May 10, 1849, New York City. Twenty-two people lay dead and 150 were injured in the deadliest event of its kind in the city up to that point. The cause was not a workers’ uprising or political clash. What came to be known as the Astor Place Riot resulted from a feud between two well-known actors—or, more accurately, between their fans.
At the time, the New York Tribune expressed disbelief that so many people could be killed or injured because “two actors quarreled!” But the conflict was about so much more than which actor was better: it was a watershed event, signaling the growing penetration of celebrity culture into the national zeitgeist—and into the individual identities of everyday Americans.
Even before the Civil War, celebrities—their appearances, behaviors, expressed attitudes, their biographies, their failings, their scandals—were becoming a structuring force whose influence would increase with each new medium and communications technology, leading to the ever-beaming, constantly beckoning celebrity-driven media engulfing us today. In this light, we can see that the infamous Astor Place Riot was a flashpoint in a larger battle about class identity, resentments over economic and cultural privilege, and manhood and national pride, expressed through two Shakespearean actors: the British performer William Charles Macready and the American Edwin Forrest.
While Macready had quickly met with professional acclaim for his controlled performances in London and Paris, Forrest had played small, rough theaters in the South and West as he honed his more melodramatic style and worked his way towards bigger theaters. By the time they met in New York, Forrest was hailed as the country’s first great tragic actor, an extravagant performer deemed to embody the “American” style of acting.
Today, we associate Shakespeare with “high art” and culture, but in the nineteenth century his plays were performed in venues from opulent theaters to saloons, and many audience members knew key lines so well they would recite them along with the actors. These theaters were rowdy places where the audiences (mostly men) were spatially segregated by income, line of work, class, and race. The expensive boxes above and to the side of the stage were reserved for the wealthy.
Below the boxes (what we would today call the orchestra) was “the pit,” where the emerging middle class of manual laborers, sailors, mechanics, tradesmen, and, in New York, the Bowery B’hoys sat. Known for their boisterous (and often drunken) behavior, bright clothes, and love of the theater, the b’hoys were single, working-class men, mostly firemen and mechanics.
Above and behind the pit were the cheap gallery seats (today’s mezzanine) occupied by newsboys, apprentices, and other lower wage workers; segregated from everyone in the upper third tier were African Americans (assigned the very worst seats), and prostitutes and their clients. Those in the gallery were known to pelt actors who displeased them with rotten fruit, eggs, peanuts (hence the peanut gallery), and pennies. Those in each sector of the theater resented the others. So the theater was both a producer of celebrity and a tinderbox of class resentment.
This segregation within theaters began to give way to segregation between theaters. When the new, luxurious Astor Place Opera House opened late in 1847, it was meant for the rich. In May 1849, Macready, known for his restrained, intellectual style, was slated to perform Macbeth there.
At the same time, Forrest was also to portray Macbeth at another theater just a few blocks away. A feud had begun between them, and Macready had already denounced Forrest’s “deficiency in taste and judgement” and especially “the facetious applause of his supporters, the ‘Bower lads.’” In retaliation, Forrest, still smarting from having been hissed when he performed in England, declared that Macready “should never be permitted to appear again upon the stage” in New York City. The “penny press,” tabloid-style papers that had risen to prominence along with the theaters, fanned the conflict to increase circulation and sales.
Hundreds of Forrest’s supporters, many of them the b’hoys, bought tickets to Macready’s first performance on May 8, stoked in part by broadsides—provocative posters—signed by “The American Committee” that asked, “Working Men, Shall Americans or English Rule in this City?” The handbills urged them to “express their opinions” at the “English Aristocratic Opera House,” which indeed they did. As Macready sought to perform, Forrest’s supporters shouted him down and threw rotten eggs, potatoes, and other vegetables.
Macready tried again to perform on May 10. The b’hoys were ready, and so were Macready’s supporters—and the police, all 250 of them. But in addition to those in the Astor Place Opera House, an estimated 10,000 fans of both actors had gathered outside the theater. By the fourth scene, Macready could not proceed given the hissing, booing, and the hurling of more rotten vegetables—including a bottle containing the Indian spice asafetida, which “diffused a most repulsive stench throughout the house.”
The police burst in to eject the culprits, and Macready rushed through the play to finish. But the b’hoys outside were not having it, and began hurling bricks and paving stones at the theater. The police called in the state militia, 350 of them. But they were unable to calm or break up the group, some of whom were throwing bricks and paving stones at the police.
So the militia fired a volley over the crowd, and then one into the crowd, and then more.
The next day, the Astor Place Opera House gained the monikers “Massacre Opera House” and the “Disaster Place.”
But of course, this was not really about Macready and Forrest; conflicts about celebrities are never only about the celebrities. This one was over national pride and identity, class position and resentments, and different versions of masculinity. Macready personified Britain’s sense of its cultural superiority. His fans were the growing elite in New York City who embodied upper-class snobbery. The b’hoys, through their identification with Forrest, were rebelling against such cultural hierarchies and the special privileges of elites. Through their jeers and their rotten fruit, they sought to project onto Macready—and then exorcise—a needling sense of cultural inferiority, of not having “class,” and of not being the “right” kind of “cultured” men.
The Astor Place Riot was an exemplar of how popular culture is rarely “just entertainment,” and that battles over which entertainments and stars are worthy of admiration are always battles about larger norms, values, attitudes, and the social order itself. And while the riots were an extreme example, they demonstrated that fans had become active and participatory meaning makers, key players in the production of celebrities and their significance.
This was a crucial precedent, but it was not the only instance of the transformation of how Americans related to entertainers in those times. Possibly the greatest maestro of celebrity production during this era, P. T. Barnum, saw a growing market among urban audiences with more leisure time for entertainment, especially sensational and eye-catching acts. In 1842, he opened his “museum” in downtown Manhattan and filled it with oddities like the infamous “Fiji mermaid,” which was in reality the torso and head of a small, mummified monkey sewn onto the bottom half of a fish.
Barnum was also one of the earliest and most wildly successful creators of celebrities. Dubbed “the Shakespeare of advertising,” he used newspaper advertisements, pamphlets, press releases, and provocative broadsides to publicize his shows.
Barnum “discovered” Jenny Lind, a successful and famous Swedish opera singer who was unknown in the United States. To promote her, Barnum launched an unprecedented press campaign extolling her virtues as a charitable and benevolent woman who spent most of her time engaged in philanthropy, tending to “the afflicted and distressed;” he believed that most Americans would be unfamiliar with opera music but would be charmed and attracted by her morality. Indeed, Barnum understood that for certain types of people to become admired stars, they had to be connected to certain values that resonated with the aspirations of their audiences. Thus he cast Lind as an unparalleled talent who regarded her “artistic powers as a gift from heaven” yet was so selfless that she gave benefit concerts for orphanages and hospitals.
Billing Lind as “the Swedish Nightingale,” Barnum auctioned off tickets to see her. By the time she got to the United States in 1850, tens of thousands turned out to greet her ship. She performed before sold-out crowds, her 95 concerts grossing $712,161, the equivalent of $21 million in 2016 dollars. “Lindomania” resulted, with a host of products named after her, from gloves to hats to paper dolls.
By midcentury, the penny press, Barnum, and theatrical producers had established the mechanisms by which individuals became famous, and promoted certain ideological visions that celebrities represented. Meanwhile, a distinctive sociological change was occurring in American life, especially in the cities and larger towns, as people learned to assume the role of a mass audience, witnessing spectacles with hundreds and even thousands of other people they did not necessarily know.
People began to feel that allegiances to certain stars, and animosity towards other ones, were tied into their own individual and group identities. They were appreciating that publicity would help them be an informed, with-it person by promoting certain experiences they really should not miss—such as a particular, well-hyped theatrical performance. And they were coming to expect that publicity would frame how they were meant to receive such a major event.
Americans were picking up the new, publicity-driven language of celebrity, acquiring a new vocabulary about who and what should be celebrated and why. Crucially, people were learning how to inhabit a new, mass mediated persona: that of the fan.
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