Eighteen months prior to Aldridge’s arrival in Britain, the tragedians of the African Grove received one of their more effective dismissals. Charles Mathews, one of the more popular British comedians, created a one man show lampooning an assortment of American characters he had discovered on a successful professional American tour. This included an incompetent ‘African Tragedian’ who had butchered Shakespeare (James Hewlett is the suspected model for this character) at a black theater in New York City.
Thus, it was Charles Mathews’ ‘James Hewlett’ that British theater-goers turned out to see in Ira Aldridge’s first debut on the British stage as Oroonoko in Revolt of Surinam. They expected to see an idiot on stage, making a fool of himself and the drama. The New Times reported, “the African votary of Thespis, whose delineation of Hamlet, Richard, etc. at New York, were so humorously imitated by Mr. Mathews, in his exquisite entertainment of a Trip to America, is engaged at the Coburg Theatre”.¹
Back in the United States, Philadelphia’s Saturday Evening Post got this news and assumed it referred to James Hewlett, and reported it on November 12, 1825. New Yorkers who read this news would have been confused because Hewlett was testifying the next week in marine court for a plaintiff who was treated badly and malnourished on a ship Hewlett served as a steward on.² As stewards, the founders of the African Theatre were able to see shows throughout the Atlantic, increasing their wealth of material to draw from.
The audience and reviewers were surprised. The British Press apologized, “It is most true that those are ‘blessed who expect nothing’, and from this cause may have proceeded in some degree the satisfaction with which we beheld the performance of the ‘Tragedian of Colour, from the African Theatre, New York’, but we do not hesitate to express our opinion that his acting will gratify many and astonish all.”³
Aldridge carefully crafted his debut to draw the attention of as many as possible. He heard that English people had heard of the African Theatre because of the Mathews article, so he advertised himself as the American Tragedian from the African Theater New York City. He then fabricated descent from the Fulani line of princes and used the stage name, F.W. Keene Aldridge. Keene being a homonym of the most popular English actor of the day, Edmund Kean. Henceforth, he would be called African Roscius, after the famous Roman actor of the first century BCE.
- New Times, 10 October 1825
- Lindfors Bernth, “‘No end to dramatic novelty’: Ira Aldridge at the Royal Coburg Theatre,” Manchester University Press Jun 2007.
- British Press, 11 October 1825, 3.