Rzepka, Introduction: Obi, Aldridge and Abolition


Introduction: Obi, Aldridge and Abolition

Charles Rzepka, Boston University

  1. Obi, or Three-Finger'd Jack began life on 2 July 1800 as a pantomime at the Little Theater in the Haymarket, a summer venue for the Covent Garden company of London. It was based on the true story of Jack Mansong, an escaped Jamaican slave whose original African name, according to some sources, was Karfa. The tale of Three-Fingered Jack had been popularized by Dr. Benjamin Moseley in A Treatise on Sugar (1799) and by William Earle, Jr., in Obi; or, the History of Three-finger'd Jack (1800). According to these accounts, Mansong had run away from his master in 1780 and organized a group of escaped slaves into a feared band of robbers and marauders. Their hide-out was a cave in the mountainous interior of the island. Subsequent to his escape, Mansong lost two of his fingers in a skirmish with the authorities: hence his nickname.

  2. In December of 1780, the governor of Jamaica issued a proclamation offering a reward of 100 pounds for Jack Mansong's capture, to which the Jamaican House of Assembly added another 200 pounds, with a promise of freedom to "any slave that shall take or kill the said Three-fingered JACK. . . . and if any one of his accomplices will . . . bring in his head, and hand wanting the fingers, such accomplice shall be entitled to a Free Pardon, and his Freedom" (quoted by Cundall, 36). Jack was captured and killed soon afterward, and his head and three-fingered hand, preserved in a bucket of rum, were brought to Kingston as evidence in order to claim the reward.

  3. "Obi" is short for obeah, a West African form of sorcery in which Jack was thought by most of the slave community, and even by some of the planters themselves, to be an adept. He had supposedly been instructed in the art by his mother. "Obi" also referred to the horn or fetish by which obeah practitioners exerted their magic powers. These powers could supposedly be directed at enemies in the form of a wasting disease, or confer invisibility or superhuman strength on the obi sorcerer or sorceress.

  4. Relying on Moseley's and Earle's accounts, comic actor John Fawcett wrote the Obi pantomime for the Covent Garden company's 1800 summer season at the Haymarket, in the West End of London. With music by Samuel Arnold, a well-known composer for the London stage, the pantomime was, literally, performed in mime, with signboards, songs and choruses. Mimed action flourished in England during this period, especially in the so-called "popular" theaters, partly because English law prohibited the performance of plays with spoken dialogue—including Shakespeare—from all but two theaters in the realm, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, both located in the West End. The Haymarket Theater was permitted to perform spoken-dialogue plays with the Covent Garden company in residence, but in order to cash in on the new popular forms, including pantomime and melodrama, the house would sometimes stage works of the more "popular" sort. The original cast of Obi was entirely white, performing the roles of slaves in blackface—a device deeply offensive to today's audiences, whatever their race. I am indebted to my colleague and specialist in West Indian literature, Larry Briener, for his suggestion that we re-create the effect of the original cross-racial make-up by using black and white half-masks. (Kitty, a mulatto, wears a black-and-white striped mask.) Cross-dressed roles, such as Tuckey, played by a woman, and the Obi Woman, played by a man, were also common at this time, as were "breeches" roles for young women like Rosa—in order to show off their legs! (see fig.1)

  5. The Obi pantomime dominated the London stage that summer, and one of its songs, "A Lady of Fair Seville City," even became the equivalent of a modern "Top-Ten Hit."1 The pantomime continued to play in London at both the patent and the popular theaters as well as throughout the provinces for at least the next three decades. The silent role of Jack, which substantially boosted the career of a young Charles Kemble in the original production (Williamson, 29-31), raised the stage profiles of numerous character-actors to follow. The most famous of these was Richard Smith (see fig. 2)

  6. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the English Abolition Movement began to catch its second wind. (Its first phase had resulted in the passage of the Anti-Slave Trade Bill in 1807.) At some point in the late 1820s a theater manager in Edinburgh named William Murray, who had begun to feature Ira Aldridge in his productions, apparently re-wrote the pantomime as a melodrama "expressly" for Aldridge, giving the character of Jack a voice for the first time.2 Murray supplied Aldridge with stirring denunciations of hypocritical Christian slave-owners and speeches that justified the mayhem he visited upon them by depicting the atrocities that English slave-traders had perpetrated when they raided Jack's village in Africa.

  7. Melodrama had been gaining ground as a popular form for several decades, resourcefully pushing the limits of governmental restrictions on the performance of spoken-word dramas by providing spoken dialogues accompanied by music, either as introduction or as background to speeches: thus the origin of the term "melo-drama." Like other popular tragi-comedies of its day, the Obi melodrama featured a morally ambiguous outcast as violent antihero. For this reason it appealed strongly to the resentments and sympathies of England's lower-class audiences, many of whom had been victimized by the cruel, laissez-faire form of capitalism then raging unchecked throughout England. Laborers were agitating for the reform of parliamentary representation, the extension of the franchise to middle- and working-class citizens, and the legalization of labor unions. For the most part, laborer audiences were to be found in the vast industrial and commercial areas of the English provinces—in the Midlands, the seaports, and especially in the working-class neighborhoods and slum-districts of Britain's growing manufacturing towns. Accordingly, the Obi melodrama, with the black American acting sensation, Ira Aldridge, in the role of Jack Mansong, was not the sort of thing that the posh West End theaters of Covent Garden and Drury Lane were likely to take to heart—and they did not. Except for a handful of appearances at the so-called "legitimate" theaters, Aldridge was effectively banned from the West End for most of his career, even after his triumphant tours of Europe and Russia in the 1850s.

  8. Ira Aldridge, the great African-American tragedian, was born in New York City on July 24, 1807, where he attended the African Free School.3 As a young man he fell in love with the stage and for a brief time appeared with the African Grove Theater in Lower Manhattan, until it was closed by the white authorities in 1824. Soon afterwards, Aldridge left for England, where he soon became the toast of the provincial theaters, especially in the role of Othello (see fig. 3). Billed as "the African Roscius," after the famous actor of Republican Rome, Quintus Roscius (who had been born a slave), Aldridge became a spokesperson for the enslaved and oppressed members of his race, and battled the forces of racism, overt and covert, personal and institutional, both in his own life and in the stage roles that he made his own, principally those of Shakespeare's tragic heroes.

  9. Aldridge's early career intersected with, and contributed to, the movement for the abolition of slavery in England and its possessions, a nation-wide effort that eventually resulted in the passage of the Abolition Bill in 1833. Aldridge went on to tour the European continent, garnering numerous honors, including a knighthood from the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, and transforming Russian acting technique with his naturalistic style. In addition to electrifying audiences with his Othello, he became famous for his performances as Shylock, Macbeth, and King Lear, all in whiteface. He died in 1867, while on tour in Poland, and was buried in the city of Lodz, where his grave is cared for to this day by the Society of Polish Artists of Film and Theater. He left four children, one of whom, Amanda Aldridge, went on to become the singing teacher of Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson.

  10. Ira Aldridge is one of only thirty-three distinguished actors of the English stage—and the only actor of African-American descent—to be memorialized with a bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theater at Stratford-upon-Avon. The melodrama version of Obi, or Three-Finger'd Jack, based on the pantomime of 1800, not only showcased Aldridge's astonishing talents at a critical stage of his career, but remained a part of his repertory well into the middle of the nineteenth century.

  11. As for Jack Mansong, he went on to become a hero (or, perhaps, anti-hero) of nineteenth-century English popular culture, appearing in children's books and domestic theatricals, as well as on provincial stages, and achieving something of the status of today's Batman or Spiderman.

  12. The taped performances of material from the Obi pantomime and melodrama that appear in this number of Praxis have been excerpted from a videotape of a dress rehearsal of Obi: A Play in the Life of Ira Aldridge, the "Paul Robeson" of the 19th Century, which was performed at the Boston Univerity Playwrights' Theater on 18 July 2000 and funded by the Boston University Humanities Foundation. This performance consisted of a number of important scenes, songs, and dances taken from both of the Obi plays and arranged within a narrative framework written by the show's director, Vincent Siders. Within this framework, Mr. Siders offered reflections on the difficulties of interpreting and staging historically significant but culturally offensive works like Obi, as well as non-narrative, contextual commentary (e.g., musical "sampling" from Public Enemy) on the action itself.4 In addition, earlier versions of the first four essays in this Praxis number, by Charles Rzepka, Jeffrey Cox, Peter Buckley, and Debbie Lee, were read aloud as part of the evening's performance.

  13. The one-night Boston performance of Obi: A Play in the Life, which drew a standing-room-only crowd,5 was the basis for the version performed on 14 September at the 2000 Conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, in Tempe, Arizona.6 This performance, which was also funded by the Boston University Humanities Foundation, was directed by Jerrold Hogle of the University of Arizona, who, in the essay concluding this volume, has provided us with his perspective on Obi and the difficulties of staging it.

  14. The pantomime text used in both the Boston and the Tempe performances was the one published in London by Duncombe and Moon, probably c. 1825, while the melodrama material came from an edition published in London by Thomas Hailes Lacy, probably c. 1850. The pantomime text has been edited for this special Praxis number by Jeff Cox and the melodrama text by Charles Rzepka. (Boldface in the pantomime and melodrama texts indicate action that was videotaped at rehearsal.) Some deviations from the original scripts were made in performance. The most notable of these is to be found in the lyrics to the song sung by Tuckey in Act I, scene 2 of the melodrama, "Opossum Up a Gum Tree."

  15. This song had been popularized by the English comic actor, Charles Mathews, after a visit to America during which he allegedly heard it performed by Aldridge himself at the African Grove. When Aldridge arrived in England he was requested to sing it in numerous performances on the English stage. In Murray's melodrama, however, it is assigned to a minor, comic character. The history of this song, and its precise relationship to early African-American, West African, and English folk music traditions, is obscure. No musical setting has survived for the words as they appear in extant published versions of the Obi melodrama. For both the Boston and the Tempe productions, therefore, a version of this song originally published by Mathews with musical accompaniment was substituted for the version that appears in the Lacy edition (Nathan, 46-47). As will immediately become obvious, the first verse of the Mathews text differs substantially from that of Lacy. In addition, the director of the Boston production, Vincent Siders, chose not to have Tuckey sing the last verse of the song. Jerrold Hogle, director of the Tempe production, decided to keep it.

  16. One minor but interesting variation in the Boston performance text was the substitution of the word "invincible" for "invisible" in Jack's last long speech before the end of Act I, scene iii, in the Obi Woman's hut. In the Lacy edition Jack says to the Obi Woman, "Quick, quick! More of your charms, which in the eye of superstition make me invisible." Lacy is supported by Dick's edition, but contradicted by the text published in the Oxberry Weekly Budget, which reads "invincible." The Oxberry text, which is all but useless for performance purposes because of its fine print and tabloid format, lists the putative author, William Murray, among its Dramatis Personae (in the role of Captain Orford), and appears to have been published earlier (1843) than either Lacy or Dick. For this reason, the director and producer decided to substitute the Oxberry "invincible," although a case could be made for either variant.

  17. The papers read as part of the Boston and Tempe productions of Obi: a Play in the Life of Ira Aldridge are here reproduced in the order in which they were originally presented. "ObiNow" was written primarily as an introductory meditation on the general rationale for contemporary stagings of historically significant but offensive works, and of these two versions of the Obi play in particular. In "Theatrical Forms, Ideological Conflicts, and the Staging of Obi," Jeffrey Cox examines the conventions of pantomime and popular theater, the laws governing dramatic performance in England, and the impact of nationalism and abolitionism at the turn of the century as they shaped the writing, production, and reception of the original Obi pantomime. Professor Cox has published widely on English popular theater in the Romantic period, and has edited many of its plays. His book Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt, and their Circle was recently published by Cambridge University Press.

  18. Peter Buckley, of Cooper Union, specializes in Colonial and nineteenth-century popular entertainment in America. His scholarly monograph on popular entertainment in early America appears in the Cambridge History of the American Theater. In "Obiin New York: Aldridge and the African Grove," Professor Buckley provides new information and valuable historical perspective on the performance history of the Obi pantomime at the short-lived African Grove Theater in lower Manhattan, Ira Aldridge's first acting venue. As Professor Buckley demonstrates, the popular repertoire of the African Grove and the impact of early debates over slavery and abolition helped to shape both the personality and the stage-presence of the young African American tragedian. Debbie Lee, of Washington State University, has written on the inter-relations of literature, culture, and disease, as well as on early African exploration, and served as editor of Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period, published by Pickering and Chatto. Her book, Slavery and the Romantic Imagination, has recently been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Professor Lee's paper, "Grave Dirt, Dried Toads, and the Blood of a Black Cat: How Aldridge Worked his Charms," links the practice of obeah and its representation on stage to the tale of Jack Mansong as it was first introduced to English readers in Moseley's A Treatise on Sugar. The scope of her analysis, however, includes the cultural, political, and religious significance of race, slavery, and the idea of Africa in the imperial British imaginary.

  19. Musicologist Robert Hoskins, of Massey University in New Zealand, has probably made the greatest single contribution to our knowledge of the origins, circumstances of production, and production history of the Obi pantomime and melodrama, as set forth in the comprehensive introduction to his facsimile edition of the original Obi score, published in 1996 by Stainer and Bell. We feel quite fortunate, therefore, to have secured his participation in this project. In "Savage Boundaries" Professor Hoskins examines the numerous thematic allusions and correspondences that Samuel Arnold planted in the music he wrote for the original Obi pantomime. As Hoskins makes clear, these resonances extend well beyond the limits of standard word-painting to embrace deeply embedded cultural presuppositions about racial Othering, gender, and archetypes of the hortus conclusus or earthly paradise as expressed in English stage representations of the slave, planter society, and West Indies scenery. Finally, Jerrold Hogle, who directed the Tempe production of the Obi plays, describes the practical—and ideological—challenges of directing the Obi material on a contemporary stage. Professor Hogle, of the University of Arizona, is a distinguished scholar of English romanticism, with numerous books and articles to his credit, whose interests have turned recently to popular literature and drama, including nineteenth-century melodrama, especially in the Gothic mode. His book, The Undergrounds of the Phantom of the Opera: Sublimation and the Gothic in LeRoux's Novel and its Progeny, has recently been published by St. Martin's Press/Palgrave. Professor Hogle's contribution, Directing Obi in 2000, is especially welcome in light of the decision of Mr. Siders, director of the Boston production, not to contribute a formal essay to this collection.

  20. I would like to end this introduction by acknowledging the performers and crew involved in staging the Boston production of Obi. To each of them I offer my profoundest thanks! The full program of the production, along with stage credits of all the performers, is included in this special number of Praxis. Video clips of selected scenes from the production can be viewed online at Romantic Circles (view clips).

Works Cited

Burroughs, Catherine. Rev. of Obi; or Three-Finger'd Jack (1800-1830): Selections with Commentary, performed for the First Plenary Session at the Conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, Arizona State University, September 14, 2000, directed by Jerrold E. Hogle. European Romantic Review 12.3 (2001): 381-89.

Cundall, Frank. "Three-Fingered Jack, The Terror of Jamaica." West India Committee Circular 45 (1930): 9-10, 36-37, 55-56.

Earle, William, Jr. "Obi; or, The History of Three-fingered Jack." In a Series of Letters from a Resident in Jamaica to his Friend in England. Worcester: Isaiah Thomas, Jr., 1804.

Fawcett, John. Obi, or Three-Finger'd Jack. A Serio Pantomime in Two Acts. London: Duncombe and Moon, n.d. [c. 1825?]

"Obi: or, Three-Finger'd Jack." Music for London Entertainment. Series D, Vol 4. London: Stainer & Bell, 1996. Facsimile edition of Samuel Arnold's printed piano-vocal score, published by John Longman and Muzio Clementi, 1801. Critical introduction by Robert Hoskins, with Eileen Southern.

Marshall, Herbert, and Mildred Stock. Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian. Intro. by Errol Hill. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1993.

Moseley, Benjamin. A Treatise on Sugar, with Miscellaneous Medical Observations. London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1799.

[Murray, William H.] "Obi, or Three-Finger'd Jack. A Popular Melodrame, in Two Acts." Oxberry's Weekly Budget of Plays and Magazine of Romance, Whim, and Interest 1 (1843): 93-95.

[---.] Obi; or Three-Fingered Jack, A Melo-Drama in Two Acts. London: Thomas Hailes Lacy, n.d. [c. 1850?]

Nathan, Hans. Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. Norman: U. of Oklahoma Press, 1977.

Williamson, Jane. Charles Kemble, Man of the Theater. Lincoln: U. of Nebraska Press, 1970.


1 For a detailed account of the original Obi pantomime performance, its music, and its critical reception, see Hoskins.

2 This is according to the information contained in a Northampton playbill of 1830. See Marshall and Stock (89). The playbill mistakenly gives Murray the first initial "J."

3 The information about Ira Aldridge provided in this esssay has been taken from the scholarly biography written by Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock.

4 Those who wish to obtain a copy of the entire dress rehearsal videotape should send a check for $10.00 to cover copying, postage, and handling to Professor Charles Rzepka, English Department, Boston University, 236 Bay State Road, Boston, MA 02215. The check should be made out to "Charles Rzepka."

5 This performance was previewed in several Boston-area newspapers. See, e.g., The Boston Globe (July 6, 2000), p. E2; The Boston Herald (Friday, July 14, 2000), p. S13; The Bay State Banner (July 13, 2000), pp. 13, 16; and The Boston Phoenix ("Eight Days a Week" section, July 14, 2000), p. 5. See also the review of the performance by Barbara Rizza Mellin in the NAACP bi-monthly magazine, The New Crisis (September/October 2000), pp. 44-46.

6 See Burroughs for a review of this performance.