May 10th – Astor Place Riots

1849

One of the biggest riots in the history of New York City occurred today at the Astor Opera House leaving at least 25 dead and more than 120 injured.

The nominal cause of the riot was the rivalry between two Shakespearean actors and their followers. British star William Charles Macready was already called the greatest Shakespearean of his generation and his followers were amongst the well-heeled of society. Edwin Forrest was one of the first American-born home-grown theatre stars.

"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."  - New York Tribune

“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.” – New York Tribune

Their rivalry was set against the backdrop of growing antipathy between America and Britain, often uniting the working and immigrant communities in their common hatred.

The American theatre’s need to prove its cultural prowess was centred around trying to “do” Shakespeare better than the English. On Macready’s second tour of the US, Forrest had taken to following him around the country and often staging the same play on the same night. Three nights before the riot, Macready’s performance of Macbeth had been pelted by rotten vegetables by Forrest’s supporters. After much persuasion he agreed to play the role again.

On the 10th May, handbills were given out asking “SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE THIS CITY?” and by curtain up more than 10,000 people swarmed the streets around the theatre pelting it with rocks. They tried and failed to set fire to the theatre and inside the audience were in a state of siege. In panic the authorities called out the troops who eventually opened fire on the crowd killing and injuring many innocent bystanders.

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May 7th – “On the Waterfront” is Not a Contender.

1995

On the Waterfront 1995 Playbill

On the Waterfront 1995 Playbill

Today the troubled Broadway production of “On the Waterfront” closed after just 16 previews and 8 performances.

It seemed doomed from the start as costs escalated to near $3 million after a huge amount of re-writes on Budd Schulberg’s already re-written script. There was a last minute change of director and not one but two of the key actors.

And if that weren’t enough actor Jerry Grayson suffered a heart attack on-stage during  the final preview. Audience watched in silence as he was resuscitated by a doctor from the house.

Fortunately Grayson survived but the same could not be said for the production. Despite some fine performances, including from Ron Eldard who played Marlon Brando’s iconic role of Terry Malloy, the show never seemed to come out of the long shadow cast by the 1954 film version and it closed after 8 performances.

April 14th – Lincoln Assassinated

1865

Today at the Fords Theatre in Washington DC, while attending a production of Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor with his wife Mary the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was shot.

The assassination occurred just five days after the Confederate Army surrendered to General Grant, ending the American Civil War. The shooter, well known stage actor John Wilkes Booth, son of famous actor Junius Brutus Booth, was part of a larger conspiracy aiming to revive the Confederate cause.

The Presidential party arrived late, causing the play to pause briefly. Their box was meant to be guarded by John Frederick Parker but he had gone to the pub in the intermission and had not returned. Booth’s status as a leading famous actor meant it wouldn’t have been unusual for him to call on the President.

The Presidential Box at Fords Theatre, Washington. From War Photograph and Exhibition Company

The Presidential Box at Fords Theatre, Washington. From War Photograph and Exhibition Company

Booth knew the play well and waited for the enthusiastic laughter which would follow the character Asa Trenchard’s line to the departing Mrs Mountchessington: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!”. In the ensuing noise he entered the box and shot the President at point blank range in the head. Lincoln slumped forward and was caught by his wife Mary who started screaming.

Booth escaped to the stage after a tussle, landing badly with his foot caught in the flag decorating the box. It was some time before the audience realised it was not part of the show and Booth eventually made it out after stabbing several men who tried to stop him.

Mortally wounded the President was carried to the Petersen House opposite the theatre where he died the following morning.

April 6 – The Birth of the Tonys

Tony Award

Tony Award

1947

Today marked the very first American Theatre Wing’s Tony Awards ceremony.

On the evening of Easter Sunday 1947 in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in New York, the American Theatre Wing established an awards program to celebrate excellence in the theatre in an evening of dinner, dancing and entertainment by some of the best in the business.

They were named for the dynamic war time leader of the Wing, actress, director and producer Antoinette Perry and the evening was presided over by her successor Vera Allen Perry. Eleven Tonys were presented and there were eight special awards, including one for Vincent Sardi, proprietor of the famous theatrical haunt on West 44th Street. Among the winners that night were José Ferrer, Arthur Miller, Ingrid Bergman and Agnes de Mille.

The idea took off and this year will be the 68th annual awards.

March 17th – Dear Liar

1960

Opening today in New York at the Billy Rose Theatre is “Dear Liar” – a play based on the fiercely passionate, yet unconsummated, relationship between Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and English stage actress Mrs Patricia Campbell.

Mrs Patricia Campbell as Eliza Doolittle

Mrs Patricia Campbell as Eliza Doolittle

Written by Jerome Kilty and starring Brian Aherne and Katharine Cornell, the play is based on Shaw and Campbell’s prolific letter writing.

Despite having already been his muse in several instances, the pair did not meet until 1897 and in 1912, while negotiations were underway for her to star as Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion” (a role he had written especially for her despite her age of 49 when it debuted), Shaw developed an intense infatuation which resulted in a love affair of great passion.

When she ended things in shortly before rehearsals for “Pygmalion” commenced, they remained friends however Shaw forbade an impoverished Campbell in later years from selling or publishing any of their letters, except heavily edited, for fear of upsetting his wife.

“Dear Liar” had a successful run in New York and has been revived many times.

“I want my dark lady. I want my angel. I want my tempter. I want my Freia with her apples. I want the lighter of my seven lamps of beauty, honour, laughter, music, love, life and immortality. I want my inspiration, my folly, my happiness, my divinity, my madness, my selfishness, my final sanity and sanctification, my transfiguration, my purification, my light across the sea, my palm across the desert, my garden of lovely flowers, my million nameless joys, my day’s wage, my night’s dream, my darling and my star.” – George Bernard Shaw in a letter to Campbell, publ. in “George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century” by Archibald Henderson

May 1st – Junius Brutus Booth

1796

Born today in St Pancras, London is Junius Brutus Booth.

If the name sounds oddly familiar, it could be because he became a popular actor at Drury Lane before emigrating to America in 1821 with a flower girl (abandoning his young wife and son). In America he was even more successful, compared favourably with Edmund Kean, and remained at the top of his profession for over thirty years.

Junius Brutus Booth

Junius Brutus Booth

It could also be because he had a turbulent personality, depending increasingly on alcohol and becoming notoriously unpredictable, often tumbling over the line into madness. He wrote a letter threatening to assassinate President Jackson, and surely enough his first marriage caught up with him towards the end of his life.

His name might be familiar because he was named after Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the lead assassins in “Julius Caesar”.

But it’s probably because he was the father of John Wilkes Booth, the man who (continuing his father’s legacy) assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC.

January 17 – The Cherry Orchard

1904

Today marked the opening of Anton Chekhov’s new play “The Cherry Orchard” at the Moscow Art Theatre, on a day which also marked the playwright’s 44th birthday.

Russia was still under the Julian calendar at this point and 14 years later when the then Soviet Union formally converted to the Gregorian calendar, Chekhov’s birthday became January 29th.

From the original 1904 production

From the original 1904 production

“The Cherry Orchard” itself, directed by Stanislavsky, was troubled. Largely because writer and director disagreed on everything, including whether it was a comedy or a tragedy. During the “short” 6 month rehearsal period the entire second act was re-written and Chekhov accused Stanislavsky of “ruining” his production.

The play was a huge success and soon presented for performance all over the country, but Chekhov didn’t live long to enjoy it, dying in July the same year.