Reading Ira Aldridge

Houghton Library Blog 2013-08-13

Readers of The New Yorker may have noticed the recent article by Alex Ross on the great 19th century African-American actor and expatriate Ira Aldridge and his daughter Luranah.

An abundance of related material (printed books, ephemera, manuscripts – even an entire extra-illustrated album devoted to Aldridge and formerly owned by Augustin Daly) can be found in the Harvard Theatre Collection.

In his article, Ross addresses perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of Aldridge’s career, one which material at the Theatre Collection is helpful in contextualizing – the seeming contradiction in the roles he chose. For example, his Othello was masterful and multifaceted:

“Aldridge enthralled his public not with a roaring voice or wild gestures but with a carefully controlled dramatic arc. His Othello evolved by degrees from a façade of aristocratic composure to explosions of raw feeling.”

TCS 44, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library

And yet he often followed such complex roles with others that traded in bigoted stereotypes:

“On tour, Aldridge liked to follow “Othello” with “The Padlock,” a popular late-eighteenth century comedy that featured a bumbling, drunken, singing-and-dancing black servant named Mungo.”

Indeed, the character of Mungo calls to mind the then nascent blackface minstrel show. In 1835, Aldridge took that format on squarely as part of his touring solo show. Alongside Shakespearean recitations and commentaries on race, he added material from the act of Thomas Rice, originator of the Jim Crow character.

Ross, following literary scholar Berndt Lindfors, argues that the inclusion of parts like Mungo or Jim Crow in Aldridge’s repertoire doesn’t indicate deference to market pressures, but rather a subversive act of juxtaposition, their inclusion next to parts like Othello betraying the emptiness of the stereotypes. Aldridge even “parodied parodies of himself, reciting Shakespeare in mangled English. His most provocative move was to answer blackface by putting on whiteface.”

The scholarly conversation around Aldridge’s choice in roles is based, of course, in a deep understanding of the performance world he interacted with. Such an understanding requires an immersion in primary source material. The hurtful, bigoted genre of the minstrel show can be painful to engage, but it is necessary for scholars to do so. Because of that, the Theatre Collection has been digitizing its vast holdings related to the minstrel show. Our collections of cabinet card and cartes-de-visite photographs of minstrel performers have already been digitized. You can find them by searching for the last name of the performer in our online visual catalog, VIA. The collection containing the bulk of our remaining images, newspaper clippings, and playbills related to the minstrel show is in the process of being digitized. A listing of the material within it, along with links to digitized images, are in the finding aid.

We are also engaged in a project to digitize our general collection of cabinet card photographs, which includes a portrait of Aldridge. These images can be searched in VIA by following the same directions as above. Only a portion are currently digitized, but the project is ongoing.

Though difficult to interpret, the story of Ira Aldridge is fascinating and his legacy is widespread. One line of influence was Paul Robeson, whose production of Othello with Margaret Webester is considered one of the great Shakespearean productions of the 20th century. (The stage manager’s papers for this production can also be found in the Harvard Theatre Collection.) Aldridge’s daughter Luranah, who almost became the first woman of color to perform Wagner at Bayreuth in 1896, led an equally fascinating life. Be sure to check out the New Yorker article for her story, and more on her father.