Rioting over the Bard: Shakespeare and Anglo-American culture wars

By Monika Smialkowska

Nowadays, it seems incredible that anybody would feel strongly enough about two actors’ different interpretations of the character of Macbeth to engage in violent riots, leading to numerous fatalities. Yet this is exactly what happened during what became known as the Astor Place Riot in New York, on 10th May 1849. During that night, thousands of supporters of the first American-born star actor, Edwin Forrest, took to the streets to object vigorously to the performance of the ‘Scottish Play’ by his rival, the eminent English tragedian William Charles Macready, at the Astor Place Opera House in Manhattan. With the authorities unable to contain the escalating violence, the National Guard fired into the crowd, killing over twenty people and injuring many more.

Of course, what led to this bloody chapter in the history of the world theatre were not just artistic differences or misplaced loyalties to individual thespian idols. The Astor Place Riot was the result of an explosive combination of these issues with wider socio-political factors, which included festering animosity between the US and Britain and increasing social divisions within the US itself, felt particularly acutely in New York. In the mid-1840s, debates over American expansionism (particularly in relation to the Oregon Territory and Texas) and the repudiation crisis (some American states refusing to pay their outstanding overseas debts) caused a deterioration in Anglo-American relations, accompanied by an increasingly hostile rhetoric used by the press and popular agitators in both countries (see Cliff, pp. 141-47). Simultaneously, New York’s financial and cultural elites swelled in numbers and became more ostentatious in their display of wealth and superiority, eager to distance themselves from the poor urban masses teeming on their doorstep, in the city’s ‘lower wards’ (Cliff, pp. 184-200). For their part, poorer New Yorkers saw the upper classes as English in their tastes and behaviours: ‘by the late 1840s … the epithet “English” had become such a useful term of abuse that it was applied by association to the whole Upper Ten, the “shallow-pated, milk hearted sucklings of foppery and fashion”’.[1] The situation was made even more complicated by an upsurge of immigration, which created bitter economic competition amid the lower classes (often divided along ethnic lines) and an escalation of nativist (ultra-patriotic and xenophobic) attitudes on the part of ‘native’ Americans.

In this highly charged atmosphere, all that was needed was an excuse to bring the conflicts to a head, and the Forrest-Macready dispute provided it. Macready represented the school of acting which appealed to the upper classes: understated, intellectual, and, at least according to the nativists, unpardonably English. Forrest, on the other hand, was renowned for his over-the-top, muscular, and crowd-pleasing approach. Moreover, he was a home-grown talent, fiercely patriotic and overtly populist. The two actors started out as friends, but gradually became rivals and bitter enemies, with Forrest alleging (almost certainly erroneously) that Macready’s machinations were to blame for his unfavourable reception by some sections of the British public. As the press broadcast the increasingly hostile exchanges between the two stars and their respective supporters, the atmosphere reached fever pitch during Macready’s engagement in New York in May 1849.

Theatrical riots with nationalistic undertones were not uncommon in the US at the time. There were disturbances in New York in 1831 and 1834 and in Philadelphia in 1835 over perceived slights to America by English performers or managers, and Macready himself was on the verge of causing a serious incident on his first US tour in 1826 by complaining of not being able to obtain a particular type of stage arrow, which some took as ‘an insult to American timber’ (Cliff, pp. 126-30). This time, however, due to the social tensions in New York already at the breaking point, the scale of the protest and the ferocity of the violence were unprecedented. Forrest’s nativist supporters mobilised the notorious gangs of Bowery to disturb Macready’s performance of Macbeth at the upper-class Astor Place theatre on 7th May, driving him off the stage with a barrage of food, furniture, stink bombs, and shouts of ‘Down with the English hog! Take off the Devonshire bull! Huzza for native talent!’ (Cliff, pp. xviii-xix). Meanwhile, Forrest was also playing the ‘Scottish play’, at the lower-class Broadway Theatre. Before delivering the lines: ‘What rhubarb, senna or what purgative drug would scour these English hence?’, he made a dramatic pause. After he shouted out the words, the audience jumped to their feet and exploded into a several-minute-long bout of cheering for America (Cliff, p. xx).

This could still have ended without bloodshed, had not some prominent members of New York’s elite persuaded Macready to continue his engagement with another performance on 10th May. The objectors gathered again, spurred on by nationalistic posters containing such phrases as ‘Working men, shall Americans or English rule in this city?’, and identifying the Astor Place as ‘the English aristocratic opera house’ (Cliff, p. 211). The city’s Whig mayor Caleb S. Woodhull, eager to please the upper classes, authorised the employment of the military. By the end of the night, the streets around the Astor Place were littered not only by the rioters’ improvised missiles, but also by the bodies of dead and wounded protestors and passers-by. Astonishingly, a deadly confrontation between two visions of America – populist and elitist, egalitarian and class-riven – was played out on cultural grounds, and expressed in terms of the ownership of the American theatre and the ‘right’ ways to interpret Shakespeare.

[1] Cliff, p. 194, quoting George C. Foster, New York by Gas-Light. The term ‘Upper Ten’ denoted the richest ten thousand New Yorkers.

Further reading:

Nigel Cliff, The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Random House, 2007).

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