When Othello was first performed by William Shakespeare's theatre group the King's Men, at London's Whitehall Palace on November 1, 1604, the role of the Moor was played by white actor Richard Burbage in blackface make-up. At this time there was no prospect of using a black actor in the lead, as there were no professional actors of color in Elizabethan England, and even if there were, convention would have prohibited them from participating.
It would be over two hundred years from the date of the first performance before the play would feature a black actor in the lead. African American Ira Aldridge became the first. Born in New York in 1807, he emigrated to England in his late teens, where he succeeded in becoming a distinguished Shakespearean, featuring in many of the Bard's roles, including his first major performance of Othello at London's Royalty theatre in 1826. He also played other Shakespeare leads, including Macbeth and Richard III in Hull in 1832, for which he wore pale make-up and a wig.
Unsurprisingly given the times, there was considerable resistance to the presence of the world's first black Othello. Eighteenth century London was the epicentre of Britain's pro-slavery lobby, and the press conducted a campaign of blatant racism against him. In one of his two Othello performances at the Covent Garden theatre in 1833, The Atheneum objected to actress Ellen Tree as Desdemona, being "pawed about on the stage by a black man." The Times newspaper had been just as scathing eight years prior, when it commented that, "Owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English." A series of eleven performances at the Surrey Theatre were accompanied by a press report describing him as an "unseemly nigger."
Hated in the capital, he was forced to tour outside London, gaining plaudits in Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle and Liverpool. He also expanded internationally, performing in Ireland, Berlin, Stockholm, Brussels, Vienna, Constantinople and St. Petersburg, where he was very favorably received. At a performance in Russia in 1863, French poet and novelist Théophile Gautier noted that Aldridge's performance was "Othello himself, as Shakespeare has created him...quiet, reserved, classic and majestic."
Aldridge died aged 59, on August 7, 1867, while on tour in Lodz, Poland.[BA]
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