Battling over the Bard

May 10: On this day in 1849, the Astor Place Riot occurred, leaving 23 killed, over 100 injured, 10 sent to prison or fined, and New York's Astor Place Opera House in ruins. In its simplest terms, the riot was a feud which got out of hand, those in support of the touring English tragedian William Macready battling those who preferred the American actor Edwin Forrest for artistic or market share reasons. But, as told in the narrative style of The Shakespeare Riots, Nigel Cliff's recent study of the origins of American theater, the Astor Riot tells a much larger tale of patriotism and politics, from a time when the theater held a key place in New World cultural life.

 

Among those pulling the cultural-political strings attached to the Astor Riot was Isaiah Rynders, the Tammany Hall strongman, and one of his lieutenants, Ned Buntline. At this point in his eventful life, Buntline was a journalist, and decades away from his Buffalo Bill and dime novel fame. But he was always up for a fight or a fast buck, and Cliff sees his fingerprints all over the following poster, splashed around town in an attempt to mobilize troops for the Astor Place showdown:

AMERICANS!! AROUSE! THE GREAT CRISIS HAS COME!! Decide now whether English ARISTOCRATS!!! AND FOREIGN RULE! shall triumph in this AMERICA'S METROPOLIS, or whether her own SONS, whose fathers once compelled the base-born miscreants to succumb shall meanly lick the hand that strikes, and allow themselves to be deprived of the liberty of opinion so dear to every true American heart. AMERICANS!! come out! And dare to owe yourselves sons of the iron hearts of '76!!

Cliff says that the Astor was the ideal flash point of the larger turf war because it was situated at the edge of the Bowery, where Buntline hoped to find or hire those itching for a fight or a fun night out:

The Bowery was the entertainment as well as the commercial artery of the down-at-the heels East Side, and flames smelling of turpentine illuminated glass signs advertising cockpits, rat-baiting arenas, boxing rings, dime museums, bowling alleys, and gambling dens, together with scores of taverns and beer gardens, some of which served firewater through a rubber tube straight from the barrel at three cents a gulp. Above all, though, the Bowery was famed as the favorite stomping ground of the b'hoys and their g'hals.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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