An Ira Aldridge mystery
By MICHAEL CAINES
A couple of months ago, Douglas Field reviewed a new two-volume biography of the celebrated nineteenth-century actor Ira Aldridge, the "African Roscius", the "first black actor of note". We know that he played Othello (predictably) and was eventually to add a "Jim Crow song-and-dance routine to his act", once he got to touring the English provinces during the 1830s (he was American by birth but was by then claiming to be a "scion of Senegalese royalty").
But what about his other roles – and in particular the role depicted in this painting, recently discovered in a garage in Birmingham?
Apparently, nobody has yet worked out what part Aldridge can be playing here. It seems to have been a performance – or a moment in a performance – sufficiently admired for somebody to want to preserve it (or embellish extensively on the barer bones of a theatrical scene; the dog cowering beneath the table would suggest as much).
Noting the pistols and the crate being lowered by pulley towards a trapdoor, you might well look for a play of the time with a title such as The Algerian Pirate, The Pirate of the Islands, or Will Watch, the Bold Smuggler. You might look into that new biography by Bernth Lindfors, in which all of these dramas are mentioned. But would you be able to lay hands, virtually or not, on copies of the likely suspects? Probably not, unless you happen to be blessed with access to the right research library. Which isn't necessarily the biggest or most obvious one: a quick catalogue search would suggest that the British Library itself would not be much help at all.
The man who found the painting, Stephen Howes, says he is "committed to keeping it in the UK and until all the pieces of the puzzle fit together”. So it might be here for some time yet.
Idly looking for Aldridge online, however, at least makes clear how much he stood out among the actors of his day, as in the mysterious painting, and how useful that was to him. "The African Roscius is the only actor of colour that was ever known", he seems to have told people, "and probably the only instance that may occur."
In Birmingham, where the painting seems to have lain unknown for some time, he was greeted as a "most extraordinary novelty", while a Glasgow periodical called The Ant conveys the same raising of the eyebrows when it reports on a man playing Othello "without needing to blacken his countenance". Novelty aside, some more disturbing comments follow. The Scottish correspondent goes on to credit Aldridge with "surprisingly distinct" enunciation, and is momentarily troubled by the thought that he might possibly be worthy to essay a Shakespearean role. But ultimately he declares the foreigner's "physical energies, like his stature" to be "beneath the European standard".
Oh for a time machine that could scoop up such a perceptive critic and deliver him to the Noel Coward Theatre, in time for tonight's (all-black) performance of Julius Caesar.
"Like his stature", though: can this be the same actor who towers over the other figures in this enigmatic image from dramatic history?