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Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius (review)
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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) 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...

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