Ira Aldridge had a remarkable life and career. Born in lowly circumstances in New York City, educated for a few years at an African Free School, self-taught as an actor but prevented from appearing in plays at white theaters in America, he emigrated to England, began performing as a headliner at minor London theaters while still a teenager, then toured for more than a quarter of a century all over the British Isles, and finally, during the last fifteen years of his life, earned a reputation on the European Continent as one of the greatest tragedians of his day. Aldridge traveled farther, was seen by more people in more nations, and won a greater number of prestigious honors, decorations, and awards than any other actor in the nineteenth century.
Yet his extraordinary accomplishments are not very well known today. He is seldom discussed in histories of British or European theater, and because he had virtually all his professional experience abroad, he tends to be ignored in histories of American theater. Throughout his career he was an itinerant player, moving from place to place fulfilling short-term engagements on stages large and small. He was never under contract to a major metropolitan theater for more than a few weeks at a time, so he made no long-lasting impact on audiences in London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Berlin, Stockholm, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Constantinople, Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Moscow, or any of the other cities in which he was sporadically seen. As a luminary, he was more a comet than a fixed star—here today, gone tomorrow—and as a consequence he shines less brightly now, forgotten amidst more constant reminders of theatrical brilliance.
Nearly fifty years ago there was an attempt to bring him out of the shadows and place him before the world in a more conspicuous position so that his trailblazing achievements could be better appreciated. This was the fine documentary biography, Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian (1958), coauthored by Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock. With help from Aldridge's octogenarian daughter Amanda, Marshall and Stock were able to assemble an impressive record of Aldridge's activities by using materials supplied by Amanda and supplementing these with what they were able to find in libraries and archives throughout Europe and America.
To the philosopher, the philanthropist, the physiologist—to the man interested in the whole human family, and capable of drawing liberal conclusions from the various characteristics which, under different aspects, it exhibits, this brief memoir of one who stands forth a conspicuous specimen of a “distinct” and “marked” race, and a living illustration of their intellectual capabilities, will be peculiarly acceptable.
It will tell of an Ethiopian—“a black”—who, notwithstanding the abject state in which most of his kind
Live, and move, and have their being,
has obtained, and maintains among us Europeans—“whites”—who deem ourselves to be the most civilized and enlightened people upon God's earth, a reputation whose acquisition demands the highest qualities of the mind and the noblest endowments of the person.
The acquirements of a scholar, the conception of a poet, and the accomplishments of a gentleman, must be united in one individual before he can become eminent as an actor. These mental and physical advantages have been found to exist in an African; and to such a degree are they by him exhibited, that he, in his single person, and as a champion of his sable brethren, gives the lie direct to the most “refined” among us who, in his prejudice, his exclusiveness, and his ignorance, shall harbour the remotest doubt of an African being, to all intents and purposes,
A man and a brother.
It is not, however, the present endeavour of the writer to “point a moral and adorn a tale”; but to give, in the fewest possible words, a concise history of one whose career, describe it as you may, cannot fail to fill the reflective mind with thoughts of deepest interest. It is impossible to regard one man of colour as a being of extraordinary faculties, possessing a soul capable of appreciating, and endowments equal to the representation of immortal Shakespeare's great creations, and not sigh in serious contemplation of the wrongs of thousands of his countrymen, treated by their paler brethren as mindless, heartless, soulless, feelingless clay, bearing the corporeal impress of humanity, but cruelly or thoughtlessly denied its spiritual attributes.
Wordsworth's 1807 sonnet ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’ imagines London as a colossal human being, slumbering at dawn and wearing the beauty of the morning ‘like a garment’, its ‘mighty heart … lying still’. In Master Humphrey's Clock (1840–41), Charles Dickens, one of the greatest recorders of nineteenth-century London, addresses that very heart:
Heart of London, there is a moral in thy every stroke! as I look on at thy indomitable working, which neither death, nor press of life, nor grief, nor gladness out of doors will influence one jot, I seem to hear a voice within thee which sinks into my heart, bidding me, as I elbow my way among the crowd, to have some thought for the meanest wretch that passes, and, being a man, to turn away with scorn and pride from none that wears the human shape.
For Dickens, London is a hybrid form, both human and mechanical: impervious as a machine to the vagaries of nature, yet urging the author, man to man, to feel sympathy for its inhabitants. And the 1999 Granta anthology London: The Lives of the City, as its ambiguous title suggests, celebrates not only the lives of those who live in the city but also the lives that the city leads, as if London were a person.
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