- Ira Aldridge: The Early Years, 1807–1833 by Bernth Lindfors, and: Ira Aldridge: The Vagabond Years, 1833–1852 by Bernth Lindfors, and: Ira Aldridge: Performing Shakespeare in Europe, 1852–1855 by Bernth Lindfors
Being dead for almost 150 years hasn’t stopped Ira Aldridge from making yet another comeback. This nineteenth-century black actor is the subject of a three-volume biography by Bernth Lindfors with a possible fourth volume on the way. Aldridge is also the subject of the 2012 play Red Velvet, by Lolita Chakabariti; a production of Red Velvet starring Adrian Lester transferred from London to New York for a brief run in 2014 and reopened in London in 2016. Perhaps the fortuitous timing of these works will finally lift this fascinating actor out of semi-obscurity, giving him the respect and fame he has so long deserved.
Bernth Lindfors, professor emeritus of English and African literatures at the University of Texas, Austin, has been a leading Aldridge scholar for many years and is perhaps best known for editing and contributing to the 2007 book Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius as well as other articles offering new insights into Aldridge’s career and personal biography. In this new multivolume biography, [End Page 362] Lindfors expertly merges his new research with the body of Aldridge scholarship over the decades, including the first biography of Aldridge, Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian, published by Marshall and Stock in 1958. There is plenty of fresh information and new perspectives on Aldridge to be found in Lindfors’s new volumes, even for those familiar with Lindfors’s previous publications. The first two volumes, published in 2011, The Early Years and The Vagabond Years, cover the first fifty years of Aldridge’s life and career, most of which were spent in England and Ireland. Volume 3, published in 2013, covers 1852–1855, focusing on Aldridge’s international success as a Shakespearean actor in Europe, mostly outside of the United Kingdom. The final ten years of Aldridge’s life are tantalizingly left to future volume(s); however, the three volumes currently available are already a colossal achievement, following Aldridge through scores of theatres in over a dozen nations.
Lindfors has crafted a gloriously deep history, the result of decades of digging into the theatrical and cultural backgrounds of the places and people Aldridge touched. Lindfors goes beyond a chronological tracing of Aldridge’s major life and career events to excavate the cultural context of the texts he performed, the spaces he performed in, the popular contemporary actors and acting styles, the prevailing politics of slavery/abolition, and racial stereotypes of the various places he performed. All three books inspire a profound respect for Aldridge’s range of talent, the political and moral effect of his performances, his business ingenuity, his perpetual experimentation with repertoire, and his courage to continue acting and innovating in the face of disappointments, setbacks, and racism. The itinerancy of Aldridge’s career is often given as the reason why his story has slipped through the cracks, yet Lindfors demonstrates the profound rewards of analyzing peripatetic subjects for the larger perspective they offer on the theatre culture, theatre economy, and political landscape.
The Early Years covers the first twenty-six years of Aldridge’s life, starting in New York City, where he was born, educated at the African Free School, and had his first theatre experiences. Aldridge may have been involved with the African Theatre in New York, and Lindfors details Aldridge’s connections with the African Theatre’s leading actor, James Hewlett, as well as the burlesquing of Hewlett and the African Theatre by English comedian Charles Matthews. Whether or not Aldridge ever acted at the African Theatre in New York (there is no conclusive extant record), Aldridge capitalized...