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
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.