Here in sunny San Diego for the PCA-ACA 2017 conference, I reserved an evening to go see Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet (2012; here and now directed by Stafford Arima) at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, and I discovered a fascinating study of dramatic irony as a parallel of the insidiousness of racialization. What I mean is that the play is about how race fools us.
Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that a character doesn’t know. In this case, the character is the historical figure Ira Aldridge, an African American actor. He was the first black man to play Othello on the London stage. In Red Velvet, he’s trying to promote the movement toward naturalistic acting but is himself the over-actor incarnate.
Albert Jones plays Aldridge to the contrary of the fictional and perhaps historical Aldridge’s preference for “domestic” or naturalistic styles of acting. Ben Brantley in The New York Times reports that Adrian Lester played the role similarly in 2014, so that the actor “exudes the scary, outsize presence of the barnstorming stardom of another time.”
Aldridge’s controversial performance in London in 1833 coincided with the final major legal milestone in ending slavery in Britain and its colonies. Until then, white actors played black characters in blackface—and so, in an ironic twist (like that of Patrick Stewart playing Othello in an otherwise all-black cast), Aldridge plays King Lear in whiteface at the conclusion of the play, speaking these colour-sensitive lines from Act V of King Lear:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . They flattered
me like a dog; and told me I had white hairs in my
beard ere the black ones were there. To say “ay”
and “no” to every thing that I said! . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Go to, they are
not men o’ their words: they told me I was every
thing; ’tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.
An ague is an illness, especially a fever, and so Lear is calling attention to various possibilities, including that he is confused—by the lies, by the “madness” (III,iv) that he worries is upon him. A mad character is probably always an instance of dramatic irony, at least in those moments when the character is not aware of the madness. In Red Velvet, I think the madness is the idea of race itself—but I’ll come back to that.
Aldridge is also calling attention to the weaknesses of his body in lines that Chakrabarti seems to be repurposing. When Lear compares “white” and “black” hairs, he means age and how it is symbolized—here, that white hair is a symbol of wisdom, I think. When Chakrabarti’s Aldridge’s Lear says these lines, however, he signifies that race, like traits such as wisdom (which Lear did not consistently have), is not essential to anyone. Race is partly a bodily performance, especially as Red Velvet dramatizes Aldridge, and partly an attribution that can be manipulated for reasons good and bad.
(Coincidentally, the San Diego Museum of Man, just steps away from the Old Globe in Balboa Park, is presently curating an exhibit called “Race: Are We So Different?”)
The crisis of Red Velvet is that Aldridge’s critics, the writers who review his play in the newspapers, echo stereotypes of black men as (often sexually) aggressive and thus a threat to white virginity and whiteness-as-property, as in the theme of inheritance suggested by the play’s ailing white father and his son. (For more on the latter, see Cheryl I. Harris’s “Whiteness as Property” essay from the Harvard Law Review.) Aldridge has already seemed to prove his critics right in advance by rehearsing and performing the strangulation of Desdemona too “realistically,” which means according to the commonly held racial stereotype and the reality presumed by the critics. He then attempts to strangle his French manager, an ally and friend, when the Frenchman finally concedes to public pressure to remove Aldridge from the role.
Unlike most of his colleagues, Aldridge is presented as an over-actor whether on stage or behind the scenes in the dressing room, and in the program Jason Sherwood, the set designer, comments that the superimposition of Aldridge’s private life (backstage) and public life (centre stage) is crucial to his character as imagined by Stafford Arima. Indeed, Aldridge is almost entirely “public”: projecting from the top of his voice, preoccupied with gesture, vying always for position and attention. One implication of Jones’s performance is that one’s persona invades one’s private life, a commonplace that informs much of my work on celebrity. As I’ve recently written in the context of racialization in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, it is also that one’s public face can turn an “about face” on the self, allowing social norms to define a person.
So, when the stage’s rotating proscenium (yes, a prop that expensive) sends us back to the present near the end of Aldridge’s life, the play ends with his Lear’s exhortation against the “lie” of the public’s and the court’s (and his family’s) support for him, juxtaposed against the flashback to his manager’s withdrawal of support following the racist reviews of his Othello. The play thereby emphasizes the struggles in the historical Aldridge’s remarkably successful career, set against the backdrop of Britain’s very mixed, ambivalent movement toward abolition from the late 1700s to 1833 when, finally—after about a generation—Britain stopped trading in slaves. If a viewer wonders why Aldridge is presented with something less than total sympathy, it’s because the play appears to be made to dramatize the insidious effect of socialization on one’s private life.
We know something that the fictional Aldridge does not know: that he is unwittingly the exaggerated product of the racism of his critics, while he believes he is being authentic.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "The Dramatic Irony of Race and Red Velvet." Publicly Interested, 16 April 2017.
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.