Remembering New York City's Opera Riots

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Staged riots at cultural events were routine in the 1840s. But the Astor Place riots of 1849 cost 22 lives, ending the practice. Theater historian Bruce McConachie helps Scott Simon recall the story.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

At best, art inspires passion. At worst, a riot. May 10, 1849 in New York City, a simple spat between rival actors turned into what's now known as the Astor Place Riot. Twenty-two people died and 100 were injured at the Astor Place Opera House. It would not be insensitive to ask what was playing that night. Turned out to be Macbeth, maybe the ultimate tale of rivalry and murder most foul. The rival Macbeths were the English master William Charles McCready versus American Edwin Forrest. Imagine if Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ray Fiennes just couldn't stand each other. Bruce McConachie wrote the Oxford Encyclopedia of Theater and Performance entry on the riots. He's also Professor of Theater at the University of Pittsburg. He joins us from member station WQED there. Thanks very much for being with us.

Professor BRUCE MCCONACHIE (University of Pittsburg): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: So what was going on between these two actors?

Prof. MCCONACHIE: Their rivalry had been simmering for several years. Both were international stars, both had toured to each other's countries. Forrest, in 1845, had hissed Macready in Edinburgh. Macready was not too interested in engaging in this rivalry and was trying to avoid it, but Forrest wanted to press his point. So when Macready had his own tour to New York in 1849, Forrest's followers decided to avenge their hero and they're the ones that put together the riot.

SIMON: Put together a riot, with planning aforethought, I guess?

Prof. MCCONACHIE: Oh, that's right, yeah. Riots in those days, especially in theaters, were planned ahead of time. And they were usually intended to oppose a specific policy at the theater, not always a rival actor, sometimes a stage manager or even a piece of music that might have been played and ruffled the patriotic feathers in the audience. People would break up some furniture, throw things at the stage, and then retire, go home to their dinners, and the theater manager would take care of the problem and life would go on.

SIMON: It was all part of the floor show?

Prof. MCCONACHIE: In effect, that's right.

SIMON: What happened on May 10th?

Prof. MCCONACHIE: Forrest's supporters, who were a lot of Bowery Boys and Tammany Hall politicians, gathered their forces outside the hated Astor Place Opera House. They used Macready's performance as a means of protesting what they took to be elitist privileges in New York City. This was an opera house that had been built two years before and they had special kid glove dress codes, they had higher prices, so a lot of the rest of the population couldn't get into the opera house.

So Macready became a symbol of English oppression, of aristocratic privilege, of all the things that the Bowery Boys had learned to hate.

SIMON: They came loaded with what? Knives and clubs or something?

Prof. MCCONACHIE: Probably some of them had knives. But most of them were just using their hands and also throwing some things at the stage to get Macready to apologize for even being there. Macready did leave but the rioting continued, and finally the state militia was called up and brought in. They came to Astor Place Square, fired over the heads of a lot of the rioters, and ended up killing 22 onlookers. This was not something that Tammany Hall had expected or welcomed. It certainly wasn't a part of the usual we could say rioting conventions of antebellum America and it was a huge scandal for all around.

SIMON: Why do we still talk about the Astor Place riot? The terrific and incongruous loss of life would be certainly I guess the pre-eminent reason.

Prof. MCCONACHIE: It pretty much ended theater rioting. There were other things that did too, that are policing, more middle-class attitudes that began to dominate in theater-going modes and manners. But as a theater historian, it's an important turning point.

SIMON: Well, Mr. McConachie, thanks very much.

Prof. MCCONACHIE: Thank you.

SIMON: Bruce McConachie teaches at the theater department at University of Pittsburgh and he's author of Melodramatic Formations: American Theater and Society, 1820 to 1870.

Mr. McCONACHIE: If it were done when tis done, then forewell it were done quickly, if the assassination could tremble up the consequence and catch with his success, but this blow might be the be all and the end-all...

Mr. ANTHONY QUAIL (Actor): ... and the end all here. But here upon this bank and shore of time, we jump the life to come. But in these cases, we still have judgment here.

SIMON: Macbeth's soliloquy in the first act, Scene Seven, Bruce McConachie followed by some British guy named Anthony Quail in a 1960 recording.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: I know: Sir Anthony Quail. WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News.

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