Friday, August 17, 2007

Astor Place Riots

I've been attempting to read this historical mystery for weeks now, and it's been very hard to get into because of the shifting points of view from third person to first, but the other day I almost threw the book across the room when the author sketchily and inacurrately described the Astor Place Riots that took place in New York in 1849. The main character is supposed to be a Shakespeare buff, so he should know more details than he gives.

This is the second time that someone has gotten the details wrong. I once took a walking tour of the Bowery and got into an argument with the tour guide when he wrongly described what went on that night. He got all huffy and went on about studying for his PhD in history at Columbia. Well, I had 3 years of theater history in college, and as I reminded him there was currently an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York on the riots. Not to mention a very fine play called Two Shakespearean Actors by Richard Nelson.

So what were the Astor Place Riots? And why is the event in history so significant? The Astor Place Riots was not just about the rivalry between two famous actors of the era, Edwin Forrest and William Charles Macready. It was also American vs. English, middle class vs. the Upper Classes. It was one of the deadliest civil disturbances pitting the poor against the upper classes in the United States until the Draft Riots in 1863 (also in New York).

A little background on the rivalry between Macready and Edwin Forrest. Forrest was born in Philadelphia in 1802, and was the first American superstar as it were in the theater. He acted with Edmund Kean who was a huge English theater star of the time. Forrest was noted for his muscular frame and impassioned delivery which was considered suitably "American" by his fans.

He acted at the Princess's theatre in London were he met with great success, but when he attempted Macbeth, a character that seemed unsuited to style of acting, the audience hissed the performance. Forrest attributed the hissing to the professional jealousy and machinations of Macready, although Macready had been kind and helpful to him when he first to London.

A few weeks later, Macready was playing Hamlet in Edinburgh. Forrest, who was attending the performance, stood up in a private box and hissed at him (not very mature!). This act evoked contemptuous reproaches from the British press and destroyed the respect he had garnered on his trip. An acrimonious letter that he printed in the " Times" aggravated, instead of justifying, his offence.

A portion of the American public believed that national jealousy and professional intrigue had interfered with the success of their favorite tragedian in England.

In May of 1849, William Charles Macready arrived in New York to perform Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera house, which was the Opera house for the middle class and rich as opposed to the Bowery Opera House down the block, which catered mostly to a working class audience, and whose lead actor was of course, who else, Edwin Forrest. In fact, the Astor Place Opera House had been built specifically so that the wealthier citizens of New York didn't have to mingl with people they felt were beneath them. The new theater had high ticket prices (the better to keep the hoi polloi out), and a dress code.

To fan the flames, the Bowery theater decided to offer Edwin Forrest playing Macbeth on the same nights as Macready. Macready seemed to be a symbol to the working people and the Irish immigrants of everything that they hated. He was English and a snob, two things guaranteed not to get him a warm reception from anyone apart from the upper classes who were anglophiles despite our independence from the motherland.

On May 7, 1849, an unruly mob hissed and interrupted the Macready's performance including pelting the poor actor with rotten eggs, potatoes, old shoes and a bottle of liquid which may have been something called asafetida, which stank. Macready, being a trooper, finished the performance, but had to be persuaded to finish the rest of the run. He was promised that order would be maintained. The only way to keep that promise was to call out the militia and the calvary. On May 10th, he took the stage again.

That day, over 20,000 people apparently filled the streets around the theater after working class and Irish leaders called for a protest demonstration saying the performance and the troops that were sent to protect Macready represented "English aristocracy" trying to oppress the "people." As the performance began, a crowd of 10,000 which included native and Irish gangs like the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits (In Gangs of New York they walked around with dead rabbits on sticks when they fought) threw stones through the windows.

The New York Tribune reported, "As one window after another 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."

The police force couldn't stop the rioters so the National Guard from the Seventh Regiment, was called in. Most of the rioters didn't disperse even as the soldiers assumed the firing position. To the surprise of many, even among the soldiers, the order was quickly given to fire directly into the crowd, leaving 22 dead and another 38 injured. The next day a protest crowd circulated a petition calling for revenge against the soldiers who had fired, but cooler heads managed to prevail, and the worst was over.

As for our two protagonists, Macready went back to England and retired two years later in 1851. He later died in 1873. He left behind a widow and 3 children. Forrest weathered a scandal when he divorced his wife in 1852 which hurt his reputation, but he continued to perform until his retirement in 1871. In his later years, he lobbied for the rights of smaller theaters against the monopoly of powerful conglomerated theater companies. He also used his considerable wealth to create an home for retired actors called the Forrest Home which lasted for over 100 years until it was eventuallly incorporated into the much larger Actors Fund facility in New Jersey. He's one of the few actors besides the other Edwin (Booth) who are still remembered today.

Thanks for reading,


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