Macbeth – off-stage more than 20 people killed
Aggiornamento: 12 apr 2022
It seems hard to believe that two factions should gather behind two actors, eventually to end in open war with each other, and with many lives lost. But so it happened in 1849.
William Charles Macready counts amongst the most influential actors of 19th century Britain. He was both director of Covent Garden and later of Drury Lane, and his performances of various Shakespearean characters, be it Othello, Lear, or Macbeth, were highly and widely acclaimed.
Across the Atlantic Edwin Forrest was an actor of the same ilk. When guesting in London in 1845, however, his performance of Macbeth flopped most miserably. Forrest blamed Macready for his failure, alleging that he was jeoulous of him. In this way what once was a friendship between the two turned into an open animosity.
Their crisis should reach its highest peak when in 1849 Macready performed Macbeth in New York, and when the two of them should be, wellnigh tragically, sucked into the maelstrom of their mutual dislike most abysmally. As chance would have it, Forrest was staging Macbeth just a few yards away at the same period of time. When Macready was performing Macbeth in May 1849, thousands of people supporting Forrest gathered in front of his theatre and caused a riot so that Macready had to cancel the play after the third act. Three days later, however, the rioters returned, and this time they caused a virtual havoc. The security forces called in to end the warlike scenes soon after resorted to arms, their intervention resulting in more than 20 (22, 27, 29, according to diverse reports) persons shot and in more than a hundred casualties. Macready himself is reported to have dashed off in disguise.
That these tragic events should have been due to the animosity between Macready and Forrest alone would be hard to believe. There were probably reasons that go far beyond this. Was it Macready’s somewhat upperclass, vulgo: posh, consciousness seemingly incompatible with the more down-to-earth attitude of his American counterpart and the American theatre-goers as a whole, conversely – allegedly? - considered simplistic in the British view? Did, thus, their conflict reflect tensions between social classes, or even between nations? Did it even reflect a prevailing American attitude against all things British? Had the two actors become icons for strained British-American relations at that time? Sapristi! We are left guessing.
However tragic these events, it seems that Macbeth, so full of conflicts on-stage, may spark off catastrophes of like dimensions even off-stage. Rumour has it that actors prefer to call it „The Scottish Play“ instead of simply Macbeth, out of sheer superstition. Beware! H.S - Merlin 31/12/2019
See also Macbeth. Ed. by A.R. Braunmuller, Cambridge University Press 1997. A very fine edition covering all aspects of the play. Drawing "Soldato con ombrello" by Lina Giusti.