William Wells Brown (1814–1884)
From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now
Ira Aldridge, one of the most renowned Shakespearean actors on the London stage during the nineteenth century, was actually an American; he had left his homeland in 1824, at the age of seventeen, because there was little chance that he, a Black man, would be able to perform in professional theater productions in the United States. In England, he made his debut on the stage within a year of his arrival and his career quickly flourished, although not without some racist grumblings from theatergoers. Aldridge was performing as Othello in Dublin in 1831 when the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean was in the audience, who was impressed with what he saw, and Aldridge was soon performing in major productions with Kean and his son, Charles.
After Kean collapsed during a production of Othello at Covent Garden (he died two months later), Aldridge was asked to fill in for the rest of the run, but his star turn was met with hostility from London critics, directed at both his race and his youth. He spent the rest of the decade touring the smaller theaters of England before taking his act to the Continent—where he hit it big, once again in the role of Othello. By the 1850s, he had added Shylock, Richard III, Hamlet, and other roles to his repertoire and his return to London in 1855 was a triumph.
In 1862, the author William Wells Brown was assembling a collection of profiles of famous Black Americans for his newest book and, having seen Aldridge in London years earlier and learning the actor was an expatriate, he included him in the book’s roster of fifty-seven men and women. Like Aldridge, Brown commands a list of firsts: he published the first travelogue by an African American (Three Years in Europe, 1852), the first novel (Clotel, 1853), and the first play (Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, 1863).
Despite their accomplishments, both men were relatively forgotten until the last couple of decades. Aldridge has been the subject of two recent plays and several books, while Brown’s novel Clotel (an imagined history of Thomas Jefferson’s black daughters and granddaughters) is now taught in schools and universities. We present William Wells Brown’s profile of Ira Aldridge as our current Story of the Week selection.