An Avalanche of Novels, Films and Other Works of Art Will Soon Enter the Public Domain: Virginia Woolf, Charlie Chaplin, William Carlos William, Buster Keaton & More

There may be no sweeter sound to the ears of Open Culture writers than the words “public domain”—you might even go so far as to call it our “cellar door.” The phrase may not be as musical, but the fact that many of the world’s cultural treasures cannot be copyrighted in perpetuity means that we can continue to do what we love: curating the best of those treasures for readers as they appear online. Public domain means companies can sell those works without incurring any costs, but it also means that anyone can give them away for free. “Anyone can re-publish” public domain works, notes Lifehacker, “or chop them up and use them in other projects.” And thereby emerges the remixing and repurposing of old artifacts into new ones, which will themselves enter the public domain of future generations.

Some of those future works of art may even become the next Great American Novel, if such a thing still exists as anything more than a hackneyed cliché. Of course, no one seriously goes around saying they’re writing the “Great American Novel,” unless they’re Philip Roth in the 70s or William Carlos Williams (top right) in the 20s, who both somehow pulled off using the phrase as a title (though Roth’s book doesn't quite live up to it.) Where Roth casually used the concept in a light novel about baseball, Williams’ The Great American Novel approached it with deep concern for the survival of the form itself. His modernist text “engages the techniques of what we would now call metafiction,” writes literary scholar April Boone, “to parody worn out formulas and content and, ironically, to create a new type of novel that anticipates postmodern fiction.”




We will all, as of January 1, 2019, have free, unfettered access to Williams’ metafictional shake-up of the formulaic status quo, when “hundreds of thousands of… books, musical scores, and films first published in the United States during 1923” enter the public domain, as Glenn Fleishman writes at The Atlantic. Because of the complicated history of U.S. copyright law—especially the 1998 “Sonny Bono Act” that successfully extended a copyright law from 50 to 70 years (for the sake, it's said, of Mickey Mouse)—it has been twenty years since such a massive trove of material has become available all at once. But now, and “for several decades from 2019 onward,” Fleishman points out, “each New Year’s Day will unleash a full year’s worth of works published 95 years earlier.”

In other words, it’ll be Christmas all over again in January every year, and while you can browse the publication dates of your favorite works yourself to see what’s coming available in coming years, you’ll find at The Atlantic a short list of literary works included in next-year’s mass-release, including books by Aldous Huxley, Winston Churchill, Carl Sandburg, Edith Wharton, and P.G. Wodehouse. Lifehacker has several more extensive lists, which we excerpt below:

Movies [see many more at Indiewire]

All these movies, including:

  • Cecil B. DeMille’s (first, less famous, silent version of) The Ten Commandments
  • Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last!, including that scene where he dangles off a clock tower, and his Why Worry?
  • A long line-up of feature-length silent films, including Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitalityand Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim
  • Short films by Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and Our Gang (later Little Rascals)
  • Cartoons including Felix the Cat(the character first appeared in a 1919 cartoon)
  • Marlene Dietrich’s film debut, a bit part in the German silent comedy The Little Napoleon; also the debuts of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Fay Wray

Music

All this music, including these classics:

  • “King Porter Stomp”
  • “Who’s Sorry Now?”
  • “Tin Roof Blues”
  • “That Old Gang of Mine”
  • “Yes! We Have No Bananas”
  • “I Cried for You”
  • “The Charleston”—written to accompany, and a big factor in the popularity of, the Charleston dance
  • Igor Stravinsky’s “Octet for Wind Instruments”

Literature

All these booksand these books, including the classics:

  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  • Cane by Jean Toomer
  • The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
  • The Ego and the Id by Sigmund Freud
  • Towards a New Architecture by Le Corbusier
  • Whose Body?, the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Two of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Murder on the Links
  • The Prisoner, volume 5 of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (note that English translations have their own copyrights)
  • The Complete Works of Anthony Trollope
  • George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan
  • Short stories by Christie, Virginia Woolf, H.P. Lovecraft, Katherine Mansfield, and Ernest Hemingway
  • Poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Rainer Maria Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Sukumar Ray, and Pablo Neruda
  • Works by Jane Austen, D.H. Lawrence, Edith Wharton, Jorge Luis Borges, Mikhail Bulgakov, Jean Cocteau, Italo Svevo, Aldous Huxley, Winston Churchill, G.K. Chesterton, Maria Montessori, Lu Xun, Joseph Conrad, Zane Grey, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs

Art

These artworks, including:

  • Constantin Brâncuși’s Bird in Space
  • Henri Matisse’s Odalisque With Raised Arms
  • Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)
  • Yokoyama Taikan’s Metempsychosis
  • Work by M. C. Escher, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Max Ernst, and Man Ray

Again, these are only partial lists of highlights, and such highlights…. Speaking for myself, I cannot wait for free access to the very best (and even worst, and weirdest, and who-knows-what-else) of 1923. And of 1924 in 2020, and 1925 and 2021, and so on and so on….

via The Atlantic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Vending Machine Now Distributes Free Short Stories at Francis Ford Coppola’s Café Zoetrope

I loved the idea of a vending machine, a dispensing machine that doesn’t dispense potato chips or beer or coffee for money but gives you art. I especially liked the fact that you didn’t put money in. - Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola

Thusly did filmmaker Coppola arrange for a free Short Edition story vending machine to be installed in Café Zoetrope, his San Francisco restaurant.

The French-built machine is the perfect companion for solitary diners, freely dispensing tales on skinny, eco-friendly paper with the push of a button. Readers have a choice over the type of story—romantic, funny, scary—and the amount of time they’re willing to devote to it.

After which, they can perhaps begin the task of adapting it into a feature-length film script. Part of Coppola’s attraction to the form is that short stories, like movies, are intended to be consumed in a single sitting.




Short Edition, the Grenoble-based start-up, has been following up on the public’s embrace of the Café Zoetrope machine by sending even more short story kiosks stateside.

Columbus Public Health just unveiled one near the children’s area at its immunization clinic, providing Ohio kids and parents from mostly disadvantaged backgrounds with access to free literature while they wait.

Philadelphia’s Free Library won a grant to install four story dispensers, with more slated for locations in South Carolina and Kansas.

Part of the allure lays in receiving a tangible object. You can recycle your story into a bookmark, leave it for someone else to find, or—in Coppola’s words—save it for an “artistic lift” while “waiting for a bus, or marriage license, or lunch.”

A café patron described the cognitive dissonance of watching her cousin read the story the Zoetrope machine picked out for her:

The scene seemed archaic: a woman frozen in concentration, in the middle of a buzzing crowd, reading from a line of print instead of scrolling through Instagram, as one might normally do while sitting solo at a bar. 

“When people ask [if] we have wifi for the kids," Café Zoetrope’s general manager told Literary Hub, “We point to the machine and say, ‘No, but you have a story—you can read.’”

Those without access to a Short Edition story vending machine can get a feel for the experience digitally on the company’s website.

Scroll down to the dice icon, specify your preferred tone and a reading time between 1 and 5 minutes.

Or throw caution to the wind by hitting the search button sans specification, as I did to become the 3232nd reader of "Drowned," a one-minute true crime story by Cléa Barreyre, translated from the French by Wendy Cross.

French speakers can also submit their writing. The vending machines’ stories are drawn from Short Edition’s online community, a trove of some 100,000 short stories by nearly 10,000 authors. Registering for a free account will allow you to read stories, after which you can toggle over to the French site to post your content through the orange author space portal at the top right of the page. The FAQ and Google Translate should come in handy here. The editors are currently reviewing submissions of comics, poems, and micro fiction for the Summer Grand Prix du Court, though again—only in French, for now. 

Short Edition hopes to start considering other languages for vending machine content inclusion soon, beginning with English. For now, all stories being dispensed have been translated from the original French by British literary professionals.

Bon courage!

via Literary Hub

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, April 23 for the third installment of her literary-themed variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

One of the Best Preserved Ancient Manuscripts of The Iliad Is Now Digitized: See the “Bankes Homer” Manuscript in High Resolution (Circa 150 C.E.)

Each time I sit through the end credits of a film, I think about how weird auteur theory is—that a work of cinema can be primarily thought of the singular vision of the director. Typical examples come from artier fare than the usual Hollywood blockbuster in which crews of thousands of stuntpeople, special effects technicians, and animators (and several dozen “producers”) make essential contributions. In the case of, say, David Lynch or Wes Anderson—or earlier directors like Godard or Kubrick—one can’t deny the evidence of a singular mind at work. Even so, we tend to elevate directors to the status of godlike artificers, surrounded by a few angelic helpers behind the camera and a few star actors in front of it. Everyone else is an extra, including, very often, the actual writers of a film.

Of course, the notion of the auteur comes from the general theory of authorship that identifies literary works as the product of a single intellect. French theorists like Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes have cast suspicion on this idea. When it comes to writing from the manuscript age, hundreds or thousands of years old, it can be next to impossible to identify the author of a work.




Many an ancient work comes down to us as the product of “Anonymous.” In the case of the major Greek epics, The Odyssey and The Iliad, we have a name, Homer, that most classics scholars treat as a convenient placeholder. As a University of Cincinnati classics site notes, “Homer” could stand for “a group of poets whose works on the theme of Troy were collected.”

Though written references to Homer date back to the sixth century B.C., giving credence to the historical existence of the legendary blind poet, he might have been more director than author, bringing together into a coherent whole the labor of hundreds of different storytellers. For historian Adam Nicolson, author of Why Homer Matters, “it’s a mistake to think of Homer as a person. Homer is an ‘it.’ A tradition. An entire culture coming up with ever more refined and ever more understanding ways of telling stories that are important to it. Homer is essentially shared.” The narrative poetry attributed to Homer, Nicolson suggests, might go back a thousand years before the poet supposedly put it to papyrus.

You can read this National Geographic interview with Nicolson (or buy his book) to follow the argument. It isn’t particularly original—as Daniel Mendelsohn writes at The New Yorker, “the dominant orthodoxy” for over a hundred years “has been that The Iliad evolved over centuries before finally being written down” sometime around 700 B.C. We have no manuscripts from that early period, and no one knows how much the poem evolved through scribal errors in the transmission from manuscript to manuscript over centuries. This is one of many questions literary historians ask when they approach papyri like that at the top—an excerpt from the so-called “Bankes Homer,” the most well-preserved specimen of a portion of The Iliad, containing Book 24, lines 127-804, and dating from circa 150 C.E.

Purchased in Egypt in 1821 by Egyptologist William John Bankes, and acquired by an adventurer named Giovanni Finati on the island of Elephantine, the papyrus scroll, which you can see in full and in high resolution at the British Library site, was created like most other “literary papyri” for hundreds of years. As the British Library describes the process:

Professional scribes made copies from exemplars at the request of clients, transcribing by hand, word by word, letter by letter. Until around the 2nd century CE these manuscript books took the form of rolls composed of papyrus sheets pasted one to the other in succession, often over a considerable length.

In addition to the text itself, notes the site History of Information, the manuscript contains “breathing marks and accents made by an ancient diorthotesor ‘corrector’ to show correct poetic pronunciation.” The ancient practice of “correcting” was a pedagogical technique used for training students to properly read the text. Likely for hundreds of years before there was a text, the poem would be committed to memory, and recited by anonymous bards all over the Greek-speaking world, probably changing in the telling to suit the tastes and biases of different audiences. Who can say how many, if any, of those ancient bards bore the name “Homer”?

Again you can see the Bankes Homer in high resolution here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The 1,700+ Words Invented by Shakespeare*

One of the favorite reference books on my shelves isn’t a style guide or dictionary but a collection of insults. And not just any collection of insults, but Shakespeare’s Insults for Teachers, an illustrated guide through the playwright’s barbs and put-downs, designed to offer comic relief to the beleaguered educator. (Books and websites about Shakespeare’s insults almost constitute a genre in themselves.) I refer to this slim, humorous hardback every time discussions of Shakespeare get too ponderous, to remind myself at a glance that what readers and audiences have always valued in his work is its lightning-fast wit and inventiveness.

While perusing any curated selection of Shakespeare’s insults, one can’t help but notice that, amidst the puns and bawdy references to body parts, so many of his wisecracks are about language itself—about certain characters’ lack of clarity or odd ways of speaking. From Much Ado About Nothing there’s the colorful, “His words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes.” From The Merchant of Venice, the sarcastic, “Goodly Lord, what a wit-snapper you are!” From Troilus and Cressida, the derisive, “There’s a stewed phrase indeed!” And from Hamlet the subtle shade of “This is the very coinage of your brain.”




Indeed, it can often seem that Shakespeare—if we grant his historicity and authorship—is often writing self-deprecating notes about himself. “It is often said,” writes Fraser McAlpine at BBC America, that Shakespeare “invented a lot of what we currently call the English language…. Something like 1700 [words], all told,” which would mean that “out of every ten words," in his plays, "one will either have been new to his audience, new to his actors, or will have been passingly familiar, but never written down before.” It's no wonder so much of his dialogue seems to carry on a meta-commentary about the strangeness of its language.

We have enough trouble understanding Shakespeare today. The question McAlpine asks is how his contemporary audiences could understand him, given that so much of his diction was “the very coinage” of his brain. Lists of words first used by Shakespeare can be found aplently. There’s this catalog from the exhaustive multi-volume literary reference The Oxford English Dictionary, which lists such now-everyday words as “accessible,” “accommodation,” and “addiction” as making their first appearance in the plays. These “were not all invented by Shakespeare,” the list disclaims, “but the earliest citations for them in the OED” are from his work, meaning that the dictionary’s editors could find no earlier appearance in historical written sources in English.

Another shorter list links to an excerpt from Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Shakespeare Key, showing how the author, “with the right and might of a true poet… minted several words” that are now current, or “deserve” to be, such as the verb “articulate,” which we do use, and the noun “co-mart”—meaning “joint bargains”—which we could and maybe should. At ELLO, or English Language and Linguistics Online, we find a short tutorial on how Shakespeare formed new words, by borrowing them from other languages, or adapting them from other parts of speech, turning verbs into nouns, for example, or vice versa, and adding new endings to existing words.

“Whether you are ‘fashionable’ or ‘sanctimonious,’” writes National Geographic, “thank Shakespeare, who likely coined the terms.” He also apparently invented several phrases we now use in common speech, like “full circle,” “one fell swoop,” “strange bedfellows,” and “method in the madness.” (In another BBC America article, McAlpine lists 45 such phrases.) The online sources for Shakespeare’s original vocabulary are multitude, but we should note that many of them do not meet scholarly standards. As linguists and Shakespeare experts David and Ben Crystal write in Shakespeare’s Words, “we found very little that might be classed as ‘high-quality Shakespearean lexicography’” online.

So, there are reasons to be skeptical about claims that Shakespeare is responsible for the 1700 or more words for which he’s given sole credit. (Hence the asterisk in our title.) As noted, a great many of those words already existed in different forms, and many of them may have existed as non-literary colloquialisms before he raised their profile to the Elizabethan stage. Nonetheless, it is certainly the case that the Bard coined or first used hundreds of words, writes McAlpine, "with no obvious precedent to the listener, unless you were schooled in Latin or Greek.” The question, then, remains: “what on Earth did Shakespeare’s [mostly] uneducated audience make of this influx of newly-minted language into their entertainment?”

McAlpine brings those potentially stupefied Elizabethans into the present by comparing watching a Shakespeare play to watching “a three-hour long, open air rap battle. One in which you have no idea what any of the slang means.” A good deal would go over your head, “you’d maybe get the gist, but not the full impact,” but all the same, “it would all seem terribly important and dramatic.” (Costuming, props, and staging, of course, helped a lot, and still do.) The analogy works not only because of the amount of slang deployed in the plays, but also because of the intensity and regularity of the boasts and put-downs, which makes even more interesting one data scientist’s attempt to compare Shakespeare’s vocabulary with that of modern rappers, whose language is, just as often, the very coinage of their brains.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Hear Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight Read in Their Original Old and Middle English by an MIT Medievalist

Many a mocking critique floats around pointing out that some people who tell their multilingual neighbors to “speak English” seem to have a lot of trouble with the language themselves. I must confess, I find the observation more sad than funny. I’ve met many English speakers who struggle with understanding the peculiarities of the language and do not know its history. Increasingly, such things are not taught to those who don’t devote themselves to language study.

When people do learn how the language evolved, they can be shocked that for much of its history, English was unrecognizable to modern ears. Indeed, the study of Old English—or Anglo-Saxon, the language of Beowulf—satisfies foreign language requirements in many English departments. Originally written in runic before it incorporated the Latin alphabet (and retaining some of those early symbols afterward), this Germanic language slowly became more Latinate, and gave way among the reading classes in Britain to Anglo-Norman, a Germanic-French cousin, for a few centuries after 1066.




That's the very short version. These strains and more eventually commingled to form Middle English, the language of Chaucer, which also sounds to modern ears like another tongue, though we recognize more of it. In the video above, Medievalist and MIT professor Arthur Bahr gives us demonstrations of both Old and Middle English in readings of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as part of his 2014 course, “Major Authors: Old English and Beowulf." (You can still visit the course site, read the syllabus and download course materials.)

Bahr reads the first 20 lines of the ancient epic poem, which begins:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, 
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, 
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. 

“Besides being the language of Rohan in the novels of Tolkien,” he writes, “Old English is a language of long, cold, and lonely winters; of haunting beauty found in unexpected places; and of unshakable resolve in the face of insurmountable odds.” For all its distance from us, we can still recognize quite a lot in Old English if we listen closely. Much of its vocabulary and inflections survive, unchanged but for pronunciation and spelling, in modern English, including many of the language’s most basic words, like "the," “in” and “are,” and most common, like "god," “name,” “me,” “hand,” and even “old.”

After the Viking and Norman invasions, Old English became “the third language in its own country,” notes Luke Mastin at his History of English site. More spoken than written, it “effectively sank to the level of a patois or creole," with several distinct regional variants. English seemed at one time “in dire peril” of dying out but “showed its resilience once again, and, two hundred years after the Norman Conquest, it was English not French that emerged as the language of England," though it remained a diffuse collection of dialects. As you’ll hear in Bahr’s Middle English reading, it was also an English entirely transformed by the languages around it, as it would be once again a few hundred years later, when we get to the English of Shakespeare.

via Laughing Squid

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear 48 Hours of Lectures by Joseph Campbell on Comparative Mythology and the Hero’s Journey

What does it mean to “grow up”? Every culture has its way of defining adulthood, whether it’s surviving an initiation ritual or filing your first tax return. I’m only being a little facetious—people in the U.S. have long felt dissatisfaction with the ways we are ushered into adulthood, from learning how to fill out IRS forms to learning how to fill out student loan and credit card applications, our culture wants us to understand our place in the great machine. All other pressing life concerns are secondary.

It’s little wonder, then, that gurus and cultural father figures of all types have found ready audiences among America’s youth. Such figures have left lasting legacies for decades, and not all of them positive. But one public intellectual from the recent past is still seen as a wise old master whose far-reaching influence remains with us and will for the foreseeable future. Joseph Campbell’s obsessive, erudite books and lectures on world mythologies and traditions have made certain that ancient adulthood rituals have entered our narrative DNA.




When Campbell was awarded the National Arts Club Gold Medal in Literature in 1985, psychologist James Hillman stated that “no one in our century—not Freud, not Thomas Mann, not Levi-Strauss—has so brought the mythical sense of the world and its eternal figures back into our everyday consciousness.” Whatever examples Hillman may have had in mind, we might rest our case on the fact that without Campbell there would likely be no Star Wars. For all its success as a megamarketing phenomenon, the sci-fi franchise has also produced enduringly relatable role models, examples of achieving independence and standing up to imperialists, even if they be your own family members in masks.

In the video interviews above from 1987, Campbell professes himself no more than an “underliner” who learned everything he knows from books. Like the contemporary comparative mythologist Mircea Eliade, Campbell did not conduct his own anthropological research—he acquired a vast amount of knowledge by studying the sacred texts, artifacts, and rituals of world cultures. This study gave him insight into stories and images that continue to shape our world and feature centrally in huge pop cultural productions like The Last Jedi and Black Panther.

Campbell describes ritual entries into adulthood that viewers of these films will instantly recognize: Defeating idols in masks and taking on their power; burial enactments that kill the “infantile ego” (academics, he says with a straight face, sometimes never leave this stage). These kinds of edge experiences are at the very heart of the classic hero’s journey, an archetype Campbell wrote about in his bestselling The Hero with a Thousand Faces and popularized on PBS in The Power of Myth, a series of conversations with Bill Moyers.

In the many lectures just above—48 hours of audio in which Campbell expounds his theories of the mythological—the engaging, accessible writer and teacher lays out the patterns and symbols of mythologies worldwide, with special focus on the hero’s journey, as important to his project as dying and rising god myths to James Frazer's The Golden Bough, the inspiration for so many modernist writers. Campbell himself is more apt to reference James Joyce, Carl Jung, Pablo Picasso, or Richard Wagner than science fiction, fantasy, or comic books (though he did break down Star Wars in his Moyers interviews). Nonetheless, we have him to thank for inspiring the likes of George Lucas and becoming a “patron saint of superheroes” and space operas.

We will find some of Campbell’s methods flawed and terminology outdated (no one uses “Orient” and “Occident” anymore)—and modern heroes can just as well be women as men, passing through the same kinds of symbolic trials in their origin stories. But Campbell’s ideas are as resonant as ever, offering to the wider culture a coherent means of understanding the archetypal stages of coming of age. As Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler said in 1985, after recommending The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a guide for screenwriters, Campbell’s work “can be used to tell the simplest comic story or the most sophisticated drama”—a sweeping vision of human cultural history and its meaning for our individual journeys.

You can access the 48 hours of Joseph Campbell lectures above, or directly on Spotify.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Ira Aldridge Became the First Black Actor to Perform Shakespeare in England (1824)

The ways that Othello, Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus, and Shylock from The Merchant of Venice—Shakespeare’s “explicitly racialized characters,” as George Washington University’s Ayanna Thompson puts it—have been interpreted over the centuries may have less to do with the author’s intentions and more with contemporary ideas about race, the actors cast in the roles, and the directorial choices made in a production. To a great degree, these characters have been played as though their identities were like the costumes put on by actors who darkened their faces or wore stereotypical markers of ethnic or religious Judaism (including “an obnoxiously large nose”).

Such portrayals risk turning complex characters into caricatures, validating much of what we might see as overt and implicit racism in the text. But there are those, Thompson says, who think such roles are actually “about racial impersonation.” Othello, for example, is “a role written by a white man, intended for a white actor in black makeup.”




For centuries, that is what most audiences fully expected to see. The tradition continued in Britain until the 19th century, when the Shakespearean color line, so to speak, was first crossed by Ira Aldridge, an American actor born in New York City in 1807.

"Educated at the African Free School,” notes the Folger Shakespeare Library, Aldridge "was able to see Shakespeare plays at the Park Theatre and the African Grove Theatre.” He took on roles like Romeo with the African Company, but “New York was generally not a welcoming place for black actors… some white theatergoers even attempted to prevent black companies from performing Shakespeare at all.” As Tony Howard, an English professor at the University of Warwick, tells PRI, “he was beaten up in the streets.” And so Aldridge left for England in 1824, where he played Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent-Garden, at only 17 years old, the first black actor to play a Shakespearean role in Britain.

He later began performing under the name Keene, “a homonym,” notes the site Black History 365, “for the then popular British actor, Edmund Kean.” Aldridge’s big break came after he met Kean and his son Charles, also an actor, in 1831, and both became supporters of his career. When the elder Kean collapsed onstage in 1833, then died, Aldridge took over his role as Othello at London's Royalty Theatre in two performances. “Critics objected,” the Folger writes, “to his race, his youth, and his inexperience.” As Howard tells it, this characterization is a gross understatement:

There were those who said this is a very interesting and extraordinary young actor. And the fact that he's a black actor makes it more interesting and fascinating. But for many people, it was an insult because this is still a society where there is a great deal of slavery in the British Empire. And in order to combat the idea of increasing abolition, performers like Ira had to be stopped. And so there was a great deal of violent aggression. Not physical violence this time, but violence in the press.

Some of that verbal violence included comparing Aldridge to “performing horses” and “performing dogs.” Many London critics saw his entry on the Shakespearean stage as an affront to English literary tradition. Performing the bard’s works was “a kind of violation,” Howard summarizes, “he has no right to do that, not even to play Othello.”

Photo via the Folger Library

From his beginnings in Coventry to his experience in London, Aldridge made the once-blackface role his own, perhaps increasingly drawing “on his own experience and his own feeling.” He also portrayed Aaron in Titus, and as he persevered through negative press and prejudice, he took on other starring roles, including Richard III, Shylock, Iago, King Lear, and Macbeth. He “toured the English provinces extensively,” the BBC writes, “and stayed in Coventry for a few months, during which time he gave a number of speeches on the evils of slavery. When he left, people inspired by his speeches went to the county hall and petitioned for its abolition.”

By the end of the 1840s, however, Aldridge felt he had gone as far as he could go in England and left to tour the Continent in what had become his signature role, Othello. While first touring with an English company, he “later began to work with local theater troupes,” the Folger writes, “performing in English while the rest of the cast would perform in German, Swedish, etc. Despite the language barrier, Aldridge’s performances in Europe were highly acclaimed, a testament to his acting skills.” (See a playbill further up from a Bonn performance.) After winning great fame in Europe and Russia, the actor returned in triumph to London in 1855, and this time was very well-received.

Aldridge died in 1867. And though he was the subject of many portraits of the period—like that by James Northcote at the top of the post, portraying the 19-year-old Aldridge as Othello, and this 1830 painting by Henry Perronet Briggs—he was “largely forgotten by theater historians.” (See him above in an 1858 drawing by Ukranian artist Taras Shevchenko.) But his legacy has been revived in recent years. Aldridge was the subject of two recent plays, Black Othello, by Cecilia Sidenbladh, and Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. And last year, he was honored in Coventry by a plaque on the site of the theater where he first achieved fame.

While he succeeded in becoming an all-around great Shakespearean actor, Aldridge’s legacy rests especially in the way he helped transform roles performed as “racial impersonation” for a few hundred years into the provenance of talented black actors who bring new depth, complexity, and authenticity to characters often played as stock ethnic villains. While white actors like Orson Welles and Lawrence Olivier continued to play Othello well into the 20th century, these days such casting can be seen as "ridiculous," as Hugh Muir writes at The Guardian, especially if that actor "blacks up" for the role.

via the British Library

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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