Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Ira Aldridge at Covent Garden, April 1833

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Ira Aldridge at Covent Garden, April 1833

Article excerpt

The appearance of Ira Aldridge as Othello on the Covent Garden stage on 10 April 1833 was an unprecedented event in British theatrical history. No other black performer had been seen on the boards of one of London's patent theatres in the early nineteenth century. London already had a significant black population numbering ten thousand or so (1), most of whom hailed from the New World rather than directly from Africa, but they tended to remain placed among the lowest of the working class and poor, never rising to positions of higher visibility in the middle-class culture of the metropolis. So Aldridge, billed as 'a native of Senegal', was a unique phenomenon in his day. Here was a young 'African', purportedly a veritable Moor, attempting to enact the major black role in the Shakespearean canon at one of England's national theatres. The announcement of his appearance there immediately stirred controversy.

Aldridge was risking quite a lot, for Covent Garden was known as a theatre where a single performance could make or mar an unknown actor's reputation. It was a rigorous testing ground for provincial actors who had attracted attention outside London and had thereby earned an opportunity to display their talent before a large metropolitan audience. Being invited to perform at a patent theatre in the capital was a sign of professional recognition but it was no guarantee of success. The performer would have to please not only the manager who had hired him and the numerous critics whose job it was publicly to evaluate him but also the people from all walks of life who had paid to see what he was able to do on stage. For an actor this was a chance of a lifetime. Those who succeeded stood to gain a substantial boost in their career, leading possibly to riches or at least to regular employment in London or elsewhere. Those who failed might be quickly forgotten or ignored and might never have another opportunity to prove their competence on the boards of a patent theatre. So the stakes were quite high for any actor who took the stage at Covent Garden for the first time. The trial could materially affect his future.

The sports writer Pierce Egan had remarked that

   no set of men suffer more from hopes and fears than actors in their
   state of probation to acquire the London stamp, and numbers of
   'great creatures,' with all their talents and exertions, are doomed
   to a life of obscurity in the provinces, realizing little more than
   empty houses, empty cupboards, and empty pockets till the curtain
   falls on their chequered existence--' full o sound and fury,
   signifying nothing.' (2)

Aldridge of course was not entirely unknown in London. (3) He had launched his career there by performing for several months at the Royalty Theatre and the Royal Coburg Theatre in 1825 and later for several days at Sadler's Wells, the Royal Pavilion Theatre, and the Royal Olympic Theatre in the winter of 1829-30, but these were minor playhouses that did not attract the amount of media attention that routinely was given to productions at Covent Garden and Drury Lane. Also, he was billed in those early years as Mr. Keene from the African Theatre in New York City; now he had dropped the homonym alluding to Edmund Kean and was presenting himself under his real name, Mr. Aldridge, but with a fictional ethnic identity--'a native of Senegal'. Some critics remembered his earlier appearances and quickly branded his Senegalese charade as fraudulent. A few knew of his theatrical activities elsewhere in Britain and were unimpressed with his credentials.

Aldridge had worked hard to improve his acting in the more than seven years he had been on tour in the provinces. He had learned to speak English with the semblance of an acceptable British accent; had performed in more than forty plays, assuming a variety of tragic, melodramatic and comic roles; had starred in hundreds of productions mounted at theatres large and small in more than fifty cities and towns; and had acted with well over 600 actors and actresses on these circuits. …

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