Curtain calls

The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements

Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858 by Taras Shevchenko, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: William Wells Brown, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (New York: Thomas Hamilton, 1863), pp. 118-121

Text: On looking over the columns of The Times, one morning, I saw it announced under the head of “Amusements,” that “Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius,” was to appear in the character of Othello, in Shakspeare’s celebrated tragedy of that name, and, having long wished to see my sable countryman, I resolved at once to attend. Though the doors had been open but a short time when I reached the Royal Haymarket, the theatre where the performance was to take place, the house was well filled, and among the audience I recognized the faces of several distinguished persons of the nobility, the most noted of whom was Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, the renowned novelist — his figure neat, trim, hair done up in the latest fashion — looking as if he had just come out of a band-box. He is a great lover of the drama, and has a private theatre at one of his country seats, to which he often invites his friends, and presses them into the different characters.

As the time approached for the curtain to rise, it was evident that the house was to be “jammed.” Stuart, the best Iago since the days of Young, in company with Roderigo, came upon the stage as soon as the green curtain went up. Iago looked the villain, and acted it to the highest conception of the character. The scene is changed, all eyes are turned to the right door, and thunders of applause greet the appearance of Othello. Mr. Aldridge is of the middle size, and appeared to be about three quarters African; has a pleasant countenance, frame well knit, and seemed to me the best Othello that I had ever seen. As Iago began to work upon his feelings, the Moor’s eyes flashed fire, and, further on in the play, he looked the very demon of despair. When he seized the deceiver by the throat, and exclaimed, “Villain! be sure thou prove my love false: be sure of it — give me the ocular proof — or, by the worth of my eternal soul, thou hadst better have been born a dog, Iago, than answer my waked wrath,” the audience, with one impulse, rose to their feet amid the wildest enthusiasm. At the end of the third act, Othello was called before the curtain, and received the applause of the delighted multitude. I watched the countenance and every motion of Bulwer Lytton with almost as much interest as I did that of the Moor of Venice, and saw that none appeared to be better pleased than he. The following evening I went to witness his Hamlet, and was surprised to find him as perfect in that as he had been in Othello; for I had been led to believe that the latter was his greatest character. The whole court of Denmark was before us; but till the words, “‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,” fell from the lips of Mr. Aldridge, was the general ear charmed, or the general tongue arrested. The voice was so low, and sad, and sweet, the modulation so tender, the dignity so natural, the grace so consummate, that all yielded themselves silently to the delicious enchantment. When Horatio told him that he had come to see his father’s funeral, the deep melancholy that took possession of his face showed the great dramatic power of Mr. Aldridge. “I pray thee do not mock me, fellow-student,” seemed to come from his inmost soul. The animation with which his countenance was lighted up, during Horatio’s recital of the visits that the ghost had paid him and his companions, was beyond description. “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” as the ghost appeared in the fourth scene, sent a thrill through the whole assembly. His rendering of the “Soliloquy on Death,” which Edmund Kean, Charles Kemble, and William C. Macready have reaped such unfading laurels from, was one of his best efforts. He read it infinitely better than Charles Kean, whom I had heard at the “Princess,” but a few nights previous. The vigorous starts of thought, which in the midst of his personal sorrows rise with such beautiful and striking suddenness from the ever-wakeful mind of the humanitarian philosopher, are delivered with that varying emphasis that characterizes the truthful delineator, when he exclaims, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” In the second scene of the second act, when revealing to Guildenstern the melancholy which preys upon his mind, the beautiful and powerful words in which Hamlet explains his feelings are made very effective in Mr. Aldridge’s rendering: “This most excellent canopy, the air, the brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire …. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a God!” In the last scene of the second act, when Hamlet’s imagination, influenced by the interview with the actors, suggests to his rich mind so many eloquent reflections, Mr. Aldridge enters fully into the spirit of the scene, warms up, and when he exclaims, “He would drown the stage with tears, and cleave the general ear with horrid speech, — make mad the guilty, and appall the free,” he is very effective; and when this warmth mounts into a paroxysm of rage, and he calls the King “Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” he sweeps the audience with him, and brings down deserved applause. The fervent soul and restless imagination, which are ever stirring at the bottom of the fountain, and sending bright bubbles to the top, find a glowing reflection on the animated surface of Mr. Aldridge’s colored face. I thought Hamlet one of his best characters, though I saw him afterwards in several others.

Comments: William Wells Brown (c.1844-1884) was an African-American abolitionist lecturer, historian, playwright and novelist. He spent 1849 to 1854 living in Britain. However, there are problems with his account of seeing the great African-American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867). Although Aldridge performed in Britain around that time, most of his performances were in provincial theatres, and he did not play Othello at the Haymarket until 1865, two years after Brown’s account was published. The performance may have been an Othello at the Lyceum in 1858, when his reputation was greater and Stuart played Iago, but Brown does not appear to have been in Britain at that date. Nor did Aldridge play Hamlet at this time.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive