- Ira Aldridge: The Early Years (1807-1833), and: Ira Aldridge: The Vagabond Years (1833-1852)
Ira Aldridge is surely one of the most fascinating cultural figures of the nineteenth century, and deserves to be much more widely known than he is. Educated in New York City in one of the two Free Schools for African Americans, Aldridge defied his father's wish that he become a preacher and instead, against all odds, pursued his dream of becoming an actor. While that was not possible in the United States, he went across the sea and had a long and productive stage career, first in the British Isles and later throughout all of Europe. In a remarkable new two-volume biography, Bernth Lindfors captures the life of the only nineteenth-century actor of color in Europe, and as such has done much to remedy a most unwarranted lacuna.
Lindfors cogently argues that Aldridge sought to change the perception that most whites had of black people, and that he did this consciously, not only by the roles he choose to play and the manner in which he played them, but also through the order in which he presented an evening's entertainment. For instance, his masterful representation of Othello was usually followed by one of his farcical black caricatures. Aldridge had to contend against comic performers like Thomas Dartmouth Rice and Charles Mathews, whose exaggerated comic stereotypes of black people were enormously popular and taken as true representations of essential character. To nineteenth-century playgoers, "accustomed as they were to stage caricatures of black people, Aldridge's grace, dignity, versatility—in short, his theatrical competence—came as a complete surprise, forcing them to reconsider notions they had previously held of Africans, West Indians, African Americans, and indigenous British blacks" (92; vol. 1). But that's not all, for by following Othello or Oronooko with a farce, the audience, "having already witnessed his polished performance in a serious role . . . knew that he was playing the fool—in short, that he was acting a part, not manifesting his own innate racial peculiarities" (117; vol. 1). By painstakingly tracking down Aldridge's itinerary on the road over many years, Lindfors shows that Aldridge seemed to take into account audience perception as he choose his roles and crafted his performance. While he occasionally performed in a popular play with no redeeming social value, such plays were usually dropped and did not remain a part of his repertoire. Lindfors argues that most of the villains Aldridge played were malformed by unjust social institutions or racial prejudice: "It was the torment of slavery that produced such resolute 'monsters.' They were victims of a barbaric European economic system built on hierarchical assumptions of racial difference. Aldridge would have had a stake in challenging such assumptions by humanizing such villains and making their animosity toward white oppressors comprehensible" (178; vol. 1). Indeed, [End Page 137] Aldridge's early career in Britain was contemporaneous with the fight to abolish slavery, and as Lidfors demonstrates, Aldridge's inability to succeed at the patent theaters in London was mostly due to the vicious racism of the anti-abolitionists in the newspapers. Aldridge appeared for two nights in 1833 at Covent Garden, London's most prestigious theater, the very year that the Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Empire was finally passed. As Lindfors shows, one of the greatest actors of the nineteenth century was barred from the nation's capital and forced to spend his life on the road as a provincial actor. But at least on the British Isles he could have a career, and he was lauded wherever he went, especially in Ireland.
While not much is known of Aldridge's personal life, Lindfors conveys the life of a provincial actor moving from town to town and dealing with incompetent supporting players and venal managers...