Ephemeral New York

A riot sparked by dueling performances of Macbeth? Hard to believe, but it happened 160 years ago in Astor Place. Today, skate rats are the most menacing crowd you’ll find there.

EdwinforrestphotoBut in 1849, things were different. Top U.K. actor William Charles Macready, a favorite of New York City’s upper crust, was booked to perform Macbeth at the refined Astor Place Opera House on May 10. 

That same night, American-born Edwin Forrest (at left, a daguerreotype by Mathew Brady), who started his career in theaters on the nearby Bowery for working-class crowds, was also scheduled to play Macbeth a few blocks away. Once friendly, the actors were now rivals.

On May 7, Forrest’s fans—whipped up by newspaper stories and anti-English sentiment—arrived at Macready’s opening performance and proceeded to bombard the stage with eggs and shoes. 

Macready wanted to go back to Britain, but prominent New Yorkers, like Herman Melville and…

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