6 Jun 2009 12:32 pm   //   Filed under: New York is different, Stray data

Forgotten Astor Place history: Shakespeare riot!

One great thing about New York is that the longer you live here, the more historical trivia you learn. It’s a bottomless well.

Consider where I work. My office abuts Astor Place, a weird block-and-a-half street between the East and West Villages in New York. It’s part of a tangle of streets that merger near Cooper Union, an area rich in history, arts and architecture. I could fill a page listing all the random stuff that I know has happened there, from Abraham Lincoln speaking to the filming of the original “Taking of Pelham 123” movie.

Today I read an article about rude behavior at theaters, and it made a passing reference to the Astor Place Riot. Why had I never heard of this? Naturally, there’s an illuminating page about it on Wikipedia.

One hundred sixty years ago, there were two stagings of Macbeth at theaters a few blocks apart, one starring a famous British actor and the other a famous American. Audiences were sharply divided over which actor played the Shakespeare role better. The tension had as much to do with class and nationality as it did with theater. On May 10, 1849, the simmering dispute boiled over into violence. The National Guard used their weapons to restore order. In the end, 25 people were dead and at least 120 were injured.

The riot happened at the Astor Place Theater, which today is known as the more-or-less permanent home of the Blue Man Group.