Ira Aldridge (1807?-1867) was one of the first actors of African descent to appear on British and other European stages, and he was the first to achieve widespread fame and recognition. Born in New York, Aldridge began his theatrical career there before emigrating to England circa 1825. Although he is little known currently in the United States, he was a celebrated Shakespearean, most notably in the roles of Othello, Macbeth, Shylock, and Lear. His success brought him into contact with a diverse collection of personages that included the British tragedian Edmund Kean, the German naturalist Baron von Humboldt, "the Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind, Alexandre Dumas (pere), Hans Christian Andersen, probably Franz Liszt, and possibly Richard Wagner (an Aldridge admirer). His two daughters, Luranah and Amanda, also earned considerable renown in Europe as classically trained singers and, in Amanda's case, as a composer who also gave voice lessons to the likes of Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, and Paul Robeson. (1)
The single substantial work of Aldridge scholarship in English is Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock's biography Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian (1958), which includes a wealth of primary reference materials. (2) According to Marshall and Stock's research, Aldridge was born in New York City on July 24,1807 (23). Son of Luranah Aldridge (Lindfors, "`Nothing'" 459) and Daniel Aldridge, a lay preacher and street vendor of straw, Ira attended one of New York's African Free Schools in his teens (M&S 20-21, 24-26). There he received a formal education rare for African Americans at the time: "boys were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, composition, geography, astronomy," and other subjects (M&S 25). His amateur and semi-professional experience in drama began with the African (or African Grove) Theatre, which existed from about 1820 to 1823, where he played Shakespeare's Romeo and Rolla in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's adaptation of Pizarro (M&S 31-40).
The African Theatre was the scene of an important episode that affected Aldridge's career from its inception to its end. This episode underscored how Aldridge's performances encompassed not only Shakespeare but also blackface minstrelsy and various points in between.
Act I: Hamlet in Blackface?
In Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993), Eric Lott briefly discusses the British actor Charles Mathews (1776-1835), a precursor of the United States minstrels of the 1830s onward. Mathews's--"American caricatures included black preachers and other such types the first popular antecedents of blackface acts" (Lott 45; cf. Toll 26-27). One of his most successful skits was an alleged imitation of Aldridge. Mathews's parodic impersonation consisted of "reenacting" an incident he claimed to have witnessed in New York's African Theatre during an 1822-1823 United States tour. In the midst of delivering Hamlet's most famous soliloquy, Aldridge, Mathews asserted, was ridiculously interrupted by the rowdy black audience and persuaded to sing a "Negro ballad" entitled "Opossum Up a Gum Tree."
In Mathews's caricature, Aldridge speaks in stereotyped "Negro" dialect and displays the types of ostentatious behavior later employed in minstrel acts. (3) Mathews's apparent aim was to emphasize the incongruity between Shakespeare and African-American culture, as embodied by "Opossum." The song's thematic content certainly seems a departure from Hamlet: its central conceit involves a possum who, while climbing a tree, has his tail pulled by a raccoon (usually spelled racoon) hiding in a hollow. An excerpt from Mathews's own 1824 account of the African Theatre incident reveals as much:
Opossum up a gum tree,
Tinkey none can follow:
Him damn quite mistaken,
Racoon in de hollow.
Opossum him creep softly,
Racoon him lay mum,
Pull him by de long tail,
Down opossum come. …