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Reviewed by
David Krasner
Emerson College
Bernth Lindfors, ed. Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius. Rochester, NY: Rochester UP, 2007. 288 pp., 19 illustrations. $55.00.

Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) was one of the greatest actors of the nineteenth century. In today's parlance, his superstar status would be unimpeachable. Yet he has received less recognition for his achievements than his contemporary white luminaries. The objective of Bernth Lindfors's collection of primary sources and critical essays is to set the record straight by giving Aldridge his overdue credit. Acknowledging the book Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian (1958) by Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock as groundbreaking, Lindfors, the editor of this collection, sets out nonetheless "to fill some of the lacunae" left out of previous studies of Aldridge "by bringing together a number of essays that shed light on aspects of his existence that were not treated in sufficient depth" (2). In doing so, the book succeeds at portraying Aldridge admirably.

The text is divided into two sections. The first reproduces nineteenth-century documents regarding Aldridge, most significantly "Memoir and Theatrical Career of Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius" (ca. 1848), an exaggerated but still informative account of the actor's life. The section offers newly translated news reports and letters that verify or reveal important data about Aldridge's professional and personal life. After a brief stay in New York, Aldridge realized that racism in the United States provided limited opportunities. He ventured to Europe, achieving recognition as one of the great leading actors of his generation. Aldridge's early career succeeded primarily in the provinces outside London rather than in the theatrical capital. In his middle-to-late career he gained success throughout Europe, including London. Known as the "African Roscius" (after the Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus), Aldridge played Othello, Lear, Macbeth, Shylock, and Aaron in Titus Andronicus, Mungo in The Padlock, and other roles with humanity, pathos, and eloquence heretofore unseen on the European stage.

The second section consists of critical essays. Researchers Ruth Cowhig, Nichola Betŭsić, Joost Groenebour, Ann Marie Koller, and Krzysztof Sawala examine Aldridge's performances in England, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, and Poland. Hazel Waters attempts to show how Aldridge fought racism by pushing "the boundaries of the roles available to him" (101). Joyce Green MacDonald argues that Aldridge challenged "the relevance of previous centuries' efforts by white actors to 'act black'" (137) by undermining the perceptions of blackness in new and innovative ways. Unsettling the fixed identity of Africans, Aldridge disrupted a theatrical trend by inserting interpretations that cut against the grain of stereotypes. Nicholas M. Evans asserts that Aldridge went to England and performed in roles antithetical to traditional popular minstrelsy, applying instead a "Du Boisian double consciousness" to his characterizations (163). Along similar lines, editor Lindfors adds that Aldridge established himself as a serious tragic actor by experimenting with "white roles," which resulted in challenging racist assumptions through a demonstration of his range and capacity. Aldridge's performances as Macbeth and Lear, writes Herbert Marshall, were intensely human, dispelling stereotypical caricatures. Keith Byerman observes that the actor's performance in comic roles, such as in The Black Doctor, also undermined prevailing perceptions.

Aldridge was a superb actor, both comic and tragic, as this book evinces. In Shakespeare in Sable, the late theatre scholar Errol Hill noted that Aldridge was instrumental in bringing a naturalistic acting style to the European stage. His renditions of Othello and Shylock jettisoned the bombastic villainy that had been the bailiwick of other actors. Instead, he brought multi-dimension and nuance to his characterizations, fleshing out a three-dimensional portrayal. One of the most interesting essays in this collection is by Ann Marie Koller, who (following Hill's argument) [End Page 202] suggests that the great stage director the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen attended Aldridge's performance and was so impressed by the actor's authenticity that he was inspired to initiate his famed quest for stage naturalism. That Aldridge helped shape the future of the Western stage practice of realism and naturalism is a highly original and profoundly important idea. A further testament to Aldridge's acting skills is the fact that when he performed the leading roles of Shakespeare in Eastern Europe or Russia, his fellow actors often spoke in their native language while he spoke in English. If audiences did not understand English, they would have had to recognize Aldridge's talent even if they could not always follow the words. As Nikola Betŭsić points out, "In European cities, and especially in Russia, he was so popular that theater agents were fighting each other to book his performances by offering him huge sums of money, because they knew that the reputation of Aldridge would fill cash registers and theaters" (217). The novelty of a black actor would have played some part in the performer's popularity, but in the end Aldridge would still have had to produce the talent and charisma required for consistent success. This he did significantly.

A certain amount of repetition is inevitable when a book collects various essays on a similar subject. (The song "Opossum up a Gum Tree" could have been printed in an appendix and referred to there when raised by each author, instead of being repeated in full several times.) Many essays will be familiar to researchers in African American theater studies. There are a few contradictions that might have been examined in greater detail. For instance, some scholars praise Aldridge for his histrionics, while others note his subtleties and suggest he was less histrionic than his contemporaries. It would have been interesting to read a debate over acting theory germane to the actor's performance. The collection, nonetheless, is essential to scholars and researchers of theater and cultural history. It is a rewarding book, shedding light not only on the theater but also on race relations during a century fraught with issues of slavery and the attempt to eliminate human bondage.