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Astor Place Opera House Riots (Source: New York Public Library Digital Gallery)

                                                        “WORKING MEN

                                 SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE

                                                          IN THIS CITY?”

This was one  of the bills  posted around New York in May 1849.  The public show of anger followed the announcement that Edwin Forrest (American) and William Macready (English) were to play Macbeth on the same opening night, in the same city.  Macready was to appear at the Astor Place Opera House, while Forrest was  at the Bowery Theatre.

In America in the early  nineteenth century the theatre had a popular following almost as great as sport has today.  Actors had huge and  loyal followings, perhaps more avid and devoted than contemporary celebrity fans, and at the time the theatre in America was still dominated by British actors.  Edwin Forrest was the exception, the first American star – and Forrest and Macready, ” as they say, “had history.”

Shakespeare’s plays were the pinnacle of culture in the theatre and the yard-stick by actors were judged. For Macready and Forrest they were almost like cage-fights. Forrest alleged that Macready had started it, arranging for his friends  to “hiss” him on stage in Lodon. Macready said that Forrest was the instigator “booing” him on stage at  Edinburgh. Their disputebecame very public with letters from both in the press. And their fans were incensed.

On the first night of the productions in New York followers of each  infilitrated the other’s theatre. Many of Forrest’s fans went to Macready’s performance and pelted him with rotten fruit. Crowds began converging on the Astor Place Opera House and a full scale riot broke out. The police could not cope with the mayhem and militia were called out and for the  first time the state militia were  called out. They tried to disperse the crowd, but rather than retreat, the mob turned on them.  The militia opened fire.

By the end of the riot 120 people had been badly injured or wounded and 25 lay dead – all in the name of culture.

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