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The Astor Place Riot

The Astor Place Riot

Riot at the Astor-Place Opera-House, New York. Wood engraving, 1849. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Hear the story of the Astor Place riot in this excerpt from the Shakespeare in American Life radio documentary.

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In the whole history of Shakespeare in American life, perhaps the most shocking single fact is that 22 or more people once died as a result of a riot in New York over the correct theatrical interpretation of Macbeth.

The truth, of course, is a little more complicated than that, but the statement is correct in its essentials. In 1849, the American actor Edwin Forrest was at the height of his popularity, famous for his ruggedly masculine good looks and forceful acting style. For years, he and the more restrained British actor William Macready had been professional rivals, with increasing contempt for each other’s work and approach to the classic Shakespeare roles.

Among their supporters, the dispute reflected a growing split in the American public. Forrest was the hero of the working man and the lower classes; Macready was praised by wealthy Americans and literary opinion leaders.

On May 10, 1849, Forrest’s working-class supporters descended by the thousands on Macready’s planned performance of Macbeth at the high-toned Astor Place Opera House. It was hardly the first theater riot in America, but it soon became the most serious. As the crowd got out of hand, state militia troops summoned to end the riot fired their weapons, with fatal results. Inside the theater, meanwhile, Macready struggled through the performance, then fled, never to appear in an American theater again.

Select "Expert Voices" from the list at left to learn more about the riot from theater historians Heather S. Nathans and Bruce McConachie.

R. Thew. Mr. Edwin Forrest as Macbeth. Engraving, 1856. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Sherratt after Tracey. Mr. Macready as Macbeth. Engraving, 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library.