Playing the Servant and the Fool?


Black actors in the 19th century would generally be given only a limited choice of roles and were invariably typecast as servants, slaves or foreign villains, or as comic relief. Despite his prominence as one of the most famous Black actors of the day, Ira Aldridge often suffered the same restrictions.

In this engraving by J. Hollis (after William Paine) he is seen in costume as Mungo in The Padlock - a comedy role enjoyed by the Illustrated London News theatre critic, who described it as 'very amusing' during the course of his review of Aldridge's performance as Zanga in The Revenge.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Aldridge was able to forge a career that included a variety of roles, including Shakespearian tragedy, with considerable success. He was not, of course, without detractors and alongside genuine criticism, there was often considerable racial and pro-slavery abuse. Examples of both praise and scorn are reproduced on this web page.

National Portrait Gallery D17895 (c. 1850)
By courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

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