Tuesday, May 10, 2011

May 10, 1849

Today in 1849, the Astor Place Riot broke out. Some will be surprised to learn that it was over an interpretation of Macbeth; nobody who follows this blog will be surprised that it can be traced to 19th century saloon politics.

The American people, especially saloon-goers, were passionate about Shakespeare in the 19th century. It was as important a topic of conversation in the bar-room as, say, sports might be today. And, it so happened that at the time in New York, there were two very different performances of Macbeth vying for the public’s attention. One was being performed by William Charles Macready, a Brit with a reputation for staid and traditional performances, the other by Edwin Forrest, a wildly popular American actor who had a little more fun with his roles. Macready was performing at the Astor House, which was frequented by the upper-classes.

So far, this may not sound like the makings of a riot—especially not one in which 25 people were killed. But Captain Isaiah Rynders, unofficial leader of the opposition in New York, was on the job and he was trying to make the mayor look bad. For days, he wound up the troops at his saloon with free drinks and tickets to the Astor House performance. By the time the saloon mob hit the theatre, it was frenzied and mad. This was the end of the Astor House (now known as DisAstor) theatre. Incidentally, it didn’t help the reputation of that Scottish play much either. For more fascinating bits of saloon history, consider buying the book America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops, available for pre-order at Amazon and Indigo.