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The African Roscius

Ira Aldridge first performed in London as Othello at the Royalty Theatre in 1825. He was only 17, an incredibly young age to be taking on the role.

Victoria Joynes
Othello playbill, 1833
Othello playbill, Coven Garden, 1833

In 1825 The Public Ledger carried this announcement:

Royalty Theatre “This evening, the 11th Instant, will be performed the Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Othello, Mr. Keene, a Gentleman of Colour, from the New York Theatre; Desdemona, Mrs. Clifford.”

Mr. Keene was Ira Aldridge’s stage name at this time. It is the first of many mysteries surrounding him, why did he call himself Mr. Keene? It could have been his mother’s maiden name, he may have used it instead of his surname because his father disapproved of his theatrical career. Keene may have just been part of his name, he signed a letter to the theatre Royal, Bath as F. W. Keene Aldridge. Some biographers believe it was after Edmund Kean, the great actor who Ira admired. After Edmund Kean collapsed onstage during a performance Ira ceased to use the name Keene.

The only review of his debut performance appeared in the Public Ledger a few days later:

“...agreeably were we surprised to find the hero of the piece, so ably portrayed by Mr. Keen [sic], a gentleman of colour lately arrived from America. Some of his scenes (particularly when Iago first touches the jealous chord) displayed some fine natural feeling; as did his scene with Desdemona, after the jealous poison begins to work, and in the bed scene he exceeded our utmost expectations, His death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed.”

Ira had talent and a capacity to learn quickly. He performed at least 18 nights between mid-May-Oct (Playing multiple roles). His success at the Royalty Theatre moved him up to the Royal Coburg which further cemented his presence in London.

Madge Kendal, who played Desdemona to Ira's Othello
Madge Kendal, who played Desdemona to Ira's Othello

Mrs. Kendal played Desdemona at the Haymarket Theatre, London opposite Ira Aldridge. In her book, Dramatic Opinions, she described her time with him:

“One of the great bits of “business” that he used to do was where in one of the scenes he had to say, “Your hand, Desdemona.” He made a very great point of opening his hand and making you place yours in it, and the audience used to see the contrast. He always made a point of it, and got a round of applause: how, I do not know.”

She goes on to describe how in the last act he would take Desdemona out of bed by her hair and drag her round the stage before he smothered her. “You had to wear sandals and toed stockings to produce the effect of being undressed. I remember very distinctly this dragging Desdemona about by the hair was considered so brutal that it was loudly hissed.” This seemed to be a device that Aldridge came up with to thrill the audiences, Mrs. Kendal seems to have been fond of Ira, writing about his great intelligence and in contrast to his stage antics she says that he was “quite preux chevalier in his manners to women.”

Othello playbill, Theatre Royal Liverpool, 1846
Othello playbill, Theatre Royal Liverpool, 1846

In 1831, just as he was looking to find new parts to play, branching out from “black characters”, Ira was beginning to market himself as an African, building up a Senegalese identity for himself. The story went that his father had been a Foulah Prince from Senegal deprived of his birthright. He found it professionally advantageous to masquerade as an African, some of the publicity materials he circulated stated that he himself had been born in Senegal and had lived the first nine years of his life as an outcast there. He took to billing himself as the “African Roscius”, a title alluding to Quintus Roscius Gallus, an eminent Roman actor of tragedy and comedy and former slave who had been a tutor to Cicero. The name had been adopted in the theatre world of that day as an appellation signifying extraordinary dramatic ability. The phrase had been used to describe Aldridge in a tongue-in-cheek review of an early performance. Although intended as insult initially, Aldridge turned it round and used it as a title when he toured the provinces. It became his theatrical trademark which he used to identify himself in playbills and in the newspapers. As the African Roscius he was marketed as a rare—indeed, unique—theatrical phenomenon, one very likely never to be seen again. This can be seen in the playbills we hold in our collections which carry the same legend of the Foulah Prince. Whilst reviews were often uncomplimentary and racist, Ira became popular with audiences. Aldridge contradicted prevailing stereotypes of Africans; he therefore attracted attention and commanded respect. With the rise in popularity of minstrel shows people at the time came to the theatre expecting to see a comic spectacle but instead of making them laugh, he would compel them to think. He would confront them with their own prejudices, subverting by example their long-held belief in the inferiority and barbarism of Africans.

Detail from Othello playbill, 1846
Detail from Othello playbill, 1846

Many thanks to Chelsea Lee for completing research for this blog post in our Reading Room


Bernth Lindfors, Ira Aldridge, 2007

Shakespearean Criticism

Stanley Wells, Great Shakespeare Actors, 2015

Kendal, Madge, Dramatic Opinions, 1890

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