The Play’s The Thing: Dueling Macbeths sparked full-on theater riot in 1849

By Ronald B. Hellman

Here’s a New Year’s treat for my loyal readers: a tale from the good old days, when the merits of two actors were seriously disputed, unlike today when many awards are given out for many reasons, comparative talent not necessarily being a major consideration. The soon-to-be-televised Golden Globes, for instance, voted on by fewer than 100 people, make a good show where we get to ogle the glamorous celebrities, but do we really get to know, or to care, who’s better?

It was another story back in 1849 when the American star Edwin Forrest and the great English actor William Charles Macready each played the title role in “Macbeth” at New York theaters just a few blocks apart. (There was even a third version of the play at another theater on the same night — today we have just one current production of “The Merchant of Venice,” but at least we have Al Pacino.)

Macready’s approach to a role was formal, while Forrest’s was physical, and with each playing the Scottish king, it could be fairly determined who was the better actor. But, alas, it was not to be.

Each had toured the other’s country, but here in America, Macready was a symbol of British aristocracy while Forrest appealed to the immigrant working-classes — he was so popular that he was earning $2,000 a week, a tidy sum now but a fabulous fortune then. However, in London, critics gave Forrest poor reviews; he retaliated by hissing Macready’s performance in “Hamlet,” and back at home savaged his competitor with derogatory letters to the press.

So on May 7, 1849, the stage was set for the dueling Macbeths. Macready was performing at the Astor Place Opera House (East Eighth Street and Astor Place), but the theater was packed with Forrest supporters, who interrupted the performance with lots of shouts and by throwing everything they could get their hands on. (And you thought playing in “Spider-Man” was hazardous!) Macready made a fast exit, vowing never to return.

A number of prominent New Yorkers, however, including Washington Irving and Herman Melville, signed a petition on his behalf, and Macready, with the promise of support and protection, agreed to give it another try. It took place on May 10, 1849, now known as the date of the Astor Place Riot.

Inside the theater, the elite audience’s dress code was white kid gloves and silk vests, while outside a crowd of some 15,000 gathered to protest the appearance of the English Shakespearean actor. Bricks and paving stones were thrown at the building, and an attempt was made to burn it down. To quell the violence, the police called in troops from the Seventh Regiment. Three volleys were fired into the crowd, and when the smoke cleared, some 23 people were dead and dozens more were injured – a major disaster and the biggest theater riot in history.

So who was the better Macbeth? I guess we’ll never know, but keep this story in mind as you watch all the award shows. Hopefully, nobody will get shot.

Just a short distance away from the Astor Place Opera House, long since gone, is the Public Theater, founded by Joseph Papp. Lots of cutting-edge contemporary work plays there — recently the rousing musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Its run was extended several times, so the producers decided to bring it to Broadway, but there it lasted less than three months. Broadway, as you should know, is supported by tourists — two out of every three tickets are purchased by out-of-towners — and cutting-edge is not what they’re looking for.

However, do yourself a favor: go to the Cort Theatre and see “Time Stands Still” before it closes the end of January. It’s a play you will enjoy, and the four-person cast, headed by Laura Linney, is absolutely marvelous. Most of the tourists have gone home now, and you probably will avoid a riot.

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu

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