Short Shakespeare!


January 22

March 5, 2011

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
adapted and directed by David H. Bell

Historical Context

Dueling Macbeths Erupt in ​Riots

Shakespeare’s Macbeth incited one of the most violent riots in American history. On the night of May 10, 1849 in New York City, a theater performance provoked rocks and bricks hurled in rage, and hateful language as dangerous and violent as any on the stage.

Why such passionate and chaotic anger? The altercation stemmed from a longstanding argument between two famous Shakespearean actors claiming—the Englishman Charles Macready and the American Edwin Forrest. The English Macready’s acting style was intellectual, refined, and by American standards, more affected. By contrast, the American Forrest’s style was emotional and explosive. An attractive, well-built man, he expressed the characters he played in a very physical manner. Each man was fiercely loyal to his own country. Macready believed Americans to be ignorant, vulgar and lacking in taste. Forrest resented the influence of English actors on the American stage. He once wrote to a friend that, “An American needs to reside in Europe only a few months to feel his own country is blessed beyond all others.” The two routinely took turns trading insults and jibes. In Edinburgh, Forrest was booed from the audience at Macready’s performance of Hamlet. Then, when Macready began his American tour, Forrest followed him from city to city, booking the nearest theater and performing the same roles. The competing tours took on the tone of a sports rivalry, one Macready could not hope to win against Forrest’s “home field advantage."

The rivalry came to a climax in New York. On May 7, 1849, Macready opened Macbeth at New York’s new Astor Place Opera House. Forrest opened his Macbeth just one mile away. The audience booed Macready from the moment he took stage. But he continued to perform until a hurled chair narrowly missed him and forced the remaining orchestra members out. Macready bowed to the audience and informed the theater that he had “fulfilled his obligation.” He planned to leave America on the next boat, but was flattered into staying by a petition signed by 47 prominent citizens, including noted American writers Washington Irving and Herman Melville. Macready decided to stay, and Macbeth was scheduled again for three days later.

In the following days flyers and handbills flooded the streets proclaiming: “Workingmen! Shall Americans or English rule the city?” The handbills were printed by the “American Committee,” a jingoistic group that favored “America for Americans” and played to the public’s prejudice against the growing number of immigrants competing for employment in the United States.

City officials ordered 325 local policemen and 200 members of the Seventh Regiment to keep the peace surrounding the theater. As police rushed in to remove people for throwing trash and rocks on stage, the battle escalated outside. Rioters began throwing bricks through the theater windows.

Protesters trying to set the Opera House on fire were arrested. The mob pressed closer, trying to force their way into the Opera House where Macready was acting. Finally, the police and soldiers fired on the crowd. The riot broke up and the theater was saved from destruction. Between 22 and 31 people died, and more than 100, including police, soldiers and innocent onlookers, were wounded.

And what happened to Charles Macready? Disguised, he left the theater with the fleeing audience. Catching a train to Boston, he left America by boat 12 days later and never returned. The night of the riot Edwin Forrest was performing Spartacus and, although authorities urged him to cancel his performance, he insisted that the show must go on.

– Contributed by the CST Education Department

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