Tag Archives: Theater

The Macbeth Riot (aka The Astor Place Riots)

In the history of New York, there are many riots of note. There is the Police Riot, the Dead Rabbit Riots, the Flour Riot of 1837, and several others. The reason for the sheer amount of riots is actually a combination of factors, all of which are fairly straight forward. Poverty, lack of policing, the crowding of people together into small locations, all  have played their part to create the metaphorical powder-keg, and all simply needed one event, large or small, to light the fuse. One of the more peculiar events that touched off a riot was a pair of competing productions of Shakespeare’s classic Macbeth.

There were three key items that played into the creation of this riot. The first was the very public feud between two leading actors of the day, American Edwin Forrest and Englishman William Charles Macready. The Second was the jingoistic fervor stoked by the likes of the Nativists. The third was the ever-growing chasm between the rich, who looked towards Europe for their cultural cues, and the lower classes, who, as previously implied, thought that American culture should be dictated by Americans. These three items played off of one another, leading to an explosion of violence that left over twenty people dead.

The actors set the stage long before appearing in New York, beginning over a public disagreement about the interpretation of the character of Hamlet sometime in the early to mid 1840′s, where Forrest, whilst in the audience at a production in Edinburgh, stood up and hissed Macready. Forrest had believed the Macready had hissed Forrest’s performance of Macbeth while in London, but there is little evidence of this. However, several members of the British press did document Forrest’s hissing, and criticized him thoroughly in the press, and harmed his European reputation greatly.  From that point on, the two were rivals.

Both tried to get under each other’s skin, with Macready stocking the audiences in Europe with his friends and fans wherever Forrest played, and jeered him. And when Macready undertook an American tour of various productions, Forrest (whose reputation was far greater in America) would book a show in a different theater in the same town, undercutting Macready’s take in any given town, and often getting less press than Forrest would get.

It was this act of these two actors performing the  in two separate theaters that led them to New York City in May of 1849. Macready’s production of Macbeth was at  the Astor Place Opera House (located on Lafayette Street between Astor Place and East 8th Street), and Forrest was performing Spartacus at the Bowery Theater (which resided the area between Elizabeth, Canal, and Hester streets).

Enter the Nativists, who, none to keen on the English, started handing out placards like the one to the right here. Creating an environment of “Us vs. Them”, and keen to stoke the hatred of the English, the Nativists used the Macready/Forrest feud for their own political gains. The Nativists used the opportunity to point out the class differences between those that visited the Astor Place Opera House and those who frequented the Bowery Theater.  For them, real Americans were the hard-working lower and middle classes, and for them, only American products, even American productions of Macbeth, would do.

In a strange twist of history, the Nativists were helped out by the ever-increasing Irish population of New York, who also could never resist the urge of tweaking the nose of the English. While the Nativists would typically spurn the Catholic immigrants in most cases, when it came to Macready and his production of Macbeth, the Irish and the Nativists were of the same mind.

On May 7, 1849, when Macready took the stage, he would soon learn that the audience was filled, not only with the upper class of New York City, but several of the Bowery B’hoys.  Apparently, the manager of the Opera House, in order to compete against the Bowery Theater, gave away promotional tickets, resulting in two important facts. For one, the size of the audience was now larger than the theater could hold. For two,  most of the promotional  tickets had been taken by people intent on disturbing the theater.

The first act went as scripted, but at the beginning of the second, Macready found himself jeered and taunted, and several dozen of the audience began pelting him with rotten eggs, copper pennies,  potatoes, lemons, and rocks. Macready fled the stage.

The next two nights, he refused to go on stage. This only served to stoke the jeering of the working class men who had wanted to taunt the Englishmen, and now had made habit of appearing outside of the Astor Opera House. Seeking to defuse the situation, on May 10, Macready decided that he should perform. The police were called to maintain order, and the ticket holders were vetted before going in, but still the Nativists had made it inside. By the time the curtains were drawn, there were anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000 outside the theater, and a handful more of rioter on the inside.  The soon surged the stage, but the police were able to remove them from the premises, to the cheers of those outside.

By now, those who frequented the Opera house were looking toward a solution, a method to disperse the large crowd outside the theater. The Seventh Regiment was called in, and arrived on scene at 10pm.  An order was given to shoot over the heads of the crowd, but when carrying out this order, the regiment fired into the crowd instead.  Eighteen died on site, and another four would die from their wounds in the following days.  The mob soon fled.

Over the course of the subsequent weeks, public opinion was divided as to who was responsible. Did the regiment over-react? Was the city government more keen on protecting the interests of the wealthy ? Were the various gangs to blame?

Ten of the rioters were tried in September, 1849, in the Court of General Sessions, New York before Judge Daly. After a trial lasting fifteen days, the jury found all ten guilty. Sentences varied from one month in prison to one year and a fine of $250.00. The members of the regiment were never charged.

However, the Astor Opera House would forever be remembered as a place of mob violence. It never recovered from its reputation, and closed in 1850.

What Was the First Broadway Musical?

It has long been a goal of mine to see a show on “Broadway”, an area of Manhattan that seems both part of, and yet separate from, New York City.  Taking in a show is as much of the tourists rite of passage in New York as getting to the top of the Empire State Building, or visiting the Statue of Liberty.  The idea of “Broadway” is magical in of itself. A musical is one thing, a Broadway musical is something else entirely.

So this begs my question – how did Broadway, as a qualifier that means both quality and spectacular, come into being? What was the first Broadway Musical?

To answer that question, some exploration of the theater scene in both New York City, as well as the United States of America itself, need to be explained.  Theater had been established in some form or another in America since before the before the American Revolution.  Theater houses were founded in larger cities, including Philadelphia, Boston, Charleston, and yes, even in New York, and these places were used to showcase touring companies from Europe, usually British, but not as a rule, rather because Americans didn’t speak and/or understand the touring companies from Germany, France, or Italy.

Theaters were places where the upper-classes mixed with the lower classes, at least those of whom could afford a ticket on a regular basis. Theater was a vibrant form of entertainment for the masses, one akin to the movies that were to come a century later.  The audiences often talked back to those on stage, and if a performance displeased too many people, rotting vegetables and stones would and were thrown at the performers. To be an actor in this era had its own challenges unseen by many in the profession today. Add into this mix the perception held by the more genteel that theater houses were places of vices and raucousness, and you have the general overview of the state of theater  in the early nineteenth century. The fact that many of the theaters allowed prostitutes solicit themselves in the more darkened floors, and that pickpockets prowled the standing room only pits did little to dissuade the moral from the immorality of theater.

Did musicals exist during this era? Kinda/sorta. Plays could have, and did have musical elements, but these elements were in place to support the narrative of the story in some way or another. The idea of theater event where the narrative elements drive the musical numbers didn’t exist until roughly 1866, when a show called The Black Crook took to the stage at Niblo’s Garden.

The Black Crook was little more than a combination of two shows that were mixed together in order to create a show for a ballet troupe that had found themselves without an avenue to perform when the Academy of Music had burnt down. In order to make the troupe palatable for the masses, a story based off of Der Freischütz was added along with some of the more popular songs of the day as performed by whatever actor or actress knew at the time.

For all intents and purposes, the story was a mess, the narrative had to follow, and whatever themes that could have been explored were non-existent. A man no less than Charles Dickens himself panned the show, stating:

[It is] the most preposterous peg to hang ballets on that was ever seen. The people who act in it have not the slightest idea of what it is about, and never had;

So what made the show popular enough that it ran for a record 475 nights and took in over a million dollars in box office receipts? Two things:

  1. It was naughty, or, at least, gave the appearance of being naughty, what with the scanty costumes that the dancing girls wore, with the pink tights worn beneath sheer robes giving the appearance of partial nudity.  When some of the local press called the play anti-Christian in its presentation, the shows promoters took the “bad publicity is still publicity” to heart and leveraged its less that puritanical reputation.
  2. It looked beautiful, by many accounts. While little to no money was spent on story development (having borrowed heavily from an already established German opera), the set pieces, stage designs, and transitions between scenes were given an exceptional amount of attention.

It is on this latter point that Mark Twain had a word or two, as he explained a wordless, thirteen minute transition between scenes that started in a subterranean gallery and ended in the “Realms of Stalacta”:

Beautiful bare-legged girls hanging in flower baskets; others stretched in groups on great sea shells; others clustered around fluted columns; others in all possible attitudes; girls – nothing but a wilderness of girls – stacked up, pile upon pile, away aloft to the dome of the theater, diminishing in size and clothing; till the last row, mere children, dangle high up from invisible ropes, arrayed only in camisa. The whole tableau resplendent in columns, scrolls, and a vast ornamental work, wrought in gold, silver, and brilliant colors – all lit up with gorgeous theatrical fires, and witnessed through a great gauzy curtain that counterfeits a soft silver mist! It is the wonders of the Arabian Nights realized.

To say the Msr. Clemons enjoyed the show would be an understatement.

Would we recognize it today as a musical? In structure, yes, but only just. The show lasted five and half hours, about two and half hours longer than today’s average show. The fact that the narrative of the story has some importance would likely put off modern audiences to The Black Crook. But it had recognizable, musical theater elements that we have today, including a chorus line (of sorts), and (some) songs created for the show itself would fit into today’s definition.

While some may claim others fit the bill as being the first Broadway Musical, The Black Crook has enough history to claim itself to be a seminal event in the history of Broadway.