On May 10, 1849, New Yorkers rioted over who was the better Shakespearean actor, the English performer William Macready or the American Edwin Forrest.
William Macready and Edwin Forrest had the kind of artistic rivalry that makes for excellent high drama. Not least because high drama was also their business: the two were lauded as the finest Shakespearean actors of their generation.
Macready was English, and his performances (as Othello, King Lear, Richard III, Henry V, and Macbeth) were refined, precise, intellectual. Forrest was American, and his performances (as Othello, King Lear, Macbeth) were strong, muscular, and loud. They were at first friendly colleagues, but their relationship grew more adversarial over time.
The theatres in the United States were dominated by English performers, so the emergence of a world-class American actor was extremely important to the local crowds. On one of Macready’s tours of the States, Forrest apparently followed him around the country and gave counter-performances of the same plays. When Forrest toured London he received a chilly reception and blamed Macready’s manipulations.
19th century New York had its own social rivalry going on, between the upper classes (very English) and the working class and new migrants (many of them not English). The contest between Macready and Forrest became a flashpoint for this conflict. It wasn’t really about their acting abilities, but what they represented for the city. The rallying cry was this: who would rule in New York, the English or the Americans?
Macready was performing Macbeth at the upper class Astor Opera House. Forrest was performing Macbeth at the populist Broadway Theatre. Forrest’s supporters had disrupted an earliest Macready performance with heckling and rotten eggs, but Macready was persuaded to continue.
On May 10, 1849, patrons gathered in the Astor Opera House to watch Macready’s final performance. A police force of 250 men kept watch inside and outside the theatre, fearing trouble. A further 350 men from the New York militia joined them. And, surrounding all this, ten thousand angry protesters.
The riot, when it came, followed a predictable route. The protesters assaulted the theatre with stones; the militia responded with bullets. Fifty or more policemen and a hundred and forty militia members were injured by thrown projectiles; between twenty and thirty protesters and bystanders died at the hands of the militia.
Astor Opera House folded soon after; Macready returned returned to England and retired two years later; Forrest became embroiled in a very public divorce the next year but continued to perform for many years after.
[Thanks to 3am Magazine.]