Astor Place riot

Definition

Theater

  • A riot that took place at the Astor Place Opera house in NewYork on 10 May 1849 as a result of the long-standing rivalry betweenthe great British tragedian William Macready and his US counterpartEdwin Forrest.

    The rivalry began in 1836, when Forrest first appeared onthe London stage in parts Macready considered his own. Although Macreadynever saw Forrest perform, his comment was ominous: "It wouldbe stupid and shallow hypocrisy to say that I was indifferent to theresult." For a man with an ungovernable temper, this showedconsiderable restraint.

    In 1843 Macready began his own lengthy tour of America; inan unguarded moment he reacted incautiously to a newspaper articlethat compared his talent to that of his rival: "Let him be anAmerican actor - and a great American actor - but keepon this side of the Atlantic, and no one will gainsay his comparativeexcellence." After Forrest heard Macready's remark he took toplaying the same roles as Macready, in the same town, on the samenights.

    The conflict escalated during Forrest's second tour of Britain,in 1846; as a member of the audience for Macready's Hamlet,Forrest began to hiss. Personal pique erupted into international scandal:"I feel I cannot stomach the United States as a nation",Macready wrote.

    The climax of the affair came with Macready's US tour of 1848 - 49.On 7 May 1849, at the Astor Place Opera House, Macready, playing Macbeth,was openly jeered; the performance ended with the audience throwingeggs and chairs onto the stage. The New York management, embarrassedby the episode, persuaded Macready to repeat the role three days later.On this occasion, order within the theater was maintained throughoutthe performance, but outside an angry mob confronted the assembledriot police. When the police lost control of the mob, 60 mounted militiamenwere called to the scene, followed by the infantry, with bayonetsfixed. The reading of the Riot Act, twice, failed to calm the incensedrioters; the order to fire was given. As a result 22 rioters diedand 36 were wounded. Macready himself slipped out of the theater andescaped to Boston: he never acted in America again. The theater itselfclosed for repairs but, now known as the 'Massacre Opera House', itfailed to prosper, finally shutting its doors for ever on 12 June1850.

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