- Ira Aldridge: The Last Years, 1855–1867 by Bernth Lindfors
by Bernth Lindfors
U of Rochester P, 2015.
x + 351 pp. ISBN 9781580465380 cloth.
With Ira Aldridge: The Last Years, 1855–1867, Berth Lindfors concludes what will surely remain the definitive biography of the great nineteenth-century African American actor, Ira Aldridge, for many a decade. The third volume focused on the great thespian’s success performing Shakespeare in Europe in the years 1852–55, and this fourth volume follows Aldridge as he makes his way not only into Eastern [End Page 187] Europe—Poland and Hungary—but also deep into Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey as well.
The book begins with the chapter “Readjusting to Britain,” and then proceeds through chapters on each of Aldridge’s nine continental tours, with chapters interspersed of him resting, and sometimes performing, back home. Although born in New York, Aldridge was never able to perform in his native country, and he was only begrudgingly tolerated in the UK, although London remained his home base when he was not touring and in his last years he became a British citizen (so as to be able to purchase a house). It was only outside England that his immense talent was fully appreciated, and as on his first tour Aldridge continued to be fêted abroad.
As with the previous volumes, the interest of the book lies mainly in a detailed account of the actor’s art as well as in its representation of Aldridge using his talent on behalf of the oppressed everywhere. For instance, his “sympathetic portrayal” of Shylock “reinforced the position of those who favored Jewish emancipation” (63). Aldridge also produced in these years an adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, but after only four performances never reprised the role of Dred again, more than likely due to less than spectacular reviews.
Lindfors has done a superb job tracking down the itinerary that Aldridge followed, although he occasionally loses track of the artist. Nonetheless, through an exhaustive search of local reviews and commentary he is able not only to follow Aldridge on his travels, but also to provide a wide range of observations on the actor’s technique and artistic success. It is clear, for example, that Aldridge was extremely meticulous regarding every detail of his performance and that he was able to go from one emotion to another in a flash, for instance from tender affection to rage. He was a transformational actor, and his Othello in no way resembled his Shylock. He was one of the great realistic actors at a time when bombast was too often the norm. One of the highlights in these years was the addition of King Lear to his repertory, which opened in Pest in 1858; we learn that in the role of the aging monarch Aldridge was unanimously lauded by critics for achieving “the highest perfection of artistic excellence” (86).
Aldridge died suddenly in Lodz, Poland, on August 7th 1867. Although he was reluctant to return to the US to perform because of his opposition to the way his people were treated there, after the Civil War he was negotiating to perform in New York and Boston. Lindfors concludes his book, and this outstanding multi-volume biography, conjecturing how that might have turned out in a country still plagued by race riots. Aldridge looked on himself as an ambassador for Africans everywhere, demonstrating the grace, intelligence, and refinement that his people were capable of, and that is why he finally resolved to return to his native country and perform. Unfortunately it was not to be. [End Page 188]