I wound up today’s lecture on the varieties of 19th-century NYC theater with a long quote from one critic’s recollection of the opening of A Glance at New York, the play that made Mose the Bowery B’hoy a household name, made b’hoy red-flannel fashion an instant craze, and launched Mose’s career in American folklore. The account of opening night comes from William Knight Northall’s Before and Behind the Curtain (1851), a theater history of the preceding 15 years, published only three years after Glance‘s debut and two years after the notorious riots at the Astor Place Opera House. Northall recalls A Glance at New York‘s impact on the venue in which it premiered, the Olympic Theater, and on New York’s theater scene in general:
For four months did this unmitigated conglomeration of vulgarity and illiteracy keep the stage … The theatre was crowded from pit to dome nightly, and the hi-hi’s of the pit testified how happy they were to see a congenial vulgarity thrust under the nostrils of a better class of people. It would be scarcely fair to judge of a person’s taste, simply because they spent an evening in witnessing the rowdyism of Mose. The piece was the town talk, and few could resist the inclination to go and see for themselves what had produced such an extraordinary excitement all around them. …
The house was filled with a constant succession of strangers, for we venture to assert that no man with any pretension to good taste, with any love for the stage, or any desire to see it fulfil its proper uses, would ever go there twice, and sit through the abomination the second time. When the public curiosity had been somewhat satisfied … the boxes no longer shone with the elite of the city; the character of the audiences was entirely changed, and Mose, instead of appearing on stage, was in the pit, the boxes, and the gallery. It was all Mose, and the respectability of the house mosed too.
Northall’s account differs slightly from the apocryphal but widely circulated story of Mose’s first appearance on the stage, in which an audience of rapt workingmen break into uproarious approbation on seeing one of their own stride on stage. Instead, he offers a story of a Bowery audience’s take-over of a respectable theater. Bowery audiences had already controlled their own theater spaces — most notably the Bowery Theater itself — for more than a decade. Though city officials hoped the Bowery Theater would help gentrify the neighborhood and provide civilizing social uplift for poorer patrons, they misjudged, and working-class audiences made that space their own, to the dismay of some officials and elite onlookers.
The growing class divisions to which Northall nods weren’t merely confined to theater spaces. Class-based riots erupted throughout the 1830s and 40s. But the theater became a special site for wearing your class politics on your sleeve: literally, in the sense of fashion and taste. B’hoys soaped their locks and dressed like Mose, promenading on the Bowery; the genteel set daintily applauded the construction of the Astor Place Opera House (pictured), a new spot for refined entertainment, built at the head of Lafayette, a street created expressly for the purposes of exclusive real estate. (The new street also bisected an old entertainment spot, Vauxhall Gardens, where Glance at New York concludes.)
In spite of the rosy cross-class friendships at the end of Glance, the class tensions in these plays—and the competing styles of masculine behavior among audiences—would culminate in one of the most famous episodes in New York theater history: the Astor Place riots of May 1849, only a year after Glance premiered at the Olympic and three after Fashion played to friendly audiences at the genteel Park.
The riots, which have been written about by dozens of historians (most recently Nigel Cliff, whose book I haven’t yet managed to read) were the culmination of an ongoing rivalry between two leading Shakespearean actors. William Charles Macready was an Englishman, Edwin Forrest an American. The two had different acting styles that appealed to different audiences. Macready was refined, aristocratic, and appealed to wealthy, genteel New Yorkers: the Park set. Forrest typified the Bowery style: rough, forceful, and patriotic. He was something of a teen idol for the Bowery B’hoys. Philip Hone—the mayor who had dedicated the Bowery in 1826—considered Forrest “a vulgar, arrogant loafer, with a pack of kindred rowdies at his heels.”
The two actors had a longstanding feud. Forrest had toured England to poor reviews, which he blamed on Macready. He struck back by hissing Macready during a performance of Hamlet. British newspapers came down hard on Forrest, who defended himself, in true Bowery fashion, by asserting his right as an audience member to express his dramatic criticism on the spot.
In May 1849, the two actors performed in New York in competing performances of Macbeth. Forrest took a dig at Macready by emphasizing Macbeth’s line, “What purgative drug will scour these English hence?” This led to several minutes of sustained applause from his audience. The same night, Macready performed at the two-year-old Astor Place Opera House, whose dress code included white kid gloves for gentlemen, a detail that particularly pissed off the b’hoys. Forrest’s friends and fans still managed to infiltrate the opera house and showered Macready with vegetables, glass bottles, and chairs during his performance. The pit and gallery from one house, in essence, had taken over another that belonged to a higher class. In other words, the whole city had become a theater like the one Irving’s Jonathan Oldstyle had portrayed earlier in the century.
At his next performance, nearly 15,000 people gathered outside the Opera House, most of them spectators. Inside, the crowd again showered Macready with eggs and tomatoes. Outside, the crowd began to throw bricks through windows and tried to break down the theater doors, which had been barricaded. The militia fired into the crowd, killing over 20 and wounding over 100 others. It was the first time American militia had fired on American citizens.
86 people were arrested. They were primarily workingmen, many of them butchers, like Mose. The papers picked up on the class politics and framed the event as stemming from working class resentment against “aristocratizing the pit.” The episode allows us to see how theater politics were one manifestation of larger public issues, and how they fed into larger public issues as well.
More on the response to the riots by writers including Irving and Melville sometime next week.
My quick account of the riots here is cobbled from a lot of sources: the longstanding classic is Richard Moody’s The Astor Place Riot (1958). Philip Hone’s account, quoted above, is reprinted in Phillip Lopate’s anthology Writing New York. The title of this post comes from Walt Whitman’s recollections of the Bowery Theater in “The Old Bowery” (1892).