The Astor Place riot, or why we don’t say Macbeth


I’ve always wondered why it’s considered bad luck to say “Macbeth” in a theater, or why production companies often refer to the play as, “that Scottish play”. Actors and directors will tell you the play is cursed; yet oddly this doesn’t stop them from producing it.

Why do we think the play is cursed? I’ve tried in vain to find the origin of this myth. My research led me to several stories that are purported to be examples of this curse, yet no one can say where theses stories originally come from. Even Harvard Professor Marjorie Garber, a well-respected Shakespeare scholar, adds to the myth without bothering to cite any sources. If she is to be taken at her word, the three witches use an actual spell in the opening scene. This supposedly has cursed the play right from the start.

And again if she is to be believed, the first young actor to play Lady Macbeth died during the play’s opening night. Apparently a real knife was used instead of a prop. The problem I have with this story is that there is no scene in which Lady Macbeth is faced with a knife. If you can’t trust a Harvard scholar, whom can you trust?

Another story has King James hating the play and this in turn upset Shakespeare so much that for the rest of his life he would only refer to the play as “that Scottish play”. We can only hold this to be true if we had a document that contained Shakespeare’s thoughts. So far we have none.

Each source I looked at mentions “they” or “it is been said”. Who are they and who said it?

There are also several mentions of disasters and deaths that occurred over the years during the plays many productions. It has been said, apparently by the mysterious “they,” that in the late 1800’s seven actors died in one week during a production. Who these actors were or how they died is unknown.

One theory for the play’s many mishaps is that during the 19th century it was not unusual to replace a poorly received play with Macbeth. Substituting Macbeth for another play did not allow much rehearsal time. The play involves a lot of sword fights and without proper time to rehearse, actors were routinely getting hurt during the fight scenes. Are we to assume from this that actors who had no idea how to use them wielded real swords? Did no one tell them not to use the pointy end?

We don’t need to be statisticians to understand that the likelihood of someone getting hurt goes up proportional to the amount of times a play is produced. Macbeth just happens to be a very popular play. It is no wonder there are reports of deaths and accidents. It would be odd not to have heard of any mishaps. But this does not explain the curse, as there have been a lot of reported mishaps during Hamlet, yet you don’t hear anyone calling it “that Danish play”.

But as much as all of the above sounds like urban legend, there is one well- documented account of something that went horribly wrong during a production of Macbeth. And of course, it had to happen in America. By night’s end there would be a mass riot and twenty people would lose their lives. All because of one American actor’s giant ego.

Edwin Forrest as Macbeth
Edwin Forrest as Macbeth

Edwin Forrest was the first great American born tragedian. By many accounts he was America’s first celebrated Shakespearean actor. Other accounts say he was hammy to be anything other than an American actor. In other words, the Royal Shakespeare Company wouldn’t have wanted him. But to Forrest, he was the only man in America who should have been playing all the great parts. So when in 1849, Charles Macready, a well-respected British actor, came to America to play Macbeth, Forrest was outraged.


Forrest had already made his feelings towards Macready known. While visiting Europe in 1846, Forrest was invited to see Macready play Hamlet. Forrest, for reasons unknown, hissed “in the most marked and offensive manner”, according to a letter Macready would write to a friend. This marked the beginning of a professional rivalry, though from all accounts it was very much one sided.

Macready was invited to play Macbeth in the new Astor Opera House. The Opera House was a showcase of New York culture and fine taste. Having a British actor play Shakespeare was just what the upper crust wanted. This may have been the catalyst for Forrest’s rage. Not to be outdone, Forrest decided to play Macbeth in a Broadway theater. This was not enough for Forrest, he convinced some of his fans to attend Macready’s performance in order to disrupt it. The ploy worked. A few scuffles between opposing fans caused the play to be stopped (and you thought sport fans were a nasty lot).

The press had a field day with this American vs. English rivalry and fanned the flames of resentment towards the English. When it was announced the play would resume in three days time, the stage (pardon the pun) was set for disaster. The curse of Macbeth would tragically play out.

263- 872b, digital composite of 4 images

The night of the play saw thousands of protesters surrounding the Opera House demanding the play be stopped. Demonstrators for both men added to the anger and resentment. By the time the play was finished there were those calling for Macready’s head. The New York State Militia was called out to calm the riot, while local police escorted Macready out and away from the building. Not able to calm the rioters by their mere presence, the militia fired upon the crowed killing 20 people and hurting several others. Sadly, none of the rioters would be killed. Those who died were bystanders or people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Macready fled America never to return. Forrest’s reputation was ruined and by 1852 he was a self-imposed hermit, spending the rest of his days in his Philadelphia mansion. I think we can all agree that if we want to lay the blame of the Scottish curse on anyone, Forrest deserves most of the credit.


Jennifer Lee Carrol, The Curse of the Scottish Play

Marjorie Garber Macbeth: The Male Medusa

James Shapiro, Shakespeare in America

Idiot America


Back in 2003 I was living in Kalispell Montana. I lived next door to Fred, a high school science teacher, who had spent several summers in the eastern Badlands of Montana collecting dinosaur fossils. My 11 year old son, a budding paleontologist, found Fred fascinating.  The two of them spent several hours pouring over Fred’s finds. Alex learned a lot about dinosaurs from Fred.

The University of Bozeman, noted for its paleontology department, was only hours away from our home. I had high hopes that my son would study natural science in high school then move on to graduate from U of B. It came as quite a shock when Fred came home one day and said he had been let go. The local high schools had all decided to add Intelligent Design to their science curriculums. Fred refused to teach it. Whitefish High refused to let him show off fossils. It appeared that the schools of Western Montana were moving backwards in time. This was one reason I moved out of Montana Since then I have often wondered how and why it is America seems to be dumbing down even as we move into an age in which information is just a few keystrokes away. Why is it that the more readily available facts become, the less likely we are to seek them out?

I picked up Charles Pierce’s book Idiot America, hoping to find some answers. The back of the book looked promising. It says, “Pierce asks how a country founded on intellectual curiosity has some how deteriorated in a nation of simpletons more apt to vote for an American Idol contestant than a presidential candidate”. Before you to get offended at that statement, ask yourself this. “What do my co-workers and I talk about?” Chances are you talk TV shows or sports far more often than you do current events.  Or try this. When at work today ask a random co-worker what upsets him more, the fact that Breaking Bad is ending or America’s blind eye to the plight of the Syrian people?  Yeah, now that you think about it, that statement isn’t too far off.

Pierce offers three great premises of Idiot America:

  1. Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings or otherwise moves units.
  2. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
  3. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly and often enough.

From these three ideas, Pierce takes his readers on a historical look at how local crackpots have morphed into today’s national pundits and political mouthpieces. He introduces readers to little known historical figures whose ideas were only dangerous to themselves and maps out their evolution to the dangerous political ideology we hear on TV and radio today.


There are a lot of ideas to unpack in this book. I could write a paper on Pierce’s indictment of today’s Idiot American, but for sake of brevity will comment on the one that stands out the most; the war on expertise

The War on expertise.

Pierce argues that one of the things that makes America great is the freedom that allows for independent ideas. Our Founding Fathers believed in freedom of expression (let’s be honest, for white tax paying males,) and that any and all ideas were welcome and experimentation was key to our budding country. The country itself was a social experiment. The scientific revolution was at its peak when America was born, and though the Founding Fathers encouraged bold new ideas, they assumed these same ideas would be put to the scientific method. Those who were willing to put their ideas up for debate, tested and passed would be our country’s experts. The problem is this happened infrequently. The country saw the rise of the crank.

Take the story of  Ignatius Donnelly, a congressman from the late 1800’s who left public office in disgrace only to rise up again as the expert on Atlantis. He fell in love the Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousands Leagues Under the Sea and used the book as a jumping off point in his search for Atlantis. In 1882 Harper & Brothers published his book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. In it Donnelly credits the Atlantean culture for everything from Bronze Age weaponry in Europe to the Mayan Calendar. He claimed that though the island vanished, many of its inhabitants escaped, spreading across the world telling their story and sharing their inventions. Laugh now, but at the time the book was a big success. Donnelly crisscrossed the nation giving lectures to gullible masses, including the media who never questioned his ideas. For a while, he was the leading expert on Atlantis. As the country made scientific and archeological advances, Donnelly’s ideas did not stand up and his crackpot ideas were dismissed.

We see the same thing happening in today’s America. Anyone can now write a book or host a show and call himself an expert , even if he has no training or background in the subject at hand. If an idea appeals to enough people well then, any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings or otherwise moves units.

This happens because of the human tendency towards confirmation bias. The gut drives that which we accept as fact. If your gut tells you that God would never let our planet’s weather patterns change to the detriment of humans, then the facts of climate change will not change your mind. But you will be swayed by “facts” that confirm your gut feeling. Never mind that many of these facts are unsupported or are just blatant lies told to sell a book , more oil, or spread an opinion as fact, your gut will override common sense. People don’t care if they are not right; they  just don’t want to be wrong in their beliefs and will seek out others who share these beliefs. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it. This is why conspiracy theories spread.

The problem with idiot America is that far too many people who let their gut rule their brain now have access to mass media. And if their message reaches enough people who share their gut beliefs we know, anything can be true if someone says it loudly and often enough. This is why talk radio is so popular.

Pierce comments on Idiot America using sarcasm and biting humor. He goes to great lengths to show his readers how opinion is now held has facts and the effects this has on our politics and social values.  He reminds us that our Founding Fathers envisioned a country that valued education. As Madison said in a letter, “a free country is an educated country”. It is much harder to bullshit an educated person. Yet somehow along the way we have devalued education to the point of distrusting scholars and scientists.  As Pieces notes, we are now a country free to believe anything we want, including idiotic ideas.

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