Today is the 152nd anniversary of the Astor Place Riots.
25 people were killed, and over 120 were injured…over a theatre dispute!
And we think we’re shallow now.
Times were tough for Anglo-American relations in 1840. The British were the frenemy of the Americans, and nothing said it better than a theatre star rivalry.
In the 19th Century, theaters were the main gathering places in most towns and cities. There were no malls, football hadn’t been invented, and church attendance was down.
The riot was the culmination of eighty or more years – you know, the Stamp Act, The American Revolution, Yorktown. An entire theater was torn apart in 1765, while British actors were performing on stage. When British actors were touring around America they found themselves, because of their prominence and the lack of other visiting targets, the focus of often violent anti-British anger.
The genesis of the riot was a tift between Edwin Forrest, American’s best known actor and William Charles Macready, a famous English thespian. The big beef was which of the two was the better Shakesperean actor.
They at one time had a great friendship, but it became a rivalry, a pretty heated one at that. There was growing sense of cultural alienation from the British among working-class Americans. The Irish immigrants hated the British for a plethora of reasons. The “Americans” hated the Irish Immigrants, but the common enemy of the British brought them together.
So, there was a class struggle. The lower class Americans and the Irish Immigrants supported Forrest, and the UPper Class Americans, Macready.
The two gentlemen had each toured both America and England, twice. When Macready came to the US the second time, Forrest started following him around the country, putting on the same play in the same town.
The press, which was anti-British, supported Forrest. Forrest attended a performance of Macready’s and “hissed him loudly”.
Bon Qui Qui would say, “Rude!”
Macready said that Forrest was “…without taste!” And someone threw a half-dead sheep on the stage during Macready’s performance.
These folks were serious!
The Astor Place Opera House was built for the UPper crust, you know, kid gloves, white tie, white vests, all that crap. But, since it could not sUPport a full season of Opera…imagine that…the management, to make ends meet, booked plays. Well, of course Macready was to appear there in Macbeth.
Down the street at the Broadway Theater, Forrest was putting on the same show.
On May 7, 1849, three nights before the riot, Forrest’s supporters bought hundreds of tickets to the top level of the Astor Opera House, and brought Macready’s performance of Macbeth to a grinding halt by throwing rotten eggs, potatoes, apples, lemons, shoes, bottles of stinking liquid and ripped UP seats the stage.
Ripped UP seats!!
The actors kept plugging along in the face of hissing, groans and cries of “Shame, shame!” and “Down with the codfish aristocracy!”, but were forced to perform in pantomime, since they could not make themselves heard over the crowd.
Meanwhile, down the street, at Forrest’s May 7 performance, the audience rose and cheered when Forrest spoke Macbeth’s line “What rhubarb, senna or what purgative drug will scour these English hence?”
After his disastrous performance, Macready announced his intention to leave for Britain on the next boat, but he was persuaded to stay and perform again by a petition signed by 47 well-heeled New Yorkers – which included the authors Herman Melville and Washington Irving – both informed the actor that “the good sense and respect for order prevailing in this community will sustain you on the subsequent nights of your performance.”
Dude, we’re talkin’ about New York!
On May 10, Macready once again took the stage as Macbeth.
Fearing the worst, since there weren’t enough police to quell a riot, Hizzonor, the Mayor, called UP the militia. By the time the curtain went UP, around 7:30, there were 10,000 people in the streets. Some were bearing signs that asked the question, “Shall the American or the English rule this city?”.
Please bear in mind we are still talking about actors.
Then the shit hit the fan.
The New York Tribune reported that “As one window after another cracked, the pieces of bricks and paving stones rattled in on the terraces and lobbies, the confusion increased till the Opera House resembled a fortress besieged by an invading army rather than a place meant for the peaceful amusement of civilized community.”
As a result of the riot, 25 rioters were killed and 48 were wounded, and 50-70 policeman were injured.
Trials were held, people were convicted, sentences handed down, and the city’s elite were unanimous in their praise of the authorities for taking a hard-line against the rioters.
So, the next time a fight breaks out at a football, basketball, baseball, or soccer game, don’t get so pissy, it’s an American tradition.
Now, all you Clooney fans to the left, and DiCapprio’s to the right…we need to keep it orderly here!