New York Was Almost Burned To The Ground In A Shakespeare Riot

New York Was Almost Burned To The Ground In A Shakespeare Riot

There’s no question that we’re living in a Macbeth-mad era. William Shakespeare’s beloved tragedy is currently hitting the big screens more frequently than Transformers movies. Michael Fassbender starred in a visually stunning 2015 adaptation, while the first trailer recently dropped for Joel Coen’s own take on the classic, starring Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth (no word yet on who will play Robot Macbeth or Macbeth Noir). 

But while audiences will doubtless go crazy for another chance to see beloved characters like Fleance and Banquo strut their stuff, we’ll never match the Macbethmania that swept 1800s America. Don’t believe us? Well then let’s take a moment to remember the year 1849, when the people of New York almost burned their entire city down during a massive riot over which stuffy old actor played Macbeth better. 

It All Started With A Hilariously Petty Acting Rivalry

The roots of the riot actually lay years earlier in 1820, when a bunch of Philly teenagers were huffing nitrous in a rundown theater. The group were attending one of the popular nitrous oxide demonstrations that took place throughout the US in the early 1800s. These were supposedly scientific lectures to demonstrate the chemical properties of the new gas, but almost immediately degenerated into a chance for people to get completely zooted on old-timey whippets. 

On this occasion, a local 14-year-old named Edwin Forrest was floating on a cloud of laughing gas when he spontaneously jumped to his feet and performed a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Richard III (presumably the famous speech where Richard giggles for like 15 seconds straight then calls his dad to come pick him up). To his surprise, Forrest brought the house down and was quickly offered the chance to audition for a local theater company. Thus began the career of one of the 19th century’s greatest thespians. 

Aquatint depiction of a laughing gas party in the nineteenth century, by Thomas Rowlandson

Thomas Rowlandson

Historically, there’s no reason everyone can’t get totally nanged on nitro in every Pride & Prejudice adaptation. 

Forrest’s career went from strength to strength and he was soon considered America’s finest Shakespearean actor. Which was hardly surprising, considering that his rival for the title, Junius Booth, was such a drunk that he often had to be physically dragged out of a tavern to go on stage. During one performance of Richard III, the audience wildly applauded an intense sword fight, unaware that Junius was supposed to have died earlier in the scene and was literally trying to kill a co-star he disliked. Another time, Junius got so boozed up that he forgot which play he was in and started saying lines from The Merchant of Venice, while the rest of the cast performed Macbeth around him. Obviously, that wasn’t the worst thing a member of the Booth acting family would do in a theater (you've heard about his son), but Forrest still wasn’t exactly competing with the best here. But that all changed when he went to perform in Britain, where the theatrical scene was dominated by renowned actor William Macready. 

The problems started in London, where Forrest portrayed Macbeth in a forceful, macho style. This outraged English audiences, who presumably preferred to see Macbeth played by a guy sipping a cup of tea and reclining on a fainting couch. After being booed offstage, Forrest somehow decided that his poor reception had been orchestrated by Macready, who had actually been nothing but supportive up to this point. Determined to seek revenge, Forrest travelled to Edinburgh, where the elderly Macready was tottering about the stage in Hamlet. Midway through the show, Forrest stood up and hissed loudly, causing a storm of outrage. Attacked by all the British papers, Forrest defended himself by saying, “The truth is, Mr. Macready thought fit to introduce a fancy dance into his performance of Hamlet, which I thought a desecration of the scene.” 

Edited version of photograph of American actor Edwin Booth as William Shakespeare's Hamlet, circa 1870

J. Gurney & Son

Not sure why he’d be upset, Hamlet stopping in mid-soliloquy to do a fancy dance is the funniest concept we’ve ever heard.

While every monocle in Britain popped out in horror, the American people rallied behind Forrest. The battle lines were drawn. This was Shakes-war! 

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Things Got Worse When Macready Tried To Tour America

The feud came to a head in 1848, when Macready attempted a tour of the United States. By this point the good people of America had been whipped into a frenzy by newspaper articles accusing Macready of sabotaging Forrest’s British tour. The hysteria was eagerly stoked by Forrest, who was now openly mocking Macready’s habit of performing while flourishing a lace handkerchief and “prancing around the stage.” 

In a truly epic feat of pettiness, Forrest launched a spite tour, following Macready around the country and performing the same roles in rival theaters. Before long, Forrest was performing to ecstatic crowds every night, while Macready was regularly booed and pelted with eggs mid-performance. In Cincinnati, someone threw half a dead sheep at him during the climax of Hamlet. Do you know how much you have to hate someone to sit through two hours of a play with a dead sheep, just waiting for your moment to strike?

William Charles Macready, by John Jackson (died 1831).

John Jackson

Fortunately his trusty curtain-hat protected him.

Macready did his best to tamp down the feud, but unfortunately his natural snobbishness rendered his efforts moot. In Philadelphia, he tried to explain his side of the story, but spoiled it by whining on about how Forrest had hissed at him, an act which he claimed “no European would have been guilty of.” In his diary he described Americans as “ignorant and conceited dunces in literature and art,” adding “are not the vulgar wretches, the stupid unprincipled dolts of this country, enough to drive one mad?” Unsurprisingly, the American people somehow failed to open their hearts to a posh English guy who started every sentence with “you filthy swine, how dare you make eye contact with me.” Before long, people were whipping coins at Macready everywhere he went, while New York newspapers were virtually calling for his murder. 

At this point we should take a step back and remember that this whole dispute was about a fully grown man getting so upset by bad reviews that he jumped on a carriage from London to Edinburgh and hissed at a play. Can you imagine actual riots breaking out now because Hugh Grant said he didn’t like Hamilton or something? But back in the day theater was the only entertainment a lot of people had, so the play-going demographic was more “drunken hockey fans” and less “we didn’t know what else to do for mom’s birthday.” So disaster was clearly looming as Macready prepared for the final engagement of his tour—playing Macbeth at New York’s Astor Place Opera House. And that’s when the real trouble started

Nicolai Abildgaard - Hamlet hos sin moder

Nicolai Abildgaard

This painting of Hamlet is from 70 years earlier, so actors probably weren’t still dressing like this. Probably. 

New York Was The Rioting Capital Of The World

Back in the 19th century, rioting was basically the number one leisure activity in New York. Seriously, it made modern France look like Antarctica (we’re assuming penguins don’t do much rioting). Street gangs like the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits regularly clashed in Manhattan’s slums, completely unaware that they were creating valuable content for future Leonardo DiCaprio vehicles. There were a truly alarming number of pro-slavery riots, as well as fairly vicious anti-doctor uprising. In fact, riots were so common that even the police got in on it. In 1857, New York’s cops split into two feuding police forces—the Municipals and the Metropolitans—who staged a violent brawl in front of city hall. 

An illustration of fighting at City Hall between Municipal and Metropolitan police officers during the Police Riot of 1857

Valerian Gribayedoff

You know at least one cop screamed “you’re under arrest!” and charged headfirst into a mirror.

Meanwhile, the Astor Place Opera House had been the subject of popular anger ever since it opened. Built by the famously snooty Astor family, it charged huge prices for tickets and required attendees to wear evening dress and white kid gloves just to get through the door. To make matters worse, it was located right by the notorious slums of the Bowery, whose residents resented this obvious attempt to box them out of the theater. 

Frankly the Bowery Boys had been looking for an excuse to burn the place down for years, and the decision to book the archvillain of the American stage was the straw that finally got the camel really pissed off. Local gang leaders began buying up blocks of tickets for their supporters and fanning anti-English sentiment throughout the city. One thing was for sure: It was going to be a hell of a show. 

The Manhattan Macbeth Massacre

On opening night, a large crowd was observed gathering outside the Opera House. As Macready took the stage, the theater erupted in furious yelling, as enraged Shakespeare fans suddenly hung insulting placards over the balconies and began screaming insults at the stage. Macready waited 15 minutes in silence for the roar to die down, then gave up and began valiantly performing the play, even though the actors on stage couldn’t even hear each other. 

The audience then began whipping coins at the performers, followed by rotten eggs, apples, and fully 10 pounds of rotting potatoes (tips for the door guys, maybe don’t listen to the guy who says he’s just bringing in a sack of rotting potatoes as a snack). They then upgraded to hurling bottles of urine and foul-smelling asafoetida (which stank so badly the theater had to throw away all the curtains). When the audience started tearing the chairs out of the floor like the Hulk and hurling them at the actors, Macready decided to call it a night and escape out the back. 

A w:handbill handed out prior to, and complicit in instigating, the 1849 w:Astor Place Riot.

via Wiki Commons

Shoutout to them putting “we advocate no violence” in a font size previously used only for treaties with the Mouse King of Tinyworld. 

Macready was determined to call off the whole run of performances, but New York’s literary elite were horrified at the damage to the city’s cultural reputation. A delegation including John Jacob Astor, Herman Melville, and Washington Irving persuaded him to go on for a second night, assuring him that additional safety precautions would be taken. Meanwhile, anonymous posters appeared around town demanding to know “shall Americans or English rule in this city!” By the time the curtain opened, a crowd of 15,000 people had surrounded the theater. Held back from the doors by a line of policemen, they started ripping up the cobblestones from the street and hurling them at the Opera House, while staging repeated charges on the police lines in a Shakespeare-based frenzy. 

By the time Macready went on, the building was fully under siege, as stones rattled through the broken windows and the elegant audience dived for cover. Cops charged into the galleries, brawling with a group of Forrest fans who had managed to purchase tickets. They were dragged away and locked in a small room, which they promptly set on fire. Fortunately, the barrage of stones had broken several of the water pipes in the building, which began to flood. The water damage was worsened by the cops in the lobby, who had hooked a fire hose up to the building’s mains and were blasting rioters away from the doors. 

Meanwhile, Macready was insisting that the cast complete their performance of Macbeth, saying that the audience had paid to see a play and deserved to get one. Since they were now trapped in a burning, flooding building surrounded by 15,000 enraged New Yorkers, it’s possible that the audience weren’t entirely focused on Macduff’s final duel with Macbeth, but they managed to crawl out of their hiding places for a brief round of applause at the end. 

NYPL Digital Gallery

“At least dad died doing what he loved. Keeping fancy dances out of Shakespeare.”

Outside, looting had broken out and the state militia had been called out to subdue the rioters, only to be forced to retreat as the crowd hurled stones and staged charges on the lines of soldiers. As the cavalry frantically retreated, a group of 70 infantry guys got stranded and found themselves surrounded by thousands of rioters. After firing into the air failed to disperse the crowd, they were ordered to shoot to kill, while reinforcements deployed cannons against the Macbeth mob. Twenty-two people were killed before the riot ended, although groups of Bowery Boys continued to hunt for Macready, who hid in a friend’s house until he could be smuggled out of the city several days later. To no one’s surprise, he never returned to America and ultimately retired two years later. 

Forrest escaped blame, but was caught cheating on his wife and ended up in a high-profile divorce case, although he managed to avoid paying any alimony by cunningly dying of gout. In fact, the most lasting consequence of the riot was the closure of the Astor Place Opera House, which was unable to escape its new nickname of the “DisAstor Opera House.” Because if you can’t quite manage to burn a place down, a mean pun will finish the job just as well.


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