era. What is remarkable, however, is that the vaudeville acts, silly as they often were, worked so well only because their “low-brow” audiences knew their Shakespeare.
One hundred years ago, in 1922, the comedian-singer Georgie Price, who had been a well-known child star in variety shows a decade earlier, found himself in the middle of a contractual dispute with the Shubert brothers, who initially planned to replace Al Jolson with Price but then changed their minds. During the height of this forced rivalry between two talents, Price needed a new routine for a vaudeville show in Brooklyn and he hired Lorenz Hart (later half of the songwriting team Rodgers & Hart) and Morrie Ryskind (later writer of several Marx Brothers screenplays) to write a one-man skit. The pair came up with a program in which Price would imitate Al Jolson playing five different Shakespearean characters, making fun of both Jolson and Shakespeare in the process.
We present that routine, “Shakespeares of 1922,” as our Story of the Week selection, along with an introduction that describes Georgie Price’s meteoric rise as a nine-year-old vaudevillian.