Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Ira Aldridge in Stockholm

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Ira Aldridge in Stockholm

Article excerpt

WHEN IRA ALDRIDGE arrived in Stockholm in May 1857 to perform at the Royal Theatre, he was already famous throughout Europe as a talented black actor who claimed royal African ancestry. Though bom and raised in New York City, he had made his professional debut on stage in London in 1825, playing Othello and several racial roles in melodramas about slavery and thereby earning early publicity as an 'African tragedian'. Conscious of the novelty of this equivocal identity, Aldridge fabricated a tale about being the son of a Christian Fulani prince from Senegal and started touring provincial theaters in Britain as the 'African Roscius', an honorific title alluding to the great Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus. Audiences who thought this a joke and turned out in numbers expecting to laugh at the antics of an ignorant, uncouth Negro thespian were astonished to discover that Aldridge could handle his serious roles with force, dignity, and intelligence. And when they saw him perform splendidly in farces, too, punctuating common racial stereotypes with skilful irony, they were even more impressed, for they recognized their own mistaken assumptions about black people as a legitimate target for much of the humour. Aldridge had instructively turned the joke back on them.

For twenty-five years, Aldridge remained a popular performer who drew large crowds to theatres in cities and towns throughout the British Isles, but he seldom was invited to appear in London, and on those rare occasions when he did manage to secure engagements there, he met with less success than he had experienced elsewhere.1 As a consequence, he decided in mid-career to try his luck on the Continent. His first tour abroad, which lasted from July 1852 to April 1855, took him to many parts of Europe, where he won more honours, awards, decorations, and medals, often from kings and other heads of state, than any other nineteenth-century actor. He mainly performed a selection of plays by Shakespeare and did so with such originality and power that he was often hailed as one of the greatest interpreters of such classic roles as Othello, Shylock, Macbeth, and Richard III.

Newspapers back in England followed his travels with interest and curiosity, reporting on anything extraordinary that happened. On 2 July 1854, the Sunday Times told its readers that

"The African Roscius," having made a most successful tour throughout Prussia, Bavaria, and Hungary, has recently appeared at some of the principal theatres in Switzerland, where he has been most favourably received. On the 24th of June he played at Soleure in the presence of her Majesty the Queen of Sweden, who, at the conclusion of the performance, desired that Mr. Aldridge might be presented to her in the state box, when, after complimenting him upon his histrionic talent, she invited him to visit Stockholm during the ensuing season, assuring him of the protection and patronage of the court.2

Aldridge may have been unable to accept this generous invitation at that time because he was too busy fulfilling back-to-back engagements at theatres in Germany, Prussia, Austria, and the Netherlands for the next nine months. In tite spring of 1855 he returned to London and, after a brief rest, resumed touring the United Kingdom for another two years.

However, on 3 March 1857 the invitation was offered again, this time through the office of Major Norman Pringle, the British Consul in Stockholm, who received the following letter from Gunnar Olof Hyltén-Cavallius, director of Stockholm's Royal Theatre:

The Royal Theatre at Stockholm gives ordinarily, by full houses a recett [box-office returns] of 1000 RB Swedish Banco.

The Expenses for every night are cirka [sic] 300 RB Bko.

The Direction offers to Mr Ira Aldridge 25£ (resembling to nearly the half-part of the Netto-Recett, or 300 RB Swedish Bko) for every night he publicly appears on the Stage.

The number of representations cannot be limited forwards; but so many times as it will be worth the trouble. …

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