Ira Aldridge, the Colored Tragedian

Source: Anon. [St. Petersburg correspondent], Le Nord, 5 December 1858, quoted in ‘Ira Aldridge, the Colored Tragedian’, The Anglo-African Magazine, vol. 1 no. 2, February 1859 p. 63

Production: William Shakespeare, Othello, St. Petersburg, November? 1858

Text: The success of the negro actor, Ira Aldridge, has been Wonderful. At his debut, people were curious to see an Othello who needed neither crape nor pomade to blacken his face. Many expected tears of laughter rather than tears of emotion, when they learned that Iago and Desdemona would reply to him in German. (The absence of an English troupe forced him to play with German actors.) Those who counted on this were strangely deceived. From his appearance on the stage the African artist completely captivated his audience by his harmonious and resonant voice, and by a style full of simplicity, nature, and dignity. For the first time we had seen a tragic hero talk and walk like common mortals, without declamations and without exaggerated gestures. We forgot that we were in a theater, and followed the drama as if it had been a real transaction.

The scene in the Third Act, when the sentiment of jealousy is roused in the ferocious Moor, is the triumph of Aldridge. At the first word of the wily insinuation you see his eye kindle; you feel the tears in his voice when he questions Iago, then the deep sobs which stifle it; and finally, when he is persuaded that his wretchedness is complete, a cry of rage, or rather a roar like that of a wild beast starts from his abdomen. I still seem to hear that cry; it chilled us with fear and made every spectator shudder. Tears wet his cheeks; his mouth foamed and his eyes flashed fire. I have never seen an artist identify himself so perfectly with the character which he represents. An actor told me he saw him sob for some moments after his exit from the scene. Everybody, men and women, wept. Boileau was right in saying to actors: ‘Weep yourselves, if you would make other weep.’ Rachel, in the fourth act of Les Horace, is the only artist who ever produced so great an effect. At the first representation the poor Desdemona was so horror-stricken at the terrible expression of the Moor, that she sprang from the bed and fled, shrieking with fright.

In spite of his stony nature, Aldridge can contain himself to those scenes which require calmness and subdued passion. In Shylock, to see him trembling with fear and indignation before the tribunal which is endeavoring to force Christianity upon him, makes one of those impressions which are never effaced. The severest critics find but one fault with him — that when speaking to characters at the back of the stage he has the bad habit of turning his back to the public. The director remonstrated with him about this, but it was of no avail.

Comments: Ira Aldridge (1908-1867) was an American stage actor who was the leading black theatrical figure of the nineteenth century. He specialised in Shakespearean roles, and enjoyed success in London and particularly across Europe and Russia. His first appearance in St Petersburg was in Othello on 10 November 1898. The Anglo-American Magazine was a monthly American journal aimed at a black American and abolitionist audience. It included reproductions from articles published in other journals, such as the above piece from the French newspaper Le Nord.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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