[Bryer] The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge Drama, and Death in Nineteenth Century America Intro

IT BEGAN, STRANGELY, with baseball.
A balmy spring Sunday in New York City, the streets
bleached out in the bright light like an overexposed photograph. The
year was 1849. Among the crowds pouring down to the breezy
Hudson River waterfront, two friends met, touched hats, and strolled
along arm in arm. They wore the somber broadcloth coats of
professional gentlemen and a conspicuous air of studied nonchalance.

As on every clement Sunday, the docks were crammed with workers
itching to get out of town, and as soon as the ferry bell rang the pair
slipped smartly forward, thrust their six cents at the ticket booth, jos-‘
tied on board, and jostled off again near the little hamlet of Hoboken.
Still keeping pace with the crowds, they headed down the long path to
the Elysian Fields, a popular pleasure garden nestled high above the
rocky New Jersey shoreline. Past the turnstile, the meadows and ter-
races were brisk with promenaders taking the air and picnickers un-
packing heaps of beets, sausages, and doughnuts under the trees, but
the two men strode straight through, following the crack of hickory on
leather to a riverside lawn where, with the brick, smoke, and rigging of
Manhattan shimmering in the distance, a most peculiar ball game was
in full swing.
Three years earlier the first organized baseball match had been held
on this very same spot, but today’s gathering was a far cry from the
usual genteel Knickerbocker affair. With their sidelocks soaped into
glossy puffs, rowering stovepipe hats stuck on their heads, and muscu-
lar chests glistening beneath unbuttoned red shirts, the players were
immediately recognizable as New York’s nororious b’hoys. A com-
bustible mix of native rude boys and the mainly Irish immigrants
whose swelling numbers had inflected rhe name that the rest of the city
indiscriminately applied to the whole alarming phenomenon, the
b’hoys were regularly seen cruising the city streets in great gangs, and
their cool impudence and swaggering style had become the badges of
America’s original youth culture. A big meet was clearly in session, and
as the b’hoys lounged around chewing tobacco or loped in relays ro the
taverns that conveniently lined the pitch, the charier day-trippers steered
well clear of the tread of their heavy leather boots. Sometimes gang
rivalries dyed the green grass red.’
As if by arrangement, the two newcomers ran into an acquaintance
who was already watching the game. Together the three approached the
b’hoys and engaged their leaders in conversation. The request they made
could not have been more unlikely: it concerned two Shakespearean actors.
One, an intellectual Englishman called William Charles Macready,
was about to arrive in the city; the other, Edwin Forrest, was the first true
American star, a national hero and a paladin of democracy to his working-
class fans. The two had once been friends, but they had fallen out in
spectacularly public style and now were sworn enemies. What, the
visitors asked, were the b’hoys willing to do to give Macready an unusu-
ally warm reception on his first night on stage? In the heated debate that
followed, too many opinions flew out too outspokenly for an agreement
to be reached, and long before dusk fell, before the katydids struck up
their raspy song and the eight o’clock bell rang to gather the stragglers
for the ferry home, the friends left the field knowing there was still work
to be done.
Deep in the bricked-in streets of Manhattan the air that week was as
acrid as a cheap cigarette. In line with an old Dutch custom, the city’s
leases expired on the first of May, and Moving Day had wreaked its
usual havoc. The sidewalks were piled high with a year’s worth of dirt
swept out of cellars and yards, ragged bands of prospectors were raking
it into choking clouds, and columns of smoke nosed up from the heaps
of moldy straw mattresses which provided an annual warm-up for bud-
ding neighborhood arsonists. Like the ball game, it was the perfect
cover for a conspiracy. The Hoboken Two worked their way around the
boardinghouses, drinking dens, and dance halls where the gangs gath-
ered, pressing their case on the b’hoys and their bosses, and this time
they tried a new line of persuasion. Macready, they explained, had made
a speech in which he accused the city’s political factions of turning the
American public against him and setting “would-be assailants” on his
trail. His snide comments, they urged as they slipped printed copies
into the b’hoys’ hands, could only be construed as a barefaced slur on
their sainted Democratic party: surely the idea of an impudent English
actor criticizing their politics from the stage was a humiliation not to
be endured?
Years of bitter transatlantic disputes, provoked by the still untied
ends of Independence and more recent conflicts over America’s enlarg-
ing sphere of influence, had lifted popular resentment of Britain to an
all-time high, and the new ruse, as Andrew Stevens, one of the Hobo-
ken conspirators, later recalled, had a most wonderful effect. On May 7,
the day of Macready’s first performance, Stevens set out from his Broad-
way jewelry store and went around town buying up books of theatre
tickets on behalf of his new recruits. Clearly someone with deep pock-
ets was behind the operation, because altogether he collected several
hundred. He was satisfied, too, that the theatre managers were none the
wiser, because he had applied for varying numbers of tickets, between
thirty and fifty, at each of the main hotels, and to brush over his tracks
even better he commissioned his friends to buy five or ten more apiece.
Later in the day, at regular gang hangouts like Billy Brook’s barbershop
at Doyers Street and Chatham Square, huddles of b’hoys duly showed
up to collect their tickets, along with instructions on how to rid the city
of the troublesome Englishman.
Further north on Broadway, in the uptown district which stretched
for a dozen blocks above· Bleecker Street, the bells of the new Grace
Church pealed six, the gas jets flared out, and fashionable New York
stirred to life. Shimmering silks and pipe-thin pants emerged for their
nightly parade along the smart side of America’s showpiece avenue: no
respectable person would have dreamed of crossing over to the cut-price
shilling pavement, because to be seen stumbling among its crockery
crates and secondhand furniture was social suicide. The weather had
taken a sharp turn for the worse since the meeting at the Fields, but
even the piercingly cold wind had failed to belt in the brilliant dis-
play, and the crowds pressed on, clutching at hats and scarves, heads
bent to the wind, like skaters in a Dutch frost-piece. A crush of
four-horse omnibuses and gaudily painted carriages clattered over the
granite cobbles, and as night set in, the whole show surged along, past
Barnum’s museum of grotesques with its dazzling searchlight, past
the gaslit windows and marble columns of Stewart’s palatial dry goods store,
all the way co the last uptown stop, outside the New York
A thin, elegant figure dressed in the dark tailcoat and cravat of an
English gentleman stepped out of its doors and turned left toward
nearby Astor Place. His wavy black hair was graying in late middle
age, his large flat face was set with a long irregular nose, a pair of small
fleshy lips, and a prominent chin, and though a stern pride shone in his
fine blue eyes there was something curiously awkward about the way
he walked, as if he were conscious of his limbs parting the air. Even as
he made his way under the lanterns flickering in the high stone arches
of the Astor Place Theatre, few would have guessed that this passerby
in a city of passersby was William Charles Macready, England’s great-
est actor.
THE NEW THEATRE in Astor Place had been a conversation piece
since the day it had opened two years earlier. From the first night the
playbills had shocked egalitarian New Yorkers by insisting on a strict
dress code – “freshly shaven faces, evening dress, fresh waistcoats, and
kid gloves” were the rule — and declaring that unaccompanied women
would be turned away. This last stricture was aimed not at respectable
society, which would never have dreamed of sending its womenfolk out
on their own, but at another class of patrons who, by time-honored
custom, plied their trade in the top tier. With their bars, coffee rooms,
and smoking lounges, the old playhouses were one-stop places of en-
tertainment, and they also doubled as brothels. Even at the grand new
Broadway Theatre–a monster, which held forty-five hundred on its
long, riblike benches–a quarter of the seats were set aside for the ex-
elusive use of those regulars euphemistically known as abandoned
women. Whores had their own entrance, and up in the gallery, next to
the saloon where a plump barmaid served up brandy smashers and de-
flated doughnuts to an uncomfortable mix of rowdy boys and business-
men who had left their wives and daughters below in the boxes, they
transacted their business, adding their cries – “Come, ain’t you going
to treat, old hoss!” – to the usual chorus of dirty songs and clinking
bottles, and the odd full-blown fight. Respectable society had finally
had its fill of this outrage to its dignity, and the hundred and fifty aris-
tocratic subscribers to the new theatre in Astor Place had been bent on
creating an exclusive temple to propriety — a great drawing room where
privilege could parade its wares untroubled by shivery speculation about
what was going on above its head.
The dress code had done the trick, but the choice of location left
something to be desired. With its serried columns, lofty pediments, and
bluff stone walls, the theatre sat like a stern patriarch at the junction of
the most showily wealthy anti the most fiercely working-class districts
of the city. On one side was Broadway and the mansion where John
Jacob Astor had lived out his last years: until his death a few months
earlier, the sight of the fur-swaddled oligarch being carried down his
steps by a retinue of servants and petitioners had been a New York ver-
sion of the changing of the guard. On the other side was the Bowery. As
broad as Broadway but zipped in two by the iron tracks and horse-
drawn carriages of the Harlem Rail Road, it was lined for a mile with
fruit stalls and roast-chestnut stands, tables of tinny cutlery and faded
millinery, and rows of Cheap John shops where smooth salesmen hus-
tled bulk goods from raised platforms to jostling crowds. The Bowery
was the entertainment as well as the commercial artery of the down-at-
the-heels East Side, and flames smelling of turpentine illuminated glass
signs advertising cockpits, rat-baiting arenas, boxing rings; dime muse-
ums, bowling alleys, and gambling dens, together with scores of taverns
and beer gardens, some of which served firewater through a rubber tube
straight from the barrel at three cents a gulp. Above all, though, the
Bowery was famed as the favorite stamping ground of the b’hoys and
their g’hals. Just as Broadway had its scrupulously dressed dandies with
their monocles, polished canes, and lush whiskers, so the b’hoys de-
lighted in nothing more than gussied up with silk cravats knotted
jauntily round their necks and bell-bottomed trousers flaring over high-heeled boots in a riotous parody of their snooty neighbors, or flaunting the red flannel shirtsleeves,
cone-shaped trousers, and brass medallions of the violently competitive
volunteer fire companies of which they formed the core, while the g’hals
sent up the latest fashions by dressing in spectacularly clashing colors,
necklaces that looked as if they were threaded with Christmas decora-
tions, and hats stuffed with fake fruit. When they sauntered into Astor
Place it was as if the Goths were entering Rome.
MACREADY sat in his dressing room, set about applying the vermilion-and-
carmine to his cheeks, and worried about more pressing matters than a
few disgruntled b’hoys. Even now, at fifty-six years of age and the
height of his formidable powers, he still felt a crispation of
fear at an impending first night, and this was no ordinary first night: it
marked the start of his farewell to New York City, twenty-three years after
he had first appeared on its stage. The Englishman stationed his dresser
outside his door and shut out the noise. As usual, everything had been
left to the last minute. Scene shifters clambered up to the paint room in
the rafters and hefted giant flats covered with caverns, castles, and
countryside scenes into their grooves. The props man scurried to his
den of tricks and pulled fantastical objects from a small hill of
lightning bottles and blackened cauldrons, paper snow-
storms and dented crowns. On stage the dancers stretched and spun, the
extras paced up and down clutching creased notes, and the old hands
strolled around dressed as generals, ladies, and porters, breaking off their
greetings to try out a favorite line. The conductor glided in and disap-
peared down a trap door to the band room. In the wings, the prompter
consulted his watch, propped his book on a desk studded with bell pulls,
and, as a point of professional pride, ordered the perspiring stagehands to
rearrange everything. Up front, the manager made a final tour of the
pit, which in honor of its newfangled armchairs had been pretentiously
renamed the parquette. At the last moment the gasmen darted to light
the great chandelier, and the crimson velvet couches, the gilt-and-white
latticework, and the sumptuous brocade hangings grudgingly brushed
off their daytime shadows. The stage manager peered through the peep-
hole in the curtain and raised his hand to the prompter; just in time,
everything was ready for the great event.
The play was Macbeth, Macready’s trademark. He was expecting a
good house: his hairdresser had told him there was a large crowd out-
side. The curtain bell rang and he heard a huge burst of applause and
three cheers go up to Corson Clarke, the actor playing Macduff.
“They mistake him for me,” he murmured, and he allowed himself
a complacent smile. It did not cross his mind that Clarke was an
American – an American, moreover, who had been lent by the sympa-
thetic manager of a rival theatre to assuage the patriotic feelings of
Edwin Forrest’s fans.
Macready’s cue came, his dresser opened the door, and he strode on
stage into another storm of applause. He bowed, bowed again; bowed
empathetically, but the excitement showed no sign of letting up.
“This is becoming too much,” he dryly thought. Then, beneath the
applause, he hear the groans and hisses.
Andrew Stevens and his friends had stationed five hundred protes-
tors in every corner of the theatre. From high up in the amphitheatre –
the cut-rate balcony squashed in under the roof – one of their proxies, a
prizefighter named Bill Wilson, unfurled a white banner. Through the
glare of the footlights Macready could just make out the words:
“You Have Been Proved a Liar!” it accused.
A placard swayed up to a cacophony of laughter, cheers, and groans.
“No Apologies – It Is Too Late,” this one read.
Macready’s supporters were in the majority: the parquette was a sea
of waving white handkerchiefs, and several frock-coated figures stood
up in the boxes and turned to the amphitheatre.
“Shame! Shame!” they cried.
The b’hoys responded with louder jeers, and a rotten egg cracked at
Macready’s feet. He pointed to it and smiled contemptuously, perhaps
even “with perfect sang-froid and good-humor, reposing in the con-
sciousness of my own truth,” as he later boasted to his diary. For several
long minutes he stood still and waited, then finally he walked forward
to say his piece.
“I feel pain and shame,” he began, “which the intelligent and re-
spectable must feel for their country’s reputation, and I would instantly
resign my engagement rather than encounter such disgraceful con-
duct.” It would have been ammunition to his enemies, if they had heard
a word he said.
After a quarter of an hour of mayhem he turned to the actors on
“Go on,” he instructed them, and the strangest Macbeth in history
went on, in pantomime and at helter-skelter pace.
Then the deluge began. Eggs, apples, potatoes and lemons, lumps of
wood and an old shoe skidded across the stage. Bottles of asafetida
smashed on the boards and stank up the whole house: one mephitic vial
soaked Macbeth’s kilt. Copper coins pinged off his shield: he picked one
up and placed it in his bosom with a gracious bow.
“Boys! Three cheers for Edwin Forrest!” one of the ringleaders called
our from the back of the parquette, and Forrest’s friends enthusiastically
“Three cheers for Macready!” spluttered a kid-glove swell, to hoots
of derision.
Somehow, despite the loud threats to their future livelihoods, the
whole cast plowed on: even Lady Macbeth had never been quite so in-
domitable. Backstage, between scenes, they expressed their sympathy
to the star. He received it loftily: “My concern,” he replied, “is for the
disgrace such people inflict on the character of the country.”
During the intermission more society figures stood up in the boxes
and tried to reason with the b’hoys.
“When you’re done your sermon, we’ll go to prayer, old boy!” one
Forrestite broke in, aping a hoiry-toity accent to roars of laughter.
“Let’s have a song first!” another hollered, and several hundred b’hoys
blasted out a Methodist hymn, accompanied by stamping and dancing
on the chairs.
By the start of the third act, things were getting serious. Up in rhe
amphitheatre, the prizefighter Wilson and his cronies ripped up three
seats and sent them crashing onto the stage. George Walling, a young pa-
trolman, stepped in and intercepted another chair while it was still in the
grasp of “Butt” Allen, a saloonkeeper, but he was wrestled to the ground
and Allen took aim at Macready. The chair thudded two feet from where
the actor stood; barely flinching, Macready carried on, though when an-
other seat crashed into the orchestra the musicians dropped their instru-
ments and fled.
Macready’s party fought back. “Go on!” one kid-glove shouted: “Don’t
give up the ship.” That was too much for the b’hoys, and they burst out
in a chorus of colorful taunts: “Down with the English hog! Take off the
Devonshire bull! Huzza for native talent!”
With the calmness that often comes with calamity, Macready bowed
one final time and walked over to the stage manager’s stall.
“I think I have quite fulfilled my obligations,” he observed with as
much dignity as he could muster, and he went below to change.
The curtain came tumbling down.
Several of Macready’s close friends had been watching from the front
with mounting anxiety; now they forced their way to his dressing room
and clustered round while he was changing. The consensus was that
there would be more trouble in the street: Macready picked up his dirk,
decided it might be undignified to defend himself with a toy sword,
and set it down.
Outside a crowd was still surging at the front of the theatre. The
doors were barricaded, the women in the audience were ushered out
through a side entrance, and two actors edged in front of the curtain
clutching a placard:
“Mr. Macready Has left the Theatre,” it announced. A cheer burst
out from the amphitheatre, and an exultant exodus soon cleared the
benches. Long afterward, though, Forrest’s fans were seen marching ju-
bilantly through the streets, chanting the witches’ chorus from Macbeth:

When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

Macready, meanwhile, had made it safely back to his hotel sur-
rounded by his protective huddle of friends. “I was in best spirits,” he
later persuaded himself, “and we talked over what was to be done.” An
envoy sent by John Jacob Astor’s son urged him to stand firm; more
sympathizers stopped in and joined the debate. Late at night, a police
officer showed up with a deposition freshly taken from a rioter who had
been captured, though since he had sobbed like a baby, the officer
sheepishly admitted, he had already been released. Macready retired to
his room with the document and set to copying it out, and at last his
predicament started to sink in.
“And this is my treatment!” he marveled to his diary. “Being left
alone, I begin to feel more seriously the indignities put upon me, and
entertain ideas of not going on the stage again.” Before he went to sleep,
he prayed to do what was right.
By a striking coincidence, Edwin Forrest, Macready’s arch rival, had
also been playing Macbeth that night, at the Broadway Theatre. Down
the great avenue, now thick with the late-night crowd of fancy whores
and flash gamblers stumbling out of the bawdy oyster cellars into the
red gleams cast by their lamps, his performance was coming to a tri-
umphant end. At one significant moment, he had paused and leveled a
look fulgent with meaning at his fans.
“What rhubarb, senna or what purgative drug would scour these
English hence?” he hollered.
Four thousand people rose as one, and for several minutes they
cheered for America.’
THE NEXT DAY Macready had already sent co a·steamship co book his
passage home when a delegation arrived at his hotel. It was headed by
Washington Irving, the elder statesman of American writers. Irving pre-
sented Macready with a letter signed by forty-eight of New York’s lead-
ing citizens, among them Herman Melville, and explained that it was
being delivered at chat moment co every newspaper office in town. They
had heard, the forty-eight wrote, that the outrage in Astor Place was
likely to prevent Macready from concluding his farewell engagement.
“The undersigned,” the letter continued, “take this public method of re-
questing you to reconsider your decision, and of assuring you that the
good sense and respect for order prevailing in this community will sus-
tain you on the subsequent nights of your performances.” Macready con-
sulted his sense of propriety and agreed tq play Macbeth one more time.
Down on the Bowery, in the close lanes and crowded tenements that
were home to the b’hoys and their gangs, a great stir was under way. For-
rest’s supporters were not ahout to be outmaneuvered by their self-styled
betters, and they saw an unmissable opportunity to demonstrate both
their displeasure and their muscle. That Thursday night, as Macready
once again set out for Astor Place, he was reassured to see dozens of po-
lice officers lining the way. Yet within hours the army had opened fire on
thousands of its fellow citizens and William Charles Macready was being
hunted through the night by a mob bent on revenge.

BEFORE AMERICAN CULTURAL imperialism there was English cul-
tural imperialism. So, at least, Anglophobes angrily claimed; Ameri-
cans who were still attached to the Old World countered that English
culture dominated the marketplace, in the decades before America had
established its own traditions, simply because it gave audiences what
they wanted. The stakes were high, because this was no airless ivory-
tower argument: to many it seemed inextricably bound up with the
question of what sort of nation America would become. The Shakespeare
Riots is the story of how America struggled to find its own voice be-
tween two conflicting identities, and how the contest ended in a bloody
riot that shocked the whole nation and forced it to reconsider its most
basic beliefs. Yet almost unbelievably, it all started with one man,
standing in a Scottish theatre, hissing at another man’s performance of
Hamlet. The unlikely chain of events that forged tragedy from farce
takes us on a journey from the wild American frontier to the decadence
of theatre-crazed London, and from the dens of the New York gangs to
the mining towns of gold-fevered California. In an age when theatres
were the crossroads of a whole society, it brings us to the heart of two
countries whose ties were closer to snapping than at any time since.
And along the way another story unfolds: the story of Shakespeare’s
plays, those precious leaves of Elizabethan thought which so entranced
the nineteenth century that they were fought over, in frontier saloons no
less than in aristocratic salons, with an almost hysterical passion. It was
Shakespeare who brought Forrest and Macready together, and it was
Shakespeare who tore them apart.