My own introduction to the extraordinary career of Ira Aldridge was through the late Errol Hill's fascinating study Shakespeare in Sable: A History of Black Shakespearean Actors (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1984). For an appetite thus whetted, the present collection of essays edited by the indefatigable Bernth Lindfors is greatly to be welcomed. The black American actor, born in New York in 1807, became one of the most remarkable Shakespearean actors of the nineteenth century, having left his homeland at the age of seventeen to establish a career first of all in England and subsequently throughout Europe. Aldridge's story—as theatrical in its own terms as many of the characters he played—is told in this volume through eighteen essays, seven concentrating on "The Life" and eleven on "The Career." The editor opens the volume by reproducing three enthralling commentaries written during Aldridge's lifetime, showing the ambitions and frustrations of his upbringing in New York and tracing a career that saw him patronizingly regarded by the London Times critic who first witnessed his appearance in metropolitan melodramas as one "not [. . .] worse than the ordinary run of such actors are to be seen at the Coburg theatre" (99) to eventual acclamation as one of the most exciting and innovative interpreters of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. The volume's essays include a detailed analysis of "New Bibliographical Information" by Lindfors and a range of other commentaries that paint the extraordinary picture of an actor who seems to have appeared in every provincial playhouse in Britain and Ireland, toured extensively, and with great success, in mainland Europe, and inevitably confronted audiences not only with what they interpreted as the exotic but also challenged and mainly triumphed over deeply held prejudices. Sample essay headings from a range of international contributors give a taste of the range of commentary and enquiry: "The First American on the Zagreb Stage," "A Heartwarming, Radiant Othello in the Netherlands, 1855," "Ira Aldridge's Fight for Equality," "Acting Black: Othello, Othello Burlesques, and the Performance of Blackness." The value of this volume is not only in the detailed and fascinating study of Aldridge's life and work, a theatrical career that allowed him, as the "African Roscius," to be compared with great innovative actors from the Roman theater of Plautus and Terence onward, but also—as a very important bonus—as a detailed, informative, and often original history of European nineteenth-century theater. Aldridge played before kings and commoners, in ornate theaters and rough music halls. He performed in great classical tragedies and in burlettas and farces. He performed songs (to his own guitar accompaniment) and presented Shakespeare's tragic heroes "thought out," as one contemporary critic states, "to the tiniest detail [. . . an] unusually living and full-blooded creation of Shakespeare's characters" (200).
Aldridge's personal life was as dramatic as his professional, and this volume—helpfully illustrated as a bonus—is an important work of theater history and an illuminating study of the trials and triumphs of a remarkable, and courageous, actor. [End Page 222]