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May 10, 2020 marked the 171 anniversary of the Astor Place Riots. There is a connection between that tragic event and the story of Anna Cora Mowatt’s silver vase, but it requires a bit of background:
Although people still had their doubts about the morality of theatre, in the late 1840’s, the urban U.S. public had become quite passionate in their support of certain actors. Broadway fever had hit New York. Fandom had been born. Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans also boasted well-attended theaters.
The Booth family and Laura Keene were developing devoted followings. Charlotte Cushman and her sister Susan were also great favorites. The true king of the East Coast theatrical scene during the 1830’s though the 50’s, though, was Edwin Forrest.
Forrest was a striking-looking man, with large, expressive eyes and a shock of black hair that always seems to be standing straight up in his pictures. He had a dynamic, intensely physical and emotional style of acting that set U.S. audiences on fire.
Today because of the way that film magnifies and exaggerates gesture and expression, we’re accustomed to a very subtle style of acting. Victorian audiences, who could be viewing performances from the back rows, preferred a more exaggerated style that exhibited the actor’s entire physical and vocal range in a manner that might seem almost like a circus act to us.
Tragedians, in particular, were expected to have a very overblown style that included specific physical characteristics such as a rolling walk accomplished by making a giant stride with the right leg and slightly dragging the left foot behind. Their vocal delivery was almost operatic. Gustavus V. Brooke was said to be able to roar from a basso to a falsetto in certain monologues. They were also expected to be masters of the use of dramatic silence. Once in Melbourne, when playing Hamlet, Brooke lingered on a pause a bit too long after “To be or…” and a fellow in the pit, a bit too accustomed to this tactic, groaned, “Christ, Gussie, flip a coin.”
Forrest was on the end of the continuum that played up the physical extremes of this stereotype. William Charles Macready, a more intellectual actor, was on the side of the scale that used voice, body, and stage effects to create a more emotionally complex character. If you wanted to draw a parallel to today’s matinée idols, it would be a little like comparing the performance styles of an action movie hero like Vin Diesel to leading man like Ralph Fiennes. They each had different styles that were appropriate to different projects.
When Forrest went to England to see if he could break into the lucrative British theatrical marketplace, the two struck up pleasant acquaintance. Macready was a good ally to have one’s side in the English stage world. He was well-connected not just in theatrical circles but among the London literati which included drama critics for several of the leading newspapers. One of his particular friends was a journalist named John Forster, drama critic for the Examiner and future biographer of Charles Dickens, who essentially acted as a PR flack for Macready, ensuring the actor got all the good press he needed and that his enemies did not.
And Macready had enemies. He was a dear friend to writers like Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Robert Barret Browning, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. However Macready numbered no actors among his circle of intimates. In his professional sphere, Macready was a highly competitive, moody, demanding, perfectionist, who had famously bitter and long running rivalries with actors such as Charles Kemble and Edmund Kean and was infamous for brow-beating members of his own company. Once he ended up paying £150 in damages to a Mr. Alfred Bunn, the manager of the Drury Lane Theater, after an incident where Macready came off stage so worked up about unsatisfactory working conditions that he walked into the manager’s office and smacked the smile off the man’s face.
At first a genial and mutually beneficial competition sprung up between the two actors. On Forrest’s visits to the U.K., he and Macready would play the same part in different productions of the same play, encouraging audiences to contrast and compare “American” versus “English” approaches to the drama. The novelty helped sell tickets. It also planted the idea that there was an American style of acting that was markedly different than the English style of acting. However, for the moment, that didn’t matter, because everyone was happily making money.
Then came the Scottish play…
A practical, non-supernatural reason “Macbeth” has managed to garner such an evil reputation over the years is that it has several aspects to it that make it a technically challenging play to mount. A production has to find original ways to deal with witches, floating daggers, severed heads, and running battle scenes that don’t reduce the play to melodrama or – worst of all – comedy. There are unusually heavy demands on the lead actor – both in terms of time on stage and number of lines to be delivered, but also in the task of creating a character who starts as a trusted, battle-hardened leader and devolves into a bloody, murdering tyrant before the audience’s eyes.
This, according to the reports of those who saw it, was the appeal of Macready’s Macbeth. His was what we might call an intensely psychological interpretation of the role (Victorians wouldn’t though, since Freud wasn’t even born until 1856.) The audience really got to see the character unravel. Macready’s Scottish thane began quiet and controlled, but the actor, through a series of performance choices, created the vivid impression of man increasingly in the grips of a rolling paranoid mania that finally boils over into a psychopathic frenzy. The effect was at its best, according to observers, when played opposite a strong leading lady like Mary Warner or Charlotte Cushman. Cushman, an American actress, with a stage presence so overwhelming it usually rendered her leading men nearly invisible, made a great Lady Macbeth opposite Macready’s interpretation. This physically imposing, powerful woman oozing ambition and strength is taken unawares by her husband’s growing insanity. They grapple with the rapidly shifting political situation and h is burgeoning madness until the darkness descends finally consumes them both. It was horrifyingly mesmerizing to watch – which is exactly what you want from a good “Macbeth.”
On the other hand — in 1844, Edwin Forrest’s company’s production of the play did not meet with the approval of the British public. He was booed and hissed. Newspaper critics savaged the show. There are historians who enumerate socio-political reasons why the English audience may have been ill-disposed towards Americans at that particular moment in time. Reading the reviews, though, it seems more likely that Forrest just happened to have put on a bad production. Such things do occur. Everyone placed the blame on Forrest for creating a Macbeth that fell into the trap of becoming a one-dimensional cardboard cutout villain. This was also a time when actor/managers were not embarrassed to rewrite Shakespeare. Forrest certainly fell into this category. His adaptation of “Othello” cut Desdemona’s part down to a minimum because he didn’t see her as being very essential to the plot. The English audience of Forrest’s “Macbeth” didn’t like some of Forrest’s cuts, changes, and idiosyncratic readings of the text. It was a matter of taste.
Now, of course, one of the critics for this production was John Forster of The Examiner. You remember John Forster, don’t you? Macready certainly did. He named one of his sons after him. Macready had gotten rather annoyed about Forrest’s little publicity trick of following him around England staging twin productions of Macready’s greatest hits. There’s nothing that will get under the skin of a temperamental perfectionist quicker than publicly encouraging everyone to draw critical comparisons between the two of you..
Instead of chalking the whole thing up to experience, and sailing back to the U.S. to lick his wounds, Forrest blamed Macready. He decided the English actor had pressured his friends in the press to write bad reviews. Forrest didn’t attack Macready’s Macbeth, though. Everyone loved Mac’s Macbeth. He went after Macready’s Hamlet where critical opinion was more divided. Bad attitude intact, Forrest attended a performance of Macready’s “Hamlet” and had the nerve to hiss and boo the Englishman then write a letter saying why he had done so and publish it in the papers. People might be a bit “meh” on Mac’s Hamlet, but this kind of behavior did not go over well with anyone.
Things start getting nasty from here on out.
Although the friendship between Macready and Forrest was over, the “U.S. vs. U.K” publicity trick was still packing folks into playhouses. Forrest and his company continued to schedule competing productions opposite Macready. The critics could say what they pleased, but American tragedian was now the richest actor in the Western world and Macready wasn’t doing too bad at the box office either.
Those dollar signs were probably what lured Walter Watts, manager of the Marylebone, to the Princess Theatre, where Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman had launched their English careers, to check out the newest U.S. sensations – Anna Cora Mowatt and E.L. Davenport.
He immediately hires them away from the Princess and begins to promote them as an alternative version of Forrest and Cushman. Whereas those two established stars are tragedians, Mowatt and Davenport are comedians who specialize in Shakespeare’s “happy” plays like “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Twelfth Night” or romances by contemporary authors like “Witch Wife” or “Lady of Lyons.”
I read the presentation of the silver vase to be part of Watts’ public relations campaign to restore a friendly, money-making, mutual U.S-English theatrical fascination as existed before the Forrest/Macready split. Note how his dedication mentions the national origins of both Mowatt and his theater:
Presented to Anna Cora Mowatt of New York, United States, by Walter Watts, Esq., lessee and manager of the Theatre Royal, Marylebone, in respectful and grateful acknowledgment of her services to the drama as authoress and actress; and as a record that worth and genius from every land will ever be honored in England. London, 8th of March, 1849.
Therefore the silver vase could be taken as a gesture not of “I love you, Mrs. Mowatt,” but rather as “England loves American actors.” And it was. On March 12, a reviewer for the Times pointedly stated,
We hope the partisans of Mr. Forrest will hear of the very handsome manner in which Mrs. Mowatt, the American authoress and actress, has been received in this country. Mr. Watts, the lessee of the Marylebone Theatre, without any stipulation at all as to a benefit gave her the whole receipts of his house on Thursday, paying the expenses himself.1
A widely reprinted report of the presentation of the vase in the Boston Evening Transcript obligingly responded,
The theatres have been doing poorly, with the exception of the Marylebone, which with the attraction of Mrs. Mowatt and Mr. Davenport has been remarkably prospering. Mrs. M’s [sic] performance last night completed her fifty-first consecutive night at this theatre, and she is engaged to play up to April first, when all the theatres close. In consequence of the unexampled success of her original play “Armand,” the manager Mr. Watts, appointed last night for her benefit, when he gave her the gross receipts of the house, without any deduction whatever, an act of liberality the more gratifying, from the fact that it was entirely voluntary on his part.
After a description of the play, the evening, and Mowatt and Davenport’s plans for the future, the account ends with
We Americans here are, I assure you, quite proud of her success.2
Thus, for his £100, Walter Watts got positive transatlantic press for the tiny, obscure Marylebone Theatre.
In the meantime, the situation had become quite uncomfortable for William Macready. He was touring in the U.S. Forrest’s fans were growing violent, graduating from booing and hissing to throwing eggs and rotten fruit at the performer during performances. Around the time that Walter Watts was making his lovely gesture of presenting a silver vase to Anna Cora Mowatt, a Forrest fan in Cincinnati threw a sheep carcass on stage in the middle of the mousetrap scene of Macready’s “Hamlet.”
You see, when Mac decided to tour the East coast and cash in on the growingly profitable U.S. theatre market, Forrest said, “Oh, you’re in my court, now, son. You’ve got friends in the press? Well, guess what? I do too.” Forrest’s journalist friends, though, were folks like Ed Judson, known as “Ned Buntline,” who tended to be less involved in nasty squabbles among the literati and more involved in bare-knuckled New York politics.
So, to cut to the chase, dear Reader, all was fun and games until it turned into the Astor Place riots and some 21 people got shot.
The Astor Place riots are often described as a brawl over who performed the best version of a character from Shakespeare. Actually, it was a fight between two actors that snowballed into a night of civic warfare that was only loosely tied to the play and the players. There were people who got shot that night who wouldn’t have been able to pick Macready out of a police lineup.
The riot itself was fueled by tensions between the Whig (today’s centrist Democratic) mayor and his supporters and the city’s nativist Know-Nothing party (today’s Fox News-style Republicans). Pumping the crowd’s anger was resentment ginned up amongst Irish immigrants towards the Englishman Macready (ignoring the fact that Macready’s father was born and raised in Dublin.)
On the night of May 10, 1849, these forces clashed outside the doors of the Astor Place Opera House – occasionally making their way in through an unguarded window – while Macready and his company played “Macbeth” through to the drama’s ending act. The actor even wrote in his diary, in a moment of particularly unselfconscious self-reflection, that the fifth act was the finest he’d ever played it. Outside the mayor had summoned the state militia. Shots were fired into the crowd and twenty-one fell. Some of the casualties were bystanders from blocks away who had stepped out onto stairwells to see what the noise was about.
The conventional way to end re-tellings of the Astor Place Riot is to say that the real casualty of the day was Shakespeare, who was never again as popular in the United States. This conclusion is at best an overstatement and at worst an outright falsehood.
Shakespeare continued to be an important part of U.S. popular culture throughout the century. Politicians, preachers, and schoolchildren were all expected to be reasonably well-versed in the works of the bard. Performers like Charlotte Cushman made a nice living going on tour doing solo performances of readings from Shakespeare. Big theaters like the Athenaeum in Cincinnati and the Metropolitan in Buffalo, New York were going up all up and down the East coast over the next decade. Rather than being exclusive to the “top hats and tails” crowd, these new theaters tended to be ”family-friendly” middle-class establishments, patronized by a wide swath of the communities they served. Shakespeare was quite popular fare in the 1850’s.
In the 1860’s though, the Civil War happened. Suddenly there were half as many theaters available for acting companies to tour as there had been before. Some very old, wealthy, grand theaters disappeared forever during those four years. Since most acting companies depended heavily on touring as a source of income at this time, the war had a much bigger social and economic impact on theater in the U.S. than one and a half nights of the Astor Place Riots and may have encouraged a shift on Broadway from Shakespeare to shorter plays with smaller casts that were easier and cheaper to produce.
Also, although the theatrical community rebounded admirably, having the baby brother of the nation’s leading Shakespearian actor shoot the president of the Unites States in the head in 1865 has to have a chilling effect… Just saying.
In closing, when we look back on the Astor Place Riots, let’s be content to say that the real victims of this war between two very rich actors that got disastrously rolled up in London literary infighting, New York politics, and British colonial woes were the people who stepped out on to their fire escapes to see what was going on in the street below them and ended up getting shot by the New York State Militia.
1. Quoted in Barnes, Eric Wollencott. The Lady of Fashion: The Life and Theatre of Anna Cora Mowatt. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954. Page 211.
2. Ibid, page 212.