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Theatre: Ira Aldridge and Visual Evidence in Theater History

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES July/ August 2012

1820’s painting featuring Ira Aldridge, the acclaimed black Shakespearean actor. Can you identify the play?
1820’s painting featuring Ira Aldridge, the acclaimed black Shakespearean actor. Can you identify the play?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know what theater productions looked like, and how theater performers sounded and moved, in the centuries before the advent of photography, motion pictures, video, and so forth? It certainly would. Theater is an ephemeral art form; the work vanishes as it happens, leaving traces in the memory and little more.

For lack of any better visual evidence, theater historians often rely on works of visual art to provide evidence for what this ethereality may have amounted to in centuries past. From representations of performers on ancient Greek vases, to paintings and sculptures of the theatrical life of Rome, to tantalizing bits and pieces of visual imagery of mediaeval performers, to paintings, portraits and sculptures of actors and dancers from more recent periods, visual art is a vital part of the study of theater history.

Fortunately, visual artists have always been attracted to performers and performances. Italian masters painted the performers of the commedia dell’arte. Degas loved to paint ballet dancers. One wonderful example out of many is Constant Wauters’ “Actors Before A Performance” from 1851, now in the Hermitage (www.arthermitage.org/Constant-Wauters/Actors-Before-a-Performance.html)

“How nice!” one might say. “Here we have all these wonderful drawings, paintings and sculptures, showing us just what theater looked like in times past. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.

Artists are not cameras. Artists have personalities, imaginations, and ideas of their own about what they depict. Artists also have goals and agendas for their work, which may have little or nothing to do with accurate depiction of factual reality. Degas’ world of ballet is a world of swirling, shimmering light and color, of magical, dreamlike, feminine creatures that dance in filmy glamour; his representation of certain facts of 19th century ballet practice is a by-product, not a goal. There is an ongoing argument, never to be resolved, about whether the statuettes of ancient Roman performers are actually of performers at all, but rather of characters and character types, just as a modern painter might decide to do a portrait of an imaginary Hamlet, the image having little or nothing to do with any particular actor or production. A similar argument, also never to be resolved, revolves around paintings of commedia performers such as Hieronymus Francken’s famous image of the Italian commedia troupe, I Gelosi. Is this painting (easily found on Wikipedia) an image of an actual scene, or is it a composite portrait of certain actors, unrelated to any particular performance at all?

An intriguing example of visual art as historical evidence has recently come to light concerning the most famous African-American actor of the 19th century, Ira Aldridge. Aldridge, a phenomenally talented performer, was born in the United States, established himself as a young professional with the African Grove theater in New York City around 1820, then emigrated to England, where he rather quickly acquired a formidable reputation. He toured in the UK and Europe for the rest of his career, which ended with his death in Lodz in 1867.

Stephen Howes, an art dealer and collector, recently announced the discovery of a previously unknown painting of Aldridge. The painting can also be viewed online at www.stephenhowes.es/Ira_Aldridge.html. I don’t know if it has been properly authenticated, but if it is genuine, it would be especially valuable because it depicts Aldridge in what appears to be a melodramatic role. He seems to be about to defend a family from some dire threat about to burst through the door of the family cabin. He has a handgun in his right hand and is drawing another with his left. Two men and a boy seem to be lowering a chest into a space under the floor. Another boy, also with a handgun, looks out a peephole in the door. A dog, perhaps a bulldog, crouches under the table. Two terrified woman cower by the table; one of them gestures toward the door while looking at Aldridge; her meaning is unclear. It might be “Don’t shoot!” or it might be, “Don’t let them in!”

Most of our images of Aldridge are of his appearances in Shakespeare. Indeed, much of his fame came from his Shakespearean performances. The painting is said to be from the 1820’s. That immediately raises an interesting issue: is this image of a performance in America, or in England? If in America, it is curious that Aldridge is apparently defending a white family; he is the only black person in the image. If in England, it is especially interesting, since it would very likely be one of his earlier performances there; he principally performed in Shakespeare after a rather short time there.

However, is it a performance at all? Might it be that some artist simply wanted to create an interesting dramatic image of Aldridge, and placed him in a wholly invented situation reminiscent of whatever melodramas might have been known to the artist? The elements of the situation — a family under attack, hiding a treasure, a lone man preparing to defend the helpless, and so forth — can be found in any number of melodramas of the period. In other words, it could be a composite in the tradition of the paintings of commedia dell’arte mentioned earlier. It may be an image from a play otherwise unknown — a situation that would create both opportunities and significant obstacles for further scholarship.

Whatever we may learn concerning it, it serves as an excellent example of the role played, and the problems presented, by the visual arts in preserving the record of what would otherwise simply vanish: that ephemeral thing we call theater.

If you think you know the play depicted in the painting contact: George Prior george@georgeprior.co.uk

Bethune website: www.freshwaterseas.com