New York's Opera House Brawl. (Flashback)

By Kauffman, Bill | The American Enterprise, June 2002 | Go to article overview

New York's Opera House Brawl. (Flashback)


Kauffman, Bill, The American Enterprise


"Riot," as punk rocker Chaz Ruffino once observed, is at the heart of "patriotism." Which is apparently why the B'hoys, the legendary nineteenth-century New York City gang of the Bowery, tore up the city's toniest opera house 153 years ago in a melee that left 22 dead and 48 injured. Never again has the American stage known such an exuberant outburst of patriotism.

The riot was the bloody result of a great theatrical rivalry between the American actor Edwin Forrest and the English ham William C. Macready.

Forrest was athletic and unsubtle, known for somersaults and fervent portrayals of Indians. He was also a cultural patriot who sponsored an annual playwriting contest for Americans and tirelessly promoted the native theater.

Forrest got it in his head that he would cross the ocean and show London a thing or two about acting. His friends warned against the trip. James Kirke Paulding said, "Washington never went to Europe to gain immortality. Jackson never went there to extend his fame. Why should you? Stay here, and build yourself an enduring place in the mind of your own country alone. This is enough for any man!"

Forrest went anyway. English critics were suitably impressed. The Examiner mocked Forrest's Richard III as "looking like a savage newly caught from out of the American backwoods." The English thespian Macready was not amused by this crude American's foray into Shakespeare's backsward.

Macready and Forrest toured each other's countries with public cordiality even as Macready lacerated the American in private. Forrest, Macready wrote in his diary, had "no imagination, no original thought, no poetry at all in his acting." He did not "understand Shakespeare. He is not an artist. Let him be an American actor--and a great American actor--but keep him on [his] side of the Atlantic."

When Forrest finally caught on to the Englishman's perfidy, he erupted. In 1846, he hissed loudly from his box during Macready's mincing performance of Hamlet. "The low-minded ruffian!" whined the appalled Macready.

Over the next three years, the actors traded insults across the Atlantic. When Macready toured the colonies, American audiences greeted him with jeers and rotten eggs. In Cincinnati, one inventive spectator hurled a sheep carcass onstage during Macready's Hamlet. …

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