Shakespeare. The name conjures images of mustachioed men in poofy pants professing undying love to women in ridiculously impractical skirts. Most people, in America at least, are only familiar with the Bard’s work after having slogged through it for their high school English classes. Today, his works have a reputation (among the public if not academics) for being something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
This was not so during the 19th century, when attending operas or plays was as common as going to a movie theater today. Shakespeare’s works were enjoyed by rich and poor alike. A well known actor would have been as beloved then as a cinematic super star today. Two such 19th century superstars were the famous actors William Macready, a Brit, and Edwin Forrest, an American. Their rivalry, and the struggle between rich and poor it came to represent, would spark a bloody riot at the Astor Opera house on May 10, 1849 that would leave 22 people dead and over a hundred injured.
Rival actors, simmering tensions
While riots can seem to be spontaneous outpourings of aggression, such as the Straw Hat riots of 1922, but usually the anger is based in far deeper tensions than the immediate reason for the riot. Sometimes all it takes is a small spark, like a shortage of a hot product, to bring out the ugliness lurking beneath the surface. The rivalry between Macready and Forrest was merely a representation of a long standing conflict within New York City between the rich and poor.
Their rivalry didn’t initially take classist overtones. It began innocently enough years before the riot. Macready went on an American tour and Forrest followed not far behind (whether by coincidence or design is unclear), performing the same roles. The gimmick of an actors rivalry was good for both men as ticket sales spiked. Forrest did quite well when he toured Macready’s homeland of England the first time, but a second tour in the 1840s didn’t fare quite as well. Forrest accused his rival of sabotage and showed up at one of Macready’s plays to boo and hiss at him.
The rivalry had mostly been a gimmick to that point, but the incident in England turned things ugly. It didn’t get much better when Macready returned to America and Forrest once again followed him. The rival actors became figureheads of the classist rivalry in New York, and America as a whole. Wealthy members of the upper class favored the refined British gentleman, Macready, while lower classes favored their fellow American, Forrest. It didn’t help that Macready tended to do his plays at posh establishments like the Astor Opera House, whose ticket prices and dress code put it far out of reach for the average American.
This didn’t sit well with many New Yorkers. On March 7, 1849, Macready was scheduled to perform “Macbeth” at the Astor Opera House when a group of working class New Yorkers filed into the place. Macready walked on stage only to be greeted by booing and hissing. Other ruffians chucked eggs at the gentleman actor. The uproar forced management to cancel the night’s event. Macready, understandably angered, threatened to leave America the next day, but was persuaded by rich patrons to stay. The performance was rescheduled for May 10. To keep the peace, city government posted a militia company nearby in Washington Square Park. Clearly expecting trouble, the night of the play city officials had the opera house board up its windows and policemen were posted outside.
A bloody end
They were right to expect trouble. That night, an ugly crowd from the rough end of town gathered outside the theater. Someone had printed up pamphlets denouncing Macready and his fans as British subjects who were trying to impose British values on Americans. This especially incensed Irish immigrants, who had no love of the British. Macready took the stage while outside the violence started. Rioters tried to storm the theater, only to be beaten back by club-wielding police. The rioters surged back into the melee, and the violence started to swirl out of control. Finally, the belegured police called a company of militia to help them silence the crowd. Rioters pelted the soldiers with rocks as they approached. Nervous officers, fearing they were about the be overrun by the crowd, ordered their men to fire. Within seconds, tweny-two people lay dead and hundreds more were injured.
The bloodshed shocked New York and America as a whole. In part this was because the news spread more quickly than in the past via the newly built network of telegraph wires. For the first time, Americans could get news from far off places almost in real time. For his part, Macready managed to sneak out of the back of the theater in the wake of the killing and make his way to his hotel. Some feared a mob would attack the hotel and kill the cowed gentleman, but that threat never materialized. Within a few days the actor made it to Boston and relative safety.
New York remained in a state of shock and fear after the shootings. Another ugly crowd gathered the next day, intent on marching to the theater to take revenge. But city officials were ready and the crowd was stopped by armed police. For a time at least, peace was restored to the streets of New York.
McNamara, Robert. “The Astor Place Riot.” History1800s.about.com. About.com. June 6, 2014. http://history1800s.about.com/od/crimesanddisasters/ss/Astor-Place-Riot.htm
“Remembering New York city’s Opera Riots.” npr.org. May 13, 2006. NPR. June 6, 2014. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5402902