John A. Arneaux was born in Georgia in 1855, to a Parisian father and an African-American mother of French descent. He moved north to New York around 1870 to study German, Latin, and French, later traveling to Paris for further study. At some point his interests took a turn and, back in New York, he began training and performing as a vaudeville artist.
With encouragement from a local theater manager, his first performance as a dramatic actor took place in 1876. Almost a decade later, and with apparently little other theatrical experience in the meantime, he joined the Astor Place Company of Colored Tragedians, and appeared as Iago in an 1884 production of Othello. His performance was favorably received, and the New York Daily News described it as “the best and truest in the entire cast.” Around this time, Arneaux also began managing the Astor Place Company, founded during the previous decade by his friend and fellow actor Benjamin J. Ford.
The next year, Arneaux starred as the title character in the Astor Place Company’s production of Richard III. Once again, his performance received rave reviews. Throughout 1886, the Astor Place Company traveled between venues in New York, Providence, and Philadelphia, performing Othello and Richard III.
Arneaux was compared favorably to both Ira Aldridge and Edwin Booth, two of the foremost Shakespearean actors of the nineteenth century. As a black actor taking on some of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, and doing so with great skill, he was seen as following in Aldridge’s footsteps by many in the theater world. However, he modeled his performance as Richard III on Booth. Critics approved, but noticed that he put his own spin on the character: the reviewer for the North American noted that he walked with a “rather flippant step,” reflecting the interpretation of Richard III as “a villain whose humors rapidly changed from wicked to jocose.”
While pursuing his acting career, Arneaux was also a journalist and editor. He wrote feature articles for several New York papers including the New York World and the New York Sun, and even ran his own paper, the New York Enterprise, although that publication ceased when its office burned down in 1886. It is probably through his journalistic career that he developed the connections which allowed him to independently publish his own edition of Richard III.
Arneaux’s Richard III was “adapted for amateurs and the drawing room,” encouraging its use not just by actors but by anyone. It is laid out clearly, printed in a readable font, and sold for twenty-five cents (the equivalent of about six dollars today). Arneaux provides a straightforward and open introduction explaining his editorial decisions (cutting out several speeches by minor characters and simplifying the climactic battle scene to be played out symbolically by only a few actors, among other things). He asserts that, “If an Amateur wishes to play tragedy, he should not hesitate to undertake Richard III.”
Despite his brief but successful career as both actor and journalist, Arneaux was disheartened by the difficulties of supporting a black newspaper in the late 19th century, not to mention its sudden cessation. In the summer of 1887, Arneaux retreated to a hotel in the Catskills to rest and think about the future. Interviewed by the Washington Bee in August 1887, he shared his plans to sail for Paris, and continue his study of the theater there. Unfortunately, Arneaux’s life becomes rather mysterious at this point. We know that he lived in Paris for the next decade, and planned to return to the United States, but there is no record of his ever having done so.
Interested in staging a revival of Arneaux’s Richard III? It has been digitized by the HathiTrust project, and is available in full online. To learn more about Arneaux and other black Shakespeareans, look for Shakespeare in Sable by Errol Hill, published in 1984, at your local library.