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Two NYC Macbeths and the 1849 Riot Sparked by Their Rivalry

by Allison Meier on August 15, 2014

Edwin Forrest as Hamlet, photographed by Frederick Gutekunst (19th century) (via Folger Shakespeare Digital Image Collection)

Edwin Forrest as Hamlet, photographed by Frederick Gutekunst (19th century) (via Folger Shakespeare Digital Image Collection)

This week the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, announced that its Digital Image Collection is now under a Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 4.0 International License. That trove of 80,000 now freely usable images includes books, art, manuscripts, and artifacts centering on Shakespeare and the performance history of his plays.

While exploring the thousands of incredible images, from illustrations by Delacroix to lavish 19th-century set designs, I noticed this inflammatory poster:

"Working men, shall Americans or English rule! in this city?" American Committee poster from May 9, 1849 (via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

“Working men, shall Americans or English rule! in this city?” American Committee poster from May 9, 1849 (via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

To understand why the “workingmen” and “freemen” would be rallying against an “English Aristocratic Opera House” in New York City in 1849, you have to examine theater in the context of the city at the time. It was the main form of entertainment for both the upper and lower classes, each side with its heroes. That year, American actor Edwin Forrest and English actor William Charles Macready were its two main rivals — and they loathed each other. But what began as a vying between two leading men for stage prestige culminated in a riot at the Astor Place Opera House that took the lives of over 22 people on May 10, 1849.

The Folger’s Digital Image Collection provides visual insight into the Astor Place Riot, as it became known, with images of Forrest, Macready, and the riot itself. Even just a glance at the engravings and photographs of the two actors reveals their dichotomy. Forrest was a solidly built, rugged man whose swagger in bombastic performances earned him the love of the working class, particularly along the then-rough Bowery. Macready was more lithe and refined, his precise and elegant recitations bringing him the adoration of high society. On May 7, two placards were installed in the Manhattan streets, one for Macready leading in Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House, the other for Forrest in the same role at the Broadway Theater.

Edwin Forrest as Macbeth (mid-19th century print by Augustus Robin) (via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

Edwin Forrest as Macbeth (detail of a mid-19th-century print by Augustus Robin) (via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

William Charles Macready as Macbeth (mid-19th century engraving by Thomas Sherratt) (via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

William Charles Macready as Macbeth (detail of a mid-19th-century engraving by Thomas Sherratt) (via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

Forrest had gone to the trouble of journeying to Edinburgh for a Macready performance just to hiss at him, while Macready made sure that his fans snubbed Forrest’s England tour. But the conflict went beyond ego. The Astor Place Opera House was the height of high-class theater; white kid gloves were required, tickets were exorbitant. It was a symbol of the city’s wealth, and still had a whiff of aristocracy in the wake of American independence from the British.

Riot at the Astor Place Opera House, newspaper engraving (1849) (via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

Riot at the Astor Place Opera House, newspaper engraving (1849) (via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

Things got off to a poor start right on opening night, when, according to the 1849 Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New York Astor Place Opera House, “rotten eggs were thrown, pennies and other missiles; and soon, more outrageous demonstrations were made, and chairs were thrown from the upper part of the house, so as to peril life.” Each night Macready took the stage in greater agitation, until May 10, when things boiled over. Thousands of Forrest supporters, and others exhausted by the class divisions in the city, descended in protest. The militia was called in, and in the commotion shot their guns into the crowd. Bystanders were killed, and pandemonium broke out. Over two dozen were estimated killed, almost entirely working class, and numerous others injured.

Macready never again performed in the United States. The reputation of the Astor Opera House was ruined (it would be torn down in 1890). The class divisions in the city grew deeper. For a more thorough summary of how this theater clash started and its consequences, the Bowery Boys did a great job in their podcast. And for more on the sometimes strange and tumultuous history of live Shakespeare, there are the thousands of Folger Shakespeare Library images.

"The Last Time of acting before the Holdays, Mr. Macready's Night," a poster for Hamlet at Covent-Garden in London (1821) (via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

“The Last Time of acting before the Holidays, Mr. Macready’s Night,” a poster for Hamlet at Covent-Garden in London (1821) (via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

Edwin Forrest's promptbook for an 1852 production of Macbeth (via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

Edwin Forrest’s promptbook for an 1852 production of Macbeth (via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

William Charles Macready as Macbeth, print W. Coutts (1821) (via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

William Charles Macready as Macbeth, print W. Coutts (1821) (via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection)

Find the Folger Shakespeare Library’s over 80,000 images at their Digital Image Collection, now under a Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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