The African Roscius
If you have never heard of Ira Aldridge—“the most visible black man in Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century”—his biography, by Bernth Lindfors, will come to you as a revelation. How can that be? Aldridge, who was African American, left the United States in 1825 to pursue an acting career, which kept him in Europe until his death in 1867. He’d been born free in 1807 and educated for several years in New York City, where he acted briefly before he realized that England would offer more opportunity than the United States, still poisoned by slavery. He was only seventeen when he played Othello in a “small London theatre,” though the role was clearly in a truncated version of Shakespeare’s play.
His stage name during the early years of his career was Keene, chosen apparently because of the closeness to Edmund Kean, the great British actor who had made a name for himself by playing Othello, but it wasn’t long before he identified himself as the “African Roscius.” Lindfors explains: “an honorific title alluding to Quintus Roscius Gallus, an eminent Roman actor of tragedy and comedy who had been a tutor of Cicero. Africa thus became his theatrical trademark.” Keene/Aldridge claimed that he had been born in Africa, not in the United States, and after less than fabulous reviews for his role as Othello, he left London, and for eight years honed his skills by playing in the English hinterlands.
Back in London, in 1833, once again he played Othello, but this time at the august Covent Garden. Reviews were mixed, as they often were, sometimes racist, but Aldridge “made race his defining trait in an age when black people generally and Africans in particular were not held in high esteem in Europe and the United States.” Across England, the roles he had played were extensive, several of them as slaves, others burlesque, as well as singing. “To British eyes he was a phenomenon, a rare specimen of humanity—virtually a freak of nature. No one quite like him had been seen on the stage before.” He billed himself as a “gentleman of color,” as “an African Tragedian.” He was perpetually on the road, often enduring terrible working conditions in the regional theaters: low pay, raucous audiences, low turn outs, and many different roles to sustain his career. Before he had left London, in 1825, he had married an English woman, ten years his elder.
As early as 1830, Aldridge claimed a princely Senegalese heritage, in spite of the fact that often he played roles of characters who were not black. He was particularly successful as an actor in Ireland, especially in Dublin, though racist reviews (“a stupid looking, thick lipped, ill-formed African”) continued throughout much of his career in the British Isles. The 1833 Othello performance at Coven Garden must have traumatized him, though Lindfors doesn’t interpret it quite that way because, once again, he left London for the hinterlands for a much longer period: fifteen years. “He had been condemned as a failure, and theater managers were wary of him, even though he still had substantial box office appeal as a rarity who could attract large audiences curious to witness a performance by an ‘African’ actor.”
Volume One of Lindfors’ exhaustive study of Aldridge concludes with the actor’s departure from London a second time for the hinterlands. Volume Two covers the years from 1833 to 1852, painstakingly detailing Aldridge’s method of survival. He had saved enough money to acquire an elegant carriage, horses, and a footman. The carriage was large enough to convey him, his wife, and a small troupe of actors (both men and women) from town to town. Initially, his show (titled “A Lecture in Defense of the Drama”) had been a one-man vehicle, but as he became more successful, he hired the other actors and traveled with his own props and costumes. “They could stage their performances anywhere, and their standard offerings were melodramas, farces, songs, and Shakespeare—a mix that was attractive to audiences of all kinds. Moreover, Aldridge’s lecture gave these shows a high moral tone; he was answering religious objections to popular entertainments with dignity and sober reasoning. There was nothing offensive in his repertoire. Even the farces were free of sexual or blasphemous content.”
He made enough money to survive, but he had set his goal on London from the beginning. There was the birth of an illegitimate child along the way, and eyes were continually raised because of Aldridge’s white wife and the white actresses who where part of his small troupe. Finally, by 1852, he disbanded his group and returned to London, appearing again in a fringe theater but with a different work. He had altered the text of Shakespeare’s bloody Titus Andronicus, and—according to Lindfors—almost single-handedly revitalized attention in Shakespeare’s final play. But the reviews were, once again, mixed: praise and rejection. And the backlash against his race was so strong that some actors refused to appear on the stage with him.
There is little doubt that by 1852 he was a highly accomplished actor, who had benefited from his years of trooping through the hinterlands. But no one in London wanted to hire him. Thus, he accepted one of the many invitations that had been sent to him down through the years, asking that he shift his venue to the continent. He began with Brussels and Berlin. Some of the productions of Shakespeare were entirely in English; other times, he performed with actors who spoke their own language, while Aldridge delivered his lines in English. Since most theater-going Europeans were familiar with Shakespeare, a play (such as Othello) was little problem for them if it was presented in two languages.
There will be a third volume in Bernth Lindfors’ Ira Aldridge, which will cover the actor’s “triumphant Continental” tour until the time of his death in 1867. He was courted by royalty and government heads in Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Poland, and Hungary. Most of his final years were spent in Russia, Ukraine, and France. Lindfors concludes Volume Two, “His career was remarkable by any measure, especially considering it began in such humble and unpromising circumstances in a land where black people were oppressed and denied opportunities for personal growth and advancement. Britain offered him the freedom to develop his talents and pursue his dream of becoming a professional actor; however, even after he had proved himself a popular performer throughout the British Isles, he seldom was invited to act in London. On the Continent, though, he gained the wholehearted acceptance he desired, and he spent much of the rest of his life touring parts of Western and Eastern Europe and winning recognition for his singular accomplishments on stage.” Unfortunately, he never returned to the United States. He died “on tour in Poland,” in August of 1867.
Bernth Lindfors’ Ira Aldridge is not so much a biography of the man as a detailed study of his theatrical career, carefully examining (and extensively quoting) every review of his performances, year after year, in city, town, and village across the British Isles.
This focus means that we do not understand much about the man himself—his insights, his opinions, let alone what must have been his frustrations and rage—since he apparently kept no journal and wrote few letters except those related to the logistics of his bookings. Still, Aldridge comes across as a remarkable person—a colossus, in many ways—highly moral, in an era when the theater was often perceived as a den of iniquity and in an environment (especially in England) charged with racism. That is the wondrous accomplishment of Aldridge’s career—overcoming blatant racism with other actors, critics, and theater managers. What a fabulous movie Ira Aldridge would make for some enterprising African American actor.
Bernth Lindfors: Ira Aldridge. University of Rochester Press, Vol. 1: The Early Years, 1807-1833, 387 pp., $55; Vol. 2: The Vagabond Years, 1833-1852, 244 pp., $55.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.