||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.
||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.
||"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.
||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 dialogueincluding
Shakespearefrom 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 blackfacea 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 Rosain order to show off their legs! (see
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
||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.
||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 provincesin 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 heartand 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.
||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
||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
||Ira Aldridge is one of only thirty-three
distinguished actors of the English stageand the only actor of African-American
descentto 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.
||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.
||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.
||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.
||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."
||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
||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.
||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.
"Obi Now" 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.
||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 "Obi
in 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.
||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
practicaland ideologicalchallenges 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.
||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