Stage-struck out of theatre history?
In Black History Month, Angela Cobbinah considers the career of the classical actor Ira Aldridge. Shamefully neglected, a new book on the pioneering black performer seeks to restore his reputation
03 October, 2019 — By Angela Cobbinah
Ira Aldridge as Othello. Photo: Houghton Library, Harvard University
IN the mid-19th century, London’s theatre world was abuzz with the name of Ira Aldridge, the country’s first classical black actor, whose impassioned acting style commanded huge performance fees in line with the numbers who flocked to buy tickets to see him in action.
In the rest of Europe he was idolised for both introducing audiences to Shakespeare for the first time and influencing the development of realist theatre as later advocated by Stanislavsky.
Following several sell-out tours on the Continent, he earned many honours and awards, including a knighthood in Germany, and was given a state funeral in Poland, where he died suddenly in 1867, aged 60.
Yet, as noted by Martin Hoyles in his latest book on Aldridge, the American-born superstar has been reduced to a footnote in the history of 19th-century theatre and is included in only a handful of university and drama school courses in the UK.
One senior lecturer in theatre at a London university told the author he’d never heard of him and another at a northern university thought Ira Aldridge was a woman.
“The neglect is completely scandalous,” Hoyles writes, going on to quote Russian scholar Sergei N Durylin that “one may get the impression that the European and American theatre scholars have joined in a conspiracy of silence against the famous black tragedian”.
Durylin authored a biography of Aldridge in 1940 but the first one in English did not appear until 1958, more than 90 years after the actor’s death.
Since then the picture has improved, but only a little. Hoyles, a former drama student at Bristol University, attempted to redress the balance with a book celebrating his life in 2007.
This time round, he concentrates on Aldridge’s various roles, his acting craft and the words he spoke, beginning with Othello, his signature role, and including Macbeth, Shylock and Richard III, white characters that he also played to great acclaim.
But first we are treated to a quick trip around Aldridge’s extraordinary life. Born in New York in 1807, he developed a love of acting with the African Grove Theatre, but after the entire cast was arrested for daring to perform Shakespeare he decided that there was no future for him in the US as an actor and made his way to England in 1824.
The following year, he performed Othello at the Royal Theatre in London’s East End to favourable reviews.
His stock rapidly increased and “people flocked to see him out of curiosity, often to laugh or even scoff but they usually went away astonished by his acting skills”, says Hoyles, who lives in Gospel Oak.
Soon his image was on playbills everywhere and he was asked to sit for one of the most famous portrait artists of the day, James Northcote.
Possessing a phenomenal memory with the energy to match, and able to do comedy as well as tragedy, he performed on average one new role every month during his first six-and-a-half years on the British stage, particularly in the provinces and in Ireland, where the press was more favourably disposed towards him.
In 1853, he embarked on a European tour where he captivated audiences with his naturalistic acting, which in turn had an influence on a new generation of actors and directors.
Although he was one of the highest paid actors in the world, he never forgot his roots, sending his money to American organisations working to free slaves and on one occasion buying the freedom of an escaped slave family who had been re-captured.
Tilting his book towards drama students and actors, Hoyles sees it as part of a campaign to get such an important historical figure the recognition he deserves.
“If more drama students realise his achievements, they might demand that he is included on their courses, so that eventually he will become a household name in British theatre studies,” he concludes.
• Ira Aldridge: Famous Speeches. By Martin Hoyles, Hansib, £9.99 and available at the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town.
Black History Month
Exhibition Windrush Legends and Legacies: Stories from the museum’s collections and the local community celebrating the presence of Haringey’s Windrush generation. Bruce Castle Museum, Lordship Lane, N17 8NU. Wed-Sun, 1pm-5pm. Free. Until February 2020. More info: 020 8808 8772
Film Black Sheep: Oscar-nominated short about an 11-year- old boy, whose life changes the day Damilola Taylor is killed and his mother moves the family out of London. Facing racism, he decides to befriend those who hound him. Business Lounge, Wood Green Library, High Road N22 8HQ. 5pm. Free, no booking required. Ages 16+
Exhibition launch Hackney’s Got Style: A celebration of African-Caribbean fashion and hair in the borough from the 1950s onwards. Hackney Museum,
1 Reading Lane, E8 1GQ. 6pm-7.45pm. Tickets free but limited: book via Eventbrite www.eventbrite.co.uk Until January 11, 2020, all ages. More information: 020 8356 2509
• Black Cultural Archives Film Festival 2019 Three-day festival dedicated to films from across the diaspora, including Jemima & Johnny (1966/PG) and Black Joy (1977/15). Various times and locations. For details email festival curator Joy at firstname.lastname@example.org
• Come Dine With Me (Black History Edition) Join the “Black History Man” Robin Walker for a scintillating talk over a delicious four-course meal. Black Cultural Archives, Windrush Square, SW2 1EF 6.30pm-9.30pm. Tickets £36.97+booking fee; includes meal. email@example.com
• Film He Got Game (15) Spike Lee’s basketball epic starring Denzel Washington. Dalston CLR James Library, Dalston Square, E8 3BQ. 2pm-4pm. Free
• Black History River Cruise Join Queen Nanny, Mary Prince Olaudah Equiano and many more for a trip down the Thames to the Docklands with the sounds of lovers rock and 90s soul to finish off with. 2pm-5pm. Starts from Temple Pier, Victoria Embankment, WC2R 2NS. Tickets, £36 via www.eventbrite.co.uk
• Music Duet for soprano and piano. Singer Nadine Benjamin explores compositions by African and diaspora composers. The October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester Street, WC1N 3AL. 7.30-9.30. Tickets, £10 via www.eventbrite.co.uk
• Talk Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications 50th Anniversary: Michael McMillan, creator of the Walter Rodney Bookshop installation, discusses the pioneering publishing company and its founders Jessica and Eric Huntley. Gunnersbury Park Museum, Gunnersbury Park House, Popes Lane, W5 4NH. 1.45pm-3pm. Followed at 3.15pm by signings of Margaret Busby’s New Daughters of Africa, and Malcolm Cumberbatch’s Swimming Against the Tide. Tickets, £10 via www.eventbrite.co.uk
• Theatre Opening of Amiri Baraka’s award-winning 1964 play Dutchman exploring white privilege, masculinity, power and sexuality. The Actors Centre, 1a Tower Street WC2H 9NP. 6.15pm (1pm Saturday matinees). Tickets, £12/£10. www.actorscentre.co.uk Until October 26
• Books Stephen Bourne discusses his book, Black Poppies, about the lives of black servicemen and Britain’s black community during the First World War. The Carnegie Library, 192 Herne Hill Road SE24 0AG. 7pm, Free