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'Mislike me not for my complexion...'

Ira Aldridge broke boundaries by playing "white" Shakespearean roles as well as turning a particularly villainous Shakespeare character into a hero.

Victoria Joynes
Ira Aldridge as Aaron in Titus Andronicus, 1852
PC72.33 Ira Aldridge as Aaron in Titus Andronicus, 1852

Ira Aldridge seemed rather savvy in the management of his career and nothing was out of bounds to him. In 1828 he had been performing in Birmingham and Coventry when a new opportunity presented itself. Aldridge had been winning the respect of the Coventry audiences and receiving rave reviews from the local newspapers. However his obstacle to continued success in Coventry was the cast of supporting actors who were not up to the same standard and this began to reflect badly on the manager, Mr Melmoth, who rushed the company to perform with insufficient rehearsal time. Rather than moving on to play the same parts elsewhere on 25 February, at the age of 20, Ira took over as manager of the theatre himself after circulating an announcement:

"F. W. Keene (The African Roscius) Most respectfully informs the Inhabitants of Coventry and its Vicinity, that he has taken the Theatre for a short Season, to commence the 3d of March 1828. It is not the intention of the present Manager to expatiate on the conduct of his predecessor, as he rests his hopes of success on his own exertions rather than on the failures of others."

As manager he set about improving the interior of the theatre as well as dismissing most of the company and bringing in his own contacts from previous jobs. He did not perform himself with the company very often. Initial reviews were favourable to Aldridge's improvements with one local paper reporting "The business of the stage appears to be better conducted than by the last manager, and the company, as a whole, is decidedly improved." Overall, however, his short stint as manager received mixed results as some members of the company still drew criticism and the musicians were not thought to be up to scratch. His tenure lasted until late April and after he lost the more successful members of his company, Aldridge was back on the road as an actor again by April 27. 

In 1830 Aldridge went to Glasgow where he was managed by John Henry Alexander, who was now running the Theatre Royal on Dunlop Street. The first time he worked with Aldridge he pushed him to play many unfamiliar roles in close succession, including an entire white Shakespearean role, that of Iago, as he played Othello opposite. Playing Iago seems to have been a breakthrough for Aldridge, and it was only a week later that he ventured to take the lead in Macbeth in Paisley. A year later in Scarborough he performed Shylock for the first time in a full production of Merchant of Venice. He was to return to white Shakespearean roles, including Richard III and even Iago as the years passed. 

In 1849 Aldridge took on the role of another Shakespearean moor, Aaron in Titus Andronicus. Usually a villainous character Ira’s Aaron was rewritten to become a heroic figure. Aldridge had not played the character before, possibly because he was so morally depraved that it would have been demeaning to portray such a villain. He collaborated with established playwright, Charles A. Somerset, and together they took out much of the more violent and murderous content (which had meant that it had been deemed unsuitable for the English stage until that point), and added new material to enhance the character of Aaron. This version was well received by the public and reviews were favourable. Unfortunately no script survives for this intriguing version of the play but we can gain an idea of what the story became from the reviews:

“Aaron is made a model of valour and magnanimity; Tamora virtuous and womanly; Lavinia suffers no greater wrong than having her husband [Sic] killed, and being seized by Chiron and Demetrius, who are both enamoured of her, but she is honourably treated, and subsequently liberated by Aaron the Moor, who has been chosen King of the Goths. Aaron is made the lawful husband of Tamora, by whom he has a child, which is thrown by order of the Emperor Saturninus [Sic] into the Tiber, while Aaron is chained to a tree, from which he breaks by main strength, leaps into the river and saves his child. Saturninus, the tyrant of Rome, is the villain of the piece, which terminates with the betrayal of Andronicus and Tamora by the treacherous emperor, who poisons them at a banquet. The life of Aaron’s child is saved by Lavinia, who promises the dying Moor that she will be a parent to it while she lives.” – Sunday Times review, March 21, 1852.

“We must certainly give Mr. Aldridge the credit of having expunged the horrors and purified the language, even at the extent of a thorough perversion of the author’s meaning” –Brighton Gazette, Oct. 4, 1860.

If you are familiar with Titus Andronicus you will notice that this is quite a change to say the least, if you are unfamiliar with the original play to avoid spoilers I will just include this quote from Shakespeare's Aaron to sum up the type of character he is... 

I should repent the evils I have done: Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did Would I perform, if I might have my will. If one good deed in all my life I did I do repent it from my very soul.

— Titus Andronicus, Act 5 Scene 3

Edward J. Esche has argued that Aldridge, in addition to seeking another positive black role to play, may have chosen to rewrite Aaron as a hero as “a response to 1. The rise of the black minstrels, 2. Aldridge’s private life [Which included marriage to a white woman and the birth of his illegitimate son, Ira Daniel, just a year and a half before he first played Aaron], and 3. The anti-slavery debate and abolition in the United Kingdom and Europe”. One more motivation could have been a desire to return to the London stage.

Aldridge sought to broaden his range with Titus: “The range of characters open to Mr. Aldridge are of necessity restricted in consequence of his complexion, there are but Othello and Aaron the Moor, in the loftier walks of the drama, and some few comic character quite unworthy of his delineation.” – Morning Post, March 21, 1848.

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

Sources:

Bernth Lindfors, Ira Aldridge2007

Shakespearean Criticism

Stanley Wells, Great Shakespeare Actors2015

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