In 1851 Ira Aldridge was an established name and had been touring the UK for some time. It was at this point that he came to perform at the Royal Shakespearean Theatre on Chapel Lane in Stratford-upon-Avon and became the first black actor to play Othello in Stratford (the next would be Paul Robeson in 1959). In the collection we have playbills from his short run at the theatre as well as two entries in the visitor book for Shakespeare's Birthplace. Shakespeare's works had provided many opportunities for Ira to play different types of characters and it appears to have meant something to him to visit Shakespeare's place of birth and to perform in his hometown. The two entries in the visitor book are just a few days apart, but the fact that he visited twice suggests that he wanted to take every opportunity. His first entry in the book is particularly interesting as he includes the Shakespeare quote:
Mislike me not for my complexion, the shadowed livery of the burnished sun— The Merchant of Venice, Act 2 Scene 1
This line is spoken by the Prince of Morocco in the Merchant of Venice and we can only assume that Ira found the words meaningful, a summing up of some of the prejudice he was up against in a time when racial stereotypes were the norm, there was a backlash against the abolitionist movement and the tone of reviews and publicity, even when complimenting his acting and talents, came laced with shocking descriptions, unreasonable assumptions and confronting language. These can be seen in the playbills that we have for Ira's time in Stratford. Another interesting part of the visitor book entry is that he affirms his Senegal identity. He writes it alongside his name as if it is very much where he is from: "Senegal, Africa". He describes himself in brackets as "The African Tragedian" keeping his showbiz persona at the fore. Ira's wife Margaret and his son Ira Daniel also signed the book on the same visit.
The Royal Shakespearean Theatre was located on Chapel Lane and was built in 1827, the idea for the theatre started when the Shakespeare Club was formed in 1824. A festival was held at the theatre for the Shakespeare Birthday celebrations of 1830 when Charles Kean performed there. The Royal Shakespearean Theatre continued until 1872 when it was purchased by James Halliwell-Phillipps who then demolished it to develop the Great Garden at New Place. We have plans of the theatre in the collections as well as playbills and other memorabilia relating to this important lost building. It was after the demolition of this theatre that the Flower family began their plans for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre which opened it 1879 and became the Royal Shakespeare Theatre that we know and love today.
The first play to be performed by Ira in Stratford was Othello on 28 April 1851. He was the first black actor to play the role in Stratford. The playbill advertises him as an established big name: 'his enthusiastic reception and success, in all the principal theatres in Great Britain has induced the Lessee, at a very considerable expense, to form an engagement with him for a limited number of nights.' The blurb on this playbill shows how he has been received critically up to this point as well as highlighting attitudes at the time, praise is still given through a prism of prejudice. A common phrasing is repeated on this playbill: 'As the African Roscius is the only actor of colour that was ever known, and probably the only instance that may occur...' This curious sentence could of course just be a marketing tool to create hype. It may encourage the audience to come and see the production on the implication that Aldridge may be the first and last black actor so they would be privileged to catch him. Of course this could now be seen as false advertising. The same "memoir" is used describing Aldridge's supposed background in Senegal and ends:
'...and wended his way to the shores of Old England, where his talented histrionic exertions have been most warmly and kindly patronized, as a triumphant answer to those advocates of the slave trade, who founded their defences of that nefarious traffic on the inferiority of African intellect and feeling.'
A review from a previous performance in Leeds is included on the playbill which gives an indication of his growing stardom and popular appeal with audiences:
'At the close of the play, Mr. Aldridge was called before the curtain and briefly thanked the audience for their warm greetings. ....the house was densely crowded in every part.'
As well as Othello, Ira performed in several other plays at Stratford one of which was 'Stage Mad!!' This was part of his regular repertoire and was a farce about a black footman, Massa Jeronymo Othello Thespis who is fond of reciting mangled Shakespeare quotations in a black dialect. The play was devised as a spoof of Ira's theatrical ambitions. In Bernth Lindfors' book, Ira Aldridge the Vagabond Years 1833-1852, he describes the plot of the play:
'Jeronymo is a genial but incompetent would-be actor, whose lower-class origins and lack of education make him totally unfit for the stage. Yet he retains his high spirits, good humour, and irrepressible penchant for misquoting Shakespeare".
Ira was playing a caricature of himself and even inserted a skit popularised by Charles Mathews about the "African Tragedian" whose performance of Hamlet is interrupted by demands from the audience to sing "Opossum up a Gum Tree", he knew this set piece would generate laughter and applause from the audience, he also used it in 'The Padlock' which was another play he appeared in at the Royal Shakespearean Theatre. The performance of 'Stage Mad!!' at the Royal Shakespearean Theatre, Stratford, was the the first time Aldridge played Jeronymo and the playbill suggests that it was tailor made for him, it could be that they thought Stratford audiences would particularly like this comic take using Shakespearean phrases.
The other plays performed during this period were:
'Slave! Or, the Revolt of Surinam' where he played Gambia the slave, 'Padlock' in which Aldridge played Mungo, a part he was becoming well-known for. In this play he sang three songs, 'Dear heart, what a terrible life I'm led', 'Opossum up a Gum Tree' and 'The Negro Boy'.
'Black Doctor or the Fated Lovers of Bourbon' sees Fabian (played by Aldridge) and his ill-fated love with Pauline de la Reynerie.
On 5 May 1851 Ira Aldridge performed at the Royal Shakespearean Theatre on Chapel Lane, Stratford-upon-Avon for the last time. He played Zanga in 'Revenge or, The Captive Moor' and Ginger Blue in 'The Mummy!!!'. On the back of the 'Revenge' playbill there is a pencil sketch which underneath is labelled 'THIS IS ZANGA'. We do not know who the playbill belonged to but the person who drew this sketch presumably did so because they enjoyed the performance and was perhaps a fan.
It was only a week that Ira Aldridge spent in Stratford but it seems that it was an important visit to him from his entry in the visitor book and it was a significant event in the town. The collections that we hold relating to his visit are a snapshot which shed light on his story.
Bernth Lindfors, Ira Aldridge, 2007
Pringle, Marian, The Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon, 1993