The Macbeth Riots
When I lived in New York, down on 10th Street between First & Second, I walked through Astor Place every day on the way to the subway. There was a triangular building on the west side of the square with a Starbucks on the first floor. Each day as I walked back and forth to the subway, I mused how it would be the perfect place and building for a theatre. For some reason, I had a deep connection to that place. Years later, I discovered that on that site sat the Astor Place Opera House. In 1849, it was the site of the worst riots New York ever saw. New York City was put under martial law, something that would not occur again until Sept. 11, 2001. These riots are sometimes called the Astor Place riots. There are also called the Shakespeare Riots and the name I prefer, the Macbeth Riots.
By 1848, the American actor, Edwin Forrest, had risen to be this continent’s first acting superstar. He had had success playing across the States and in Europe. Depending on who you asked he was good or better than the leading English actor of the day, William Charles Macready. Forrest was known for a physical and declamatory style of playing characters like the Indian Metamora, the Gladiator Spartacus and Shakespeare’s greatest tragic characters. Macready was known for his refined, well spoken, naturalistic performances of the classics. For a time Forrest and Macready were close friends. Then, during a performance of Hamlet by Macready a hiss came from the box where Forrest was hearing the play. After many letters to the newspapers, Forrest finally admitted to the hiss. He wrote that he was enjoying Macready’s performance of Hamlet until Macready added a “fancy dance” to the action for which Forrest felt compelled to hiss.
A feud grew between the actors and their fans. It played out in the papers, on the streets, in the playhouses. The feud struck a chord in the fledgling country still straining from its forebear. It also divided the early English immigrants from the more recent Irish immigrants. It was a part of the class war dividing the northern cities.
In May of 1849, it was announced that Macready would be playing Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House. Forrest was announced to play Macbeth that same week at the Bowery Theatre. The Astor Place Opera House was the venue for the elite and well off of the city. People arrived by carriage with footmen. They and came dressed in tails and fine gowns. The Bowery Theater was the people’s theatre. It was a rowdy playhouse filled with the workers in this growing city. The two sides were set driven by the argument which actor’s style was the best Shakespeare, the more authentic.
On May 9th, Macready was shouted from the stage at the Astor Opera House. There was an increased threat of violence if he continued his run. Forrest capitulated and changed his bill for the night of May 10th to Spartacus. The owners of the Astor Place Opera House and other men of note in the city met with the Mayor and Police Chief demanding that Macready be allowed to play. For what is freedom if a man cannot speak Shakespeare without being hooted from the stage.
On the night of May 10th police surrounded the Opera House. The crowd formed to see what would happen. As Macready began to perform the crowd inside and outside the theater grew out of control, the militia was called. Shots were fired. By the end of the night at least 25 people lay dead with over 100 wounded. [i]
While many other factors inflamed the riot, the central cause was how to play Shakespeare, what I would call the battle between Art and Entertainment.
In American culture, and possibly throughout the modern world, there is a split between art & entertainment. Art seems to be thought-provoking, stylish and for the higher mind. Entertainment is an amusement for escapism, lacking in thought, and engaging the low brow. This split is possibly the greatest hurdle to making better theatre. And, movies, music, opera, dance, ballet, well, any live performance.
This split is seen in Shakespeare production in America that usually breaks down between Summer and Winter Shakespeare.
Winter Shakespeare tends to take itself very seriously. They are doing art. The themes and concept is tantamount. This is often a Director’s theatre or Designer’s Theatre over an Actor’s Theatre. The main connection is with the intellect. While they might throw in a comedy to balance the season, the staples are Shakespeare’s high tragedies: Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Romeo & Juliet. The other tragedies: Titus Andronicus, Antony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, are more worrisome and less performed. They like the problem comedy Measure for Measure, though avoid Troilus & Cressida and All’s Well. The major Histories, Richard III and Henry V, and 1 Henry IV, can get some occasional play if they are feeling ambitious. The major comedies are added to the season to bring in box office though they are usually disdained. It tends to be the year we did Lear, not the year we did Midsummer.
Summer Shakespeare tends to happen outdoors on (hopefully) beautiful nights in a beautiful setting. I’m not sure if we actually have Joe Papp to thank for this, but he definitely popularized the idea. It is in many ways an idea: people picnic, drink wine, and then watch some Shakespeare. They’re there for laughs, diversion, fun with friends and a beautiful experience. The fare is usually Shakespeare’s festival comedies: Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, and Comedy of Errors. Producer’s wish that Shakespeare had given us more sure fire choices; even Twelfth Night has its darkness and challenges. The other comedies are riskier or have challenges: (rape, torture, anti-Semitism, or just lack satisfaction in the Hollywood ending way. Loves Labours Lost is fun, but the guys don’t get the girls at the end. It’s unsatisfying.)
It’s not just in the playing of Shakespeare. We also see this rift between summer movies intended for the masses and young men versus the winter films intended for select adults and award season.
When the first professional theatres were built in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare and his contemporaries understood the need to play to both the drunken apprentices standing in the yard along with the nobles sitting on padded chairs in the boxes behind the stage. Shakespeare wrote for the basest part of the human and our highest level of spirit. Good entertainment and high profits demanded it. Shakespeare and his company also realized that theatre lived in engaging the whole person, the whole society. It was good for business and good for theatre. Our challenge is to re-knit this connection between the two.
[i] You can find the full account of the Macbeth Riots in: The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America by Nigel Cliff.