- Ira Aldridge: Performing Shakespeare in Europe, 1852–1855 by Bernth Lindfors
Eleven thousand miles. That astonishing figure is the approximate number of miles Bernth Lindfors estimates that Ira Aldridge, the “African Roscius,” traversed during his three-year tour of Europe—a tour meticulously chronicled in Lindfors’s third installment of Aldridge’s biography. Along his way, Aldridge would meet kings, receive fan letters from the nobility, face various lawsuits for debt, help to free a family from bondage, and come under suspicion as a possible spy in Hungary. While those three years on tour helped to cement Aldridge’s reputation as a powerful interpreter of the roles of Shylock, Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III, they also emphasized the controversial nature of his work, as seemingly every city from Prague to Pest debated whether this “African Tragedian” (as Aldridge styled himself) could legitimately lay claim to Shakespeare.
Lindfors’s new work on Aldridge covers a critical period in the actor’s history. After years of only marginal success in England, in 1852 Aldridge launched an ambitious trek across Europe, encompassing cities in modern-day Russia, Croatia, Poland, Germany, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Switzerland, France, and Lithuania (Lindfors includes a helpful appendix aligning various cities’ historical names with their contemporary ones). Aldridge generally [End Page 142] traveled with a spartan company, often combining his troupe with local performers who played in what chroniclers record as a bewildering array of dialects. Perhaps because of these practical challenges, he performed a tightly edited repertoire, relying heavily on Othello, Macbeth, and The Padlock and later incorporating The Merchant of Venice and Richard III. The result was a compendium of critical responses that allows the contemporary scholar to see Aldridge’s growth as a Shakespeare performer during his years on tour—a trajectory that might have been less apparent had he been performing in different roles every night. Lindfors’s fourteen-chapter study takes the reader with Aldridge from his first challenging days on the tour, when financial troubles forced him to release several company members, to his triumphs three years later, when critics puzzled over what they could add to the paeans of praise heaped on the star, aside from “‘the usual commendatory phrases’” that “‘placed him beside the best English actors, Garrick and Kean’” (176, 175).
Performing Shakespeare in Europe is a richly documented work, including hundreds of reviews from European newspapers. Lindfors has worked painstakingly to map not only Aldridge’s travels but also the lives and careers of some of the less well-known performers who worked with him. Several had been on the provincial touring circuit in England before joining Aldridge’s venture. These mini-biographies offer useful insights into the lives of jobbing actors during the mid-nineteenth century, and, perhaps more importantly, they underscore how challenging it was for Aldridge to find actors whose styles were compatible with his own. Critics frequently leveled complaints about the various Iagos, Desdemonas, Bassanios, and other characters that appeared opposite Aldridge. Audiences soon learned to dismiss most of the other performers onstage, focusing solely on Aldridge’s interpretation of some of their most beloved literary figures. Indeed, the early chapters of Lindfors’s study focus on Aldridge’s time in Prussia and Germany and his encounters with audiences whose passionate devotion to Shakespeare outstripped those of the playwright’s own countrymen. The German enthusiasm for Shakespeare bordered on idolatry and had only been enhanced by the Schlegel-Tieck translations that had “naturalized” his works for the German public (35). That worship, combined with audiences’ curiosity to see the “unique and unexpected phenomenon” of a black man performing Shakespeare, proved a “huge draw” in bringing Prussian and German audiences into the playhouse (35).
It is difficult to know whether Aldridge found it galling to be seen as a “phenomenon” rather than simply as an actor. Reviews—particularly the early European ones—often contain a mixture of wonder that any person of color could create a credible performance combined...