The Scottish Play

by Malcolm Macdonald, April 20, 2016

It all stems from April 20th. If you don't know why, hang onto your ticket stub it could be valuable.

On April 20, 1611 Shakespeare's Scottish play was first performed in London's Globe Theater. Of course, we are not referring to the lead character by name because of the curse placed on Shakespeare and company 405 years ago when they stole a cauldron from an actual coven to enact the three witches scene. The real witches retaliated by placing an everlasting curse on the play and the utterance of its title.

That's one of the tales that surrounds the alleged curse of speaking the Bard's Scottish play's title aloud in the proximity of a stage. Accidents have happened after the name got mentioned inside a theater by a member of its company, including injuries sustained by multiple actors during a 1937 Old Vic performance which starred Laurence Olivier. (Several wounds were incurred by a spate of actors portraying MacDuff when they parried swords with the exuberant Olivier.)

Then there was the Astor Place Riot of May, 1849. The two most renowned Shakespearean actors of the time were William Charles Macready, a Brit, and the up and coming American, Edwin Forrest. On a previous tour of the U.S., Macready was followed from city to city by Forrest who took on the same Shakespearean roles as the English thespian. Most American newspapers supported Forrest with positive, if not glowing, reviews while denouncing Macready's talent.

Forrest had debuted in New York at the Bowery Theatre, which catered to the working classes and the gang members from the areas surrounding the Five Points neighborhood of lower Manhattan. Forrest trod the stage a hundred years earlier like Brando screaming for his Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Macready offered up a much more genteel method of acting.

In May, 1849, Macready made his third visit to New York to perform at the Opera House, which was deigning to allow actors to perform in its confines while the opera season was dark and calling itself the Astor Place Theatre for such runs. On May 7th, hundreds of Forrest supporters bought tickets to Macready's turn at the Scottish play. They hurled every thing from rotten eggs to shoes at Macready and his fellow Shakespeareans. Seats were torn apart, while a few blocks away at the Broadway Theater (even the spelling of the two houses denoted a form of class differentiation) Forrest's fans rose to a roaring ovation when their actor uttered the Bard's line, “What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug will scour these English hence?”

Macready threatened to leave straightaway for England, but agreed to stay after a letter imploring him to do so arrived. The petitioning letter stated in part that, “the good sense and respect for order prevailing in this community will sustain you on the subsequent nights of your performance.” The document was signed by many of New York society's elite and by some literary luminaries of the day, including Washington Irving and Herman Melville.

By 7:30 p.m. on May 10th, when Macready took the stage for another go at the Scottish play, about 10,000 people had crammed into the streets nearest the Astor Place Theatre. Of particular note among the crowd outside was one Ned Buntline (born Edward Zane Carroll Judson, but under the pseudonym Buntline he would go on to gain fame as the dime novelist chronicler of such Wild West figures as Buffalo Bill and Wyatt Earp). His newspaper column “Ned Buntline's Own” often championed nativism. Throughout the previous week Buntline had created and passed out hundreds of posters and handbills proclaiming, “Shall Americans Or English Rule This City?” Buntline and friends had purchased many of the tickets that allowed Five Points toughs to attend and disrupt Macready's May 7th performance.

On May 10th Buntline and friends were well supplied with rocks and bricks to pelt the Astor Place Theatre. An attempt was made to burn the Astor from inside, but the blaze was smothered before it could do any real damage. However, the stones and chunks of masonry hurled through windows caused something close to a general panic inside. Macready finished his performance in a rush, though virtually no one could hear him, then sneaked out a side door in disguise to avoid the mob.

For the first time in New York history, the state militia was called in to quell the crowds. Rocks, bricks, and punches were thrown at the soldiers who eventually fired warning shots in the air, then point blank rounds into the throng. Several of those killed were simply bystanders who'd gathered at the edges to see what all the fuss was about. Most reports put the dead at twenty-five or slightly more, with the number injured equaling five times that. Anywhere from fifty to seventy of the injured were men serving in some sort of law enforcement capacity.

As a consequence New York became the first American city to arm its police force with guns. The class divide in New York continued. Truly professional actors like the Booths then the Barrymores played more and more in respectable theatres. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, Shakespeare in America became less and less a subject of popular culture and something only appropriate for the highbrows of society.

It wouldn't be until well into the twentieth century when actors like Olivier brought the Bard of Avon to the silver screen that Shakespeare would return to some semblance of broad popular acceptance. Just don't utter the name of the Scots laird whose name adorns one of Willie's plays. Even famous film stars aren't immune from the curse. In a 1953 open air production in Bermuda a gust of wind blew a flame onto Charlton Heston's pants, which had somehow been partly soaked in kerosene. Though not nearly fatal, let's just say a burning pain in the groin ensued.

You won't get burned at the author's website: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com

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