Astor Place Riot

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 96

May 10 is the anniversary of the Astor Place Riot: the night in 1849 when fans of American actor Edwin Forrest rioted inside and outside New York’s Astor Place Opera House during a performance by Forrest’s rival, the British actor William Charles Macready. Nearly 30 people were killed.

Our guests on this podcast episode are Heather Nathans, Chair of the Department of Drama and Dance at Tufts University in Boston, and Karl Kippola, Associate Professor in the Department of Performing Arts at American University in Washington. They were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published May 1, 2018. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, His Headstrong Riot Hath No Curb, was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer.

We had production help from Ian Fox and Alex Braunstein at the PRX Podcast Garage in Boston and Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: Two actors performing two different versions of Macbeth in the same town. Fans are so passionate that at one performance: there’s a riot and nearly 30 people are killed. You hear a story like that and you can’t help thinking: I’m sorry, but there has to be more to it.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s Director. The story I just teased is surprisingly little-known, even to people immersed in the world of Shakespeare. May 10 is the anniversary of the Astor Place Riot: the night in 1849 when fans of American actor Edwin Forrest rioted inside and outside New York’s Astor Place Opera House during a performance by Forrest’s rival, the British actor William Charles Macready.

And whether or not you've heard the story before, it’s one we could all know a lot better. Because—as you’ll hear—many aspects of it continue to reverberate today.

We brought together two experts on elements of 19th-century American theater that have a direct bearing on the riot to talk about it. Karl Kippola’s academic research focuses primarily on the performance of masculinity on the 19th-century American stage. Heather Nathans has written about early American theater as well as the way immigrants and African-Americans were depicted on the American stage. Karl is an Associate Professor in the Department of Performing Arts at American University in Washington and Heather is Chair of the Department of Drama and Dance at Tufts University.

We call this podcast “His Headstrong Riot Hath No Curb.” Heather and Karl are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

BARBARA BOGAEV: One of the really interesting parts of this kind of half-known story is that back in the 19th century, around the time of this riot, violence wasn’t all that unusual in the theater, and this was something I didn’t know. I mean, it wasn’t like, “Which did you like better, Cats or Hamilton on Broadway?” These kinds of brawls maybe weren’t as big or deadly as the Astor Riot, but fistfights certainly happened a lot. Why don’t, Heather, you remind us just how disreputable theater was considered at the time?

HEATHER NATHANS: Sure. It’s partly that theater is considered disreputable because actors sometimes have questionable reputations. That’s more characteristic of the early theater in the post-revolutionary period. By the middle of the 19th century, it’s actually growing in respectability, particularly with stars like Edwin Forrest, but it remains this very volatile, highly masculine space. Any little hint or whiff of something political, or something connected to racial politics or class politics, really sets off a powder keg in the theater. We’ve seen other riots where somebody brings, in the case in a Philadelphia theater, a raccoon on stage, which is the emblem of a political party, and everyone begins screaming. And so even the most innocuous gesture can really set off an audience that is already very much on edge.

BOGAEV: And Karl, why don’t you pick up on that. And the audiences, they were a rough crowd, right? 19th century, still, genteel women didn’t go to the theater, certainly not alone. Was the audience really made up basically of men and prostitutes, as I’ve read?

KARL KIPPOLA: Well, I think a lot of that decorum of audiences tended to be divided largely by class. Working-class audiences tended to be far more boisterous and loud, whereas theaters that were catering more to kind of a middle-class and the elite class tended to be governed a little bit more by stricter social behavior.

NATHANS: There’s a really famous painting of the Park Street Theater, which was one of the major New York theaters in the 1810s, ‘20s, and ‘30s that shows the pit and the boxes, and then up in the galleries. And so what you see in the pit, is it’s entirely masculine. And then what you see in the box area are men and their wives, and then the galleries, very famously, it’s been chronicled, those are the sort of disreputable “light” women who are coming to troll for customers. But one of the other things that this particularly famous picture points out is the men in the pit would have largely known each other, which really underscores what a small theater community you had. Like, we go to the theater today and it’s an anonymous audience. This is a community that actually knows each other, knows what their political stances are, and I think that contributes to the volatility as well.

BOGAEV: So riots and theater, that is really the backdrop to Astor Place, and this beginning of a class separation, and that wealthy patrons are bumping up against working-class theatergoers. Finally, we have these two very different celebrity performers facing off. We have this Brit, William Charles Macready, and Edwin Forrest. So let’s look at them one at a time. Karl can tell us about Edwin Forrest, who he was and what he was like on stage.

KIPPOLA: Yeah, Forrest was a pretty extraordinary figure. He was the first great American actor. An astounding percentage of the theater reviews that cover his performance talk about the size of his biceps and his calf muscles. He also had a loud, booming voice that reportedly would shake the rafters of the building. So he was not really into subtlety, and he was frequently kind of criticized for a lack of spirituality, and nuance, and intelligence within his performance. And while he was a brilliant man, he tended to focus on kind of the larger, grander, bigger theatrical choices. And while initially, early on in his career, that kind of appealed across class lines, as we get deeper into the 1800s it really starts to fragment a bit. And I think we see more of him appealing even more strongly to working-class audiences as opposed to more elite audiences.

BOGAEV: And why was that?

KIPPOLA: Well, I think in many ways that Forrest represented, especially for working-class men, who they aspired to be. Not only in his performances of Shakespeare, but Forrest also sponsored playwriting competitions, plays that were written specifically for him. And in all of those plays, he played kind of a republican hero, kind of somebody who came out of the commons and fought against an evil aristocracy, and just through sheer force of will overcame all obstacles. He represented sort of this ideal of what the working-class man could become.

BOGAEV: Oh, interesting. So this was kind of brawny, he-man, working-class hero type figure, iconic figure.

KIPPOLA: Absolutely.

BOGAEV: What roles was he known for in Shakespeare?

KIPPOLA: In Shakespeare, he was primarily known for roles like Macbeth, and Lear, Coriolanus. He did play Hamlet, though it was not considered to be one of his more successful roles, largely because Hamlet being sort of indecisive was so working against who Forrest was as a person and as an actor. And so those were the primary Shakespearean roles for which he was known, and Macbeth certainly was one of the great ones.

BOGAEV: Heather, did Forrest take many liberties with Shakespeare, or did he play it straight?

NATHANS: He took a lot of liberties. So for example, I’ve seen a version of a prompt book of his Othello at the New York Public Library in their archives, and you can see that Forrest has gone through and just excised almost everyone else but him, so he’s made a lot of cuts so that…

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] No Desdemona?

NATHANS: Very little Desdemona. You know, “Why does she need to be talking? We all know she’s going to get killed.” And so he cuts the scene where Othello hits Desdemona, so he really trims down the part a lot. And they also give very explicit directions about how he looked on stage. So he played Othello as tawny rather than strictly black. He played him apparently in very gorgeous robes of purple with jewels. So, even when he is playing a Shakespearean character, he is very much adjusting it to the kind of image that he has already created of himself. And, as Karl was mentioning, Macbeth becomes one of his famous roles. And the picture of him playing Macbeth, there’s a very famous… I mean, he could not look more the man of action. His arm is up, his legs are straddled, he’s heading off to do battle, and it’s very much the antithesis of how Macready is pictured playing Macbeth when he’s just sort of standing there politely in a kilt.

BOGAEV: Karl, is this how you see them lining up? You know, you have this brawny larger-than-life performer, the all-American guy. And was he in direct opposition to a more genteel, maybe less virile British style of leading man? Is there a subtext about masculinity and its place in American history here?

KIPPOLA: Absolutely. I mean, I think there are kind of two dominant strains of acting that are happening during this time, and that really coincides with a class-based masculine behavior. Forrest is sort of emulating the great English actor Edmund Kean—a very romantic school of acting. It’s impulsive, it’s passionate. The other side, Macready’s school of acting is kind of more of what would be termed more of a classical style of acting inspired by the British actor John Philip Kemble, and there it’s much more focused on elocution. While there is passion there, it’s definitely always passion governed by intellect. What we see in these two performers who are radically different generally in their performance, and specifically in Macbeth, which they were both performing on the night of the riot, their interpretations of the roles also were radically different. Their audiences, Forrest’s working-class audience and Macready’s anglophilic middle- and elite-class audience, they also were embodying and admiring and applauding two radically different masculine images. So one of strength and power and passion and impulse, and the other one of passion, but controlled by the intellect.

BOGAEV: I’m trying to think of a modern-day analogy to compare these two performers, and maybe Forrest sounds more to me like a summer blockbuster performance, and Macready more like a subtle, mumblecore indie. Maybe not mumblecore. Heather, am I on any kind of right track there?

NATHANS: You know I would say Daniel Day-Lewis, right? If you think about, Daniel Day-Lewis can be explosive when he needs to be, but there is always that immense intelligence and sense of control that’s shaping his roles. And then on the flipside, you’re right, someone who, I would absolutely say any blockbuster.

KIPPOLA: Somebody like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, or even if we go back a few years, somebody like Sylvester Stallone, who could do more substantive acting, but became known for being kind of this massive muscular presence.

BOGAEV: Right, so Sylvester Stallone versus a method actor. Okay, that’s vivid now, I get it. So you have these two very different performers, you have class tensions, a powder keg there. And we already said that the audiences were rough at this time, but it sounds as if they were particularly rough for Forrest. Karl, is this true in New York where the riot took place? Astor Place is in an immigrant neighborhood primarily there, and there were elements from the Five Points gang at the time.

KIPPOLA: Absolutely. Forest’s audience was very definitely a working-class audience, also tended to be very anti-British. And also largely anti-immigrant. Although at the same time, Irish immigrants also were anti-British and also were huge fans of Forrest. And so you have kind of the nativist Americans and the Irish immigrants who hated each other, but they could be joined together in their hatred of anything associated with the British.

NATHANS: And I actually have this pamphlet that I picked up at an antiquarian bookseller’s fair that was printed right after the riots that gives the account of the terrible and fatal riot, and it includes a list of the dead and how they’re all killed, like, “shot through the lung,” “shot through the head.” And I’m struck when I look at it at how many of the people killed were Irish.

BOGAEV: How interesting. How high, though, did anti-British feeling run at this time, Heather? I mean, the War of 1812, it had happened, you know, decades before, at this point, so how fresh was that for theatergoers still in the 1840s? And what were Americans’ feelings about Britain and the British by then?

NATHANS: Sure. I don’t know that it’s specifically anti-British, as much as it is a kind of elite opposition to a rising working-class that is becoming increasingly urbanized and industrialized, that the cities are becoming these clusters of people who have been relocated from rural areas. Plus, anyone who has flooded in post-Famine to a new working-class population, and you have a city that really isn’t equipped to handle a working-class community that has access to alcohol, that doesn’t have an effective police force to keep them down, that is, not surprisingly, resentful of an elite group of Americans who are telling them how they should behave and how they should be governed. That seems to me, again, a very combustible combination. And when you throw in something like Macready, who becomes the darling of a New York elite group that is trying to, as they perceive it, deny access to working-class white Americans, then there is, not surprisingly, a kind of resentment that bubbles up and that seems like British versus US rivalry, but I think is compounded of things that are much more complicated than just that.

BOGAEV: And these two performers, they had a history, or a rivalry that was played out on the boards, in the theater, also in the press. Karl, tell us about that, and the story about Forrest going to England and making trouble at Macready’s performance.

KIPPOLA: They have an interesting history, these two. Forrest heads over for the first time to England in 1836, and he is applauded over in England, because he really fulfills the expectations of what an American actor would be. He’s this larger-than-life barbarian from the woods of America. Macready comes back to America for a second trip in 1843, and at this point there are more tensions.

Forrest heads back to London in 1845, and the audiences, and especially the press, are not nearly as kind to him. He feels that Macready is largely responsible for the negative response of the press, and Forrest starts following Macready around. He will find out what Macready is performing, and then he will do the same play at a theater across the street, kind of this mano a mano masculine showdown of acting.

Eventually, Forrest follows Macready to Scotland where he is performing Hamlet. There’s a part when Hamlet is going to pretend to be crazy, and he does this little dance with a handkerchief, and there’s a large hiss heard from the audience. And everybody turns around and it’s Forrest, this massive presence, who has hissed his fellow actor. And it really was the hiss heard ‘round the world. The newspapers everywhere in the world are writing about this. Macready, in his private diary, is sort of talking about what a deplorable human being Forrest is. Forrest is kind of stoutly, belligerently defending his democratic right to express his disapproval of an actor’s choice.

BOGAEV: Wow, so this rivalry heated up over years and years, right? And there was an ensuing scandal, Macready came back on a third and last trip to America, where something horrible got thrown at him on the stage.

KIPPOLA: Oh yeah, a dead carcass of a sheep. Yeah, that was fun. You know, on May 7, a couple days before the riot, they started throwing the chairs from the balcony. They were doing kind of these pre-curtain speeches to their audiences, which I think also fascinatingly showed the differences between them. Forrest was sort of saying, “I did this, I did the hiss because I am a man, and I can stand up for what I believe in.” And Macready was saying, “I’m so sorry to offer all this trouble, and I will be seeking legal redress.” It’s radically different, sort of this public engagement of their personal feud, which is then spilling out between their audiences too.

BOGAEV: Well, you’ve brought us up to the specific events that led to the actual riot on the 10th, we’re now at May 7. You said three nights earlier, Macready is performing and people are throwing chairs, and I read some account where people were also throwing rotten eggs, potatoes, apples, lemons, shoes, bottles of stinking liquid, and ripped-up seats. But, Heather, did the performances persist at this time? Did the show go on?

NATHANS: Well, that’s the thing that astonishes me, that everyone knew this was coming, right? You could’ve predicted that May 10 was coming if you decided to go on. And yet, Macready’s elite American supporters encourage him to go on, right? Karl can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Macready was almost thinking like, “I’m out of here.” Right? And they encourage him to keep going, yes?

KIPPOLA: Yeah, absolutely. He was planning to leave the United States immediately and never come back.

BOGAEV: After his performance on the seventh, three nights before the riot.

KIPPOLA: After May 7. And so these 47 prominent citizens, including Herman Melville and Washington Irving, signed a petition that went to the mayor, saying, “You need to protect this person.”

BOGAEV: And that persuaded him. And is it at this point, Karl, that New York’s mayor calls out the militia to keep the peace?

KIPPOLA: He does. Well, New York has a mayor that is sworn in May 8, so he’s brand-new, Woodhall. He is going to post police inside the theater, he’s going to post another 125 police outside the theater, and then the National Guard is going to be standing and waiting about two blocks away in case anything bigger comes up.

BOGAEV: And this is for Macready’s performance of Macbeth on May 10. What about the other side? What arms were they bearing?

KIPPOLA: Well, I think the odd unfortunate circumstances that sort of conspired together for May 10 was, there was this large mound of paving stones that were supposed to be cleared away just outside the theater, and for some reason they weren’t. And so, largely, the people who were there at the riot didn’t necessarily have weapons, but they did find all of these loose paving stones and began to throw them at the theater, and then at the police, and then eventually at the National Guard who were there.

BOGAEV: So this is during the performance, this kind of skirmishing was going on. The militia opened fire into the crowd. At what point did that happen?

KIPPOLA: Well, first there was a disturbance within the theater itself, a bunch of Forrest supporters have bought tickets and they cause a disturbance. The police inside the theater arrest them and lock them up in a room in the basement of the theater, where those Forrest supporters set fire to that room in the basement, which is not a very long-sighted plan on their part.

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] I was going to say, somebody’s not using their noggin.

KIPPOLA: So there’s smoke and confusion inside the theater, and a growing number of people outside the theater. The crowd that is gathered outside the theater, it’s really difficult to know an exact number, it was estimated as somewhere between 10,000 and 24,000 people, some who are rioting, but a lot of people who are just kind of curious bystanders observing what’s going on. So the National Guard is called in, and they march in-between the rioters and the theater. They are instructed to fire a warning shot, which they do. But then a rumor starts going back in the crowd that, Oh, the National Guard is shooting blanks. So then, there’s a push from the crowd to go through the National Guard, and hen the order is given out to fire into the crowd. Some of the National Guard do that, some of them, they disregard the order and they shoot directly over the heads of the crowd. But what that does is, because of the nature of firearms at that time, the bullet goes over the top of the crowd, and the bullet comes down and strikes people who are just observing in the back.

BOGAEV: Wow, this is like Kent State before Kent State.

KIPPOLA: Absolutely, yeah.

BOGAEV: The final toll in dead and wounded?

KIPPOLA: I’ve read numbers anywhere from 25 to 31, so somewhere in there as far as the number of dead. The number of wounded was somewhere between 120 and 150, which included people in the crowd as well as police and National Guard.

BOGAEV: I read somewhere that the dead were laid out in saloons and taverns for their loved ones to come to identify them?

NATHANS: Some are laid out wherever they’re carried afterwards. Some are laid out in the theater, some die while they’re being carried to the hospital. So, you know, as Karl was suggesting, there’s such pandemonium that there’s no plan for what happens when it all goes so horribly awry.

BOGAEV: So Karl, yeah, because of the pandemonium, I hesitate to ask this question, but you have to. Who was to blame?

KIPPOLA: I think that really depends upon who you talk to. Certainly, the working-class papers are criticizing Macready for continuing to perform, criticizing the elites who supported him, criticizing the mayor. Whereas, you know, more conservative upper-class newspapers are completely blaming Forrest for continuing to egg on his supporters, and continuing to encourage this competition and sense of tension. Everybody was blaming the press for their role: they were selling a lot of newspapers by encouraging this competition. And so if I were now looking back on it blaming anything, I would say that the press probably did more to fuel that fire than anything else.

BOGAEV: And there’s so many parallels we could talk about what’s happening now, but I want to keep this to Shakespeare. What consequences did the Shakespeare riot have for theater at the time? Which, as you said at the beginning of our conversation, was already segmenting into upper- and lower-class tiers. Did this intensify that evolution?

NATHANS: I don’t know that it necessarily pushed it in any direction it wasn’t already going. It certainly cements suspicion, right? It certainly makes it clear that these communities have very little in common. And one of the interesting things that happens at the end of the pamphlet that was written about it, is it asks the question, “Who’s to blame?” And it says, “Everyone.” So, it’s not going to take sides about the lower classes versus the elite, it said, everyone has a share in what happened here, and it doesn’t actually propose any resolution. And Karl, I don’t know what your thoughts are, but it’s not like the theater suddenly turns into a different animal where everyone sort of gets together and sings kumbayah, and we say, “Oh no, we need to have class reconciliation in the playhouse.”

KIPPOLA: No. I would say, if anything, in the long-term, if you look at the long 1800s, I think that ultimately it’s the middle class that wins. I think working-class audiences, more and more, the expectation is that they need to moderate their behavior, and so the working-class male audience starts to find other entertainments. And I think that we start to get the theater that we really have now, where we go into a darkened auditorium and people know when it is appropriate to laugh and to applaud, but overall, we have become a much more passive, polite audience. And I think that that change in behavior really comes to a crisis and a head during the Astor Place riot.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s interesting, so you see that as more influential than just simple ticket prices rising?

KIPPOLA: I think it’s a combination of things. That theater managers… I think this, perhaps on some level, might’ve formed some sort of a wakeup call for them of…“Is this really worth the trouble?” And there are theater entertainments that continue to appeal to the working class, but I think that, as we move deeper and deeper into the 1800s, we see fewer and fewer working-class people, especially drawn to Shakespeare. And I think that Shakespeare becomes, increasingly, an entertainment that is appealing more to an elite audience, I think.

BOGAEV: Well, following up on that, and maybe it’s coming at it from a slightly different angle. What role did Shakespeare play in this Shakespeare riot story? Because this was a time, wasn’t it, when you proved your cultural prowess by performing Shakespeare as well as the British? That was our calling card, a time of claiming Shakespeare as an American. Karl, why don’t you take this one?

KIPPOLA: What we see that changes in Shakespeare moving forward is who is observing Shakespeare does change, but also I think the style of performance also changes. Edwin Booth becomes the great Shakespearean actor of kind of the second half of the 1800s, and his is a much more cerebral, intellectual style. I don’t think we see the American action hero performing Shakespeare onstage as being like a major cultural event anymore. I think that that is another change that happens in how Shakespeare is performed.

BOGAEV: So a turning point… I’m sorry, go ahead, Heather.

NATHANS: What I was going to say, by the middle of the 19th century, as Karl knows, you have people who are satirizing Forrest’s performance, and writing takeoffs on his famous plays where they come out and mock his sort of ranting style and overly muscular appearance. And so you can sense that it’s almost going out of fashion.

KIPPOLA: And even toward the end of his career, he started to collect an almost exclusively working-class audience, but also one that was very nostalgic, kind of looking back on, “Oh, this was when the American stage was really great, back in Forrest’s day.” And so he really was almost performing, I think, a parody of himself by the time he got to the end of his career.

BOGAEV: Taking a step back now from theater to this larger issue of class, we don’t think of class riots as happening all that much here, at least after the time of the rise of unions, say. So where do you put Astor Place in the story of class conflict in this country? Do you see it as a one-off, a product of this unique combustion of British/American tensions, and theater, and this rivalry between these two guys as well as class? Or do you see it, you know, center-stage as part of an ongoing history that extends even into modern-day class conflict in America?

NATHANS: Oh, I would absolutely extend it into modern-day. I mean, I hope we don’t see that kind of cataclysmic violence anytime soon again, but it seems impossible to argue that we don’t have tremendous class divisions in this country, and populations that feel disenfranchised and overlooked and are in search of a muscular, ranting, hyper-masculine hero who claims that he’s speaking for them, for instance.

KIPPOLA: Yeah, I think that was one of the big takeaways from the 2016 elections was this, I think, somewhat disingenuous dawning that, “Oh my goodness, we have a disconnect between kind of the middle of the country and these coastal elites.” And if we look at the difference between our last two presidents, you see two radically different masculine figures who are appealing to completely different people, and that we have different segments of the population who either view them as a hero or as a villain. And I think that that fragmentation of society based upon class, and class mixed up with all sorts of other things at the same time, is something that certainly continues.

NATHANS: You could not extrapolate what happens in the Astor Place riot from thinking about race, from thinking about immigration, from thinking about issues of gender. I don’t think you can look at Astor Place and say, “It’s only class,” any more than you can look around at what’s happening today and say, “Oh, well, this is only a white class tension issue.” You have to look at everything else that is colliding to bring these forces together.

KIPPOLA: Absolutely.

BOGAEV: Well, we could talk about this for weeks, I bet, but I want to thank you both so much. It’s been really interesting. Karl, thank you so much for joining us. Also, Heather.

NATHANS: Oh, no, thank you.

KIPPOLA: Oh, thanks so much, it was great.


WITMORE: Heather Nathans is Chair of the Department of Drama and Dance at Tufts University in Boston. Karl Kippola is an Associate Professor in the Department of Performing Arts at American University in Washington. They were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

His Headstrong Riot Hath No Curb was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. Shakespeare Unlimited podcasts are edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had production help from Ian Fox and Alex Braunstein at the PRX Podcast Garage in Boston and Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

I’d like to ask you a favor. Can you take a moment to rate and review Shakespeare Unlimited on iTunes or Google Play or whatever platform you get the podcast from? It helps us connect with new listeners. Thank you.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.