Astor Place Riot – Theater History as Class History (pt 2)

Heather S. Nathans in the theater department at the University of Maryland makes some good points about how these actors’ styles can represent and develop the whole British vs. America thing in the build up to the riot. Edwin Forrest’s style was this sort of “open and honest” way of performing that was much more emotionally accessible than the traditional English sort of “cold and removed” sort of way that William Macready used in his performances. This ends up translating into the way the actors are represented in a social context as well.

Nathans points out that Forrest “appealed to a kind of American sense of manners and naturalness and emotional accessibility, the same way that Andrew Burstein writes about in Sentimental Democracy, when he talks about these kinds of virtues of emotional openness coming to embody Jeffersonian democracy. You move away from the intellect, because intellect, not everyone can access. But honest, deep emotion—that, everyone can access.”

Forrest actually hisses during one of Macready’s performances (sort of an embodiment of that “American” passion) which is kind of the starting point of the ensuing public battle and one of Macready’s reactions is to write in his diary about how trivial and annoying that was (which kind of shows the more British subdued emotional coldness and withdrawal).

Then she goes on to say that “the performer who is touching these emotions—the performer who seems genuinely in touch with his passions and can unleash those in this unrestrained way on stage—he can embody these kind of ‘American’ virtues, whereas someone like Macready, who has a more formal aspect to him, and maybe is a more intellectually driven performer, doesn’t appeal in the same way and seems cold, seems restrained.”

The reason I think it’s important to note these things is because it really illustrates that, when things are building up to the riot, America is representatively pit against the British and by association, the oppressors against the repressed and the rich against the poor.

I really like the way Bruce McConachie, chair of theater arts and professor of theater arts at the University of Pittsburgh, kind of brings these ideas together.  Some of the staunchest Forrest supporters are Tammany Hall Democrats, and their voters were “working class voters [that] think of themselves as strongly patriotic” and in some of the propaganda they produced they referred to Macready as the “pet of princes” and “denounce [him] as a symbol of aristocratic oppression. Not simply English oppression, but the oppression faced by working men, patriotic working men, by their employers.”

The image below pretty clearly, I think, shows the difference between who was on which side. The men on the side with the militia are very obviously better dressed than the working-class-looking men that are being shot at. (So it wasn’t just acting style vs. acting style, or even British vs. American, but very much rich vs. poor. You can SEE it in the picture that was published to portray the current event!)

http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/dgkeysearchdetail.cfm?strucID=715976&imageID=809559&word=riot%20new%20york&s=1&notword=&d=&c=&f=&lWord=&lField=&sScope=&sLevel=&sLabel=&num=0&total=38&pos=5&e=w

Astor Place Riot, 1849

Astor Place Riot, 1849

Also, as it turns out, many of the people killed were Irish immigrant members of the working poor. (Remember that these are the people who are Edwin Forrest supporters and are feeling the most patriotic about being American.) This is fairly ironic, then, considering that Macready is actually Irish as well. I feel like this really just further demonstrates how this violence and protest really weren’t just about a preferred actor or even nationality, but about the inequality of the class structure and exploitation of the poor in the burgeoning American economy of the urban Northeast.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: