Ira Aldridge in the North of England: Provincial Theatre and the Politics of Abolition

Saxon, Theresa orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-2129-2570 (2020) Ira Aldridge in the North of England: Provincial Theatre and the Politics of Abolition. In: Britain's Black Past. Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, pp. 275-293. ISBN 978-1-789-62161-7

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African American actor Ira Aldridge, was the first black performer that we know played Othello on English stages. From 1825 to his death in 1867, Aldridge performed throughout England, Scotland and Ireland and travelled across Europe, touring widely in Russia and Poland. Over the course of his forty-year theatre career, Aldridge succeeded in negotiating a series of complex political landscapes that circulated around his personal and professional life, significant because his performances as a black actor and as an actor playing black characters, were directly entangled with the coterminous history of racialized debates about slavery and abolition in the Caribbean and United States of America. Such debates were particularly relevant to three towns in England’s North West region – Manchester, Liverpool, and Lancaster – all directly connected to the material wealth of and ideological campaigning around slavery and abolition. Additionally, and pertinent to this essay, all three towns were also part of a cultural movement in provincial theatre, as regional centres determined to acquire rights of royal patent privilege to produce spoken drama, a privilege that had been granted only in London and only to the Theatres Royal of Drury Lane and Covent Garden. I argue, therefore, that Aldridge’s performances in Manchester, Liverpool and Lancaster, and the responses to them, speak to the confluence of abolitionist politics and theatre. I focus on Manchester, Liverpool and Lancaster, as locations overtly and specifically associated with the economic and cultural materiality of, as well political dispute about, the transatlantic slave trade, slavery and abolition. I explore, also, the influence of religious ideologies as well as cultural attitudes on regional politics and theatrical aesthetics. This is particularly relevant to investigations of theatre and race, given the anti-theatre stance espoused by Evangelical abolitionists, notably William Wilberforce. Such enquires into the role of theatre in regional politics and culture reveals splits and schisms over Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and enslavement, illuminating the crosscurrents of a significant national debate, articulating a fuller and richer understanding of the history and legacy of Ira Aldridge.

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