Astor Place Opera House

Art & Culture | History

Theater that led to riots - everyone's a critic!

Astor Place Opera House Noho

About Astor Place Opera House

 & why it made the Carpe City list

The Astor Place Riot of May 10, 1849, which resulted in up to 31 deaths, is (on the surface) perhaps the most bizarre in history. Why? Because the rioters battled over who was the better Shakespearian actor, American Edwin Forrest or Brit William Charles Macready.

Of course, it was a bit more complex than that. It really came down to a feud of class and culture. Forrest was considered the first great American stage star. He had a manner and style of acting supported by, and ultimately symbolized, working-class Americans – especially Irish immigrants. With his traditional style, Macready was considered one of the best British actors of his generation and thus found favor with New York’s Anglicized “upper-crust.”

So what happened?

On May 7, three nights before the riot, the feuding actors both performed Macbeth, just a few blocks apart. Macready was at the Astor Opera House, and Forrest’s supporters bought tickets to the show, hoping to shut it down. The protestors threw rotten eggs, shoes, a bottle of a foul-smelling substance called “asafetida,” and even chairs at the Brit. They shouted, “Down with the codfish aristocracy!” (Yes, codfish. It was basically a slur meaning classless nouveau riche. )

As you can imagine, this uncouth behavior angered the aristocrats. At the next performance, the fateful night of May 10, they called the militia for protection. Up to 20,000 protestors arrived to attack the Opera House. The militia fought back, and a riot ensued, resulting in the death of approximately 31 people, with 120 injured. Most of the dead were working-class bystanders, including 7 Irish immigrants. Macready left the theater in disguise, never to appear in American theater again. The Astor Opera House never truly recovered from the incident and was commonly referred to as “DisAstor Place” and “Massacre Theater.” In May of 1853, the building was sold to the NY Mercantile Library and renamed “Clinton Hall.”

Carpe City Trivia

Fun fact:

In 2016, a laminated sign was erected as a historical marker to memorialize this somber event. You'll find it at the intersection of Lafayette Street and Astor Place, on the left, when traveling north on Lafayette Street. (40° 43.801′ N, 73° 59.49′ W.)

By: Lucie Levine, Laureen Mocsari

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