On three consecutive nights, in May 1849, violence and destruction took place in and immediately around the Opera House theatre, in the Astor Place section of New York City. Twenty-four or more people killed and hundreds injured, 150 seriously, reported the newspapers. Allegedly, a performance by British actor, William Charles Macready, who was appearing in Macbeth at the Opera House, also known as the Astor Place Theatre, triggered the collective action.
Macready wasn't just an actor; he was a symbol. He had developed, some said engineered, an intense, impassioned feud with Edwin Forrest, the best-known Shakespearean actor in the USA, at the time. Macready and Forrest used the media, that is, newspapers and magazines, to make or answer accusations and play out their jealous tantrums. It was no surprise they attracted fervent followers and partisans to their cause.
Each actor hired shills. These men and women applauded and cheered, wildly, while their employer performance. They also disrupted the performances of the other actor.
Restraint and, to some extent, reserve characterised supporters of Macready. Supporters of Forrest aggressively heckled and booed Macready, often throwing rotten eggs, fruit and vegetables at him. In Cincinnati, when Macready performed in Hamlet, someone threw the carcass of a sheep on to the stage midway through the second act.
In the late 1840s, an artistic revolution was underway in the USA. The audience for art and culture was becoming less elitist and upper-middle class, more democratic and working class. Art and culture were reaching a general audience, which was beginning to exert some influence on content and presentation. This was especially true of theatre performances and audiences.
The split between fans of Macready and Forrest reflected the beginnings of a popular culture in the USA. This was most obvious in the shifting qualities and interests of American audiences for art and culture. Those who favoured Macready or Forrest reflected the basic beliefs, interests, opinions and attitudes of the emerging audiences for art and culture in the USA.
Supporters of Macready usually had more education. They comprised the upper-middle class elite. They enjoyed anything British. They wanted all that they saw as refined, genteel and cultured; that is, British.
Working class, nationalistic Americans supported Forrest. They believed everything British was contemptuous. They condemned what they saw as snobbish or elitist.
The style of each actor also reflected social class differences. The acting style of Macready was scholarly, intellectual, cerebral and faithful to Shakespeare. The acting style of Forrest was intuitive, untrained, athletic, physical and melodramatic.
In a newspaper interview, Macready referred to Forrest as a “thick-headed, thick-legged brute.” His voice was as Niagara Falls, an endless droning dull-roar. His thighs, said Macready, were “carved out of the American forest.” He looked to nature, not books, for his inspiration. To fans of Forrest, the description personified everything they valued and believed to be distinctively American.
At one performance, a relentless barrage of rotten produce forced Macready from the stage. He vowed never again to perform in the USA. A letter to New York “Herald,” signed by many of the most powerful business, legal and intellectual figures of the day, urged Macready to accept the role. Supporters of Macready presented the mayor of New York City with a petition asking approval of the performance.
At the same, the American Committee spread a leaflet asking readers to consider the following question, “Workingmen – Shall Americans or English rule?” The leaflet claimed some English people “threatened all Americans who shall dare to express their opinion this night at the English aristocratic opera house.” The Committee clearly stated it did not support violence, only “free expression of opinion to all public men! Workingmen! Freeman! Stand by your lawful rights!” A tense, electric atmosphere prevailed.
The mayor of New York City approved the Macready appearance, despite strenuous objections from the governor and state militia leaders. To stay on the safe side, the mayor mobilized 350 police officers and soldiers. One hundred and fifty officers took up positions inside the Astor Place Theatre. A phalanx of officers also watched outside the theatre, near the hotel where Macready lived. Still other guarded the homes of prominent New Yorkers who supported the performance. In total, more than 350 police officers were on special duty that night.
At 6 pm, the New York City Police took possession of the Astor Place Theatre. All ticket holders, said the authorities, could enter the theatre. The doors closed before many ticket holders could enter the theatre. About 200 ticket-holders milled outside the theatre, unable to enter. They waved their tickets in the air, loudly objecting to their exclusion.
About a thousand people joined the excluded ticket-holders in front of the theatre. They, too, claimed to have tickets and insisted their exclusion was because they weren’t part of the gentry. When the performance began, on time at 7:30 pm, the theatre was “by no means full.”
There was a zero tolerance policy, strictly enforced. At even the hint of unruliness, the police carted-off the alleged perpetrators to a holding pen in the basement of the Astor Place Theatre. The pen filled quickly filled and soon overflowed.
By 8:00 pm, a crowd estimated at several thousand had amassed in front of the theatre. Somebody began throwing rocks, and there were tries to break down the front door. At 8:45 pm, troop reinforcements arrived at the theatre. This further inflamed the crowd, which began taunting the soldiers to open fire.
Two or three hundred young, jittery soldiers faced a crowd that now exceeded 10,000 enraged citizens. First, the soldiers fired over the heads of the crowd members. Soon, the need for more severe tactics was obvious, the soldiers fire directly into the crowd. The crowd scattered, leaving at least eighteen men, the riot, reportedly, involved few women, dead or dying in the street.
More riots occurred the next two nights, leading more injuries and two deaths. An arrest blotter from a single precinct station listed over two hundred men charged with crimes related to the Astor Place Riots.
The pro-Macready advertisement that ran in the New York “Herald” and the official death, medical and police-blotter information offer clues to whom took part on either side of the issues related to the Astor Place Riots. Those killed, injured or arrested during the riots were overwhelmingly under class, such as plumbers, butchers, carpenters, sailors, servants, machinists, sailmakers, various unskilled labourers and many layabouts long known to the police. Signers of the advertisement, in the “Herald,” and the petition to the mayor were mostly over class. This group included twenty-two lawyers, a banker, a ship owner; five newspaper editors and two physicians, three prominent writers, including Herman Melville and Washington Irving, and several other important citizens.
It is incredible how at least two dozen men died in New York City because an actor performed in “Macbeth.”
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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