War Among The Stars

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It might be sleeping still had not a slack season in the London theatre tempted Macready to another American tour. “If there is no bread in Israel,” he told his wife, “there is plenty of corn in Egypt.” Friends warned him that along with corn he might get the lash, and he agreed. He arrived in Boston on September 24, 1848, looking, Longfellow thought, “pale and ill.”

Two theatres greeted his New York opening with burlesque presentations, Who’s Got Macready ? in one and Mr. Macgreedy in the other. In a curtain speech Macready grumbled that “a project was on foot to excite on this, my farewell visit to the American stage, a hostile feeling against me with the American public.” The embers having been stirred, others fed the flames. During Macready’s Boston run the Mail printed a defamatory article that reviewed Forrest’s London reception and scored the English actor as the villain of the piece. Forrest was already playing in Philadelphia when Macready arrived for an engagement at the Arch Street Theatre. They passed on the street and cut each other dead. Both drew crowded houses, but Macready suffered a few eggs and huzzas for Forrest at his opener. He assured the audience that despite his harassment in Edinburgh by “an American actor,” his belief in the “warm and generous sentiments” of the American people remained firm.

Next day Forrest answered this pistol shot with a double-charged broadside in Philadelphia newspapers. Macready did “secretly—not openly—suborn several writers for the English press to write me down” during the London engagement. As for Macready’s claim that he had always felt kindly toward Forrest: “Pah! Mr. Macready has no feeling of kindness for any actor who is likely, by his talent, to stand in his way. … There is nothing in him but self—self—self.” However, best “let the superannuated driveller alone— to oppose him would be to make him of some importance.” Harsh? Forrest said he hoped so. From New York, Forrest’s wife Catherine wrote, “Give it to him!” Forrest declared that he would, with an axe instead of a pruning hook. Macready feared for his safety. He requested a squad of policemen behind scenes and left his money in his room. “If Mr. Forrest could have induced my assassination,” he was sure, “he would have rejoiced in doing it.”

The long quarrel neared its climax. After a profitable winter tour (marred only by the half carcass of a sheep hurled on-stage in Cincinnati), Macready arrived in New York to open a final engagement on May 7 at the Astor Place Opera House, a theatre situated just east of fashionable Greenwich Village and near the homes of financier John Jacob Astor and former mayor Philip Hone.

Forrest’s mood was blacker than ver because he was playing out a real-life Othello at home. For a year he had harbored doubts of his wife’s fidelity. During an out-of-town engagement he had returned unexpectedly to his hotel room and found Catherine in compromising closeness to an actor of his troupe. In January he discovered a letter from the same actor that spoke of the bliss the two had known together. This was Othello’s handkerchief, and it was enough. Forrest railed at Catherine all night and thereafter treated her with utter coldness. The day after Macready reached New York, Forrest closed his house and put the key in his pocket. Catherine could go whereever she liked.

Forrest now turned his spite on Macready. He sent the Herald a letter from a friend that reasserted Macready’s responsibility for “the foul stream of unmanly abuse” to which Forrest had been subjected in London. When Macready announced that he would open in New York with Macbeth , Forrest promptly let it be known that he would play the same, on the same night, at the huge new Broadway Theatre. The Herald blandly proposed that they run matched bills for six nights and crown the box-office winner with laurel. Forrest’s “unsophisticated energy” would certainly beat Macready’s “glossy polish.”

The lines were clearly drawn; all that was needed for violence was a rabble.

Brawlers of the “Bloody Ould” Sixth Ward supplied this explosive element with practiced ease. In tenements between Broadway and present-day Park Row, where, said Dickens in 1842, “dogs would howl to lie,” thousands of ragged Irish immigrants crowded the nation’s most vicious slum. They took their leisure with the bottle and were expert with the brickbat and cudgel. During the preceding ten years more than two hundred gang wars had erupted in the ward, the Plug Uglies, Shirt Tails, and Dead Rabbits fighting each other or joining up against the nearby Bowery Boys and Atlantic Guards in street battles that raged for days.