Du­el­ing Mac­beths

New York’s 1849 As­tor Place Riot

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

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

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