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Ira Aldridge:

Ira Aldridge:: The Vagabond Years, 1833-1852

Bernth Lindfors
Volume: 49
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Ira Aldridge:
    Book Description:

    ‘Ira Aldridge: The Vagabond Years, 1833-1852’ deals in depth with the later experiences of one of the modern world's first black classical actors as he toured throughout the United Kingdom impressing audiences with his virtuosity and versatility as an interpreter not only of tragic and comic black roles but also eventually as an actor of classic white Shakespearean parts - Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, even Iago. Aldridge was very popular in Ireland and remained there for six years, performing in venues large and small. He traveled often in his own carriage with assistants who supported him in scenes, enabling famous plays to be staged anywhere, even in villages that did not have a proper theater. He also performed periodically in large cities with professional acting companies, and returned to the London stage in 1848, after leaving it fifteen years earlier. During these years he expanded his repertoire, refined his skills, and gained a reputation as one of Britain's most talented thespians. In dealing with Aldridge's emergence as a professional actor in the United Kingdom, Lindfors here records in detail the ups and downs of his itinerant existence in a world where no theatergoer had ever seen anyone like him on stage before. Aldridge was genuinely a unique phenomenon in Britain at a pivotal point in history. Bernth Lindfors is professor emeritus of English and African literatures, University of Texas at Austin, and editor of ‘Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius’ (University of Rochester Press, 2007).

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-735-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The first in this two-volume biography, Ira Aldridge: The Early Years, 1807–1833,¹ tells of the birth, upbringing, schooling, and formative experiences that shaped the direction of the life of a black youth in lower Manhattan, leading him to aspire to become a professional actor. One event in particular appears to have driven Ira Aldridge to harbor such a lofty ambition. According to a biographical pamphlet published around 1848,

    his first visit to a theatre fixed the great purpose of his life, and established the sole end and aim of his existence. He would be an actor. He says at...

  6. 1 Creative Responses
    (pp. 7-18)

    Two individuals in London responded in creative ways to Aldridge’s appearance at Covent Garden. One was William Makepeace Thackeray, who at age twenty-one had returned to London in November 1832 after having spent “four months, mainly in Paris, reading contemporary French and German literature, attending operas and plays, visiting print galleries, patronizing fine restaurants, and gambling.”¹ During his youth at Charterhouse School in London, he had developed a “propensity to make comic drawings, often in the spirit of George Cruikshank,”² and these he circulated “for the gratification of his friends.”³ Thackeray attended Cambridge University, at which point he also began...

  7. 2 Moving On
    (pp. 19-26)

    Aldridge had spent eleven weeks in the spring of 1833 performing in four theaters in London and one theater in Bath. Before moving on, he appears to have taken a holiday. Perhaps he needed to rest and recover from his exertions in the capital. Or perhaps he was finding it difficult to secure additional engagements there or nearby. We next hear of him performing in Swansea six weeks later, opening in Othello and The Padlock on July 29.

    This was his third appearance in Wales,¹ and he was now billed as “the highly Celebrated AFRICAN ROSCIUS (the most singular Novelty...

  8. 3 Seymour and Company
    (pp. 27-42)

    A week after his engagement at Dublin’s Theatre Royal ended on December 20, 1833, Aldridge accepted a contract for four nights at the Theatre in Limerick run by actor-manager Frank Seymour. Aldridge had known Seymour for years, having performed for him in Glasgow in April 1827, in Belfast in July 1829 (when Aldridge played opposite Charles Kean), and possibly in several other theaters Seymour had managed in Scotland and Ireland before 1834.¹ The two men apparently were good friends, or perhaps, whatever they thought of each other, they saw renewed collaboration as working to their mutual advantage.

    Both as an...

  9. 4 Playing Independently
    (pp. 43-58)

    Aldridge had toured with Seymour and his troupe because it was the easiest way for him to earn a living. Ireland did not have enough permanent theaters to keep him employed in a succession of short-term engagements for an entire year.¹ Also, teaming up with a touring company spared him the trouble of trying to secure work on his own. As his letter to MacDonnell in Cork indicates, Aldridge did not employ an agent to make bookings for him. Yet the very fact that he wrote to MacDonnell suggests that he was by now dissatisfied with the arrangement he had...

  10. 5 Meanwhile, in London
    (pp. 59-80)

    Meanwhile, during the period that Aldridge had been away, there had been more “black fun” staged at several theaters in London.¹ Charles Mathews and Frederick Yates, who remained coproprietors of the Adelphi Theatre until Mathews’s death in June 1835, continued their comic entertainments there, sometimes reviving old sketches they had popularized years earlier. From April to June 1834, Mathews gave another “At Home, Comic Annual” comprising “a succession of selections from his old entertainments. These,—his Youthful Days, his Trip to Paris, Trip to America, &c. are all to appear in turn, and cannot fail to fill the house; for...

  11. 6 Trouping through the North
    (pp. 81-91)

    On leaving Ireland, Aldridge went to Scotland where he performed for three or four nights in mid-November 1839 in the nearest port town, Stranraer, before moving on to Ayr. He was enthusiastically received in both towns by large audiences who were impressed with his powerful delineation of scenes from Othello and The Revenge. “In his graceful ‘strut,’ his bold and dignified appearance, his self-possession, and excellent elocution, the audience at once recognize the man of genius and education.”¹ But equally appealing were his delightful personifications of Mungo and Ginger Blue, which were recommended “as a specific for ennui” and the...

  12. 7 Touching All the Bases
    (pp. 92-101)

    For the next two years, 1843 and 1844, Aldridge persisted in touring with his small troupe and only occasionally accepted engagements with local acting companies. Even when he did perform in regular theaters, he seldom experimented with new roles, preferring to stick with those in which he had already established a reputation—usually black characters such as Othello, Gambia, Zanga, Karfa, Antoine, and, to balance the heaviness, Mungo and Ginger Blue. Only in his farewell benefit at Alnwick in Northumberland on January 30, 1843, did he appear in a new black role: Caesar in the “Pantomimic Melo-Drama” of Black Beard...

  13. 8 Adventures on the Road
    (pp. 102-113)

    To make a living, Aldridge had to travel. He was constantly moving from place to place, spending a week here, then two weeks there, before pushing on to the next town or city where he had either secured an engagement or hoped to find a venue where he could perform with his small team of supporting players. Sometimes there were mishaps as he made his rounds. One Saturday in Ireland

    Mr. Aldridge set out en route to Ballina, being eager, notwithstanding the dreadful snow-storm, to fulfil his engagements there; his postilion, however, mistaking the proper direction, drove directly for Swinford,...

  14. 9 Staging a Comeback
    (pp. 114-136)

    The last three months of 1845 proved to be an important transitional period for Aldridge, for it marked the time he finally disbanded his small troupe and returned to the legitimate stage, performing with local acting companies throughout the British Isles. Theater managers in increasing numbers began to seek him out to invite him to spend a week or two with them as a visiting star playing a selection of his favorite roles. These offers came from theaters in some of the largest provincial municipalities—Belfast, Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Newcastle upon Tyne in 1845 along with contracts for return...

  15. 10 Engaged at the Surrey
    (pp. 137-147)

    The Era welcomed Aldridge back to London in March 1848 by publishing a lengthy, laudatory critique of his initial performances at the Surrey Theatre, prefacing it with an account of his career since his last appearance at the capital in 1833.

    Some years ago, he performed two nights running as Othello, at Covent-garden, and afterwards went through several parts at the Surrey. He was at that time very young, and has since, by continual practice, improved himself in every respect as an actor. He was, however, highly successful when he last appeared in London. The papers spoke of his performance...

  16. 11 Back on Tour
    (pp. 148-160)

    The new 1848 tour began badly. In Carlisle, Aldridge was favorably received by those who saw him act,¹ but his audiences were very small: “The houses have been wretchedly attended, and the receipts of the painstaking and worthy manager must have been indeed beggarly.”² In Glasgow, he attracted large crowds that included the leading literary men of the city,³ but the actors and actresses with whom he performed at the Adelphi were woefully deficient; Aldridge was said to be “the only personage on the stage that knew anything of business. It was pitiful to see the Moor surrounded by such...

  17. 12 Reviving Aaron
    (pp. 161-172)

    The new drama introduced by Aldridge in the early 1850s that aroused the greatest curiosity among theatergoers was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in which he played Aaron the Moor. This was a classic black role he had never attempted before, possibly because Aaron was so repulsive a villain that it would have been demeaning to represent him on the stage. True, Aldridge had played many other vengeful black characters, but each of them had a discernible motive for behaving badly. Hassan, in The Castle Spectre, was angry at the Christian white world for having captured and enslaved him....

  18. 13 Last Stages
    (pp. 173-186)

    The London theater in which Aldridge performed Titus Andronicus was the Britannia Saloon, so named because access to the auditorium was by way of the bar of the saloon.¹ Founded in 1841 in Hoxton, an industrial community in Shoreditch slightly northeast of the City of London and about four miles from the West End, the Britannia Saloon served mainly a local working-class population that had few other opportunities for theatrical entertainment. Hoxton was reputed to be “a particularly nasty, dirty, criminal district . . . where policemen had to go in couples.”² It was “a region of malodorous market streets,...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 187-224)
  20. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 225-228)
  21. Index
    (pp. 229-244)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 245-249)