“…in an America that had yet to establish its own theatrical traditions, the way to prove its cultural prowess was to do Shakespeare as well as the British, and even to claim that Shakespeare, had he been alive at the time, would have been, at heart at least, an American.”
The riots centered around two Shakespearean actors, American Edwin Forrest, and the British William Charles Macready. The two actors allegedly symbolized the opposing views of richer and poorer cultures in America, which were encapsulated in British and American sentiments.
It was 1849, and the conflict was the deadliest to that date of a number of civic disturbances in Manhattan, which generally pitted immigrants and nativists pitted against each other, and these groups together against the wealthy who controlled the city’s police and the state militia. The conflicts culminated in what was to be called the Astor Place Riot.
Edwin Forrest’s passionate method of delivery and muscular physique were deemed admirably “American” by his working-class fans, especially compared to Macready’s more subdued and genteel style. A class struggle broke out between groups who largely supported Forrest, and the largely Anglophile upper classes, who apparently supported Macready.
After a disastorous performance of Macbeth tensions rose so high in the city that Macready stated that he would leave for Britain on the next available boat, but was persuaded to stay and perform again by a petition signed by many wealthy and prominent New Yorkers, including the authors Herman Melville and Washington Irving, who, ironically had found evidence against the authorship claim of the man from Stratford being Shakespeare when he was stationed as Ambassador to Spain.
The conflicts became increasingly violent and fearing they had lost control of the city, the authorities called out the troops, who arrived and were promptly jostled, attacked, and injured.
The soldiers then lined up, and after apparent warnings to the public, opened fire, first into the air and then several times at point blank range into the crowd. Most of those killed were innocent bystanders, and almost all of the casualties were from the working class, and seven of the dead were Irish immigrants.
The riot resulted in the largest number of civilian casualties due to military action in the United States since the American Revolutionary War, and led to increased police militarization.
The conflict invariably helped the upper classes and the city’s elite were unanimous in their praise of the authorities for taking a hard line against the rioters.
Their mouthpiece, Publisher James Watson Webb wrote:
“The promptness of the authorities in calling out the armed forces and the unwavering steadiness with which the citizens obeyed the order to fire on the assembled mob, was an excellent advertisement to the Capitalists of the old world, that they might send their property to New York and rely upon the certainty that it would be safe from the clutches of red republicanism, or chartists, or communionists [sic] of any description.”