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America's Oddest Riot: The Opera Riot at Astor Place

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“Class distinctions in America are so complicated and subtle that foreign visitors often miss the nuances and sometimes even the existence of a class structure. So powerful is ‘the fable of equality,’ as Frances Trollope called it when she toured America in 1832, so embarrassed is the government to confront the subject [...] that it’s easy for visitors not to notice the way the class system works.”

- Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System 

On May 10, 1849, the oddest riot in American history took place in and around a theatre in Manhattan. Hundreds of people were injured in the Astor Place Riot, and somewhere between 22-31 people died in the violence.

The Astor Opera House was conceived as an upscale retreat for upper class Manhattanites looking to avoid the rabble that often attended theatre performances in the 19th century. Unfortunately, the founders of the Astor Place couldn’t quite keep non-elites out the way they’d hoped; part of the reason for this was for the simple fact that New York, and the United States more broadly, couldn’t attract many opera performances, nor could it attract consistent top-level theatre talent from the United Kingdom. In order to stay afloat of the books, then, the founders of the Astor Place had to take honestly earned money from theater goers who worked for a living.

Thus the Astor Place, like every other theater in the United States, was unable to make itself too exclusive. Its founders, like those who founded the republic itself, had to find a way to live with an equality that was democratic in nature. Democratic equality was, and is, a different monster than the equality Europeans had been grappling with since Late Antiquity (the tail end of the Roman Empire). The old equality was based on Christianity and on the feudalistic property rights regimes that undergirded Europe. Democratic equality, on the other hand, is based on notions of self-rule and on capitalistic property rights. Basically, in Western culture, free men and money replaced piety and honor when it came to mutual understandings of equality.

Urban Entertainment in the Early 19th Century

Shakespeare was popular in 19th-century America. In the 19th century, almost all Americans could quote Shakespeare as well as they could the Bible. Theater actors were like the present-day equivalent of movie stars or hip-hop artists. These actors had loyal followings and fan cultures that often took on lives of their own. British actors were the most well known, though not necessarily the most popular. Middle- and working-class Americans preferred to support American actors, while the wealthy and the educated (two very different classes, I assure you) tended to be fans of British actors.

Since there were no internet chat rooms in the 19th century, arguments between fans were different. Fans would meet up face-to-face and brawl in the streets. To make matters worse, fans would sometimes buy up large blocks of tickets for a rival actor’s show and then heckle the rival during his performance, or throw rotten fruit onto the stage. Every once in a while, the fans would tear apart the theater that was hosting a rival actor’s play, or burn it to the ground.

The Astor Place Riot

On May 7, 1849, some fans of an American actor, Edwin Forrest, ruined a performance of “Macbeth” starring Forrest’s British rival, an actor named William Macready. The American hosts threw rotten fruit, dead animal carcases, and glass bottles filled with excretory liquids at Macready and his troupe. The British visitors were so enraged that they tried to quit America once and for all, but an intervention from Herman Melville, Washington Irving, and other members of America’s budding literati class convinced Macready to perform one last time.

The militia was called in for Macready’s last show, to be performed at the Astor Place, and so was the regular military. According to Burrows & Wallace, two historians, 350 militiamen joined 250 policemen (100 stationed outside of the theater, 150 inside), mounted cavalry units, light cannons, and hussars - freaking hussars! - were on hand to prevent violence.

All hell broke loose, anyway.

The theater was torn to shreds, Macready never came to America again, and the Irish immigrants and working class locals were finally able to see eye-to-eye as they rioted against British culture and upper-class American snobbery.

 

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