NOTES ON RED VELVET

The Life of Ira Aldridge
Ira Aldridge was an African-American stage actor who rose to international fame performing in Europe in the 19th century. He was born July 24th, 1807 in New York City to Reverend Daniel and Luranah Aldridge. At age thirteen, Aldridge attended the African Free School in Manhattan, an institution founded by the New York Manumission Society to provide an education to the children of slaves and free people of color in New York. Aldridge was also introduced to the theater during this time despite the fact that theatre-going was for "whites only"; he got a job doing errands for the actor Henry Wallack, and was able to watch plays from the balcony of the up-scale Park Theatre. Aldridge began his own theatrical career in the early 1820s, performing with the African Company, an all-black theater company established for black actors and audiences, though the balcony was open to white audience members as well. This is where he played his first Shakespearean roles. After two years, the Grove Theatre suspiciously burned to the ground; it was providing too much competition for the nearby white theatre. Knowing that success would elude him in America, he traveled to England in 1824, with his mentor Henry Wallack, working as his dresser, and was quickly landing roles in small London theatres. Shortly after arriving in England, Aldridge met his first wife, an English woman named Margaret Gill.
In 1825, Aldridge played the lead role of Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam at the Royal Coburg Theatre, a performance which earned him great acclaim from audiences, if not from critics. Aldridge went on to perform at theaters all throughout the British Isles and his repertoire continued to expand and included roles in The Slaves, The Castle Spectre, The Padlock, as well as Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Othello. His work earned him the title the "African Roscius," after the Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus. In 1833, Aldridge was invited to play the role of Othello at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, replacing renowned actor Edmund Kean, who had collapsed on stage during a performance. Once more, Aldridge proved to be a huge hit with audiences, but the critical response to the production was fairly brutal, and the show closed after only four performances.
After his hasty expulsion from the London stage, Aldridge returned to the provinces where he continued to make a name for himself as a distinguished tragedian. Beginning in 1852, Aldridge toured extensively throughout Europe, performing in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland and Russia. In addition to his Othello, Aldridge was well-known for playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, as well as the title roles in Richard III and King Lear; all of which he performed in whiteface. Following the death of his wife Margaret in 1864, Aldridge married his mistress, opera singer Amanda von Brandt, with whom he already had four children. Aldridge continued to act until his death at age sixty on August 7th, 1867 while on tour in Lodz, Poland. Though Aldridge's legacy has been neglected in modern times, he remains the only African-American to be honored by the Royal Shakespeare Company with a plaque outside the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. He was the most renowned tragedian of his day and had a major influence on the Russian theatre. He was highly decorated, adored, and earned his knighthood from the Duke of Saxe-Meningen. He was a ground-breaking artist, not only because he defied racial barriers, but because he was instrumental in the evolution of modern drama and its move away from affectation and melodramatic acting styles. He was dedicated to playing his roles in a real and truthful manner, and his performances were met with an unprecedented emotional response from audiences throughout Eastern and Western Europe. He never returned to America.

The Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire
The British Empire during the 18th century was a vast territory which spanned the globe and included holdings in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The trade of enslaved peoples from Africa to plantations in the West Indies was a key component of the Empire. However, as cultural and economic reforms began to take root in Great Britain, opposition to the slave trade began to grow.
Abolitionist sentiments steadily gained momentum in Britain during the 1770s. In the early 1780s, religious groups, such as the Quakers, were at the forefront of the abolition movement; activist groups raised the political profile of their cause by distributing anti-slavery petitions and pamphlets. These efforts were spearheaded by prominent Quaker leaders, such as John Woolman and Anthony Benezet. In 1787, the movement to abolish slavery gained significant ground with the foundation of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which called for the gradual abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Notable members of the Society included abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp. The Society began its first mass petition drive in 1788, which resulted in the collection of between 60,000 and 100,000 signatures. Women, who were largely excluded from political life, also became part of the movement by boycotting the sugar produced on slave plantations in the British West Indies. Although the petitions and boycotts prompted members of Parliament, including famed politician and abolitionist William Wilberforce, to introduce various anti-slavery measures in the following years, all were defeated.
Over time, the influence of the abolitionists continued to grow, and in 1807, parliament passed the Slave Trade Act, which put a stop to the trading of slaves throughout the British Empire. However, the Act did not free those already enslaved, and the prohibition of the slave trade did little to improve the quality of life of slaves in the West Indies. This led to the founding of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1823. This new Society called for improvement of slave conditions, as well as gradual emancipation. Between 1828 and 1830, the Anti-Slavery Society sent over 5,000 petitions calling for the emancipation of slaves to Parliament. Impatient with the gradual approach of the Anti-Slavery Society, some members of the group broke off and formed the Agency Committee, which promoted the immediate abolition of slavery in 1832. Their efforts led to the introduction of The Slavery Abolition Act in Parliament, and the bill was passed into law on August 29th, 1833.