People will never forget the day a theatrical performance caused a deadly riot at the Astor Place.
Over the first half of the nineteenth century, plays were a very important source of entertainment. Countries such as Great Britain and United States were known for their famous authors, plays, and theaters, because most of them were considered icons of this type of art. It was in this moment of history that New York started to become an important performance epicenter. However, the fact that theaters were also meeting points for social gatherings made them the center of riots with tragic outcomes that no theater devotee could afford to pass up.
Theater riots were a thing in New York. Leaving aside the entertainment factor, these places were so popular that actors were seen as the rockstars of the time: people would follow, respect, and admire them. Performances were taken so seriously that many actors started gaining passionate admirers, some of them too passionate. These types of fans were the ones who were often behind the riots. And though they were common, none of these uproars would be as tragic and appalling as the one that happened on May 10, 1846 at the Astor Opera House in Manhattan when a play by William Shakespeare was being presented.
This riot between two opposing gangs caused 25 deaths and left over 120 injured. The disturbance grew exponentially, to the point that militiamen were ordered to open fire to an agitated crowd that was gathering in front of this theater. It may come to surprise that this was triggered by the appearance of a famous British Shakespearean actor, William Charles Macready. Even though he didn’t start the turmoil, he was the original reason behind it. Rumor has it that Macready was somehow involved in a harsh rivalry with the American actor Edwin Forrest. Therefore, their respective groups of diehard fans became opposing groups too. Though the justification for the uproar was the intensity of the rivalry, there was a deeper and much more meaningful reason to it.
The root cause of this conflict was the deep discord between two social classes of American urban society. On the one side, there were the upper class New Yorkers, huge Anglophiles who identified with Macready. On the other hand, working class New Yorkers, mainly Irish immigrants, opposed the British and strongly supported Forrest. This last group was led by a Tammany Hall man named Isaiah Rynders. He was considered to be an important leader of big street gangs and one of those behind the attack against Macready.
On the night of March 7, 1849, while Macready was appearing on stage in the lead role of Macbeth, he found himself being mauled by a large group of working class New Yorkers who received him with boos and hisses. The show was canceled and rescheduled for the evening of May 10. It is said that on that same day, Rynders had been spreading handbills that urged people to come to the Astor Place, stating the following proclamation: “Shall Americans or English rule this city?”
To avoid any kind of trouble, Macready’s supporters bought up all the seats and the theater's management covered up the windows and took security precautions to keep rioters away. These included mounted troops, light artillery, and a total of 350 men who joined the police force, who were strategically placed inside and out the venue. But all these measures weren't enough to stop rioters.
Rynders and his followers arrived at the venue and bombarded the theater with stones and fought head-on with the police. The angry crowd grabbed loose cobblestones from a construction site nearby and assaulted the theater, breaking windows, bursting water pipes, and darkening streetlights. They also attempted to set fire to the building but failed. Forrest supporters who had managed to get into the theater were arrested during the first act of the play, with the crowd cheering while they were shamefully dragged outside.
The landscape was unpleasant. Dozens of casualties and hundreds of them severely injured. The next day, The New York Tribune reported:
“As one window after another cracked, the pieces of bricks and paving stones rattled in on the terraces and lobbies, the confusion increased, till the Opera House resembled a fortress besieged by an invading army rather than a place meant for the peaceful amusement of civilized community.”
We may think that fandoms are currently more passionate and violent nowadays. However, we can’t forego the fact that back in the day, riots were also a thing, and they weren’t fun at all. Nowadays, it just takes one tweet to speak our minds. Back then, you had to protest and punch someone in the face to do so.
This is one of the many ways Shakespeare was involved in something else rather than his own writings. If you would like to find out more about his contributions in other topics, such as love and relationships, you should check out how Shakespeare Teaches You 100 Ways To Seduce With Language and 9 Shakespeare Quotes That Will Restore Your Faith In Love.