WHAT A SHOW, WE KILLED: TWENTY-TWO AS A MATTER OF FACT
July 6, 2018
The most popular playwright in America in the first half of the Nineteenth Century was Shakespeare. His plays were not just favored by the intelligentsia -- theatergoers from every class favored the Bard of Avon. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that beings on other planets probably called the Earth Shakespeare. Not only did American audiences watch English plays but almost exclusively they saw English actors perform in them.
Then to the delight of the "natives," a home-grown tragedian emerged in the person of Edwin Forest. His robust and ebullient interpretation of Shakespeare's great roles was quickly deemed preferable to the restrained and effete rendering of his English counterparts, particularly at the Bowery Theater, a venue for working class theatergoers. His chief rival in England was the Irishman, William Charles Mccready, an actor in the more traditional mold.
Both were divas. Forest would refuse to go on if rehearsals had been mistake prone. Mccready was incapable of improvising if things went awry during a performance. When that happened mid-play in Baltimore, Mccready uttered a derogatory remark regarding American theater.
Each actor performed in the other's country. Forest visited England twice. On his second less successful visit he was badly received and he attributed that to Mccready's doing. In retaliation, Forest went to a performance of "Hamlet" by Mccready and hissed him. When McCready came to America for the third and last time a carcass of a dead sheep was thrown on the stage during one performance.
Both men had their supporters but it went beyond mere acting. The natives and Irish immigrants were at war with each other but both factions were united in their hatred for the British, and sense they associated the Anglophile upper classes with England, they aimed their hatred toward them as well.
It all came to a boil on the night of May 10, 1849 when Mccready was to perform "Macbeth" at the Astor Place Opera House, a theater uptown from the Bowery and intended for more gentile patrons. The air was already poisoned because Forest had sought a divorce from his English wife for immoral conduct and he lost the case on the same day Mccready arrived in the U.S. for his farewell tour.
Trouble was anticipated. New York's police chief told the mayor, who was a Wig, he did not have enough police to guarantee safety so the mayor called out the militia. 350 soldiers formed in Washington Square Park; 100 police surrounded the theater and 150 more were inside. The Forest partisans were backed by Tammany Hall. They marshaled their forces by handing out free tickets to Charles Mccready's show and deployed additional crowds outside the hall.
You've got to give it to Mccready -- the Brit was a trooper. As soon as he made his first entrance a rain of rotten eggs, produce, old shoes and bottles of smelly liquid fell on the stage from the Opera House's top balcony. The cast pushed on but were soon resorting to pantomime because they could not be heard above the jeering. Mccready finished the play and slipped out of the theater in disguise.
Outside over 10,000 Forest fanatics girded the theater. They bombarded the building with rocks and fought with the police. Then the troops were summoned and lined up in front of the Opera House. After firing warning shots in the air, they opened fire into the nearby crowd. 22 rioters and innocent bystanders were killed; 48 were wounded; 50 to 70 police injured and 141 of the militia were hurt by flying missiles.
This riot marked the first time a state militia had been deployed against its citizens and then shot on the crowd. Afterward, New York City police became the first police force armed with deadly weapons. Mccready fled back to England and never returned to America. Forest went on to act for another twenty plus years. Three years after the riot, he played "Macbeth" for four weeks in New York, an extraordinary long run for the time. He died on December 12, 1872. Mccready outlived him by four months.