THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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22 posts categorized "Shakespeare"

24 October 2014

Person from a portrait: Ira Frederick Aldridge, the first black Othello

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Growing in a provincial town in Soviet Ukraine in the 1960s, when the world was less globalised and foreign students were present only in main universities, I had very little opportunity to meet a black person in flesh.  The first black person that I, aged 5, became aware of  was ... Ira Frederick Aldridge! The portrait of a very sympathetic man, with big eyes and moustaches, adorned every book about the national poet of Ukraine, Taras Shevchenko (my parents had a very good library of Ukrainian literature). It was painted  in black and white Italian pencil and finished by Shevchenko on 25 December 1858.

 Portrait_of_Ira_Aldridge,_by_Taras_Shevchenko_(1858)Shevchenko‚Äôs portrait of Ira Aldridge (image from Wikimedia Commons)

 On 10 November 1858 Aldridge played Othello in one of St Petersburg‚Äôs theatres for the first time, and Shevchenko, a keen reader of Shakespeare and an ardent theatregoer, was in the audience, together with his Russian friends (the family of Count Fyodor Tolstoy and others). He was very excited by the acting and reduced to tears. 

Portrait of Ira Aldridge in costume as OthelloIra Aldridge as Othello, frontispiece from Leben und K√ľnstler-Laufbahn des Neger Ira Aldridge (Berlin, 1853; 10881.a.1)

On November 12 Shevchenko met Aldridge personally in the house of Count Tolstoy where Shevchenko was a frequent guest. They became great friends (Aldridge called Shevchenko ‚Äúan artist‚ÄĚ finding difficult to pronounce the Ukrainian surname). Two young daughters of Count Tolstoy, Katya and Olya, often served as interpreters for them. On 6 December Shevchenko sent a letter to his Russian actor-friend (a former serf, like Shevchenko himself) Mikhail Shchepkin, full of admiration about the talent of Aldridge, ‚Äúwho does miracles on the stage‚ÄĚ. ‚ÄúHe shows live Shakespeare‚ÄĚ, wrote Shevchenko.  Friend of Shevchenko artist Mikhail Mikeshin made a satirical sketch of  Shevchenko in awe before Aldrigde and Shevchenko himself added ‚ÄúMy mute awe before Ira Aldridge‚ÄĚ (picture below).

Cartoon of Shevchenko 'in awe before Aldridge'

In 1913 Leonid Pasternak made his drawing of Aldridge and Shevchenko which is reproduced in books about them. The original is kept in the Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum in Moscow.

In 1861-1866 Aldridge visited many places in Ukraine: Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, Zhytomyr, and Elisavetgrad. He learned Russian and German and successfully performed using these languages too. His performances attracted large audiences everywhere. The well-known Ukrainian dramatist Ivan Karpenko-Karyi walked miles from the village of Bobryntsi to Elisavetgrad to see his performance.

The biography of this extraordinary African-American actor (especially famous in Shakespearean roles) is fascinating and continues to attract well-deserved attention. His bicentenary in 2007 was celebrated in many countries and the proceedings of a seminar about him were published in Germany in 2009: Ira Aldridge 1807-1867. The Great Shakespearean Tragedian on the Bicentennial Anniversary of his Birth (Frankfurt am Main, 2009; YD.2009.a.9405).

In 2012, Red Velvet, a play by Lolita Chakrabarti about Aldridge and his taking the role of Othello (published as a book; London, 2014;  YK.2013.a.13939) was premiered at the Tricycle Theatre in London, with Aldridge played by Adrian Lester. (The play returned in 2014; see excerptss here). More and more people are now discovering  Aldridge's extraordinary life.

The British Library holds books about Aldridge in various languages. The oldest English booklets date from the 19th century, when young Ira, after leaving New York, was acting in Dublin, Edinburgh, Bath, and London: John Cole, A Critique on the Performance of Othello by F. W. K. [or rather, Ira] Aldridge, the African Roscius (Scarborough, 1831; 11794.g.29) and A brief memoir and theatrical career of Ira Aldridge, the African tragedian. (London, ca. 1855; 1608/4459 - picture below).

Title-page of 'A brief memoir and theatrical career of Ira Aldridge'

The 20th- and 21st-century biographies and critical studies about Aldridge include: Herbert Marshall, Ira Aldridge : the Negro tragedian  (London, 1958; 11799.e.34); Owen Mortimer, Speak of me as I am: the story of Ira Aldridge (Wangaratta, 1995; YA.1996.a.22306); Ira Aldridge: the African Roscius, edited by Bernth Lindfors (Rochester, N.Y., 2007; v.28 8001.250050); Martin Hoyles, Ira Aldridge: celebrated 19th century actor (London, 2008; YD.2007.a.8267); Bernth Lindfors, Ira Aldridge: The Early Years, 1807-1833 (Rochester, NY, 2011; YC.2012.a.22286) and the same author‚Äôs three-volume Ira Aldridge (Rochester, NY, 2011-2013; 8001.250050)  

Herbert Marshall’s book was translated into Ukrainian during Soviet times by the Mystetstvo (Art) publishing house (Aira Oldridzh: nehrytianskyi trahik (Kyiv, 1966) X.898/2832). Ukrainian authors mainly explored the friendship of Taras Shevchenko and Ira Aldridge, as in Ivan Kulinych’s Poet i trahik (Kyiv, 1964; X.908/1462) where the author collected memoirs of witnesses of this great friendship.

The Library holds the Russian original of a book by theatre historian and critic Sergey Durylin (1886-1954) about the life of Aldridge (Moscow-Leningrad, 1940; 11797.a.32) and its recent translation into English by Alexei Lalo (Trenton, 2014; awaiting shelfmark). A Hungarian-language book was published in Romania in 1969 (ErnoŐč Igeti, Az idegen csillag. Ira Aldridge regeŐĀnyes eŐĀlete (Bucharest, 1969)  X.989/6820).

This well-travelled and much-loved actor (he also played in Germany, Hungary and Serbia) died while on tour in Poland on 7 August 1867. His plans to return to his native USA after the end of the Civil War there (he was also an outspoken abolitionist) were never realised. Aldridge was given a state funeral in Poland and his tomb is in the Old Cemetery in ŇĀ√≥dŇļ.

 Aldridgetomb Tomb of Ira Aldridge in ŇĀ√≥dŇļ (picture by Jan W. Raczkowski from Wikimedia Commons)

Every October, during Black History Month it is heart-warming to pay tribute to this great life which touched the lives and imagination of other people in many countries and cultures. Taras Shevchenko, whose bicentenary we celebrate this year, was one of them.

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian Studies

23 April 2014

Whose Shakespeare?

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In the film Star Trek VI, a Klingon ambassador claims that Shakespeare can only be appreciated ‚Äėin the original Klingon‚Äô. This is a clever reference to the way in which many countries have adopted Shakespeare‚Äôs works as their own but, since the imaginary Klingons have the kind of militaristic society and guttural language often associated with Germany in Anglo-American popular culture, I suspect that the scriptwriters had Germany particularly in mind, for few nations have claimed ownership of Shakespeare as enthusiastically as the Germans. Since the  late 18th century German writers have shown an admiration sometimes bordering on idolatry for Shakespeare‚Äôs work, and it is often claimed that his plays are more frequently performed in Germany than Britain (although this statistic no doubt owes something to Germany‚Äôs larger number of flourishing provincial theatres).

What one critic described as ‚ÄėShakespearomania‚Äô  really took off in the 1770s when the young writers of the ‚ÄėSturm und Drang‚Äô embraced Shakespeare‚Äôs ‚Äėnaturalness‚Äô and freedom from strict Aristotelian unities as a contrast to the French classical drama then upheld as an ideal. These angry young men may have taken their understanding of Shakespearean freedom to extremes, but the interest in his work which they aroused was influential and survived after they had burned themselves out or settled into less wild literary pursuits.

The torch was taken up by the Romantics. Like the ‚ÄėSt√ľrmer und Dr√§nger‚Äô, they admired the truth to nature they found in Shakespeare, but they also began to engage more seriously and critically with his works and to try and improve on the available translations. It was a group of writers associated with German Romanticism ‚Äď August Wilhelm Schlegel, Ludwig and Dorothea Tieck and Wolf Heinrich von Baudissin ‚Äď who created what became the classic German translation of Shakespeare.

Ludwig Tieck represents the two main strands of 19th-century German Shakespeare reception: a creative, emotional response and an academic interest. As a writer he admired and was influenced by Shakespeare‚Äôs work, and his involvement in the translation was driven by the desire for a high-quality German version of the plays for reading and performance. But he also took a scholarly approach, researching Shakespeare‚Äôs world and the theatre of his age, and travelling to England in 1817 to pursue his studies. The visit included meetings with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, himself a significant mediator of German literature in England, and the two men later corresponded. 

Portrait of Ludwig TieckLudwig Tieck, from the frontispiece of Ludwig Tieck‚Äôs saŐąmmtliche Werke (Paris, 1837) RB.23.b.864

The British Museum Library bought a number of books from the sale of Tieck‚Äôs library in 1849, among them an edition of Shakespeare‚Äôs works with Tieck‚Äôs handwritten annotations. Most of these were made not in the plays themselves but in the preliminary volumes which contain studies of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan stage; this is Tieck the critical scholar at work rather than Tieck the romantic author reading for aesthetic pleasure. His copious comments are difficult to read, but he often appears to take issue with the critical opinions expressed and sometimes simply expresses his disapproval with an exclamation mark or a comment like ‚ÄėUnsinn!‚Äô (‚Äėnonsense!‚Äô). 

Pages of a commentary on Shakespeare's plays, with Tieck's handwritten annotationsManuscript notes by Tieck in vol. 2 of The Plays of William Shakspeare. With the corrections and illustrations of various commentators. (Basel, 1799-1802) C.134.dd.1.

As the 19th century continued, Shakespeare flourished in Germany, both in performance and as a subject of academic study, and came to be regarded as Germany‚Äôs ‚Äėthird classic poet‚Äô alongside Goethe and Schiller. In 1903 the German critic Theodor Eichhoff entitled his study of the Bard Unser Shakespeare (‚ÄėOur Shakespeare‚Äô), and just over a decade later, with Germans encouraged to boycott foreign culture after the outbreak of the First World War, the playwright Gerhart Hauptmann claimed an exception for Shakespeare, declaring that ‚Äė[Shakespeare‚Äôs] soul has become one with ours ‚Ķ Germany is the land where he truly lives‚Äô. Unsurprisingly this drew furious responses from Britain.

But this is to start moving beyond the period of our survey of Anglo-German relations, and besides, the use of literature for national propaganda in time of war is not the best way to consider the significance of Shakespeare in the wider world. After all, the British should be proud rather than defensive when their national poet transcends national boundaries so triumphantly that even a race of fictional aliens wants to claim him! And if we want a happier image of the ‚ÄėGerman Shakespeare‚Äô, how about Tieck enthusiastically engaging with the plays and their criticism, and discussing them with Coleridge? If we want to ask ‚ÄėWhose Shakespeare?‚Äô  there are many possible answers from all over the world, and ‚ÄėTieck‚Äôs Shakespeare‚Äô is among the most positive of them.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading

Christian Dietrich Grabbe, Dramatische Dichtungen nebst einer Abhandlung √ľber die Shakespearo-Manie (Frankfurt am Main, 1827) 1343.d.3

Theodor Eichhoff, Unser Shakespeare. Beiträge zu einer wissenschaftlichen Shakespeare-Kritik. (Halle, 1903) 011765.h.32.

Gerhart Hauptmann, ‚ÄėDeutschland und Shakespeare‚Äô, Jahrbuch der Deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft, Jahrgang 51 (1914), pp. vii-xii. Ac.9423/5.

Hansj√ľrgen Blinn, Der deutsche Shakespeare = The German Shakespeare : eine annotierte Bibliographie zur Shakespeare-Rezeption des deutschsprachigen Kulturraums (Berlin, 1993) 2725.g.2308

Roger Paulin, The Critical Reception of Shakespeare in Germany 1682-1914: Native Literature and Foreign Genius (Hildesheim, 2003) YD.2005.a.2139

Geoffrey West, ‚ÄėBuying at Auction: Building the British Museum Library‚Äôs Collections in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century‚Äô, in Giles Mandelbrote and Barry Taylor (ed.) Libraries within the Library: the Origins of the British Library‚Äôs Printed Collections (London, 2009), pp. 341-352. YC.2010.a.1356 [For information on books from Tieck‚Äôs library now in the BL]

Edwin H. Zeydel, Ludwig Tieck and England: a Study in Literary Relations of Germany and England During the Early Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 1931) 10709.ee.23