A while ago there seemed to be a vogue for rather pompously titled (albeit often quite entertaining) books on various drinks / foods / animals / trees / whatever that “changed the world” / “shaped history” / “transformed how we X” and so on. Any few years back Christine Sisimondo chronicled five illustrious bar brawls that Changed America! . Here is the second, wherein The Scottish play’s reputation for ill luck was burnished:
2. The Astor Place Riots, 1849
An estimated 25 dead and the “Scottish” play’s reputation further damaged.
Hard to believe that one of New York’s most shocking riots started over rival interpretations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Apparently, the bad-luck Scottish play came by its reputation honestly.
In 1849, it was opening at the freshly-minted, hi-falutin’ Astor Opera House on Broadway, with William Macready on the marquee. Macready was a staid, traditional British actor, who had long feuded with American thespian Edwin Forrest, the people’s choice for Macbeth.
Five Points saloon-keeper Isaiah Rynders saw this as an opportunity for mischief, since theatergoing was one of his patrons’ most passionate pastimes. Shakespeare was the NASCAR of its day and Forrest, who had debuted at the Bowery Theater, was the working classes’ favorite actor.
Rynders, one of the most powerful men in the city thanks to his control of the gangs of New York, bought tickets to the Astor House performance and distributed them to every ruffian in his network of watering holes. But not before winding them up on booze and anti-British sentiment.
The drunken mob descended on Astor Place, took their seats, and began pelting the stage and audience with rotting fruits and eggs, forcing actors to pantomime the rest of the show, since nobody could hear the dialogue. As they say, though, the show must go on, and, three nights later, Macready took the stage again. This time, Rynders’ crew had swelled to some 10,000. This brought out the militia and, in the end, a reported 25 deaths before the riot was quelled. The Astor Place became known as the Dis-Aster Place and was converted into a library not long after.