New York’s 1849 Astor Place Riot
The natural literary tastes and instincts of democratic peoples will therefore manifest themselves first in theater, and we may anticipate that they will do so in a violent manner. In written works, aristocratic literary canons will be amended little by little, by gradual and so to speak legal means. In the theater, they will be overturned by riot.
— from Democracy in America
by Alexis de Tocqueville Brush up your Shakespeare, And they’ll all kowtow.
— from Kiss Me Kate by Cole Porter I was recently asked by a producer to offer free tickets to middle- and high- school students for a stage production involving Shakespeare. There were no takers. The teachers I approached thanked me, but as one said, “I don’t think our kids are ready for Shakespeare.”
In our time, Shakespeare has taken on the burden of being considered elitist intellectual entertainment. It wasn’t always so. In 19th-century America, the Bard was about as populist as you could get. Traveling troupes of actors toured the hinterlands playing Hamlet and Lear in taverns and barns, on makeshift stages and in muddy fields. Prospectors and trappers recited Shakespeare around campfires, reading from battered volumes carried in their packs or cobbling together heartfelt pastiches from memory.
Most of the companies performing Shakespeare in those early days of the republic, both in the provinces and on the New York stage, were British imports. But in 1826 a strapping twenty-year-old Philadelphian named Edwin Forrest made a splash as Othello at New York’s Bowery Theatre, and an American star was born.
In the 1830s Forrest took on the London stage, where he was well received and befriended by some of the leading lights of British theater. One of these was William Charles Macready, the most prominent Shakespeaarean actor of his day. But their friendship deteriorated in 11845 after a London audiencee hi s s ed Forrest’s performannce of Macbeth. He blblamedd MMacready, and t he following year he notoriously stood up in his box and hissed the British star in an Edinburgh production of Macbeth.
Battle l i nes were drawn. Three years later, Macready came to New York to play the murderous Scot in a production at the posh Astor Place Theatre, a new venue that catered to the elite and enforced a strict dress code requiring “freshly shaven faces, evening dress, fresh waistcoats, and kid gloves.” Forrest took up the gauntlet and set his opening in the same play at the same time at the Broadway Theatre, a few blocks away.
Anglo- American relations were not cordial at that period, especially among New York’s working classes and Ir i sh immigrants. The native-born Forrest was hugely popular with the masses, and the Brit’s appearance at the Astor Place Theatre was greeted as salt in the wounds of a city beset by growing i ncome i nequality and class division. Forrest’s partisans bought up tickets to Macready’s opening night and distributed them among the hoi polloi, who flocked to Astor Place and pelted the stage with rotten vegetables, noxious fluids, and even half of a sheep’s carcass, while the British company gamely soldiered on. Down the street at the Broadway, Forrest as Macbeth thundered the line: “What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug/ Would scour these English hence?” and the packed house went wild.
Macready got the message and booked passage on the next ship sailing for home. But upper-crust New
Yorkers like Washington Irving and Herman Melville persuaded him not to knuckle under to the riffraff. When the news hit the streets that the Englishman was defying popular sentiment and planning to return to the stage, the mood got ugly. Handbills and posters went up around the city. Organizers (among them Ned Buntline, the popular dime novelist) spread out to bars and bawdy houses and baseball fields and social halls in working-class neighborhoods, fanning the flames.
On the night of May 10, 1849, a mob of more than 10,000 people filled Astor Place and the surrounding streets. It was not entirely unexpected, and New York’s chief of police, assessing the situation, recognized that his force, armed only with truncheons, might not be equal to the challenge of crowd control. He appealed to the mayor. The mayor called out the militia.
The mob stormed the theater, which was barricaded by police. Paving stones and bricks rained through the air, shattering windows. Macready slipped out a rear door in disguise and made it safely back to his hotel. The militia opened fire on the crowd. When the smoke cleared, more than 20 people had been killed, some of them curious bystanders. More than 100 more were wounded. It was the bloodiest riot in the history of the city.
The Shakespeare Riot (also known as the Astor Place Riot) had a number of immediate and long-range consequences. One of the former was the arming of the New York City police and of municipal constabularies around the country, as the news spread like wildfire via the newfangled telegraph. When you see images today on your television screen of police rolling through troubled streets of American cities in armored vehicles with enough firepower to defeat the military of a small country, you can trace it back, at least in part, to that May night in 1849 when dueling Macbeths stirred the passions of a city divided by class and privilege.
It also seems to have marked the beginning of the end of Shakespeare as a bedrock of popular entertainment in America. The riot highlighted the alienation already simmering between the classes. Gradually the culture shifted, and Shakespeare drifted reluctantly into the lonely niche of highbrow entertainment he occupies today.
William Macready, 1821; left, Edwin Forrest, circa 1897