Rival Shakespearean Actors Spark Class Riot

Rival Shakespearean Actors Spark Class Riot

On this day in 1849, a professional feud between an English and American theater actor, fueled by jingoism and class warfare, erupted into the violent Astor Place Riot outside the tony Astor Place Opera House in New York. It was one of the worst disasters in theatrical history, claiming more than 20 lives, injuring many more, and leaving the great Astor Opera House in ruins.

At the heart of the riot was a dispute between two men: Edwin Forrest, one of the best-known American actors of the time and William Charles Macready, a renowned English tragedian. For years a feud simmered between the two men over which was better at acting Shakespeare. Tensions between the two were fueled by worsening Anglo-American relations in the 1840s, with newspapers in both countries taking shots at the other via this theatrical ‘proxy’ war. A burgeoning class struggle projected its tension into the Forrest-Macready dispute as well. Working class Americans displayed their growing hostility and alienation from Anglophile upper classes by siding with Forrest, while New York’s upper crust supported Macready. As such, a simple rivalry between two leading actors grew into a proxy war of sorts, representing working-class American grievances against upper-class Anglophiles.

The riot came to a head in May 1849, when both actors were scheduled to play leading roles in Macbeth at the Astor Place Theater, and just a few blocks away, Broadway Theater. Three nights before the riot, Forrest’s supporters disrupted a Macready performance by throwing rotten eggs, potatoes, apples, lemons, shoes, and stinking drinks on the stage, while hissing and shouting “Shame, shame!” and “Down with the codfish aristocracy!”

Before the actors’ next performance on 10 May, New York police persuaded the Whig mayor to call in the militia. General Charles Sandford assembled New York’s Seventh Regiment, along with mounted troops and artillery in Washington Square Park. In all, there were 350 troops and more than 250 police. Meanwhile, Forrest supporters distributed handbills inciting working class New Yorkers to rise up, as well handing out free tickets to the Macready performance and telling people were to deploy. By 7:30 PM, some 10,000 people thronged the streets. Forrest supporters bombarded the theater with stones and after a prolonged siege, destroyed Astor Place Theater. Street battles continued into the night, with soldiers eventually opening fire into the air and firing point blank into the crowd. Innocent bystanders, mostly from the working class, were killed and dozens injured.

When the dust had settled, some 25 to 30 rioters were killed and more than 100 wounded. The next morning, 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.”

Sadly, the riots only fueled the flames of class alienation in New York and America, and Astor Place Theater was forced to close.
Image: Astor Place Opera-House riots, 1849, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.