The History of Theater - In One Amazing City

The Riot Act

The Riot Act

A British cartoon showing the O.P. riots in London in 1809.

The point of view of the artist is decidedly opposed to the protests, as the cartoon shows working class roughnecks assaulting and robbing well-dressed toffs in the pit of the Grand National Theatre, Covent Garden. Below, a depiction of actor and manager John Philip Kemble being harangued by the O.P. protestors, who are blowing trumpets and bearing signs calling for the end of private boxes.

The O.P. Riots

In the early 19th Century, it was often the behavior of the theater
audience which deserves attention, as well as what happened onstage. How people behaved during a play shaped the nature of the dramatic art and the very structure of how plays were to be conceived and presented. And once again, social protest in the theater often predicted coming conflict in the world outside. Even here in Philadelphia, raucous protests and demonstrations would commonly break out in the audience at the Chestnut Street Theatre in the 1790s, as Federalists and Jeffersonian ‘Republicans’ would vie to outdo each other singing patriotic songs before the show. George Washington, not wanting to be caught in the middle of such a fraught political drama, even had to stop going to the theater to avoid them.

The crowds in British Theaters, even more than American ones, were divided into class: rough types and theater fanatics of all classes (almost exclusively male) in the Pit, wealthy people in the reserved boxes, working class seated way up in the gallery. Various attempts to colonize the Pit with boxes or reserved seating were always met with fierce opposition by the regulars. The different sections usually had separate entrances, so ‘the carriage trade’ could bring their wives and daughters safely into their box seats, separate from hoi polloi

As we learned in Episode 21, in 1809  London’s Covent Garden theater had just been rebuilt (after a fire) on a HUGE scale - twice the size as before, holding about 3000 people. All the intimacy was lost in the effort of the patent-holders to make back more of the increasingly expensive task of maintaining a company and a staff. Management raised ticket prices, especially in ’The Pit’, which from time immemorial had been the province of rougher, ruder types: gamblers, grocers, apprentices and clerks (mostly male, with female companions who were most likely prostitutes.) These deeply resentful pit regulars came up with a plan. They all stayed away until after the first item on the bill, then bought “half-price” tickets and surged into the seats. Then, night after night, they refused to pay attention to the performers! They held dances, played cards, shouted and chanted: We Want the Old Prices! To the dismay of the toffs and swells in the Private boxes, they kept up the demonstrations night after night. The management, our old friend John Philip Kemble, tried performing Coriolanus and berating the mob from the stage. That didn’t work. Nor did hiring professional boxers to spar with troublemakers in the crowd. The People were determined to have their Old Prices. And they won! Eventually management was forced to accede to their demands, and the Old Prices were restored.

As the historian Terry F. Robinson has written: “The O.P. Riots did more than expose the divide between high and low; they unified a heterogeneous theatre going public through ritualized conflict that, in turn, defined the role of the theatregoer in the political landscape. By participating in the riots, audience members ‘changed [the] social meaning of the English theatre audience’ The O.P. rioters made clear that the survival of a state-sanctioned National Theatre depended on them. By drawing attention to themselves, they communicated the fact that audience members, whatever their rank, were not merely passive spectators of theatrical events but important players in the theatre—even more so than those who performed on stage. The aim of their ritual disorder was to assert their rights over despotic theatrical governance.”
(See the complete essay here: )

The Battle of Hernani

There was another famous historic European theater riot - this time in Paris, in February of 1830. It was the age of the restored Bourbon Monarchy, and there was also an attempt by the authorities to restore proper Neoclassical rules of French Drama. But a new generation of authors like Victor Hugo were coming to prominence, and they were devotees of Romanticism. Hugo had also been greatly impressed by the work of melodramas on the Boulevard du Temple. He would visit them over and over again. Interestingly, it was the visit to Paris in 1827 by an English company of tragedians led by Charles Kemble (brother of John Philip Kemble, and father of Fanny Kemble) that electrified the younger French intelligentsia. THIS was how theater ought to be done! They were thrilled by seeing Aristotle's "Unities"  ignored.
Comedy and tragedy in the same play?!? Ophelia making rude jokes about young maids and then going mad on stage? The traditionalists hated it, but young Romantic poets of Paris, like Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, loved it. This was much better than the staid and placid recitations of the verse of Racine and Corneille.

Hugo openly advocated that French literature should be more like English and Germanic literature - embracing the comic with the tragic, the common along with the noble. He used the term ‘grotesque’ - advocating for dark and ugly emotions to convey pain and truth to the audience, like the character of Quasimodo he was soon to make so famous in his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Hugo threw himself into writing a new play. He would set it in Spain, where he had traveled as a boy along with his father in Napoleon’s military campaigns. He gave public readings of it, and soon, and having friends in high places due to the influence of his father, he was able to have it accepted at the Comedie Francaise, the greatest institution of French theater. They were actually having a slow season, and were losing a lot of audience to the melodramas. The societaires of the Comedie thought this new play by the exciting young sensation M. Hugo would bring in the crowds - which proved to be more correct than they could imagine. 

Once his new play had finally been accepted, he devoted himself to the rehearsals of the play. His wife, Adele, worked behind the scenes like a general - as Hugo rehearsed with the somewhat resistant Comedie actors, she organized literally hundreds bohemians of the Latin Quarter to come to the play and be claqueres. They wore red badges with the Spanish word hierro--iron--which Hugo himself had distributed. Crucially they knew that to carry the day, they could not only occupy one class of seats, but spread themselves throughout the theater, to overcome all opposition from all classes.

Hernani, ou l'Honneur Castillan was first presented on Saturday night, February 25, 1830. The traditionalists came out in force as well, ready to scorn it. The boxes were filled with wealthy persons, many distinguished in letters or art, who joined in the tumult which arose as the play proceeded. Hugo was thrilled when he saw that distinguished writers he admired, like Chateaubriand and Balzac were in the audience. The disorder between the two sides proceeded from taunts to blows, but Hugo's bohemian partisans were clearly aware that the tide was turning in their favor. The young art students and their girlfriends began opening their provisions, spreading ham, butter, bread, cheese, and garlic sausage out on handkerchiefs and benches. Some went into the boxes seeking out dark corners in which to pee -- this because they'd been locked in and the toilets were still closed. . . . the long-time patrons of the theater were appalled. Phrygian caps, a symbol of Republicanism, adorned many hairdos. Unable to bear further the sight of the middle-aged men casting scornful glances at them, a young sculptor screamed out: "Bald­heads to the guillotine!" When Hugo had arrived, the manager, horrified by complaints about silk dresses and satin shoes being fouled in the pools of urine, said, "Your play is dead" and "it was your young friends who killed it." 

During the play, fierce arguments broke out amongst the crowd, but the organized forces of Hugo carried the day. There's a marvelous French language movie that dramatizes the whole evening, for those who want to learn more - but there are no English subtitles, I'm afraid:

All this soon became famous in the next day's newspapers as ‘The Battle of Hernani’. A week later, Hugo wrote to a friend: "Hernani's been playing at the Theatre-Français since 28 Feb­ruary. Each time it makes 5,000 francs in receipts. Each night the public hisses all the verses; it's a real uproar, the parterre hoots, the boxes explode into laughter. The actors are mortified and hostile; most of them sneer at what they have to say.” There really was a feeling in the air that yet another huge new cultural shift had happened in the theater - and that what was happening  at the theater seemed to matter in the larger political process. The Parisian press generally condemned the play, but nevertheless it was repeated night after night for two months. The bitter contest continued every night, often with serious disturbances. Over the course of the entire run, there was hardly a line that had not been the object of applause or hisses, or both. But the Romantics had won the right of having their new style of plays heard and considered seriously. It was a political  and social victory, and it presaged what was coming later that year: The Revolution of 1830.

The Astor Place Riots

But let's go back to America, and to the most famous theater riot of them all. In 1848, wealthy New Yorkers had built the Astor Place Opera House on the bend of Broadway right below Grace Church. It stood on the border between the land of the Bowery (ruled by the gangs of Bowery "b'hoys") and the upper crust houses around Union and Washington Squares. In fact it sat right next to the mansion of old John Jacob Astor, who had recently died, and who had given his name to the square. It was an effort to build a new type of venue, where ‘respectable’ families might go and view great theater, although it still could not avoid the practice of letting people of any class inhabit the less expensive seats.

We have mentioned many times in the podcast (or in our social media posts associated with the podcast) the long-running rivalry between the British actor William Charles Macready and our old friend Edwin Forrest. Forrest thought that Macready had deliberately turned newspaper critics against him when he played London in 1846. There had been a further public scandal later that year when Forrest had hissed from the audience of a theater in Edinburgh while Macready played Hamlet.

But by 1847, Macready felt that the whole matter was mostly forgotten. He was thinking of winding down his career, announcing he would tour America – perhaps even retire there.

Forrest, however, had not forgotten anything. He followed Macready on his American tour from city to city, from Baltimore to New Orleans, to Cincinnati, (where a dead carcass of a sheep was hurled at Macready, landing on the stage with a grisly thump). Forrest scheduled his own tour so he would play everywhere Macready played - in each city Forrest would book a theater nearby (or the same theater immediately after Macready had left town) and play the same roles. The newspapers had a field day, following the tour, and comparing the performances and the public reception. Eventually the pair both ended up in Philadelphia, where pro-Forrest patrons at the Arch Street Theater threw pennies, then eggs, then chairs at Macready. The annoyed actor made an indignant curtain speech reproving these rude tactics. He even published a 'card' in the Philadelphia newspapers (see below), which did him no good, since many Americans took it as an insult to their young country by a patronizing Englishman.

For the final stop on his tour, Macready came to New York to play the Astor Play Theater. But the Bowery b'hoys and some other friends of Forrest were plotting to ruin his run. Together they had bought up huge blocks of tickets - and were ready to station themselves at the theater to meet the enemy of their hero. The show,
Macbeth, was scheduled on Monday, May 7th. And as planned, all bedlam broke out at the performance. Catcalling, yelling, throwing eggs, even chairs and benches. Macready followed the usual practice of 19th Century actors when confronted with an unruly audience,  and bravely went ahead, though the musicians in the orchestra fled. He finally gave up when a chair crashed down on the stage right next to him. Swearing he would leave town the next day, he booked a ticket on a boat hom. But a delegation and letter from 46 prominent New York citizens, deeply ashamed of his reception in their city, begged him to stay and he consented. Forrest, also playing Macbeth at the nearby Broadway Theater, grimly noted Macready’s humiliation with satisfaction. He did nothing to calm down his partisans.

Posters, drawn up by Tammany Democrats (who were furious at losing the mayoral election and wanting to discredit the new Whig Party mayor of New York) appeared all over town alleging a conspiracy to replace American values with foreign ones. The posters were spreading a false rumor that some English sailors were saying they would fight anyone who came to the theater to heckle Macready. Fake News, as we would say today. 

Wednesday the 10th, the b’hoys, who had again bought blocks of tickets and hoped to overwhelm all efforts of Macready to perform, found out that they had been tricked - their ‘tickets’ were no good (all the real ones had only been sold to upper-class friends of Macready) and they were refused admittance, They all howled in indignation and demanded entrance to the theater, so they could make their rightful protests!  This audience space was public property, after all, to them. By evening, word of the injustice had gotten out, and ten thousand people thronged the open spaces of Astor place and the junction with Broadway. Police were overwhelmed and undermanned. The New York National Guard company was called out by the mayor. Crowd began throwing stones and bricks at the theater. Windows were smashed. Inside, Macready did not stop the show, and his own partisans grimly hung on to watch him, even as stones and bricks were smashing the boards covering the windows. Some demonstrators had actually made it inside; they were soon arrested after a signboard was put up instructing friends of Macready to be quiet, so the noisemakers were quickly spotted. Arrested and thrown into a locked room, they thereupon tried to set the theater on fire. 

Outside the Guard, fearing for their lives, leveled their muskets and fired. Twenty-six (or more) people were killed, and many wounded. Shots shredded nearby buildings. The crowds dispersed and ran away, many carrying the dead and wounded with them. 

Thereafter, both in England and America, theater culture changed. A new expectation of respectful audience behavior was beginning to take shape. And if the rougher set insisted on their right to protest, and make noise, well then new theaters would be built whose location, prices, and standards would exclude them. And just as we shall, in our next episode, see how the Academy of Music was built in Philadelphia, another "Academy of Music" was soon built on Manhattan's 14th Street for old-line wealthy and respectable New Yorkers.

(By the way - If you've come here looking for a discussion of the work of the 20th Century French actor, writer and theorist Antonin Artaud, sorry about that. I just used the term "Theater of Cruelty" because I liked the joke. Artaud felt that theater artists needed to be cruel to the audience, in order to shock them out of their bourgeois complacency. But my point is that audiences can be cruel to theater artists, too - and in fact always have been.)

© Copyright, Peter Schmitz 2021. All rights reserved.

Selected Bibliography:

Carey, Mathew, Desultory reflections, excited by the recent calamitous fate of John Fullerton. Addressed to those who frequent the theatre, Philadelphia, Printed for the author, by Robert Carr., Feb. 8, 1802. (Accessed via America's Historical Imprints)

Cliff, Nigel,
The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth Century America, Random House, 2007.

Durang, Charles, History of the Philadelphia Stage, Between the Years 1749 and 1855.  Volume 1: 1749 to 1818. Arranged and illustrated by Thompson Westcott, 1868. (Available online courtesy Penn Library, Colenda Digital Repository.)

James, Reese Davis, Cradle of Culture: 1800-1810, the Philadelphia Stage, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1957.

James, Reese Davis, Old Drury of Philadelphia: A History of the Philadelphia Stage, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1932, pp. 1-20.

McEvoy, Sean, Theatrical Unrest: Ten Riots in the History of the Stage, Routledge, 2015.

"Theatrical," The Tickler, April 7th, 1808. (Accessed via America's Historical Imprints)

Wood, William B., Personal Recollections of the Stage, Embracing Notices of Actors, Authors, and Auditors During a Period of Forty Years. Philadelphia, 1855, pp. 83-182. Digitized 2008 and available via Google Books.