Thursday, March 23, 2017

Introducing Ira Aldridge

Edmund Kean as Othello
Let me set the stage before launching into my story. Back in 1603, Shakespeare wrote "Othello." For those of you who (like me) don't have immediate recall of Shakespearean plays, here are the relevant points for purposes of this post.

Othello was a general in the Venetian Army. He was a Moor. His wife was Desdemona. During the course of the play, he becomes convinced that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio and, in the final act, kills her. (Belated spoiler alert.) 

Historically, the part of Othello was played as a light-skinned Moor of Arab descent by a Caucasian in blackface. One of the most famous Victorian actors to play the role was Edmund Kean. In an 1833 performance at Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, Kean collapsed on the stage. A new Othello had to be found--and quickly. Son Charles Kean was also in the cast, and it was assumed that he would step into the role. Instead, African-American actor Ira Aldridge was brought in by the show's manager.

"Red Velvet" by Lolita Chakrabarti tells the story of how this historic event played out. The announcement that someone other than the younger Mr. Kean was given the role caused a bit of a stir among the cast. Most were not familiar with Mr. Aldridge's work. One actor had a friend who had acted with Aldridge, so was aware of Mr. Aldridge's color. (He rather gleefully kept this tidbit  to himself.) Actress Ellen Tree, who would be playing opposite Aldridge as Desdemona, had heard of him, but did not know any personal details.

Portrait of Ira Aldridge as Othello
by James Northcote
When Aldridge was introduced, the shock was palpable. Aldridge's attempts to shake hands with the cast were generally rebuffed. The actors were not used to interacting with blacks as their equals. The cast also had to contend with the tradition of the lead actor taking charge of the production. (Theater companies at the time didn't have directors.)  So not only was the cast asked to quickly adjust to Aldridge's ethnicity, but also to the tweaks he wanted to make to the performance. (The suggestion that he and Desdemona should look at each other with passion in the scene when they are reunited was met with audible gasps. You can imagine the reaction when he kissed her hand.) 

After Aldridge left the room, the conversation became heated. Ellen Tree was fine working with Aldridge, but did comment that "When I read 'black' in the reviews, I assumed it was the mood."

Charles Kean was much less sanguine. His view was that because Aldridge was black, playing the role of Othello wouldn't be acting; instead, he would just be letting his true nature be seen.  "Acting is an art. Transformation is an art," he said. "My father, a small, physically challenged ageing man, to see him become a warrior Moor is an art, isn't it?  People come to the theater to get away from reality. And...what I mean to say is...he will prevent them from escaping reality..."

Aldridge's performance as Othello was met with standing ovations from the audience. The critics, however, had a different response. 

The Spectator was quoted as having said, "An African is no more qualified to personate Othello than an huge fat man would be competent to represent Falstaff...English audiences have a prejudice in favour of European features, which more than counterbalance the recommendations of a flat nose and thick lips....It is superfluous to enter into any detailed criticisms of such a performance as this. It was upon the whole a failure..but the applause bestowed on his performance induced the Manager to announce it's repetition." 

Another critic was reported to have said, " Covent Garden they have brought out a genuine n***r to act Othello. This gentleman is the colour of a new half penny, his hair is woolly, and his features, although African, are considerably humanized. But owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English in a manner to satisfy even the unfastidious ears of the gallery." 

After two nights, the show closed due to the political backlash.  At the end of the play, we see Aldridge 30 years later preparing to play King Lear -- in white face. 

Britta Ollman
The play raises all sorts of questions that continue to be relevant to theater today. I was the only one to show up to a pre-show talk with Britta Ollman (who played Ellen Tree), and we had a lovely conversation. It was great to have the issues queued up for me so nicely. We chatted about the topic of colorblind v. color conscious casting. (For an interesting discussion of color conscious casting from a director's perspective, click here.)

We talked about the role of women in the theater. Britta noted that women had been acting onstage for a century by the time this event took place, including in "pants roles" (i.e., playing men.) Tree herself had been lauded for her performance as Romeo. Still, it was exciting for Tree's artistic opinion to be solicited by Aldridge.

And, of course, we touched on the overarching issue of racism, both on and off the stage. An interesting note is that students of theatre history, even those who study the Victorian period, rarely learn about Ira Aldridge. As the playwright notes, "His achievements had tragically slipped through the cracks of my theater history and Shakespearean studies, and it was as if he had never existed." This is despite the fact that Aldridge was internationally famous for his dramatic portrayals and helped translate Shakespearean plays into Russian, German and Polish. His accomplishments were not wholly unappreciated, however. Aldridge was awarded the Prussian Gold Medal for Arts and Sciences from King Frederick William III, the Golden Cross of Leopold from the Czar of Russia, and the Maltese Cross from Bern, Switzerland.

To return to "Othello," it was nearly 100 years before another black actor took on the part in London. Paul Robeson was cast in the role in 1930; he reprised the role on Broadway from 1943-1945. American film continued the tradition of casting Caucasian actors in the role of Othello as well, among them Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier. It wasn't until 1995 that a movie version came out with a black actor--Laurence Fishburne--in the role.

All in all, "Red Velvet" was a wholly satisfying evening of theater. Kudos to freeFall Theatre for bringing the production to our area. 

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