How a pioneering actor found his audience in Hull.
Exactly 400 years ago today, William Shakespeare died quietly in Stratford. Since his death (on what some might argue was his 52nd birthday) Shakespeare has become the UK’s most enduring playwright, whose work has had a greater impact on our culture and language than anyone since. That’s why, right around the world, thousands of schools, universities and theatres are celebrating William Shakespeare today at events as part of Shakespeare400.
And although people might be quick to look to London or Stratford for a piece of Shakespearean history, here in Hull we have a fascinating link to celebrate too.
In the early 1800s Hull was a busy shipping port, with Humber Dock opening in 1809 in what is now part of the Marina. To keep the locals and visiting sailors entertained (and out of the pub) the city had several theatres, including the Theatre Royal Hull and Humber Street Theatre. Alongside the raucous variety shows and music hall acts, Shakespeare plays were incredibly popular with audiences in Hull. The city was an important stop for theatre companies touring the UK, who found audiences in Hull loved Shakespeare as much as anywhere else in the country and were always happy to see his plays on stage.
One actor who found Hull’s audiences friendlier than most was Ira Aldridge – an American born in New York who emigrated to the UK, becoming one of the most popular actors of the age. Aldridge was born to African American parents, and is remembered today as the first black actor to play Shakespeare’s Othello in 1826. A genuine pioneer, Aldridge was celebrated in the 2012 play Red Velvet, performed at the Tricycle Theatre in London and starring Adrian Lester.
Aldridge made his name performing in London, but with limited success. London was still home to the slave trade in England and so racial tensions were high, with The Times and other London papers giving racist reviews of Aldridge’s performances that relied on bigoted stereotypes, rather than actually reviewing his performances.
Hull, on the other hand, was much more welcoming to Aldridge. Thanks to William Wilberforce – Hull MP and vocal campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade in the early 1800s – the people of Hull understood the plight of slaves, and were altogether more enlightened when it came to civil rights. This extended to Aldridge too, with one Hull newspaper at the time describing his performance of Othello as one that could “be equalled by very few actors of the present day”, admiring Aldridge for his skill as an actor rather than dismissing him because of his race.
With Wilberforce campaigning in the House of Commons for the rights of slaves and Ira Aldridge (himself an outspoken abolitionist) on tour as the first black Othello in Hull, the early and mid 1800s were an important moment for civil rights in the UK. Attitudes were changing, and Hull was leading the way.
Aldridge was so confident in Hull’s open-minded audiences that he frequently returned to the city to perform. He even launched many of his new roles in Hull, seeing the city as a testing ground for his latest interpretation of a character. On a number of occasions this included white characters, with Aldridge debuting his Shylock, Macbeth, King Lear and Richard III in Hull in the 1830s, occasionally wearing white face paint and a wig. Not content with becoming the first black actor to play Othello, Aldridge was pushing the boundaries of performing race and testing audiences even further – and he chose Hull as the place to try it out.
We don’t know if William Wilberforce ever saw Aldridge perform in Hull. However, if you head to Wilberforce’s birthplace in Hull today – the Wilberforce House Museum – you’ll see a striking portrait that links these two men together. Painted by an unknown artist, The Captured Slave is a copy of a painting by John Philip Simpson that currently hangs in a gallery in Chicago. It shows a slave in chains, although for many years the man who sat for the painting was a mystery. Following years of research and speculation, it was discovered in 2008 that the sitter was in fact (who else?) Ira Aldridge himself.
Aldridge’s link to Hull shows that the stories of Shakespeare’s actors are sometimes just as interesting as those of his characters. You can find out lots more about Ira Aldridge (and other actors who’ve made their name performing Shakespeare) on the BBC’s Shakespeare Lives portal.
Thank you to Manchester Art Gallery for allowing us to use The Moor by James Northcote as the image for this article. If you’d like to read more about Ira Aldridge in Hull this BBC article is a great place to start.