In the 21st century, it’s difficult to imagine a theatrical performance sparking a riot. Even the early twentieth century riots surrounding Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (1913) seem far-fetched to modern sensibilities. And the rowdiest of modern entertainments (like concerts or football matches) are only likely to produce mosh pits or individual exchanges of fisticuffs at worst. Perhaps that’s why the Shakespearean kerfuffle that sparked the Astor Place Riot stands out so noticeably in the historical record.
The Astor Place Riot, in which over 20 people were killed by an armed militia during a performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth, was not the first theater riot of its day. As a matter fact, it would prove to be the last. Because theaters offered a fairly democratized form of entertainment in the 19th century—bringing together patrons from all walks of life—they were also apt venues for social discourse. Often, this discourse took the form of pre-planned ‘riots’ that were mostly a matter of throwing rotten vegetables or smashing furniture in order to display displeasure regarding theater policies or individuals’ performances.
In that context, it was not so strange that a bitter rivalry between two famous Shakespearean actors could lead to a riot. Indeed, American actor Edwin Forrest and English thespian William Charles Macready had been vying to justify their respective claims to being the world’s preeminent Shakespeare performer for some years, with Macready drawing support from upper class audiences who found him to embody the genteel styling that had come to be associated with the Bard, and Forrest earning a good reputation among working class theater-goers for embodying a more populist (perhaps even nativist) ideal. For many, what seemed like little more than a professional rivalry took on a personal element, embodying a class conflict that would only grow more pronounced as the 19th and early 20th centuries progressed.
The rivalry alone, however, was only the flammable raw material of the incident. The spark would occur in 1849, in the form of a Macready performance of Macbeth being staged at the Astor Place Opera House in Manhattan, New York City. During its two years of existence, the Astor Place Opera House had drawn the ire of working class patrons for a policy that enforced a dress code that included kid gloves and white vests. This policy, combined with the sheer effrontery presented, in the eyes of many, by Macready performing in New York at all led to a demonstration in the performance hall a few days before the riot. The anti-English sentiments shouted by the rioters were so loud that Macready had to do his entire performance as a pantomime.
In advance of the next performance, Macready considered leaving, but was ultimately convinced by a group of petitioners that included Herman Melville to stay and perform. From many perspectives, that decision proved to be a poor one. A much larger demonstration was organized for the upcoming May 10 performance, that was projected to be (and, in fact, was) so large that the police force was not enough to contain it.
On the night of the performance Macready ultimately had to flee the stage, and even then the rioters (many of whom had not even been able to get in the door) did not cease, and the local militia was brought in. When orders to fire on the protesters were given, the militia complied, killing over 20 people and injuring many more, most of them uninvolved onlookers. Those tragic deaths marked not just the end of theater riots, but one of the only times that dispute over the role of the written and spoken word led to actual casualties.