African-American Actor’s Pioneering Performance at Southampton’s Theatre Royal

PUBLISHED : May 2, 2024

WORDS : Archive Team

We know that in the 1590’s acting companies, including ones of which William Shakespeare was a member, performed plays inside the Bargate. Before then actors would have put on shows in the courtyard of places such as the Dolphin in the High Street.

Southampton’s first proper theatre, the Playhouse, was built on the east side of French Street and opened in 1766. In 1798 the owner Thomas Collins purchased the old St John’s Hospital site on the west side of French Street on which he built an entirely new and larger theatre. The new theatre opened in 1803 and it was named the Theatre Royal.

It served the town during the latter part of its fashionable spa period which lasted from 1750-1830. Many came to Southampton for the waters of the Chalybeate spa which was outside the cafe on the lower level of Waterstones at Westquay.

The Theatre Royal was a popular venue patronised by visiting nobility and even, on occasions, by royalty.

Jane Austen saw several plays there during her stay in Southampton from 1806-1809.

In 1828, one of the highest-paid actors in the world appeared at the Theatre Royal playing Shakespeare’s Othello. Born in New York, Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) was an African American who could not further his career in the USA. With slavery not abolished there until 1865 and the attitudes at the time to people of colour he came to England as a young man.

Aldridge had first played Othello in 1826 at London’s Royalty Theatre. He toured the provinces constantly and was probably the most-seen actor of his day. This was due to the negative reception he received from some in London. At Covent Garden his Othello only lasted two performances. Some reviewers objected to a black man appearing at such a prestigious venue, even if he was playing Othello.

In 1828 he became the first black person ever to become manager of a British theatre. The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry has a large nearby street mural which was painted in 2021 to commemorate this.

In 2012, Lenny Henry successfully played Othello on the London stage, following singer Paul Robeson who took on the role in 1959. The role had often in the past been played by white actors such as Laurence Olivier and Michael Gambon.

However Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) was the first black actor to play the role of the African almost two hundred years ago. Shakespeare’s classic drama explores the themes of love, jealousy, racism and reputation.

The playbill shows he called himself African Roscius after a famous Roman actor of the first century BC. Ira also claimed to be from a line of West African princes.

Having proved very popular with audiences in the British regions, Ira Aldridge went on to tour Europe where he was internationally recognized and celebrated. In Russia he was paid £60 for each performance, more than any other actor in the world at the time.

In a glittering career he was knighted by The Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, presented with a First Class Gold Medal from King William IV, given the Grand Cross of the Order of Leopold by the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and the Imperial Jubilee de Tolstoy Medal from St Petersburg. He died in 1867, at the age of 59, in Poland where he was given a state funeral. His grave is in the churchyard of the Evangelical Church in Lodz.

By the mid 19th century Southampton’s Theatre Royal in French Street was converted into a music hall which had become the popular mass entertainment of the day. It burned down in 1884 and was replaced by a new theatre and music hall called the Gaiety, and later the Empire.

In the 1930s the Daily Echo journalist known as ‘Townsman’, noted in his column that the theatre was no longer used for entertainment and expected its demolition at any time. Today flats are on the site.

Via Southampton Daily Echo, first published 30/10/2023.