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"Mislike me not for my complexion...": Ira Aldridge in whiteface.

Ira Aldridge, the first important black American Shakespearean actor, had an odd but remarkable theatrical career. Born in New York City in 1807, educated for a few years in the second African Free School in lower Manhattan, employed in his youth at various menial jobs in the city, including a brief stint as a costume carrier for a visiting British actor, and then involved in several small dramatic productions put on by ragtag black acting companies at a short-lived establishment called the African Theatre, Aldridge fell in love with the stage and aspired to become a professional actor. Since he could not fulfil this ambition in the United States, which had proven "not yet ready to accept black actors in the legitimate drama" (Hill 17), he emigrated to the British Isles, where he was fortunate enough to secure his first engagement with top billing at London's Royal Coburg Theatre (now the Old Vic) in October 1825, when he was only eighteen years old.

In those days it was customary to hail a talented young performer as a "Roscius," a name alluding to the great Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus. Garrick had been the first "English Roscius." Next came Mr. Betty, the phenomenally successful juvenile thespian who was heralded as the "Young Roscius," and thereafter the name was linked to theatrical precocity. Master Grossmith, a seven-year-old, was introduced on the stage as the "Celebrated Infant Roscius," and Miss Lee Sugg, another child prodigy, as the "Young Roscia." Inevitably, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and several American Roscii and Rosciae, including a Kentucky Roscius, soon appeared. Since Aldridge was both young and black, he was quickly dubbed the "African Roscius," an honorific title given extra resonance when theater managers began to spread the word that he was the son of a Christian Fulani prince from Senegal. Aldridge, whose staple role was Shakespeare's Othello, could be said to have made a career out of playing a Moor playing a Moor. This may have been an adroit theatrical strategy, given the obstacles a black neophyte would have had to overcome to be accepted as a legitimate player on a foreign stage.

But at the outset this was not an easy way to make a living. Though he could depend on his novelty value to draw people to the theater, there were only a limited number of roles a black performer could take on, and in the first half of the nineteenth century the normal practice in British theaters was to perform at least two plays each night and to change the bill every day. Long runs of a single play were not common until later in the century, and then only in London. For Aldridge to be employable, he had to be able to offer a reasonable number of well-known roles and to keep moving from place to place. He could not find a permanent position in one of the London theaters, nor could he secure engagements outside London for more than a week or two at a time. So he turned into a perpetually touring player, an exotic "star" who made his rounds principally in the provinces week after week, month after month, year after year after year.

But first he had to establish a reputation as a performer. Being an "African" was not enough; he also had to prove his credentials as a "Roscius." One way he did this was to draw upon anti-slavery sentiments by playing long-suffering slaves in abolitionist melodramas set in the New World. Gambia in Thomas Morton's The Slave, Oroonoko in stage adaptations of Aphra Behn's eponymous novel, and Christophe in J. H. Amherst's The Death of Christophe, King of Hayti were the principal tragic roles he assumed early in his career to supplement his performances of Othello. He also played dark strangers, some of whom were villains: Zanga the Moor in Edward Young's The Revenge, Rolla the heroic Peruvian army commander in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Pizarro, and Hassan the vengeful Moor in Monk Lewis's gothic thriller The Castle Spectre. These "heavy" roles helped to establish his competence as a tragedian.

To balance the heaviness, Aldridge made a point of performing a light role in the afterpiece, the short farce that followed the main offering of the evening. In this part of the bill his favorite character was Mungo, a cheeky, drunken servant in Isaac Bickerstaff's The Padlock, which many critics considered his best role, even better than his Othello (Lindfors). He developed the habit of playing both Othello and Mungo on the first evening of a provincial engagement, thereby impressing his audience with his versatility as an artist. Some spectators came to the theater anticipating that the spectacle of an African doing Shakespeare would be amusing in itself - a black burlesque of the Bard. What they found was something entirely different - a noble, dignified, and very moving performance of a great tragic role. Aldridge then turned the tables on them again by coming out in the afterpiece as the kind of black man they had expected to see in Othello - a humorous buffoon singing, dancing, and speaking in black dialect who was not in full command of his senses or his statements. Mungo was a hilarious comic caricature, almost a prototype of the blackface minstrel. The double surprise never failed to win Aldridge additional applause. Some provincial newspapers called him the most talented actor of both tragedy and comedy that they had ever seen.

Aldridge developed other comic roles that helped to sustain his reputation for versatility. He was especially popular as Ginger Blue, a character in The Virginian Mummy described in playbills as "an independent nigger, head waiter, always absent when wanted, yet mindful of his perquisites, remarkably familiar, bursting with fun and laughter, very industrious (by deputy), receiving all gratuities in person, a most accommodating appetite; love of money induces him to become a mummy." It was the slapstick associated with Ginger Blue's frightened personification of a mummy that generated most of the laughs in this play. Another equally successful farce was Stage Mad, in which Aldridge enacted the part of Massa Jeronymo Othello Thespis, a stage-struck servant whose outstanding foible was a penchant for misquoting famous lines from Shakespeare. In a sense this character was a parody of the kind of person an "African Roscius" - i.e., an ambitious but comically inept black performer - was presumed to be. It was an attempt by Aldridge to exploit and explode a stereotype of himself.

To broaden his repertoire still further, Aldridge began experimenting with white roles, using makeup to whiten his face and sometimes wearing a wig and a beard. His biographers claim that he was "the first Negro to play white roles" (Marshall and Stock 94), but recent scholarship has found a black actress in Scotland playing Polly in The Beggar's Opera and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet without transforming makeup as early as the 1770s (Edwards and Walvin 149). The earliest of Aldridge's whiteface experiments appears to have taken place in 1830, when he assumed the character of Dirk Hatteraick, the Dutch sea captain in a stage adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's Guy Mannering. A year later he took the role of the outcast pirate hero in R. C. Maturin's Bertram, or the Castle of Aldobrand who seeks revenge on his enemy by seducing his wife. Both plays end with the passionate, defiant hero committing suicide. Shortly after trying out these melodramatic impersonations, Aldridge turned to white Shakespearean roles, adding Shylock, Richard III, Macbeth, and eventually King Lear to his classic repertoire. In mid-career he expanded his opportunities further by becoming the first actor in 128 years to revive Titus Andronicus, which he arranged to have blended with a melodrama specially written for him by an Irish playwright, so he could play Aaron the Moor as a hero rather than a villain. The available biographical record, based on surviving playbills and newspaper reportage, shows that he was only 24 when he first performed Shylock, Richard III, and Macbeth; that he was 42 when he resurrected Titus Andronicus; and that he was 51 and performing in St. Petersburg when he initially presented himself as King Lear. This chronology is a bit misleading, however, for while he was in his twenties and thirties, he mainly did scenes or selected speeches from Shakespeare as part of a long bill in which he demonstrated his talents by reciting from an assortment of well-known tragedies and comedies. He was nearly 40 when he first tried doing the whole of Macbeth, and he was at least 41 when he finally attempted a complete Richard III. So Aldridge took on most of his full-scale Shakespearean roles in middle age. In his youth he played only Othello in its entirety and Shylock in a popular four-act version or in set pieces from the trial scene or from dialogues with Tubal.

Records show that Aldridge launched many of his new roles in Hull, a town in which he fairly regularly secured engagements for two weeks or more. His biographers feel that "it is significant that Aldridge chose Hull as a testing-ground for so many of his new roles, particularly his first white Shakespearean parts. It will be remembered that this was the birthplace and home of Wilberforce, and sympathy would be strong for the young Negro actor, especially in this period when Wilberforce was still leading the fight in the House of Commons for the abolition of slavery in the Colonies" (Marshall and Stock 94). Perhaps in such a liberal atmosphere one could take risks that might not have been so well-received elsewhere. It was in Hull that Aldridge made his debut in Britain as Shylock, Macbeth, and Richard III, and, after his first triumphant Russian tour, as King Lear. The white Shakespearean role he performed most often and over the longest span of time was that of Shylock, so it may be well to concentrate our attention on how he chose to interpret this character and on how audiences responded to what they heard and saw.

Unfortunately, Aldridge's earliest efforts at rendering Shylock in full or in pieces - experiments that took place in September of 1831 and again in February and March of 1832 - were not reported on in the local newspapers, possibly because Aldridge was employed at two minor theaters in Hull - the Royal Adelphi and the Royal Clarence - rather than at the Theatre Royal. This was one of the hazards of being a relatively unknown itinerant thespian making the rounds in the provincial theater circuit, or even skirting the fringes of the West End in London: It was difficult enough to get noticed, much less to command serious critical attention, if one played in unfashionable houses. The very first mention in the press of Aldridge in Merchant of Venice did not get recorded until he performed the trial scene at Dublin's Theatre Royal in January of 1833, when The Express commended him for displaying "considerable discrimination, and a judicious conception of the peculiarly difficult character of Shylock" (15 Jan. 1833). A year later theatregoers were offered a few more details when a critic in Cork reported having witnessed "our friend Aldridge in the difficult character of Shylock, which he sustained with his usual success, and in which he was frequently applauded by a very full house. Where the Jew discovers the flight of his daughter and his ducats before Salario and Salarino, and afterwards with Tubal he was very effective, and thro' the arduous scene of the Court of Justice, he gave the sharp answers and bitter remarks of the revengeful Israelite with great force and truth. As a Tragedian, Aldridge is unquestionably a powerful actor" (Freeholder 17 Mar. 1834). In the months that followed, Aldridge continued to impress audiences elsewhere in Ireland with his handling of the role, the Wexford Freeman testifying that "we admired his Shylock very much[;] he gave full effect to the character and displayed as usual a just conception of the author. . . . we must say he fully sustained the fame of those talents which have already placed him amongst the highest on the British stage" (2 May 1835).

Once Aldridge had won such a high reputation for himself in Merchant of Venice, comparisons with other famous interpreters of Shylock were inevitable. In 1844, when he performed the role in Newport, he was set beside - or, rather, between - Edmund and Charles Kean:

His Shylock . . . was a clever representation of the avaricious and revengeful Jew. In this character he appears to have taken the great Kean as a model, and to have studied him closely. He is far above Kean, jun., in the part, particularly during the adverse adjudication of the Court, in which the conflict of his master passions produced a terrific tornado: he was calm, calculating, nervous, and impassioned throughout, with masterly dramatic discrimination, and was loudly applauded by a densely crowded house.

The reviewer went on to draw a pertinent moral from this, saying, "It is a subject of interesting contemplation for the moralist, to find a native of the land of Jugurtha, one of a race made mere merchandise of for ages, now of equal rank with his fellow men in civilised life, and delighting, by his cultivation and accomplishments, an intellectual British audience" (The Merlin 1 Mar. 1844).

But it cannot be said that Aldridge's cultivation and accomplishments delighted every British audience. For reasons that have yet to be adequately explained, he was kept off the London stage for most of his career. Some attribute this to his inability to win respect as a competent actor on the two nights in April 1833 when - at age 25 - he played Othello at Covent Garden, one of London's patent theaters. Indeed, though he received several favorable notices and much applause, the majority of theater critics treated him so harshly that he had to spend virtually the next seven years in theatrical exile in Ireland and Scotland - as far away from London as he could get. His biographers blame this rough treatment on the pro-slavery lobby's racist attacks on him in London's catchpenny press (Marshall and Stock 11819), and there may have been other peculiar circumstances working against him at that particular time and place.

Yet even after Aldridge had so polished his skills that he became an extremely popular performer in the provinces, he seldom was invited to return to the metropolis, except to play at second- or third-rate theaters that wanted to see him do Othello, Aaron the Moor, or his standard repertoire of racial melodramas and farces. Only twice was he called on to personify Shylock in London, once in the trial scene at Surrey Theatre a few months after his Covent Garden appearance, and a second time twenty-four years later when he did the whole role at the City of London Theatre. Characteristically, there were no reviews of the Surrey performance, and the single press report of the full range of his appearances at the City of London Theatre concentrated on his personation of Othello and was quite patronizing, the critic feeling that

there is a manifest incongruity in a black Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, Shylock, etc, though the swarthy complexion of the negro is not unsuited to the Moor of Venice, in which part we had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Aldridge on Saturday last. The performance was decidedly original, many parts of it being striking and forcible. As a whole it is uneven, and suffers somewhat by comparison with the highest standards. Often we noticed erroneous emphasis and incorrect reading; but Mr. Aldridge is not to be judged by ordinary rules; for, with so much to contend against in the limited extent of his repertory, he has not the same incentives to effort as ordinary actors have. That he generally succeeds in pleasing his auditory is something, and his success must be accepted as a criterion of his merit. (Morning Star 19 Oct. 1857)

This portrait contrasts sharply with the way Aldridge's Shylock was assessed elsewhere in the British Isles at this period in his career. Two years earlier in Plymouth, for instance, a reviewer wrote of having "seldom seen the part more faithfully depicted. In the trial scene, particularly, Mr. Aldridge exhibited high histrionic talents; - the calm, subdued tone observed was, in our opinion, in strict keeping with the position of the wily Jew in his demands for justice, - which he finally obtained to his utter mortification" (Plymouth, Devonport, and Stonehouse Herald 25 Aug. 1855). And in Belfast a few weeks later Aldridge's Shylock was called "a masterpiece of acting. The mean, relentless Jew, at the beginning of the trial scene, became, without an effort, the hero at its termination. The dignified scorn of the Israelitish userer was pourtrayed with a dramatic energy and poetry of action we have never seen surpassed" (Belfast Daily Mercury 3 Oct. 1855). Not long after this a Dublin critic voiced a similar opinion, finding Aldridge's enactment of Shylock sustained "with much of originality and vigour of manner and expression. In the pathetic passages, where he mourns over the loss of his daughter, his voice was wanting in melody, but then there were broken expressions very significant of emotion, and the passion of revenge was pourtrayed with an earnestness and fierceness that failed not to arrest the attention and secure the repeated plaudits of the house" (Saunders's Newsletter, and Daily Advertiser 10 Dec. 1855). Aldridge evidently continued to dazzle his Irish and British provincial audiences, even while failing to impress the professional theater critics in London.

The coolness of the London critical response in 1857 is more than a little puzzling inasmuch as it came only a year before Aldridge's first triumphant series of performances in St. Petersburg, where he was lionized and hailed as the greatest interpreter of Othello and Shylock ever seen in Russia. Unlike the brief, dismissive comments in the London press, the critical reactions in St. Petersburg were voluble, excited, and filled with interesting details. For the first time readers were given a clear of idea of how Aldridge chose to represent Shylock on the stage. Here is one account:

Other artistes we have seen gave Shylock the character of a soul-less merchant, ridiculous in his demands and his insatiable anger and impudence, presenting him as a caricature. Mr. Aldridge understood this personality otherwise. He presented to us Shylock as tight-fisted and greedy, but at the same time proud and firm in his convictions, filled with revenge, hatred and anger towards the Christians, enemies of his people and race. . . . In his acting are most wonderful effects, both loud and soft; with the first he astounds the listeners, with the last he makes an even greater impression. And his very silences speak. The last scene before the Court he plays almost without a word, but with intriguing eloquence. One may say he reads Shakespeare between the lines. (qtd. in Marshall and Stock 234)

Some years later Aldridge's Russian biographer, S. Durylin, drawing on a medley of opinions expressed at the time of his performances in St. Petersburg, offered a fuller exposition that includes a detailed description of the stage business Aldridge invented to round off the play at the end of the fourth act:

Aldridge deeply understood the character and so he played it as an exploited, despised Jew whose daughter was kidnapped or spirited away after she was taught to rob her own father and to borrow money from him, and was deprived of the right to revenge for these things. He gave us a character of a Jew who was forced, under threat of death, to renounce the religion of his fathers and to will his riches to his own good daughter. Nevertheless Shylock loves this daughter of his not less than Lear loved his daughters, but with a different type of love. He loves her as if she were an irreplaceable treasure, . . . [with] the type of love that increases because of this fear of losing it. The scene in the second act was considered to be one of the best played by Aldridge in the whole play. Here he shows his love towards his daughter. "The way he looks at her, the way he touches her hand, strokes her face, kisses her, gives her as a gift a very valuable ring and looks at her as she leaves the room." "Many thought that this expression of love towards Jessica was probably too much, was probably overplaying and treating too freely the text of the drama as meant by Shakespeare, but through this love first of all Aldridge lays the ground for the expression of his feelings after she runs away. This is in the first scene of the third act. Secondly, this love explains why he is so careful in guarding her when he forbids her to look out of the window, for instance, or to go out into the street, and orders all doors and windows locked. He safeguards her as the apple of his eye from everything that he himself considers evil. He loves her with a most jealous love."

This love toward his daughter, who betrays her father and runs away with her Christian lover, is what sharpens and brings to the culmination of the tragedy of Shylock the tragedy of a Jew. Shylock has much money but he has more insults and abuse. He is the bearer of the sorrow and tragedy of his hunted people and so, when his daughter is kidnaped, Shylock is plunged into a state of hopeless loneliness. Being of a lively, energetic nature, Shylock does not experience anger, but he desires revenge for what he considers violated pride as a Jew. In Shylock Aldridge pictures beautifully the type of medieval Jew who is rich, proud, but who is constantly abused and insulted by the surrounding Christian society. He was superb in the scene where he vacillates whether to cut the pound of flesh from the Christian. How his eyes sparkled angrily and jubilantly when, for a moment, he almost decided to take revenge on at least one Christian for everything that he had suffered with his brethren. And the last scene is not less remarkable. Shylock is being read all the punishments that he has to undergo for his attempt on the life of a citizen of Venice, but no matter how unbearable these punishments were, Shylock, while listening to the judges, is not impressed with them, but when he hears that one of the punishments will be his adoption of Christianity, he first begins to shudder and lets out a horrified moan. After that, when one of the men seizes him by his robes, all his contempt and revulsion towards the Christian comes to life in the Jew and Aldridge makes a wonderful mute scene out of it. The Jew forgets that he is in a room, he forgets that he belongs to the oppressed, powerless people who are never forgiven anything. He violently jerks his clothes out of... the unclean hands of the Christian, then he takes out a handkerchief and very meticulously wipes the place on his garment which was soiled by the unclean touch. After that he looks with repulsion and disgust at his handkerchief which is itself now besmirched, and finally, after having thrown it with indignation at the Christian, he breaks down bitterly, cries and leaves. For this famous ending of the tragedy, by this tremendous mute scene of which we do not find even a hint in Shakespeare, Aldridge was criticized by both enemy and friend, presumably because Shakespeare did not write it that way. . . .

But Aldridge knew what he was doing by ending the tragedy that way. He did not have to think up an artificial ending to the fourth act. The ending came naturally since Aldridge was drawing on the experience of his own life for the picture of the tragedy of a Jew who is downtrodden and powerless to take revenge. He did not need words, and at any rate no words would have helped since Shylock was completely surrounded by his enemies. At his trial Shylock is insulted, his riches are taken away and he is condemned to many punishments, but this is not all, this is not enough. They want to take his faith away from him. He is forced to accept Christianity. According to Shakespeare, Shylock leaves while Gratiano throws these despicable words at him, "In christening shalt thou have two godfathers; / Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had ten more, / To bring thee to the gallows, not to the font." Shylock could only answer to this the way Aldridge answered, with the great anger of silence. (Marshall translation, ch. 5)

Aldridge's dumb show may not have pleased every Russian critic, but the consensus in St. Petersburg was that it was a highly original and convincing ending to the truncated version of the play that was presented. Aldridge's actions spoke as loudly as Shakespeare's words.

Aldridge's reception in Russia and many other parts of the European continent was so enthusiastic and so financially rewarding that he spent most of the rest of his life performing there rather than in the British Isles. When he did return to Britain, he made his usual rounds, seldom being invited to appear in London despite the many medals, honors, and awards he had won on his continental tours. On the continent it was his Shakespearean roles that were in greatest demand, but he also introduced audiences there to Mungo, one of his favorite farcical characters. In Britain he had to offer a wider variety of roles, so he revived some of his melodramatic vehicles, alternating them with his preferred Shakespearean tragedies and slapstick comedies.

On his last extended British tour, from June 1859 to December 1860, he continued to play Shylock from time to time, and there is evidence that he remained impressive in the role, even though some spectators found his rendering of it startlingly unconventional. A reviewer in Cork in 1860 said that Aldridge's conception of "the very difficult but profoundly interesting character of Shylock . . . was in some respects different from what we have been accustomed to, but the interpretation of his idea was admirable. In many passages his acting was telling in the highest degree, and indeed from the first act to the close was applauded most enthusiastically by the audience" (Cork Examiner 27 Apr. 1860). Another commentator on the Channel Island of Jersey was awestruck by Aldridge's performance:

The delivery of the dialogue was characterised by a calm and deeply impassioned eloquence. He expressed his malignant delight at Antonio's losses with sarcastic energy, contrasted with the sudden reversion of his parental agony for the loss of his daughter, the gentle Jessica. But in his diabolical compassing of his revenge upon Antonio, he rose to a climax of terrific human passion. The trial scene was a masterly representation of the eager expectation of fulfilled vengeance, and the abrupt defeat of the crafty Jew's malicious purposes. The keen disappointment, the haste to repossess his principal, his blank despair at finding his craft defeated, and his bond become his bane, were points that stood forth in majestic relief. (Jersey Independent and Daily Telegraph 25 Aug. 1860)

It is clear that in many parts of Britain Aldridge did win the respect of his audiences when he appeared on stage in whiteface. One palpable sign of this is that these audiences evidently found nothing unusual about a black actor playing a white part. Only in London was this remarked upon as "a manifest incongruity." In provincial reviews there was seldom any reference made to Aldridge's race; he seems to have been accepted for what he was: a professional actor who could bring alive well-known Shakespearean characters. It didn't matter that the characters were white and the actor black.

Yet the Russians may have had a keener understanding of the source of Aldridge's power in representing Shylock, seeing it as something deriving from Aldridge's American experience. As one of them said, "Ira Aldridge is a mulatto born in America and feels deeply the insults levelled at people of another colour by people of a white colour in the New World. In Shylock he does not see particularly a Jew, but a human being in general, oppressed by the age-old hatred shown towards people like him, and expressing this feeling with wonderful power and truth" (qtd. in Marshall and Stock 234). Aldridge, misliked for his complexion in America (and perhaps in London as well), could empathize totally with a Venetian Jew who suffered bitter injustices at the hands of bigoted whites.

Works Cited

Edwards, Paul, and James Walvin. Black Personalities in the Era of the Slave Trade. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.

Hill, Errol. Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1984.

Lindfors, Bernth. "The Signifying Flunkey: Ira Aldridge as Mungo." Literary Griot 5.2 (1993): 1-11.

Marshall, Herbert. Unpublished "very rough translation" of S. Durylin, Ira Aldridge (Moscow-Leningrad: State Publishing House, 1940).

Marshall, Herbert, and Mildred Stock. Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian. London: Rockliff, 1958.

Bernth Lindfors is Professor of African and English Literature at the University of Texas in Austin. Among his many books is Africans on Stage: Studies in Enthnological Show Business, published earlier this year by Indiana University Press.
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Author:Lindfors, Bernth
Publication:African American Review
Date:Jun 22, 1999
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