The Astor Place riot: Shakespeare as a flashpoint for class conflict in 1849

Astor Place Riot
Riot at the Astor-Place Opera-House, New York. Wood engraving, 1849. Folger Shakespeare Library.

This is the story of the Astor Place riot. In the whole history of Shakespeare in American life, perhaps the most shocking single fact is that 22 or more people once died as a result of a riot in New York over the correct theatrical interpretation of Macbeth.

The truth, of course, is a little more complicated than that, but the statement is correct in its essentials. In 1849, the American actor Edwin Forrest was at the height of his popularity, famous for his ruggedly masculine good looks and forceful acting style. For years, he and the more restrained British actor William Macready had been professional rivals, with increasing contempt for each other’s work and approach to the classic Shakespeare roles.

Among their supporters, the dispute reflected a growing split in the American public. Forrest was the hero of the working man and the lower classes; Macready was praised by wealthy Americans and literary opinion leaders.

On May 10, 1849, Forrest’s working-class supporters descended by the thousands on Macready’s planned performance of Macbeth at the high-toned Astor Place Opera House. It was hardly the first theater riot in America, but it soon became the most serious. As the crowd got out of hand, state militia troops summoned to end the riot fired their weapons, with fatal results. Inside the theater, meanwhile, Macready struggled through the performance, then fled, never to appear in an American theater again.

Bruce McConachie, emeritus professor of theater at University of Pittsburgh, had this to say about the Astor Place riot:

“Well, there’s this antagonism between Forrest and Macready that goes back really to Forrest’s first tour in England in the 1830s. But the riot itself is less about the actors per se than it is about the kinds of social and class and national antagonisms in the American theater between supporters of the English actor Macready and supporters of Forrest. So it’s not so much a personal problem between the two performers as it is a kind of antagonism that moves beyond their personal relations, and their relations as performers.

“The champions of Forrest are Tammany Hall Democrats. Their voters are working class Americans, think of themselves as strongly patriotic. They are re-fighting, in a way, the Revolutionary War.

“Macready seems to be the “pet of princes,” as he’s called in their propaganda, and they denounce Macready as a symbol of aristocratic oppression. Not simply English oppression, but the oppression faced by working men, patriotic working men, by their own employers. These are, of course, rising capitalists who control the factories and the shipping in New York City. And a lot of them are understood to be aristocrats in the British fashion.

“So the dynamics of the riot take on the proportions of genuine class antagonism. When all of this erupts in 1849, as many of the newspapers say at the time, it’s “the rich against the poor.”

Editor’s Note: The text in this blog post about the Astor Place riot was first published on the Folger’s Shakespeare in American Life website in 2007.

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