Astor Place Riot – Theater History as Class History

So I’ve been looking more into the riot as a cultural event and I started to notice that there are a LOT of THEATER historians out there. I know that theater has long been a major cultural forum.  I guess I just didn’t put together that there’d actually be several people dedicating their lives to the specific history of theaters. Seems obvious when I think about it, but still pretty interesting to me.

One of the people I ran across while trying to find out a little bit more about just how “common” these riots (mentioned in my earlier post) really were is Bruce McConachie, a professor at the University of Pittsburg who has published on the American working-class experience of theater. He claims that the riots were actually intended to “oppose a specific policy at the theater, not always a rival actor, sometimes a stage manager or even a piece of music that might have been played and ruffled the patriotic feathers in the audience” and says that this particular one just happened to get out of hand.

The fact that there were protests against certain policies a theater might implement is interesting to me because it seems to call attention to the value working-class urban dwellers placed upon knowing where they stood in the world as well as the importance of staking one’s place within urban society, in this time of growing class distinction. The emergence of a middle class, as we know, was central in this period and this event really highlights the struggle that many Americans encountered in regards to self-definition and upward mobility (or lack thereof). Basically what happened with the Astor Place riot was a class war acted out in physical violence. This is powerful information in terms of understanding the urban American experience and the circumstances surrounding such intense reactions to something so seemingly innocuous as what style of theater will be performed.

I found a list of the people who died that was composed by Pat Pflieger, an English professor at West Chester University (I put a link to some of her stuff in the “extras” part later in this post), that is really detailed and is exciting in that there is so much information offered. Here are a few examples:

HENRY OTTEN,

22 years; grocer; shot through the breast. He died in the 15th Ward station-house, in presence of his aged mother.

TIMOTHY McGUINN,

19 years; laborer. The deceased was residing with his mother, in the rear of No. 107 West Thirteenth-street, and died soon after being brought home.

HENRY BURGUIST,

Known as “Harry Bluff,” lived at 410 Pearl-street. Ball grazed the neck, went into the right shoulder, coming out behind the right arm. Died of his wounds at the hospital.

BRIDGET FAGAN,

Irish; 30 years old; shot in the leg, just below the knee. She was two blocks off, walking with her husband on their way home, and fell into his arms. Died after amputation.

In my next post, I’ll include more on Edwin Forrest because I feel like this is a good point to start getting more into what his specific experience was. One historian I found talks about his acting style and why it appealed to an American audience.

EXTRAS:

  • REALLY useful person to use as means of finding a resource or browsing a topic: Pat Pflieger. She has purchased, transcribed, and made public a significant number of primary sources, as well as bibliographies and scholarly works.

http://www.merrycoz.org/adults.htm

http://www.merrycoz.org/bib/BIB.HTM

  • This is actually a review of the above mentioned site if you’d like to get more of an understanding for what she has to offer:

http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/7449/

  • This is a link to an image of the event that was in the newspapers, but I couldn’t figure out how to look at it more closely. I’m including it here anyway because it’s one I hadn’t seen before in other searches:

 

The Last Volley, Wood Engraving, 1849, Library of Congress.

The Last Volley, Wood Engraving, 1849, Library of Congress.

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005685996/

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