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The Astor Place Riots 1849

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The Astor Place Riots took place in New York City in 1849 between predominantly lower class New York citizens and the state militia and resulted in the militia firing upon and killing a number of the crowd. The Riots were a significant event in the history of New York City and reveal a number of facts about the character of pre 1900s New York City. The nature of the socioeconomic background of the participants reveals a growing class and ethnic conflict within the city.

On May 10 1849 two popular actors took to the stage in New York City - Englishman William Charles Macready and American Edwin Forrest, both playing the titular lead in Macbeth. Both Forrest and Macready had performed a number of times across the Atlantic in each other's countries and had been hailed as amongst the greatest actors in their generation. The two men had contrasting styles of performance and over the course of their careers had developed an intense rivalry.

While performing in London in 1845 Macready found himself hissed by the audience while performing as Macbeth, and blamed the incident on Macready. Weeks later in Edinburgh, as Macready was performing Hamlet Macready, "a mighty hiss arose in front-a hiss like that of a steam-engine." Forrest himself now hissed at Macready midway through his performance, before then leaving.

The incidents in England were reported in various ways across the Atlantic with some newspapers in the United States even claiming that it was Macready himself who originally hissed during Forrest's performance in London. Such was the level of enmity within parts of the American community that many found it easy to believe that Macready sabotaged Forrest's performance.

Forrest was one of the first well known stars of the American stage and was particularly well loved by the lower class citizens of the Bowery district of New York City. He was particularly well known for his boisterous and masculine acting style, as distinct from Macready's more nuanced, colder readings, in other words "he was loud and emotive, like the audiences who adored him".

On May 7, 1849, three nights before the riot Macready took to the stage at the Astor Place Opera House. The Opera House was located at the northern end of Broadway on the corner of Eight Street and Lafayette Place. The building was constructed in 1847, targeted towards an upper class of New Yorkers. The building employed a dress code of "freshly shaven face, evening dress, fresh waistcoats, and kid gloves for gentlemen." The design of the Opera House was distinct from the traditional layout of other popular theatres such as the Bowery.

The Bowery was representative of many American theatres. It never catered to just one social class, and followed common unwritten rules of theatre etiquette. These included the right to hiss, stomp and jump around, even on the stage. The seating allowed for 1000 persons and due to the lack of restrictions of social class, was general admission. This code of etiquette was distinct for that of the British theatre, for example, as Frances Trollope commented upon the behaviour in American Theatres as "seem[ing] to disdain the restraints of civilized manners."

The Astor Place Opera House by contrast featured number, upholstered seats instead of wooden benches in the stalls on the ground, closest to the stage. The seats were sold to subscribers, while the cheaper, more traditional general admission seating was restricted to out of the way galleries. The Opera House's seating policies, in combination with their established preference for nuanced actors such as Macready and the distance of the Opera House from theatres such as the Bowery indicated a growing class conflict within the city.

As Macready first took to the stage in the Astor Place Opera House, on May 7 1849, to begin his farewell tour of America, placards began appearing side by side in the street displaying the cast of both Macready and Forrest's separate productions and venues. Initially the rivalry was considered as potentially by the theatre managers, as they would drive sales. Nether-the-less, Niblo, one of the Astor Place managers called upon the Chief of Police once he had learned that the Opera House had oversold rather quickly. A large crowd filled the auditorium, the "fashionable portion of the audience" now uncomfortably mingling with others who "were ragged and dirty". The audience was rowdy and unnerving to both the regular audience, the theatre staff and the actors. Mrs. Pope, who was playing Lady Macbeth whispered to one of the managers, "My God! Mr. Hackett, what is the matter? Are we to be murdered to-night?" Eventually Macready decided to take to the stage and began the play. The crowd became more and more agitated throughout the production however, and eventually began throwing objects



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