Ira Aldridge: Shakespeare’s black Othello

The first black actor to play many of William Shakespeare's leading roles, Ira Aldridge took 19th-century London by storm when in 1825 he performed Othello in the city’s docklands. Here, Professor Tony Howard from Warwick University investigates…

Ira Aldridge. © Granger, NYC/Alamy Stock Photo
Ira Aldridge. (Granger, NYC/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

One morning in April 1833, Londoners awoke to find flyers circulating around the city. Addressed “To The Public”, the flyers protested because a performance of a Shakespeare play had become a political flashpoint. “Base and unmannerly attempts”, they said, were being made to prevent the actor Ira Aldridge “from making his appearance as Othello, on Wednesday next” at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Aldridge had been “threatened with DAMNATION” should he have the “PRESUMPTION to appear”: “His heinous offence”, the handbills explained, “is that he was born in Africa”.

In fact Ira Aldridge was an African-American, born in New York in 1807, but otherwise the flyers were accurate. When it was announced that he was to play Othello at one of England’s most prestigious theatres, a racist campaign was launched “to annihilate him,” said the Morning Post. Satirical publication Figaro in London urged patriots to “drive him from the stage” that he was “about to defile” and prevent the “sacrilege” of a negro playing Othello. In the 19th-century the character was always played as a light-skinned Arab and the poet Coleridge wrote that to imagine “this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro” was “monstrous”.  

In his early teens Ira Aldridge had acted with the pioneering African Company in New York, but when they performed plays written by the Bard, including Richard III and Hamlet, the black actors were beaten up on the orders of rival theatre managers, derided and arrested. “Shakespeare described what was universal”, Aldridge’s first biographer protested, therefore “may there not be an Ethiopian Juliet to an Ethiopian Romeo?”

The African Company’s theatre was destroyed by fire. With the help of the visiting English star Henry Wallack, Ira Aldridge made his way to Britain and in 1825 became probably the first black actor to play Shakespeare in this country, performing Othello in London’s docklands: it was “one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we have ever witnessed,” said the Public Ledger review.


Painting of Ira Aldridge, possibly in the role of Othello. Attributed to William Mulready. Walters Art Museum. (Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)
 

Aldridge quickly built a reputation touring Britain. He often played in cities with strong Abolitionist [of slavery] sympathies and did not disconnect Shakespeare from the contemporary world. One of his curtain-call speeches [to the audience as he took his bow after the show] began, “Othello’s occupation’s gone! – Tis o’er./The mask has fall’n”, and went on:
           
Through deserts wide the Negro strays alone
In happy innocence, untaught, unknown…
But soon the white man comes, allured by gain -
O’er his free limbs flings slavery’s galling chain…
Transforms him to a brute.

Aldridge was honoured by the freed slaves’ Republic of Haiti as “the first man of colour in the theatre”.

This explains the hostility Aldridge faced in Covent Garden. Following a revolt in Jamaica there were demands that slavery be abolished in all British colonies, and the government was due to report in May 1833. So Aldridge’s appearance in the capital became symbolic. The anti-Abolitionist lobby claimed the slave population lacked the intellectual capacity to look after themselves, and as “proof” showed politicians engravings “exhibiting the merriment of colonial negroes”. Although Ira’s casting was coincidental (he was replacing the great Edmund Kean, who was fatally ill), the sight and sound of the African Roscius, as Aldridge was known [Roscius was a Roman actor who had been a slave], playing a great role on a hallowed stage defied that propaganda.

Aldridge did appear as Othello on 10 April 1833 and the press were predictably divided.  The Standard reported that Aldridge was “watched with an intense stillness, almost approaching to awe”, and rewarded by “unanimous applause, waving of hats, handkerchiefs &c., &c.” But the Spectator appraised him as if at a slave auction: “good voice”, “good figure”, “we have seen better-looking Africans”, “tame”.

The Athenaeum, meanwhile, insisted it was impossible that such a savage “should comprehend the meaning and force of even the words he utters”, and raised the spectre of miscegenation: “We protest against an interesting actress and lady-like girl, like Miss Ellen Tree,[…] being pawed about by Mr Henry Wallack’s black servant” [Wallack was a comedy actor who had helped Aldridge get to London, and so hostile writers claimed Aldridge was merely his servant]. Aldridge’s engagement was cut short.

Aldridge was never allowed on the Covent Garden stage again and for a century this effectively eliminated him from the official histories of Shakespeare, which focused on the ‘main’ theatres. However Aldridge, rejected by the establishment, was embraced by radicals and working-class audiences: within days he crossed the Thames to the Surrey Theatre in Lambeth, where posters celebrated the scale of his achievements: “A man of colour performing Othello, on the British stage, is indeed an epoch in the history of theatricals”. Slavery in the colonies was abolished in August.

In 1833 Ira Aldridge was seen as either a pariah or a hero, but perhaps an earlier episode offers a more subtle picture of the role of the theatre in the history of race relations…


Oil on canvas, c1826, by HP Briggs. (Granger, NYC/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

Aldridge in Coventry

Back in 1828, Aldridge was still making his name. The manager of theatres in both Birmingham and Coventry, Mr Melmoth, decided that an “African Roscius” was a marketable curiosity: “Most Extraordinary Novelty, a Man of Colour”. That January he first presented Aldridge at Birmingham in the musical melodrama The Slave, soon followed by Othello. The theatre was usually closed after Christmas and houses were thin, but the press had a story to tell. “We were greatly astonished,” said the Birmingham Gazette. “We were totally unprepared to meet with a performer” who could challenge criticism at the highest level – who “possesses a voice… as fine, flexible and manly, as any on the London stage”.

“His display of intellectual power,” said the Coventry Herald, “gives the negative to those physiologists who argue for the inferiority of dark races”. Actually the Herald printed “superiority” by mistake but after a run of acclaimed performances it made amends with a social invitation to the “man of colour”: “Should he appear in town, as we are told he intends to do, as a stranger and foreigner we heartily wish him success”.

Aldridge did appear in town and was very well received. By the end of February 1828 – with slavery still flourishing in the colonies and in the USA – Ira Aldridge was the manager of the Coventry Theatre. He was not yet 21.

Yet even while Aldridge’s performances were being praised, Melmoth’s management was attacked for bad planning, poor casting and non-existent rehearsals; he left under a financial cloud. Aldridge promised to improve standards in every department, with “a settled company” of “new performers and old favourites,” and he delivered. His season opened with Othello (“considerable discrimination and effect,” said the Coventry Herald) and was a great success.

Years passed. In 1852 Aldridge began to tour Continental Europe with a repertoire that by now also included (in makeup designed to make him look white) Macbeth, Lear and Shylock. He was a sensation, especially because he was often introducing then-unknown Shakespearean plays. He appeared before crowned heads; he was knighted in Germany; banned in Russia (Macbeth offended the Tsar because it dealt with regicide – the deliberate killing of a monarch) and he influenced a new generation of actors and theatre reformers. In Germany Aldridge told a journalist that “he understands like no other how to portray… the full bitterness the Jew feels”.

The history of Shakespeare in the theatre is a story of great performers and productions but also a study of audiences. As Aldridge’s life proved, the public could react to the unfamiliar with prejudice and hostility but could also be surprisingly welcoming. When he took on the management of their theatre, Aldridge wrote an open letter to the people of Coventry; when he came to the city, he said, he “might have feared that, unknown and unfriended, he had little claim to public notice -- did he not feel that being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy”.

It seems fitting that the one scene that has survived in Shakespeare’s own hand is part of The Book of Sir Thomas More in which he imagines More condemning a mob’s intolerance and compelling them through his eloquence to understand the plight of refugees and the “wretched strangers”.

Whether we think of Shakespeare’s characters, like Othello, or many of the greatest actors, like Ira Aldridge, “Shakespeare” is a world of outsiders.

Tony Howard is professor of English at Warwick University and head of the Multicultural Shakespeare Project.

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