Black Shakespeareans vs. Minstrel Burlesques: "proper" English, racist blackface dialect, and the contest for representing "blackness," 1821-1844.
Without intending to refute Lott's nuanced arguments finding moments of attraction and ambivalence in some minstrelsy (especially since audience interest is, in fact, a major concern in this essay), recent critical excesses warrant a corrective reexamination of the limits of assuming identification and presence via mere representation. Writing in a different, yet ultimately highly relevant context in her work on the representation of race in Renaissance England, Dympna Callaghan challenged "the fetishistic insistence on presence" in readings of black or Africanist Shakespearean characters like Othello and emphatically cautioned that "presence cannot be equated with representation any more than representation can be equated with inclusion." (8) Callaghan's healthy "skepticism about the benefits of representation" offers, I want to suggest, an antidote to what finally amounts to distorting "fantasies of presence" in recent minstrel criticism. (9) What an application of Callaghan's argument cannot address, however, is the struggle of African American actors to be present on the antebellum stage out of a desire to represent themselves, remarkably enough, by performing Shakespearean plays like Othello. Though Callaghan's insistence that originally onstage, "Othello was a white man" might make a willingness to consider the impact of a later black actor's race upon the role seem ironic in hindsight, (10) a key issue in the history of racial representation was nonetheless the contest between black and white Americans (and Englishmen, too) for representing and constructing both what "blackness" and "Shakespeare" meant in precisely the period in which minstrelsy developed, between 1821 and 1844.
Prior investigations of the representation of blackness have overlooked the degree to which literary blackface dialect and the foolish, misspeaking minstrel stereotype emerged in response to black Shakespeareans claiming Shakespeare as part of their American cultural heritage while using representation in order to affect perceptions about blackness. Indeed, while I have worked elsewhere to uncover a protoracist Renaissance blackface comic tradition underlying pseudoscientific racism, (11) another untold story about the influence of Renaissance drama on the blackface tradition is the degree to which the rise of minstrelsy had much to do with racist responses to nineteenth-century African American actors' performances of Shakespeare. As we will see, it was the eloquence of the Shakespearean tragic figures Othello and Richard III and, above all, black actors' self-assertions as "Shakespeare's proud representative[s]" that presented a special challenge to nineteenth-century racist assumptions. In response to black actors' representations of Othello, white theatergoers required that the "noble Moor" be utterly degraded and that white anxieties about potential equality be exorcized through demeaning minstrel burlesques of Shakespeare, while one black actor's portrayal of Richard III even influenced the characterization of Jim Crow. In fact, one of the most damning conventions of the American blackface tradition, a recognizably modern stage caricature of "black dialect," was standardized in the 1820s in reaction against--through grossly distorted, propagandistic representations of--black Shakespeareans, particularly ones playing the eloquent outsiders Othello and Richard. In one way or another, Shakespeare's language thus came to be implicated in a high-stakes contest for representing blackness in nineteenth-century America.
At the same time, burlesque Shakespeare in blackface played a significant role both in defining the American working class and in the transformation of "Shakespeare" from being a fundamental part of popular culture in nineteenth-century America to something identified by Lawrence Levine in his brilliant work Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America as, by the end of the century, increasingly "highbrow," that is, an untouchable, even sacred possession of elite/high culture and thus something rejected by an emergent, nativist working class as both elitist and un-American. Since Levine observes that "[i]t is easier to describe this transformation than to explain it," as well as that, "The more firmly based Shakespeare was in nineteenth-century culture, the more difficult it is to understand why he lost so much of his audience so quickly," (12) I would add that such a phenomenon was already observable by midcentury, beginning in the wake of the blackface burlesques of Shakespeare and black Shakespeareans, which helped give rise to the flourishing of full-blown minstrelsy. After midcentury, the preface to one of E. P. Christy's minstrel songsters could thus already blare, "[O]ur countrymen confuted the stale cant of our European detractors that nothing original could emanate from Americans." (13) Touting blackface minstrelsy with characteristic jingoism as a "NATIVE" art form, Christy anticipates similar claims of originality and novelty that reverberate, oddly, even through modern criticism. Hence, the resulting "racial caricature," with its "conscious impersonation of the alien African," has been credited with creating an "absolutely native" American tradition, wholly "indigenous to our soil," a uniquely "native and national genre," that has recently been characterized as an utterly original and "emergent social semantic" that formed, quite simply, a "historically new articulation of racial difference," not in any way an "incarnation of an age-old" type. (14) If minstrelsy was--and still is--deemed a native form of American popular culture, we must recognize the degree to which it developed first through, then against, a highbrow "Shakespeare" it helped to create.
Contexts and Reception of the African Theater
In the decade that first embraced American blackface performance, the 1820s, as the slave population in the United States as a whole increased from 1,529,012 in the 1820 census to 1,987,428 in the 1830 census, (15) there appeared myriad expressions and assertions of freedom by manumitted black New Yorkers. The Gradual Manumission Act had freed all children of slaves born after July 4, 1799, and, by 1810, New York City could already claim the country's largest population of free African Americans. (16) Then, in 1817, New York State passed legislation decreeing the end of slavery in ten years. (17) As thousands of freed people were establishing a community in New York City (one that increased from a total in 1790 of 3,470 to 13,796 by 1830), (18) some of them formed the African Theater, specializing in Shakespeare. One reason no doubt, in keeping with the remarks of one newspaper critic of the era, was that "The playgoing portion of our negro population feel more interest in, and go in greater numbers to see, the plays of Shakespeare represented on stage, than any other class of dramatic performance." (19) The African Theater opened on Monday September 17, 1821, to a full house with Richard III, and remained open until 1824, undergoing sporadic revivals thereafter in the 1828-29 season and, apparently, ca. 1843, when an English traveler once again refers to "entertainment at the black theater" in performances of Richard III. (20) The company's star possibly reappeared at least as late as 1844, when, I will argue, a minstrel Shakespearean burlesque seemingly alludes to its lead actor and frequent solo performer, James Hewlett. For some twenty years, Hewlett and the African Company would intermittently perform a repertory of plays that included not only Richard III and Othello but Macbeth and Julius Caesar in a theater "seating as many as three hundred patrons." (21) Such performance prompted reactions ranging from enthusiastic admiration to bigoted contempt. But it was the latter of these responses that would leave behind the most familiar legacy as the members of the company met vehement resistance to their efforts to make Shakespeare theirs, to assert that, as Hewlett put it, "he is our bard as well as yours." (22)
Although George Thompson, in a move that appears analogous to the counterrevisionist minstrel critics' eagerness to emphasize cross-racial identification in blackface performance, discounts any assessment of the African Theater "as harassed with a continual and concerted persecution" and finds such claims simply "exaggerated," (23) the evidence points elsewhere. As he outlines the first two years of a history that was thereafter sporadic, including the forced closing of the company's first and second theater, arrests right off the stage, a police raid on a performance that required yet another "forced ... retreat to the outskirts of town," a riot by circus performers evidently paid by a rival theater, harassment of the actors onstage leading to performances being abandoned, a vicious assault and battery (never punished) on the teenaged Ira Aldridge, and beating of the manager William Brown, one wonders how much harassment would be required to be considered persecution. (24) In the end, however, one suspects that Thompson is not just playing with semantics when he imposes the qualifiers "continual and concerted," for he is also ignoring what we will see was dogged harassment in the press and from the stage.
The hostile response to the company's emergence came not just with considerable urgency but also with a retentive fervor sustained over the course of the next two decades. Throughout this period, the most bigoted white voices in the theatrical and political culture understood the stakes quite clearly. At a time when "Shakespeare" was associated with the best oratory--in a democratic nation hungry for rhetoric--that a group of free men and women were owning their freedom by voicing their claim to Shakespearean eloquence seemed an assertion that demanded some kind of response. The black community in New York gravitated to Shakespeare not merely for entertainment purposes (one motive), but also in support of a bolder agenda, in order to demonstrate that black Americans were in no way inferior to white Americans, a view at least one of their actors, Hewlett, overtly expressed in abolitionist speeches. Thompson notes, moreover, that the company staged at least four plays with overtly political content that ranged from resistance to colonial power to slavery. (25) But, overt politics aside, the company's very performances asserted that there was no essential difference at all between black and white, something further expressed when the company temporarily took, in response to attacks, to calling its playhouse the "American Theater." Not for the last time, American and British whites who favored slavery intuitively understood that such a demonstration of mastery of Shakespearean English, conventionally termed "the King's English" on both sides of the Atlantic, could also demonstrate self-mastery, rationality, and thus equality. The African Theater, then, had to be stopped or, lacking that, at least undermined at every turn.
Efforts aimed at undercutting the company turned quickly to misrepresentation, for reviewers could only satisfy their readers' desire to have their self-affirming stereotypes of black inferiority confirmed by distorting what they witnessed: white critics and parodists on both sides of the Atlantic consistently portrayed the acting style practiced across the company as grossly incompetent and ineloquent (an account that flies in the face of many details). For example, a "Simon Snipe" suggested in Sports of New York... Containing an Evening at the African Theatre; Also a Trip to the Races! With Two Appropriate Songs (New York, 1823) that white audience members who pelted the African Company's stage with "chestnuts, peas, apple-cores, &c." were, apparently justifiably, outraged that Othello had been "transformed into mimic burlesques." (26) The Scottish traveler Peter Nielson, writing in Recollections of Six Years' Residence (Glasgow, 1830), only begrudgingly conceded that Hewlett's "Othello may pass, and another character or two" in the repertory, while he offered what would become a common response, sneering that "it really is worth one's while to go there for a few nights for the novelty of the thing," revealing some of the stakes involved by archly warning that such a "novelty" would subject one "to hear[ing] the king's English murdered." (27) Likewise, in 1828-29, in a piece entitled "The Negroes of New York" in the Family Magazine (1829), appears a claim that dominated hostile reviews, an implication that dialect interference made "the pronunciation" of the African Company "ludicrous." (28) Challenging such demeaning characterizations, however, is evidence of the eloquence of the man who promptly became the lead actor of the African Company, Hewlett, in his surviving letters, which is only buttressed by the notice he received for solo performances in which he showed an uncanny ability to imitate, apparently convincingly, famed actors such as the Englishmen Edmund Kean and William Macready, and several glowing reviews in the white press. In addition, the company for which he worked initially included (though evidently in minor roles) a teenaged Ira Aldridge, (29) later to become one of the most famous Shakespearean actors of the nineteenth century.
Even if more fair-minded accounts of the company had not survived, the intensity of the critical denunciations would make one wonder: If the company's performances were really laughable, why did white audiences not welcome them as an opportunity to confirm their worst opinions? Why were their performances on occasion met with violence rather than laughter? That is to say, why didn't racists simply come to laugh at James Hewlett as they would Jim Crow?
Apparently, they could not, a conclusion supported by other contemporary commentaries that allow us to discern very different kinds of responses. For one, there is the account in Ira Aldridge's Memoir, which includes the actor's proud observation that patrons "who went to [the theater to] ridicule, remained to admire." (30) Contemporary evidence confirms this remark. One hostile critic had to concede that Hewlett "gave imitations in tolerable style, of all the popular singers and actors of the age," just as, amid slurs, a George Stone acknowledged with surprise and enthusiasm in 1826 that "this darkey was some in Richard and Othello." (31) A less offensive (but still somewhat condescending) reviewer of a solo performance by Hewlett in the Brooklyn Star (Dec. 1825) observed that he had "a natural talent ... and an excellent voice withal." Moreover, Hewlett "raised himself by the force of innate genius" to a point where "he would have done credit to any stage." In fact, were it not for his complexion, "a serious impediment," "he might rival some of the proudest actors who now tread our boards." "A Friend to Merit" concurred in the New York American (April 1826), calling Hewlett "one of the most astonishing phenomenas of the age," a man who "by the mere dint of natural genius and self-strengthened assiduity, [had] risen to successful competition with some of the first actors of the day." (32) And we have the frank assessment of African American activist Martin Robinson Delany, who, having witnessed what he called "a private rehearsal, in 1836," reported sixteen years later that although Hewlett "was not well educated," sometimes making "grammatical blunders," he was "a great delineator of character" who "possessed great intellectual powers." (33) Given overwhelming evidence that white audiences could not fully satisfy a desire to just come to laugh at the actors, it is clear that some white reviewers were intent on keeping empowering representations of African Americans--via Shakespearean English--from being seen not only by creating fictions about the performances, but by actually harassing the company.
After all, harassment took many forms. Notably, the National Advocate reported gleefully on September 21, 1821, the arrest of two of the company members so that, "though the sable audience retired peacable to their homes[,] Richard and Catesby were unfortunately taken by the watch." Given that the arrest of one of these actors on the charge of battery occurred "when [he was] engaged trimming the Public Lamps," (34) it is clear that the so-called battery was provoked. In fact, company actors were attacked on several occasions. Hewlett himself was assaulted at the Park Theater on December 2, 1821. (35) And, on August 10, there was a riot at the African Company's American Theater when "a gang of fifteen or twenty ruffians," most of them white circus riders, attacked the stage, tearing the actors' costumes, destroying the scenery and curtain, breaking benches, cutting down the lamp over the pit, and assaulting the company manager William Brown. (36) Earlier, on July 19, a then not quite fifteen-year-old "Ira Aldridge, a black, of NO. 416 Broadway Street" (probably at or near Canal Street in the SoHo and Greenwhich area known as "Little Africa"), was savagely attacked in the sixth ward by one of the circus riders, a James Bellmont. The Indictment of August 12, a shocking document, which I now quote at some length, reveals that Bellmont:
UNLAWFULLY AND INJURIOUSLY, AGAINST THE WILL, AND WITHOUT THE CONSENT OF THE SAID Ira, AND ALSO ... WITHOUT ANY LEGAL WARRANT, AUTHORITY, OR JUSTIFIABLE CAUSE WHATSOEVER, DID IMPRISON ... [AND] FOR ... THE SPACE OF FOUR HOURS THEN NEXT FOLLOWING ... DID ... BEAT, BRUISE, WOUND, AND ILL TREAT [Ira Aldridge] SO THAT HIS LIFE WAS GREATLY DESPAIRED OF; AND THAT THE SAID James WITH BOTH HIS HANDS ... DID VIOLENTLY CAST, FLING, AND THROW THE SAID Ira TO ... AND AGAINST THE GROUND; AND ... IN AND UPON THE HEAD, NECK, BREAST, BACK, SIDES, AND OTHER PARTS OF THE BODY, WITH BOTH ... FEET ... VIOLENTLY DID KICK, STRIKE AND BEAT ... THE SAID Ira.... (37)
Aldridge's Memoir would report, with not a little understatement, that whites "became actually jealous of the [company's] success ... and emissaries were employed to put them down." (38)
On none of these occasions were any of the offenders ever punished; authorities can hardly have been said to be on the African Company's side. For example, late in 1821, when the company manager Brown rented space next door to the posh Park Theater, the police, led by that sheriff, journalist, and playwright, the industrious and ubiquitous Mordecai Noah (1785-1851), interrupted the opening night's performance and closed the theater for disturbing the peace. (39) Of course, the real disturbance was on the part of competing theatrical entrepreneurs such as Stephen Price of the Park Theater, located at elegant Park Row and newly rebuilt after a fire at considerable cost. (40) Price even paid thugs to bully the fledgling company, and, as the impresario Brown repeatedly moved his actors to different spaces, "Noah pursued, closing performance after performance, making some arrests right off the stage." (41) The company was finally driven back to its original location at the corner of Mercer and Bleeker streets, (42) just one block west of Broadway and two blocks north of Houston Street (now the neighborhood of New York University--where there is, remarkably, no historical marker of any sort). Although located on the outskirts of what was then the settled part of the city, (43) the harassment never ceased. Even so, as the Commercial Advertiser remarked with some admiration on January 16, 1822, and as others were to come to understand, "It seems ... that they are not so easily to be driven from the field in which Shakespeare, Garrick, ... and our ... jolly Sheriff have reaped such harvests of glory." (44)
Legal harassment and looking the other way after physical attacks were not the sole means the "jolly" Sheriff Mordecai Noah exercised in policing the African Theater Company in order to maintain a sense of difference that accorded with his ideal social order. Part of the city's Tammany Hall Democratic political machine at a time when the party was working to deny voting access to the black citizenry, Noah carried out his most powerful enforcing of racial boundaries in his capacity as editor of the patriotically named National Advocate. As a Jewish American sometimes subjected in nineteenth-century America to bigoted stereotyping himself, it is possible that, in his falsified attacks against Hewlett and his company, Noah may have been driven in part by a keen desire to assert his own sameness with other white Americans by making a scapegoat of black Americans. Whatever the underlying motivations behind his purported reviews and mock-advertisements, he served up parodies representing the African Company's use of theater, and of Shakespearean English in particular, in denigrating terms that pioneered the stereotypical techniques that endured long thereafter. For example, deriding the African Theater in the National Advocate of August 27, 1823, he produced a mock playbill that simultaneously attacked African Americans' political activism/oratory and their artistic endeavors. The announcement of the "GRAND CONCERT OF DE BOB-LINK SOCIETY" ("bob-link" being an absurd malapropism for the more conventional "bobalition," itself a racist malaprop for "abolition" employed by racist white propagandists), was followed by a subtitle reflecting Noah's chief point about black New Yorkers: "'De times hab changed,' But we hab not." The opening read, "In consequence of great couragement bin had at skunk point for dram-tick berformance, de managers will gib grand consert ebery evening dis week." (45) In 1827, another poster, "De Grandest Bobalition," singled out Hewlett ("an broder Hewlett sing dis song in he bes style"), making him likely "the only African American to achieve the dubious distinction of being featured, under his own name, in a Bobalition poster." (46) Clearly, the actors' politics and very existence presented such a challenge that racists were unwilling to let them be.
"To be or not to be, dat is him question": Shakespearean English vs. Minstrel Dialect
Allusions to the African Theater in "Bobalition" propaganda underscore the degree to which Shakespearean English, and opponents' misrepresentations of black actors' pronunciation of it, initially played a prominent role in defining the stereotypical dialect of the demeaning minstrel tradition. Noah's first significant, not entirely successful attempt to burlesque these new performers' dialect appeared in the National Advocate on September 21, 1821, in his parody of Richard III's first speech in the company's opening performance just a few nights earlier: "Now is de vinter of our discontent made / glorus summer by de son of New-York." (47) Noah's review characterized Richard's speech in the climactic episode in similarly inept terms with "Gib me noder horse." Supposedly describing the staging of the king's tragic fall, Noah went on to sneer: "[F]inally, the agony of the appalled Richard, the rolling eye, white gnashing teeth, clenched fists, and phrenzied looks, were all the author could have wished." (48) Within months, Noah standardized and Southernized his caricatured literary "black dialect," which thereafter regularly featured malapropisms, defamiliarized phonetic spellings, swallowed syllables or elided forms, broken English, and the transposition of ds for ths (e.g., "de," "dem," "dis," "dat") and bs for vs or fs (e.g., "riber," "eb'ry," or "ob")--rather than the obscure regional/native New York Dutch replacement of vs for ws--which then came to be a recognized convention. Thus, in 1824, the English actor and mimic Charles Mathews "first brought Noah's words to stage" in England, and, in the same year in New York, Noah "solicited the help of the [eventual star] actor Edwin Forrest (1806-72)" to represent his caricature onstage with "widened eyes, gaping lips, ill-fitting clothes, 'nigger' dialects, and contorted movements." (49) If, as theater historian Samuel Hay has argued, Noah was "the father of Negro minstrelsy," (50) due to his standardization in print of the caricatured dialect that performers would subsequently popularize, then it is essential that we recognize the extent to which Noah developed, constructed, and defined the literary black dialect by contrasting Shakespearean English with a fantasy of an utterly different, inept "Negro English" spoken by the African Company.
That it was Shakespearean English that was originally contested in developing the fictional black dialect is all the more clear once we turn in some detail to another of the fathers of Negro minstrelsy, the just-noted English actor Charles Mathews (1776-1835). Famous for his "At Homes," solo performances featuring sketches told in persona and featuring elaborate impersonations, Mathews was feted in America (especially in New York City) during a nine-month tour, upon which he embarked on August 1822. While in America, Mathews wrote to a friend recounting the burlesque imitations he was preparing of African Americans' speech: "I shall be rich in black fun. I have studied their black English carefully. It is pronounced the real thing, even by the Yankees.... I have several specimens of these black gentry that I can bring into play, and particularly scraps and songs, and malaprops." (51) For a taste, his letter offered a parody of "a black Methodist!" sprinkled with "de," "dey," "den," "debbil," "ebery," and swallowed syllables, as in "de spiritable man" and "twelve 'postles." (52) Upon his return to England, however, Mathews would falsely claim inspiration from the African Company, supposedly reporting on visits to their theater. Indeed, he was to make allusions to fictional encounters with the African Theater the centerpiece of his London performances beginning on March 25, 1824, descriptions of which he had rushed into print in five volumes of London Mathews to capitalize on his sensational success. Two of the volumes, Mathews in America ... written for and intended to be delivered abroad (London, vol. 3, ca. 1824 and 1825) and London Mathews, Containing An Account of this Celebrated Comedian's Trip to America (London, vol. 4, ca. 1824 and 1825), repeatedly allude to the African Company.
The fact that Mathews was, like Noah, engaging in gross misrepresentation is most evident when he describes in A Trip to America a performance at "a theatre called the Nigger's (or Negroe's) theatre" of a play the African Company had never performed, Hamlet, which Hewlett and
contemporary records reveal was not even in the company's repertory. Mathews reveals his representation was
based on a fantasy of a farcically stereotypical African American actor when he claimed to have entered the theater just as "a black tragedian" was "proceeding with the speech, 'To be or not to be? that is the question; whether it is nobler in de mind to suffer, or tak' up arms against a see of trouble, and by opossum end 'era.'" (53) Another account of Mathews's performance included even more distortions since he attributed the speech to a "Kentucky Roscius," clearly supposed to be Hewlett (who was probably born in Rockaway, Long Island). (54) The reported speech was, accordingly, supposed to be Kentuckified:
To be or not to be, dat is him question, whether him nobler in de mind to suffer or lift up arms against one sea of hubble bubble and by oppussum end am. (55)
In both representations, when Mathews spoke the words "oppose 'em" in persona, it sounded like "opussum," a stereotypically "Kentuckified" mispronunciation that prompted the audience to demand a rendition of the "Original Negro Melody," "Opossum up a Gum Tree," featuring verses such as:
Opossum up a gum tree, Him know not what to follow; Opossum up a gum tree, With nigger in de hollow. Opossum up a gum tree, Him know not what him all; But Nigger go up de gum tree, And pull him down by de tail. Opossum, &c. &c. (56)
After rehearsing the song, Mathews makes his "Kentucky Roscius" slip into lines from Richard III, but as borrowed from Noah's description, "Now is de winter of our discontent, made de glorous summer by de sun of New York," before explaining "him tought of New York den." (57) This burlesque representation of the African Company was, however, not enough to satisfy Mathews's appetite for what he had called "black fun."
Elsewhere in Mathews in America, in what was to become a long-term fixation, the comedian focused on Othello. For example, Mathews devotes one piece to a Virginny-styled African American who, while auditioning for the part of Othello, is portrayed as freely adapting the Shakespearean lines to an African American slave's supposed flame of reference:
Most potented sir reverences! My very good massas! dat I take away Old buckra man him daughter, It all true, true, no lie was; Den she marry, I make her my Chumchum, Dat all I do, cause I do no more was! (58)
In another episode in this work, Mathews impersonates a white man trying to "get a situation as actor" who discovers that performance in blackface made him inherently laughable as Othello:
Now the part selected for my first appearance was Othello; and ... I made my face as black as cork and grease could make it.... I ... dressed and blacked my face ... to personate the black hero, Othello; when I had the pleasure of playing to an audience who mortified me during the whole performance by laughing at my tragedy.... and as I could get little or nothing for my pains, I resolved to turn comedian, and give the public some cause for exerting their risible muscles.... (59)
Like many English writers, Mathews was determined to demean Americans generally but was especially focused on the efforts of black actors and/or the character of Othello.
If Mathews thereby intended to get the notice of Hewlett, with whom he had formed an acquaintanceship, he was not disappointed. The American actor seems to have genuinely admired Mathews but felt compelled to write a rebuttal to the comedian's distortions. Claiming that he believed that it would make his readers "smile," Mordecai Noah himself agreed to publish Hewlett's letter of rebuttal to Mathews, whom Hewlett addresses as "My Dear Mathews" (repeated thereafter with considerable irony), in the National Advocate on May 8, 1824, a little over a month after Mathews opened in London: "I lament to say, you have given me cause of complaint.... [You have] ridiculed our African Theatre in Mercer Street, and burlesqued me with the rest of the negroe actors, as you are pleased to call us--mimicked our styles--imitated our dialects--laughed at our anomalies--and lampooned, O shame, even our complexions...." (60) Hewlett observes that Mathews is performing some imitations in England that he had developed "on this side of the Atlantic"--"This is all fair," he writes. But, he questions, in the case of his burlesque of the African Theater, both the inaccuracies in Mathews's "imitation" and the delay; "where is the justice in withholding a ... roar at us [in America]?" Hewlett wondered, since Mathews had not performed attacks on Hewlett and company until he was in England. Far from mocking the African Company in America, Mathews had, as Hewlett observes, instead lavished praise and "approbation" after being treated to performances by Hewlett: "At your earnest and pressing solicitation, I performed several of my best parts; was perfect to the letter; ... which met with your unqualified approbation." (61) Hewlett also points out Mathews's dishonesty in representing the company's dialect when he writes, "we were all unmercifully handled and mangled in your new entertainment." Finally, he pointedly compares Mathews to Shakespeare, via Othello, while claiming Shakespeare as his own:
Our immortal bard ... (and he is our bard as well as yours ...) ... makes sweet Desdemona say, "I saw Othello's visage in his mind." Now when you were ridiculing the "chief black tragedian" and burlesquing the "real negro melody," was it my "mind," or my "visage," which should have made an impression on you? (62)
Mathews, however, was not to be persuaded by reason or eloquence. Instead, such a dignified representation of the "noble Moor" by a black Shakespearean would continue to rankle Mathews and be distorted in his own reports and representations of Hewlett's style.
"Break-speare" and Full-Fledged Minstrel Othellos
In England in 1833, as abolition was being debated and slavery was about to be abolished later that year, and as an African American actor was about to begin performing Shakespeare in the capital of the proslavery lobby, London, Mathews predictably resurrected the strategy of parodic distortion that he had earlier employed to stereotype Hewlett and his colleagues. Once again, Mathews tried to impose a perception of racial difference through Shakespeare, when he wrote, under the pen name "William Breakspeare," his burlesque, Othello, the Moor of Fleet Street (previously misattributed on dubious authority to Charles Westmacott). (63) This time, however, he would feature a blackface Othello in a complete play, though he reduced him to working as a crossing-sweeper. Curiously, instead of speaking in literary black dialect, this characterization, a stage direction tells us, was "spoken in the manner of Kean" (3.35):
Most potent, very reverend, grave, My noble and approved good masters: Rather than speak, I'll sing a stave Relating to my strange disaster. (3.35-38)
Then, this Kean-inflected Othello sings, to the tune of "Madame Fig's Gala," "Ye potent men and grave, / My noble friends and masters" (11.39-40), and so on, before concluding ridiculously with the nonsensical "Tooral looral lay, te rol rumpti nay, /Tweedle deedle rem! Ri fol rumpti doodle em!" (ll. 47-48). As the Spectator remarked on February 2, 1833, "The Adelphi produced a vulgar burlesque of Othello, for the purpose of introducing imitations of KEAN and MACREADY in Othello and Iago, by REEVE and YATES ... [which] are capital." (64) The imitation of Kean was thus not limited to scene 3. The review raises the question why, given his predilection for mocking black actors, had Mathews seemingly represented Kean in blackface?
In truth, Mathews's 1833 mockery of a blackfaced Othello in the style of Edmund Kean--who we must recognize had, by 1820, long since inaugurated the so-called "bronze age" of lightened, tawny Moors, "because he preferred not to risk the ridicule of the age toward a black skin and decided to substitute a light brown tint" (65)--was aimed primarily at African American actors, in this case for their self-conscious imitation of the greatest actor of the day. Hewlett was, in fact, widely known to have emulated Kean as his idol and was an apt imitator of his characterizations. In the fall of 1825 Hewlett even took to advertising himself thereafter, in imitation of a letter from Kean printed in a newspaper, as "Shakespeare's proud representative," a nickname that stuck for decades. (66) Hewlett also took the novel step of having his image engraved in 1825 above the words "Mr. Hewlett as Richard the third in imitation of Mr. Kean." (67) And a number of notices in Philadelphia and New York mention Hewlett's performances of "a scene in Othello, in imitation of Mr. Kean." (68) Hewlett had even performed his imitations in England, after having gone there in 1825 to confront and expose Mathews for his earlier misrepresentation of the African Theater Company. (69) Although he seems to have received little press in England, Hewlett's Kean impersonations were noteworthy enough that in 1825 the Brooklyn Star remarked that "his imitations of Kean ... were recognized as correct and evincing a nice discrimination and peculiar tact on his part." (70)
But by 1833, Mathews was facing a more immediate challenge than Hewlett in New York; a further connection between a black Othello and Kean had come to England by way of a new "Roscius," whom the journal Figaro in London referred to in the most offensive terms possible as a "vain glorious Niger," "a stupid looking, thick lipped, ill formed African calling himself the African Roscius" who was "posting placards" advertising his appearances. (71) Significantly, this "African Roscius," not Hewlett but the younger and more educated Ira Aldridge, had come to England ca. 1825 and had begun performing in the provinces thereafter, apparently in imitation of Kean. After his arrival in England in 1825 Aldridge had begun to advertise himself as "Mr. KEENE, Tragedian of Colour, from the African Theatre, New York," (72) a practice he continued for years. By 1827, he was "the Celebrated Mr. Keene, the African Roscius," and it was not until 1831 that he began to phase out the name Keene, styling himself, "F. W. Keene Aldridge, the African Roscius." (73) It seems likely, then, that like Hewlett and so many white actors from the period (including John Reeve in Mathews's burlesque), the young Aldridge was initially imitating Kean. Consequently, an 1831 advertisement in New York reported that Hewlett was calling himself, perhaps in tribute to an old hero and pupil alike, after both Kean and this new "Keene": "Hewlett for this night styles himself Keen." (74) Thus, Mathews's 1833 blackface Othello, performing "in the manner of Kean," in actuality touched upon both Hewlett and the young Aldridge. (The characterization became even more pointed when, following Kean's collapse during a performance of Othello on March 25, 1833, Aldridge actually replaced Kean in two performances at the Covent Garden Theatre on April 10 and 12, 1833.) (75)
Mathews's imitative blackface Othello is not just incapable of escaping a tendency to lapse into country songs, but Mathews could not resist making the racism of Roderigo more overt by having his version refer mockingly to "Massa Othello." Mathews also expands upon fears of sexual attraction between white women and black men in having Othello sing drunkenly:
Buckra [white] wives, dey like Old Nick. Very fair to face, sir. Very black dey do de trick Dere hubbies to disgrace, sir. (7.20-24)
But Mathews's version was subtle compared to what was to come, for if Mathews was restrained about debasing the Shakespearean English of the "noble Moor" at great length, subsequent playwrights would be less so.
Shortly thereafter, in 1834, just seven months after abolition within England and the very year slavery was also abolished in British colonies of the Caribbean (freeing some 800,000 slaves), Maurice G. Dowling's more successful Othello Travestie: An Operatic Burlesque Budetta in Two Acts was performed in the slaving port of Liverpool, with Othello speaking in a Caribbean-inflected stage dialect. (76) Here, Othello speaks deferentially and stereotypically to "Good Massa Lieutenant," "Massa Duke," "Massa Iago," "Desdemony," and "Missee O." As in Mathews's play, Othello also speaks in close parodies of famous lines, such as, "Him nebber more be officer of mine" (24), "Him hear you say just now, 'me no like dat!' (28), "No, Massa, Iago, him prove before him doubt" (29), "Villain! be sure you prove my lub--" (32), and "put out de light" (40). Such degrading, supposed translation is most notable in Dowling's version of the senate scene, where Shakespeare's Othello demonstrates his eloquence and nobility, but where Dowling's Othello instead sings to the tune of "Yankee Doodle":
Potent, grave, and rev'rend sir Very noble Massa--.... Yes, it is most werry true Him take dis old man's daughter But no by spell, him promise you, But by fair means him caught her. (13)
Significantly, this burlesque of Othello, which was published in 1836, was seen by T. D. Rice, the most famous American minstrel, during his tour of England in that year. Indeed, Dowling's burlesque was to provide the source for Rice's most elaborate effort, his own adaptation, Otello [sic.], A Burlesque Opera (1844).
Deciphering T. D. Rice's Otello
W. T. Lhamon has argued that Otello, Rice's 1844 musical travesty of Othello, differed from other minstrel burlesques in that it skewered not blackness per se but rather "the Italian operas which the Brabantios of [Rice's] own era attended" as "a radical slam at effete life" and, further, that "The formal target ... was Rossini's Otello (1816)," which was "performed in New York in 1826 during the formative years of Rice's earliest theatrical dreaming." (77) For Lhamon, class issues and elitist aesthetic tastes rather than ethnicity are the true, and novel, targets of this piece. It is true that beginning in November 1825 European opera star Manuel Garcia performed--seventy-nine times, exclusively in New York, over the following nine months--works such as Rossini's The Barber of Seville and Otello. (78) It is also true that when Rice's Otello opened--in Philadelphia, however--in October 1844, a recent revival of Italian opera had appeared in New York, first in 1843 during a seven-night run at Niblo's Garden. However, Niblo's could hardly be considered an elitist space; it was an informal, open-air theater with moderate pricing and heterogeneous audiences, and it would still be serving a populist audience as late as 1863 when the editor of Harpers, George William Curtis, sneered at the way "it was crammed with people. All the seats were full, and the aisles and the steps.... And the people ... hung upon the balustrade" when aforementioned (white) people's favorite Edwin Forrest, one who prompted the Astor Place Riot in 1849, employed what Curtis called the "boundless exaggeration" of "the muscular school; the brawny art; the biceps aesthetics; ... the bovine drama; rant, roar, and rigamarole." (79) Moreover, in February 1844, when the Italian immigrant Ferdinando Palmo had opened "Palmo's," it too was a humble New York opera house that the Herald called "a little bijou of a theater," which, according to Karen Ahlquist in Democracy at the Opera: Music, Theater, and Culture in New York City, 1815-1860, "drew the least criticism for social ostentation" of any opera house in the period. Thus, contrary to Lhamon's implications of elitism among "the Brabantios of [Rice's] own era," both New York venues were in reality egalitarian in pricing, charging an affordable flat rate for admission before Rice's Otello appeared. Indeed, Palmo's was actually notable in being deemed "not exclusive enough" for elite audiences. (80) Further undermining an emphasis on class or elitism as the focus of Rice's Otello is the problematic fact that the Brabantios of the era did not yet attend Italian operas with any regularity by 1844, and it was not a fait accompli that Italian opera was then, or would eventually become, the exclusive possession of elites. It was actually not until the late 1840s that elite opera houses opened and employed restricted access, resulting in the increasing exclusivity that, far less so than nativist jingoism on behalf of American Shakespearean Edwin Forrest among the Bowery B'hoys and xenophobic antagonism toward English Shakespearean William Macready, contributed to the infamous Astor Place Opera House rioting of early May 1849 during Macready's run there. (81) It is therefore unlikely that Rice's parody primarily targeted the Brabantios of the early 1840s. And even if it did, we would at least be forced to conclude that Rice was pandering to the worst nativist prejudices of his audience in opposing foreignness, since the Italian American impresarios Niblo and Palmo had been markedly egalitarian themselves.
But even if we grant the application of subsequent class-based motives to Rice's burlesque in 1844, we still need to consider the fact that, as a "formal target," Rice's choice of Rossini's Otello would have been curious. After all, William J. Mahar's survey of playbills for the most popular minstrel operatic parodies prior to 1860 reveals that such burlesques targeted Italian operas that had recently and frequently been performed, especially La Sonnambula (premiering in New York in 1835 and a hit throughout the 1840s), The Bohemian Girl (New York premiere in 1844), and Leonora (Philadelphia premiere in 1845). (82) Performances of Rossini's Otello exclusively in New York in 1826 hardly offer a promising target for parody in Rice's Otello at Philadelphia's Chestnut Street Theater nearly two decades later in 1844, since parody, as Mahar discovered, depends on some familiarity. As Levine argues in Highbrow/ Lowbrow, prior to midcentury, "as with Shakespeare, the familiarity of opera ... was manifest by the large number of burlesques and parodies it stimulated," again citing Bellini's La Sonnambula (The Roof Scrambler  and Lo, Sore am de Beauties ) and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (Lucy-did-Sham-Amour ). (83) The audience composition for opera did not begin to change fundamentally until after midcentury, but there was no clean break even then for some years, since in 1853 Putnam's Magazine could still praise P. T. Barnum and even advocate him being named manager of New York's opera, since "He comprehends that, with us [contrary to Europeans], the opera need not necessarily be the luxury of the few, but the recreation of the many." (84)
When we turn to the history of opera performance in Philadelphia, we find even less promising evidence in support of the formal parody thesis. In fact, the lone performance of Rossini's Otello in this city prior to the 1844 premiere of Rice's burletta was not just at the Chestnut itself--the populist site of Rice's own performance-but also over a decade earlier, on January 23, 1833. (85) While there were other Italian operas performed in the interim, among them La Sonnambula, Rossini's Otello did not appear again in Philadelphia until October 4, 1851. (86) In short, given that parodies were necessarily topical, requiring familiarity, and thus often appearing "within days of their [original's] premieres," (87) the notion that Rice's public at the opening of his Otello in Philadelphia would have appreciated so remote a formal target as Rossini's opera in performance several years earlier is, to say the least, improbable. Rather, as we will see, Rice's burlesque was aimed at an all-too-familiar target: the famous Hewlett, who, ca. 1844, was evidently attempting yet another comeback. Such a satiric focus would explain the timing of Rice's opening; that is, Hewlett's return to the stage finally afforded an opportunity for Rice to make an Otello burlesque topical at last.
While little has been found of Hewlett following a stint performing in the Caribbean in 1839, the English traveler Mrs. Felton, observing ca. 1843 that "the blacks" of New York "contrive to keep open one, and sometimes two theatres," reports a fellow traveler's "account of his last night's entertainment at the black theater, where a sable 'Richard' was the point of attraction." As White suggests, based on this evidence, it seems likely that Hewlett took at least "a few last bows on a New York stage." (88) If an African American New Yorker starring as Richard was indeed the main attraction "at the black theatre," this star had to have been Hewlett (who was reported in 1852 to have "died in New York a few years ago"), (89) back performing his most famous part (Richard III), the one he could perform either in his own vein or in imitation of famous white actors like Kean and Macready, the one he had performed before thousands. So often had Hewlett performed the part and imitations of famous actors in the role of Richard during his solo performances that some newspapers claimed that he was "vulgarly called 'Dick Hewlett.'" (90) Furthermore, though his popularity had faded by the era of Jim Crow, Hewlett was nonetheless the most famous black American of the period, having achieved iconic one-name recognition as a "point of attraction" in newspapers across the country. (91) Partly for this reason, no doubt, Thompson finds it "very likely that he toured more extensively than is known, but that the records have not been found, or no longer exist." (92) It would seem, therefore, that when Rice's Otello opened, the indomitable Hewlett was again performing in New York and likely Philadelphia as he often had, no doubt capitalizing on Macready's U.S. tour taking place that year to do imitations of the famous Englishman and also sensing a revival in interest in Italian opera that afforded an opportunity to reprise his Otello imitations--and for Rice to mock him. (93)
Hewlett's noted talent for singing opera made Rice's Burlesque Opera all the more pointed. Hewlett had first turned his extraordinary skills in mimicry to Italian opera, and, significantly, Rossini's Otello in particular, beginning in March 1826, when, in solo performances, he began impersonating "Signior Garcia" in scenes from Rossini operas, especially the operatic role of Otello. (94) And, whereas Garcia had performed only in New York, within two weeks of that debut, Hewlett was already performing "Imitations of the Italian Opera Troop" for Philadelphians as well. (95) It is difficult to overestimate the impression such performances made, given the utter novelty and innovation of such a feat: "Very few are today aware of the fact that the debut performance by an American-born singer of Italian opera in front of a paying American audience was given by James Hewlett." (96)
Remarkably, just as Shakespeare's tragic Moor was a standard for Hewlett throughout his career, so was Rossini's character Otello, so much so that an 1830 review in the Family Magazine reported in a piece entitled "The Negroes of New York" that an African American company performed a bill that included Julius Caesar and "some pieces of Rossini." (97) Likewise, in 1839, notices of performances by "Mr. Hewlett" appeared in December 1839 in the Port of Spain Gazette, Trinidad, advertising "imitations, recitations, and songs, & c. &c. &c.," particularly of a "Garcia" who had performed at the "Theatre Royal, at Paris." (98)
Not only had Hewlett performed Otello, but his extraordinary singing had also become such an important part of his repertoire that he was performing twenty or more songs per "concert" (his term) late in his career. (99) And so, when the Trinidad Standard advertised Hewlett's performance as Othello, it had added, "in which character he will sing the songs of 'The Banner of Battle,' 'The Marseilles Hymn and the Parisienne,' in English." (100) Because Hewlett sang in his performances of Othello, and because he was noted for singing Rossini's opera in particular, Rice's offering of a burlesque Otello--concluding just after a song by Rice/Otello performed Alma Opera, that is, "in the spirit of opera" (101)--was not a remote formal parody aimed over the heads of his audience; it was instead a typically topical joke that degraded the famous Hewlett by parodying Shakespeare's tragedy while incorporating plenty of songs that mocked the actor's performance of both Othello and Otello via minstrel dialect.
Following his model of Dowling, but adapting Othello's speech to the stereotypically Kentuckified or Virginny-ized dialect standardized by Noah's mockery of the African Theater, Rice rendered the noble character's eloquence as mere "rude ... talk": "Most potent, grabe, and reberend Signiors, my bery noble and approbed good Massas: Dat I hab tuck away dis old man's darter--is true and no mistake. True, I's married her. De bery head and tail ob my offence hab dis extent, no more: rude am I in talk. I cannot chat like some folks for, since a piccanninny two years old, I'b always been in rows and spreezes. Yet, by your gracious patience, I'll tell you how I won his darter." (102) In fact, even more than Dowling, Rice closely parodies Othello's most eloquent lines in demeaning fashion. And so, Otello declares, "Whar it my cue to raise a row, I should hab know it widout your telling me" (348); "To die would be most happy now. / I'd kick de bucket freely--" (363); "My life, upon her faith, dar's no mistake" (355); "Cassio neber more be ossifer ob mine" (370); "De way I lub her really is a sin / And, when I doesn't, chaos comed again" (374); "No, Massa Iago, I prove before I doubt; / And when I prove, why den I sarbe her out" (375); "More could Iago chat, / If he'd but let de bag out of de cat" (376); "Farewell to de banjo and de cymbals / .... Otello's occupation am gone" (379); "It am de cause, / It am de cause"--accompanied by a crow's "caw--caw--caw" sound effects (380); "Yes, she must die, dat is plain, / Else more niggers she'll betray again" (380); and "I done de state some sarbice / .... Noten extenuate" (382).
Other details, beyond Otello's grotesque stage dialect, are similarly degrading to the character of Othello. When Otello hears that the towel (in lieu of the handkerchief) has been lost, he enters with "his wool all on end" (378), that is, wearing the conventional "fright wig" of the minstrel show. (103) Then, in the dramatic climax, as Otello approaches to kiss his wife in the tragic smothering scene, Rice undercuts Otello's dignity yet again when the slumbering Desdemona starts and "kicks him over" (380). Worst of all, uncritically taking details from Dowling's racist antiabolitionist play, Rice represents Otello as a lusty rapist when Desdemona recounts how she swooned into unconsciousness at Othello's tales and that "When I came about--ah, me!" she was "Greatful for the scrape I'd missed" (354), with "scrape" suggesting both rape and abortion. (104) Whereas Shakespeare's character had broken with the stereotype of the "lascivious Moor" (Othello, 1.1.124), what Virginia Mason Vaughan describes in her study Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500-1800 as "a long line of black male [characters] ... who flaunt their sexuality as a quality inherent in their blackness," (105) Rice's Otello reinstates it.
Such dynamics inform the fact that in the era in which "Shakespearean travesties ... dominated minstrel programs," "it was Othello that was most frequently parodied in nineteenth-century America." (106) Take, for instance, "Alexander Do Mar's" Othello: An Interesting Drama, Rather! (London, ca. 1850), in which Othello appears as minstrel with a banjo; G. W. H. Griffin's Othello: A Burlesque (New York, ca. 1870); Desdemonum: An Ethiopian Burlesque in Three Scenes (New York, 1874), in which Desdemonum resolves to "see Otheller's visage in his high-falutin' mind"; and Dar's de money [i.e., "Desdemona"], Othello burlesque (London and New York, ca. 1880), the latter originally performed in Wood's Minstrel Hall in New York and depicting would-be black actors attempting scenes from Othello. (107)
Minstrel burlesques of Othello underscore what Tilden G. Edelstein identifies as the keen anxieties and "continuing difficulties ... that color-conscious Americans were having with the play," especially in the nineteenth century. (108) In serious drama, anxiety about a noble Moor and his relationship with a white woman in an era in which both Hewlett and Aldridge married white women contributed to representations of a markedly violent and irrational Othello but also to an increasingly lightened or whitened character when white actors undertook the role. Kean had started the trend in inaugurating "the bronze age," since his makeup was "greatly lightened" as a so-called mulatto. (109) But further steps were taken to "whiten Othello" when the famed Edwin Forrest--who had earlier presented racist blackface portrayals in Noah's staged anti abolitionist propaganda against the African Theater and who, not surprisingly, became the favorite of the nativist Bowery B'hoys--subsequently began playing Othello in New York as an "octoroon," one "looking white but having a trace of black blood and some telltale Negroid features." Forrest's Othello was also especially violent and irrational in keeping with his racist views about "telltale" black characteristics. (110) When Edwin Booth took up the part thereafter in 1849, "an Othello who bore no resemblance to a black African" took the stage. (111) In fact, Edelstein demonstrates that Booth "sought to expunge from the play any taint of miscegenation by becoming the lightest-skinned Othello ever." Booth himself claimed that he aimed to elevate Othello's character above a "brutal blackamoor"--a stereotype Booth accepted as accurate. In the event, his Moor was, he said, "Arabian, not African," sporting a Tartar-like mustache for emphasis. As Edelstein concludes, "American audiences demanded whitewashed Othellos." (112) But they did so not merely because they could not abide miscegenation, but also because they would not believe--and would not tolerate--an eloquent, and therefore dignified, representation of a black man. Thus, white Americans simultaneously demanded a lighter Othello in socalled "legitimate" Shakespeare as they required a more stereotypically "black" Othello in minstrel burlesques; both complementary representations were necessary to assure the majority white audience that its racial fictions were true.
Consequences for Black Shakespeareans and for "Shakespeare"
It was inevitable that Shakespeare would be appropriated by the minstrel tradition generally, and by T. D. Rice in particular, given that Shakespearean plays were regularly on the bill with Jim Crow. In fact, "Shakespeare accounted for nearly a quarter of the plays performed in America during the nineteenth century." (113) At a time when Hewlett was one of the best-known African Americans in the country and sometimes even "vulgarly called 'Dick'" for his close association with Richard III in a period in which this work was the most popular play in America, Jim Crow would claim, "for you see I been born wid sharp set of grinders jis like dey say in de play King Dick hab." (114) Famously, it was said of Richard, "Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born" (3 Henry VI, 5.6.53). More important, both Richard and Jim Crow were deformed, improbable ladies' men and would-be dandies. In famous lines from 3 Henry VI appropriated in Richard III during the nineteenth century, Richard points out his "shr[u]nk[en] ... arm ... like a wither'd shrub" (3 Henry VI, 3.2.156), an "envious mountain on [his] back" (l. 157), and "legs of an unequal size" (l. 159), and in Richard III he references one arm as "like a blasted sapling withered up" (3.4.70) and refers to himself as "Deformed" (1.1.20), made "lamely" (l.22), and as "halt[ing]" (l. 23) or limping. However, he successfully woos Lady Anne, despite not being shaped for such "sportive tricks, / Nor made to court an amorous looking glass" (ll. 14-15), and then gloats, "I'll be at charges for a looking glass / And entertain a score or two of tailors / To study fashions to adorn my body" (1.2.276-78). Like Richard, the would-be but ragged dandy Jim Crow--depicted in The Life of tim Crow (ca. 1835) by way of the illustration Dandy Looking in a Mirror--moved about with a limp (one reviewer described him as being "lame ... [since] nature unkindly afflicts born fools with some co-operative deformity"), and illustrations actually depict the character, again like Richard, with one deformed arm and shoulder, just as a critic praised Jim Crow for "such a twitching-up of the arm and shoulder!" (115) One account went so far as to claim that Rice had modeled his dance on a deformed slave: "He was very much deformed ... the right shoulder was drawn up high, and the left leg was stiff and crooked at the knee which gave him a painful but at the same time ludicrous limp." (116) Yet, rather than emulating a crippled slave--a myth of accuracy that maintained that this grotesque racist caricature was truth rather than a gross lie--it now seems that Rice was inspired to create Jim Crow partly to burlesque Hewlett's performance of Richard III, a character with an unequal gait, a hunchback, and a withered arm.
After all, Rice invited gratuitous comparisons between Jim Crow and James Hewlett, even when his plays had no overt connection to Shakespeare. In fact, in his earlier Bone Squash Diavolo (ca. 1834-35), a satirical farce focused on black dandyism, Rice did so most pointedly in the wake of Hewlett's humiliating, much-reported arrest in 1834. Hewlett was widely being mocked for both the arrest and a court appearance; contemporary newspaper accounts of the latter represented his interaction with the magistrate regarding his request to be released on his own recognizance as a mock-Shakespearean dialogue in which one highlight was an allusion to Othello: "Hewlett: Then is Othello's occupation gone. But I know you will take my word for my appearance here tomorrow." (117) In the wake of Hewlett's humiliation, Rice was sprinkling Bone Squash Diavolo, variously advertised as "a petite opera" or as "The Grand Opera in Two Acts," (118) with gratuitous allusions to the operatic Shakespearean's repertoire. For example, in this play without swords, set in a modern-day New York, one character inexplicably mocks the dandy Spruce, who has taken up strutting full-time and "left off scouring" (189)--Hewlett's day job at his Clothes Dressing Emporium on Warren Street near Broadway, where he offered "Steam pressing" and removal of "all kinds of Stains" (119)--with the Othello allusion "Put up dat sword, don't strike!" (189), a homely echo of Othello's "Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them" (1.2.60). More gratuitous still is the following Shakespeare-laden gag:
Bone Squash: Farewell all my calculation. For I'm bound to the wild goose station. [Start] Farewell, all your fancy balls. [Start. Brown gives knife.] ... Farewell all, Bone Squash is gone. If only you would excuse me, And tomorrow you may use me, And tomorrow, and tomorrow, So please you let me stay. (120)
In this odd hodgepodge of allusions, Rice conflates Othello's eloquent farewell speech, Cassio's traditional stage business of giving Othello a knife to kill himself, another Hewlett role in an allusion to Macbeth's despairing "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech, and the newspapers' court scene accounts ending in Hewlett's request to be allowed to return tomorrow.
Rice did not just mercilessly gloat over Hewlett's bad fortune but he was appropriating his roles, including Othello, to do so, contrary to the claim that "Rice resisted the connection [to Othello] before he bitterly took it on in 1844." (121) In fact, as even Lhamon is forced to concede, "Knickerbocker critics [took] Jim Crow to be a crude emulation of Othello." Moreover, in those plays written for Jim Crow, racial slurs against Othello also appear, as in the pronouncement in Flight to America (1836) that "All dese Othello fellow make very bad husbands.' (122) New York critics, then, were making the direct comparisons that Rice himself invited.
During his European tours between 1834 and 1836, Rice likewise appropriated Shakespeare, but his attacks then probably had Aldridge in view in the verses entitled "Jim Crow's Description of Hamlet":
I went to Surry Teatre, To see de Hamlet play.... Out came Massa Hamlet Wid his "Be, or not to be." Den Hamlet grab him uncle, And choke him by de troat, And shake him like de debil, De last button off him coat, Veel about, &c. (123)
It seems that Rice also participated in a larger-scale Hamlet burlesque, later appropriated by Christy's Minstrels, in which he cleverly introduced his "Jump" theme song:
Oh! tis Consummation Devoutly to be wished, To end your heartache by a sleep; When likely to be dished, Shuffle off your mortal coil Do just so, Wheel about and turn about and Jump Jim Crow. (124)
In each of Rice's Shakespearean allusions, it is clear enough that Shakespeare was the vehicle and black Shakespeareans and their audiences the target, not vice versa.
Here, we must recognize that Shakespeare was not appropriated by Rice and the minstrel tradition because his work was thought to be elitist. On the contrary, "no one thought of removing Shakespeare to a separate category called Culture," since through the first half of the nineteenth century "his plays [remained] the property of every class and community from Indiana to New England." (125) (Lawrence Levine suggests that Shakespeare did not become synonymous with "Culture" until the early twentieth century. (126)) After all, the very "ubiquity of Shakespearean drama in the humor of the minstrels" and the "national penchant for parodying Shakespeare" in the nineteenth century demonstrate Shakespeare's popularity. (127) So passionate were the working-class Bowery B'hoys of New York about their Shakespeare that they spearheaded the Astor Place riots of 1849 against English Shakespearean Macready and in defense of their champion, the nativist Shakespearean Forrest; up to 15,000 rioters took to the streets, 113 were arrested, and 26 were killed as a consequence. (128)
As I have already suggested, what bardolatrous Americans admired most about Shakespeare was his eloquence. Nigel Cliff has noted in his analysis of Shakespeare's extraordinary appeal in the period that "nineteenth-century Americans were in love with oratory," "theatre was a showcase for oratory," and Shakespeare's oratory was recognized as the best. (129) According to Levine, "Shakespeare was taught in nineteenth-century schools and colleges as declamation or rhetoric, not literature." (130) Moreover, he explains, "The same Americans who found diversion and pleasure in lengthy political debates, who sought joy and God in the sermons of church and camp meeting, who had, in short, a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for the spoken word, thrilled to Shakespeare's eloquence, memorized his soliloquies, delighted in his dialogues." Thus, just as Shakespearean language became the property of minstrel burlesques, other popular forms of oratory, such as political speeches and sermons, were appropriated by minstrelsy in order to create a clash of idioms, an incongruous juxtaposition of what was presumed linguistically decorous with what minstrels constructed as indecorous. That is, "Shakespearean English" was depicted as essentially in opposition to "Negro English," so that a Shakespearean burlesque in blackface--or a performance by black actors--was constructed as an absurd amalgamation of extremes: eloquence and ineloquence, the beautiful and the grotesque.
It was thus the tradition of blackface and its attempt to impose a racist social hierarchy that became one wedge between what was thereafter constructed as the contrast between the highbrow and the lowbrow, so that Shakespeare and opera alike were actually beginning to be constructed in opposition to popular culture of the nativist stripe--via blackface burlesque constructions of African Americans' supposed pretension in appropriating such art forms--well before they were high/elite culture in reality. Ironically enough, contrary to counterrevisionist arguments, the blackface tradition was thus nonegalitarian, both because of its divisive assertions of white supremacy and in that it ultimately separated some art from populism by making what minstrelsy effectively constructed as black affectation to the "high," artful, beautiful, and cultured (here, Shakespeare and opera) contemptible to the working class.
Equally important, given that the self-consciously "low" idiom of blackface minstrelsy was defined in opposition to the eloquent language of Shakespeare, there is much reason to question recent revisionist assertions that the minstrels' literary dialect was not a grotesque caricature. (131) Against such assurances, in addition to the unrelentingly demeaning interpolations evident in the ubiquitous malapropisms, elisions, and misspelled phonetic "eye dialect" that represented standard pronunciations as ignorant error in print, we must now add reactions from the African Company; Hewlett himself mocked the emerging stereotype of black English on multiple occasions, showing that he did not accept what he had referred to as the "mangled" representations of his company by Mathews and other propagandists. On one occasion, after a smashing solo performance by Hewlett in February 1826, the white audience demanded a curtain call, at which time Hewlett first eloquently reported that "he was about fulfilling an engagement in London, and therefore would take a respectful leave of New York," before provocatively slipping into a stereotypical dialect and adding that since "de Atlantic Ocean would sipparate him from his 'merican bredren, he would soon be in dat country vere dey had no 'stinction of color'"--a political performance that the white crowd hardly found humorous, as it prompted a riot. (132) By contrast, Simon Snipe reported a very different reaction from a largely black audience when an actor, no doubt Hewlett, sang in dialect:
Is dare a heart dat nebber lub'd Or felt soft woman sigh; Is dare a man cab marl unmov'd Dear woman tearful eye?
Snipe then recorded "peals of laughter" from the house but seemed puzzled as to exactly their source: "[S]ome laughed, perhaps, because it was sung well; others because it was an excellent song, but the principal part of the audience laughed at the pronunciation." (133) Snipe failed to get the humor because, as a racist himself, he assumed that this dialect was authentic enough. The joke here, however, was that Hewlett was parodying a white stereotype of "black English" that black New Yorkers, comprising the principal part of the audience, recognized as laughably inaccurate. Such evidence demonstrates powerfully that most black voices sounded little like Jim Crow, unless they were subverting such a stereotype or using irony at the expense of white rubes.
What drove the unceasing harassment of the actors, then, was that the African Theater presented a threat, in that, like Phillis Wheatley's elegant poetry, it disproved racist myths. As Harriet Martineau aptly explained, "As long as the slave remains ignorant, he is often ... humoured," but "from the moment he exhibits the attributes of a rational being--from the moment his intellect seems likely to come into the most distinct competition with that of whites, the most deadly hatred springs up;--not in the black but in his oppressors." (134) It was just such hatred that fueled riots against, and the Shakespearean burlesques of, the African Company.
Noah's and Mathews's travesties resulted in the development of a literary black dialect that offered inspiration for T. D. Rice, whose performances were, in turn, to limit Hewlett's ability to perform. Shane White has even gone so far as to argue that Hewlett was "a casualty of the vogue for 'jumping Jim Crow'" after 1830. In fact, after Crow's appearance, Hewlett's popularity waned. He even had some difficulty appearing onstage in New York City and was eventually forced, as we have seen, to travel to the Caribbean to find acting work during the late 1830s. Tragically, when he attempted one of his many solo comebacks in 1831, Hewlett was allowed to perform under the most unusual circumstances: the advertisement in the New York Evening Post for his appearance at the New York Museum proclaimed ominously on July 12, 1831: "Mr. HEWLETT, Shakespeare's proud representative will appear this evening.... Mr Hewlett will take Exhilerating Gas." (135) The dignified Shakespearean, whether the victim of a cruel trick or simply desperate for money, could only suffer through such humiliation once. And, after Rice began to appear as Jim Crow, the bulk of American white audiences would for years only countenance representations of African Americans as mentally impaired, that is, as born fools rather than as "Shakespeare's proud representative[s]."
Whereas Rice's performances were representations of stereotypical foolishness that presented no challenge to a demeaning Africanist persona defined by irrationality, the surest sign of James Hewlett's excellence is the extraordinary lengths that his white antagonists had to go in order to prevent his dignified, eloquent representation of blackness. Because Hewlett had quite successfully made Shakespeare his bard onstage, many racists felt compelled to stop him, or, failing that, to undercut him. Hewlett's sometimes tragic career was thus, as contemporaries recognized, remarkably like the noble Othello's. Neither Hewlett nor Othello were "rude ... in speech," nor was either a fool, but Noah, Mathews, Rice, and other Iagos of their respective ages were determined to make them so. Still, Hewlett had paved the way for Aldridge, who actually replaced Kean at the Covent Garden Theatre in London and came to be recognized as one of the great actors of his day. Hewlett's enemies had been determined to deny "Shakespeare's Proud Representative" a legacy. In that, they failed, even if this theatrical pioneer--the first great autochthonous American Shakespearean and singer of Italian opera--has yet to receive the recognition he richly deserves.
(1.) Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 34.
(2.) Ibid., 35.
(3.) W. T. Lhamon Jr., Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 2; Lhamon, Raising Cain: Blackface performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 6, 152.
(4.) Lott, Love and Theft, 35.
(5.) Ibid., 18; emphasis mine.
(6.) Ibid., 119.
(7.) Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow, 2, 20, 12, 84.
(8.) Dympna Callaghan, Shakespeare Without Women: Representing Gender and Race on the Renaissance Stage (New York: Routledge, 2000), 9; the emphasis is Callaghan's here. See also the essay version, "What's at Stake in Representing Race?" Shakespeare Studies 26 (1998): 21-26.
(9.) Ibid., 7 and 2, respectively.
(10.) Ibid., 76.
(11.) For discussion of the ways that early drama developed some of the central tropes of the blackface tradition, see my The English Clown Tradition from the Middle Ages to Shakespeare (Boydell & Brewer, September 2009), chapter 1, "Folly as Proto-Racism: Blackface in the 'Natural' Fool Tradition," 24-62; "'Extravagant and Wheeling Strangers': Early Blackface Dancing Fools, Racial Representation, and the Limits of Identification," EXEMPLARIA 20, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 197-223; "Blackfaced Fools, Black-Headed Birds, Fool Synonyms, and Shakespearean Allusions to Renaissance Blackface Folly," Notes and Queries 55 (2008): 215-19; "The Folly of Racism: Enslaving Blackface and the 'Natural' Fool Tradition," Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 20 (2007): 46-84; and "Emblems of Folly in the First Othello: Renaissance Blackface, Moor's Coat, and 'Muckender,'" Comparative Drama 35, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 69-99.
(12.) Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 34 and 45, respectively.
(13.) Edwin P. Christy, Christy's Plantation Melodies No. 4 (Philadelphia: Fisher, 1854), v.
(14.) Brander Matthews, "The Rise and Fall of Negro-Minstrelsy," Scribner's 58 (1915): 754; George F. Rehin, "Harlequin Jim Crow: Continuity and Convergence in Blackface Clowning," Journal of Popular Culture 9, no. 3 (Winter 1975): 696; Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 5, 6, and 24n9.
(15.) Harry Harmer, The Longman Companion to Slavery, Emancipation and Civil Rights (New York: Longman, 2001), 43-44.
(16.) Eric Homberger, The Historical Atlas of New York City: A Visual Celebration of Nearly 400 Years of New York City's History (New York: Henry Holt, 1994), 55.
(17.) Harry Harmer, The Longman Companion to Slavery, 84.
(18.) White, Stories of Freedom in Black New York (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 29-30, 12.
(19.) Nigel Cliff, The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Random House, 2007), 28.
(20.) Shane White, Stories of Freedom, 223.
(21.) Shane White, "African Grove Theater," in Slavery in New York, 174.
(22.) White, Stories of Freedom, 133.
(23.) George A. Thompson Jr., A Documentary History of the African Theatre (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 30.
(24.) Thompson, Documentary History of the African Theatre, 32.
(25.) Ibid., 27.
(26.) White, Stories of Freedom, 114.
(27.) Ibid., 97, 100-101.
(28.) Ibid., 167.
(29.) Memoir and Theatrical Career of Ira Aldridge (London: Onwhyn, 1849), 10-11.
(30.) Ibid., 11.
(31.) White, Stories of Freedom, 168.
(32.) Ibid., 143-44.
(33.) Ibid., 181,160.
(34.) Thompson, Documentary History of the African Theatre, 62, 64.
(35.) White, Stories of Freedom, 95.
(36.) Ibid., 93.
(37.) Thompson, Documentary History of the African Theatre, 99.
(38.) Memoir and Theatrical Career of Ira Aldridge, 11.
(39.) White, Stories of Freedom, 83.
(40.) Homberger, Historical Atlas of New York City, 64-65; White, Stories of Freedom, 83.
(41.) Shane White, "Black Life in Freedom: Creating a Popular Culture," in Slavery in New York, eds. Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris, 178 (New York: New Press, 2005); Samuel A. Hay, African American Theatre: A Historical and Critical Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 10.
(42.) White, Stories of Freedom, 83.
(43.) Homberger, Historical Atlas of New York City, 69-70; White, Stories of Freedom, 166.
(44.) Thompson, Documentary History of the African Theatre, 87.
(45.) White, Stories of Freedom, 205.
(46.) Ibid., 155.
(47.) Ibid., 109.
(48.) Ibid., 113.
(49.) Hay, African American Theatre, 13, 17, and 19.
(50.) Ibid., 13.
(51.) Memoirs of Charles Mathews, Comedian, By Mrs. Mathews, vol. 3, (London: Richard Bentley, 1839), 390-91.
(52.) Ibid., 390-91.
(53.) London Mathews: Containing an Account of the Celebrated Comedian's Trip to America, 4th ed. (Baltimore: Roninson, 1824), 9.
(54.) White, "James Hewlett, Actor," 176.
(55.) Sketches of Mr. Mathews Celebrated Trip to America (London: J. Limbird, n.d.), 9-10.
(56.) Trip to America, 25.
(57.) White, Stories of Freedom, 112.
(58.) Mathews in America: A New Dramatic at Home; Written and Intended to Be Delivered byMr. Mathews Abroad, 2nd ed. (London: Duncombe, 1825), 16.
(59.) Ibid., 12-13.
(60.) Thompson, Documentary History of the African Theatre, 147.
(61.) Ibid., 147-48.
(62.) Ibid., 148.
(63.) M. Draudt, ed., Othello, the Moor of Fleet Street (1833) (Tubingen: Francke, 1993), 2-3.
(64.) Ibid., 26n53.
(65.) Errol Hill, Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Actors (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1984), 9.
(66.) White, Stories of Freedom, 140.
(67.) Ibid., frontispiece.
(68.) Thompson, Documentary History of the African Theatre, 167, 175.
(69.) Ibid., 153.
(70.) White, Stories of Freedom, 143.
(71.) Draudt, Othello, the Moor of Fleet Street (1833), 29.
(72.) Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock, Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1993}, 55.
(73.) Marshall and Stock, Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian, 55.
(74.) White, Stories of Freedom, 170.
(75.) Marshall and Stock, Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian, 117,135.
(76.) Harmer, The Longman Companion to Slavery, Emancipation and Civil Rights, 78. On Dowling, see W. T. Lhamon Jr., Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 73,419n131.
(77.) Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow, 72, 79, 73.
(78.) White, Stories of Freedom, 146.
(79.) Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow, 57.
(80.) June C. Ottenberg, Opera Odyssey: Toward a History of Opera in Nineteenth-Century America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 93; Karen Ahlquist, Democracy at the Opera: Music, Theater, and Culture in New York City, 1815-1860 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 131-33. On the popularity of opera at the time, see also John Dizikes, Opera in America: A Cultural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 3-12.
(81.) William J. Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 5, 134; Cliff, The Shakespeare Riots; on anti-British sentiment generally, see 110-29, 141-47; on such antagonism directed toward the Shakespearean Macready, see especially 130-33,136-37, 148-49, 165-67, 171, 206-8, 234-41.
(82.) Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask, 105.
(83.) Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow, 92.
(84.) Ibid., 100-101.
(85.) W. G. Armstrong, A Record of the Opera in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1884; repr., New York: AMS Press, 1976), 21.
(86.) Armstrong, Record of the Opera in Philadelphia, 23-48, 70.
(87.) Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask, 5.
(88.) White, Stories of Freedom, 223.
(90.) Ibid., 166.
(91.) Ibid., 154, 158.
(92.) Thompson, Documentary History of the African Theatre, 39.
(93.) On Hewlett's imitation of Macready, see White, Stories of Freedom, 146, 148, 222.
(94.) White, Stories of Freedom, 146-47. White does not discuss Rice's Otello.
(95.) Ibid., 147.
(96.) White, "Black Life in Freedom," 178.
(97.) "Simon Snipe" reported in 1823 on a performance when "the play was Othello"; George Stone gushed in 1826 that Hewlett "was some" as Othello; Peter Nielson reluctantly admitted in 1830 that Hewlett's "Othello may pass"; and the Trinidad Standard advertised "Me. HEWLETT AS OTHELLO" on December 17, 1839. Thompson, Documentary History of the African Theatre, 224, and White, Stories of Freedom, 186.
(98.) White, Stories of Freedom, 221-22.
(99.) Ibid., 141-42.
(100.) Thompson, Documentary History of the African Theatre, 224.
(101.) Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow, 382,450n74.
(102.) Ibid., 350.
(103.) Ibid., 449n63.
(104.) Ibid., 444n29.
(105.) Virginia Mason Vaughan, Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 43. For discussion of Africans/Moors and stereotypical associations with sexuality and lasciviousness, see 4, 35, 43, 47, 53-54, 77, 84, 108, 111, 112, 116, and 122.
(106.) Gary D. Engle, This Grotesque Essence: Plays from the American Minstrel Stage (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978), xxvii; see also Ray B. Browne, "Shakespeare in American Vaudeville and Negro Minstrelsy," American Quarterly 12, no. 3 (Fall 1960): 374-91; Tilden G. Edelstein, "Othello in America: The Drama of Racial Intermarriage," in Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, ed. J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, 187 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).
(107.) Henry E. Jacobs and Claudia D. Johnson, An Annotated Bibliography of Shakespearean Burlesques, Parodies, and Travesties (New York: Garland, 1976), 58, no. 163; 155, no. 149.
(108.) Edelstein, "Othello in America," 184.
(109.) Ibid., 183.
(110.) Ibid., 184.
(111.) Ibid., 186.
(113.) Cliff, The Shakespeare Riots. 13.
(114.) Ibid., 16; Lhamon, "The Life of Jim Crow," in Jump Jim Crow, 388.
(115.) Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow. 396 and 40-41; George Odell, Annals of the New York Stage (New York: Columbia University Press, 1928), 4:372.
(116.) Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, 3:632.
(117.) White, Stories of Freedom, 175.
(118.) Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow, 54.
(119.) White, Stories of Freedom. 116-17.
(120.) Lhamon, Jump Jim Crow, 203.
(121.) Ibid., 430n19.
(122.) Ibid., 72.
(123.) The Humorous Adventures of Jump Jim Crow (Glasgow, ca. 1836-44), 8.
(124.) "Hamlet," in Christy's Nigga Son oster, Containing Songs as Sung by Christy's, Pierce's, White's Sable Brothers, and Dumbleton's Band of Minstrels (New York, n.d.), 261.
(125.) Cliff, The Shakespeare Riots, 15 and 18.
(126.) Levine, Highbrow/Lowbron, 34.
(127.) Ibid., 4, 15.
(128.) Cliff, The Shakespeare Riots. 241,285n11.
(129.) Ibid., 14.
(130.) Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow. 37.
(131.) Mahar discusses the blackface stage dialect in terms of "authenticity" in "Black English in Early Blackface Minstrelsy," American Quarterly 37 (1985): 260, 284. Lhamon likewise maintains that "accurate is what Rice's performance seemed." Lhamon, Raising Cain. 169.
(132.) White, Stories of Freedom, 157.
(133.) Ibid., 114.
(134.) Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838), 1:152-53.
(135.) Thompson, Documentary History of the African Theatre. 191: emphasis added.
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