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ANYONE interested in theatre history will have heard of the great 19th-century tragedian Edmund Kean and perhaps of William Macready. But few will have heard of Ira Aldridge, one of the most celebrated of that time.
From his debut on the English stage as Othello at the age of 17 in 1825, this remarkable Afro-American developed into one of the most famous performers of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists throughout Europe, where he toured regularly until his death in Poland in 1867.
Martin Hoyles traces Aldridge’s biography through his acting roles, while at the same time revealing his constant support for the anti-slavery movements and for “all those held in bondage.”
When playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, one of the parts which required him to “white-up,” he would leave his hands black, emphasising the universal character of the role.
Significantly, some racist responses from London critics advising him to seek a job as “footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified” were not shared either by adulatory provincial British or foreign audiences, many of the latter being introduced to Shakespeare for the first time.
In an introductory chapter dealing with colour casting, Hoyles covers the history of black acting and he brings it up to date by making a telling point. Citing Laurence Oliver’s caricatural portrayal of Othello, he reminds us that, whereas a black actor playing Othello plays Shakespeare, a white actor performs blackness.
The author covers all of Aldridge’s Shakespearean roles, including Aaron in the Bard’s “horror” play Titus Andronicus, with its litany of slaughter, rape and cannibalism. Just as in the burlesque and romantic tragedies in which he featured as the black villain or comic buffoon, he was able to invest the characters with sympathetic dignity.
The fact that today few have problems with a black Hamlet or Richard II — both triumphs in recent RSC productions — owes no small debt to Aldridge. Paul Robeson, a later Othello, recognised him as a remarkable influence on modern theatre and therefore society as a whole.
Martin Hoyles is to be complimented for rescuing this “African Roscius” from obscurity.
Ira Aldridge: Famous Speeches by Martin Hoyles is published by Hansib, £9.99.
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