Ira Aldridge was born in New York on 24th July, 1807. His father, a church minister, sent him to the African Free School. As a young man Aldridge developed a love of the theatre. Aware that a career as an actor in America would be difficult he decided to emigrate to England. He obtained employment as a ship's steward and arrived in Liverpool in 1824.
Aldridge appeared as Oroonoko in A Slave's Revenge at the Royal Coburg Theatre in October, 1825. The reviews were mixed and although The Globe found his voice "distinct and sonorous" The Times reviewer complained that he could not pronounce English properly "owing to the shape of his lips".
Over the next few years appeared in plays in Manchester, Sheffield, Halifax, Newcastle, Liverpool, Hull, Sunderland and Belfast. After his performance in Othello in Scarborough he was described as"an actor of genius". He also appeared in several white roles as Shylock, Macbeth and Richard III.
In 1833 newspaper critics began to make openly racist comments about Aldridge. One critic protested "in the name of propriety and decency" about the decision to pair Aldridge with the actress Ellen Tree. He added that he disliked Tree being "pawed about on the stage by a black man."
As a result of these attack London theatres refused to employ him. However, he was in great demand in the provincial theatre and one newspaper described his performance as Othello as being so good that it could only "be equalled by very few actors of the present day."
Frustrated by being blacklisted in London he decided to leave England and appeared on the stage in Brussels, Cologne, Basle, Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Danzig, St. Petersburg, Moscow and Munich. While in Russia he became one of the highest paid actors in the world when he received £60 for every performance. One Russian critic stated that the evenings on which he saw Aldridge's Othello, Lear, Shylock and Macbeth "were undoubtedly the best that I have ever spent in the theatre".
Ira Aldridge died while on tour in Poland on 7th August, 1867.
As we begin to celebrate some of our favorite Black Shakespearean actors and stories, please remember these are just a handful of amazing people and theatre works worthy of praise. We will also share links to other sites with great information. We encourage you to keep discovering and sharing your favorites!
Ira Aldridge is thought of as the first, or at least one of the first, great Black Shakespearean actors. Born in 1807 in New York City, he was the son of free parents, though slavery was still legal in the State of New York. History thinks his father wanted him to become a preacher, but after a few years of attending the African Free School, Aldridge caught the acting bug. His first Shakespeare role was probably Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. He may have performed at the African Grove Theatre in New York, but there are no records of him there as an actor.
Aldridge set sail for Europe at the age of 17. He had experienced racism performing in the United States, and he knew he would have a better chance at becoming a respected actor in other places. He started performing on London stages soon after arriving and quickly gained popularity, touring Europe and became one of the highest paid actors at the time. He found success playing roles in Shakespeare plays such as Othello, Shylock and Aaron. Aldridge did endure more racism when he played opposite Ellen Tree, a white actress, in Othello in Covent Garden. Critics at the time were split on if he was a “genius” or not. At the time, it was customary for white actors to put on blackface to play the African character of Othello, a practice that would be completely inappropriate today. Because of the uproar that was caused by a real black man playing Othello and a white woman playing Desdemona, the run of the play was cancelled. But it didn’t stop Aldridge. He played many Shakespeare roles, such as Macbeth and King Lear, and performed in Dublin, Bath, Edinburgh and many other famous cities in the United Kingdom. He also traveled to countries in Eastern Europe like Russia, Serbia and Poland.
Aldridge won many accolades, such as the Golden Cross of Leopold from the Czar of Russia and the Maltese Cross from Switzerland, and is the only African American to have a bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. (You can see it today!) Aldridge died at the age of 60, from a lung infection, while in Poland. He never returned to America.
Aldridge was quoted as saying, “True feeling and just expression are not confined to any clime or color”.
Ira Aldridge, Actor and Activist
Ira Aldridge was one of the most celebrated Shakespearean actors of the 19th century. Born in New York, Aldridge achieved his greatest fame in Europe, where he found professional opportunities that did not exist for black actors in the United States. This 1857 playbill shown below advertises an engagement by Aldridge at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, England, in which he performed three roles from his extensive repertoire, Othello, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and Gambia in The Slave.
A playbill for Ira Aldridge in Othello and The Slave at the Theatre Royal.
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
In the early 1820s, Aldridge performed in New York with William Brown’s African Theatre, the first African American theater company. He then journeyed to England, where in 1833 he became the first black actor to portray Othello on the London stage. Aldridge spent the rest of his life touring Great Britain, Europe, and Russia, and became a British citizen in 1863. He used his position on the stage to speak out against slavery and advocate for racial equality.
True feeling and just expression are not confined to any clime or colour.Ira Aldridge Actor and advocate for racial justice
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|Portrait of Ira Aldridge dressed as Othello, c. 1830, oil on canvas by Henry Perronet Briggs (c. 1791). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Click on image to see full painting.|
Born into slavery in Kentucky in 1814, William Wells Brown escaped to freedom at age twenty and went on to become a leading abolitionist, historian, travel writer, and novelist (his Clotel was the first novel published by an African American). Brown traveled to Britain in 1849 and, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law the following year, which put him at risk of capture and re-enslavement, remained there writing and lecturing until 1854 (when his freedom was purchased). While there, he saw the great black actor, Ira Aldridge, play both Othello and Hamlet. Brown recalled that experience a decade later in The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1862).
Aldridge, who was born and educated in New York City, left for England as a teenager to pursue opportunities denied to black actors in America. He thought it useful there to promote himself as African-born (a fabrication, along with a few other invented biographical anecdotes that appeared in Aldridge’s ghostwritten Memoir and are repeated in Brown’s sketch). Aldridge first played Othello on the London stage in 1825. Some British critics had difficulty with the idea of a black man playing Shakespeare (a reviewer for the Times complained that it was “utterly impossible” for Aldridge to pronounce the language correctly “owing to the shape of his lips,” while one for the Athenaeum objected to a white Desdemona “being pawed about” onstage by a black actor). Aldridge soon established himself as a popular Shakespeare actor in Britain and on the Continent, adding to his repertory the parts of Richard III, King Lear, Macbeth, and Shylock (which, a Russian critic noted, he performed sympathetically as “an exploited, despised Jew” who was “the bearer of the sorrow and tragedy of his hunted people”).
Aldridge died in 1867, shortly before he was to return to the United States and finally play Othello there.
Notes: Brown’s The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements contains fifty-six other biographical profiles of such prominent figures as Toussaint L’Ouverture, Alexandre Dumas, Phillis Wheatley, and Frederick Douglass. His account of the mutineer Madison Washington was a previous Story of the Week selection.
Roscius was a notably popular Roman comic actor in the first century B.C., whose name became an epithet for many successful actors. The British actor Edmund Kean, mentioned by Brown, was long remembered for his Drury Lane debut in 1814 as a more villainous and less comic Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. His son, Charles, was also a noted Shakespearean actor.
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O n looking over the columns of The Times, one morning, I saw it announced under the head of “Amusements,” that “Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius,” was to appear in the character of Othello, in Shakspeare’s celebrated tragedy of that name, and, having long wished to see my sable countryman, I resolved at once to attend. Though the doors had been open but a short time when I reached the Royal Haymarket, the theatre where the performance was to take place, the house was well filled, and among the audience I recognized the faces of several distinguished persons of the nobility, the most noted of whom was Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, the renowned novelist—his figure neat, trim, hair done up in the latest fashion—looking as if he had just come out of a band-box. He is a great lover of the drama, and has a private theatre at one of his country seats, to which he often invites his friends, and presses them into the different characters.
As the time approached for the curtain to rise, it was evident that the house was to be “jammed.” Stuart, the best Iago since the days of Young, in company with Roderigo, came upon the stage as soon as the green curtain went up. Iago looked the villain, and acted it to the highest conception of the character. The scene is changed, all eyes are turned to the right door, and thunders of applause greet the appearance of Othello. Mr. Aldridge is of the middle size, and appeared to be about three quarters African has a pleasant countenance, frame well knit, and seemed to me the best Othello that I had ever seen. As Iago began to work upon his feelings, the Moor’s eyes flashed fire, and, further on in the play, he looked the very demon of despair. When he seized the deceiver by the throat, and exclaimed, “Villain! be sure thou prove my love false: be sure of it—give me the ocular proof—or, by the worth of my eternal soul, thou hadst better have been born a dog, Iago, than answer my waked wrath,” the audience, with one impulse, rose to their feet amid the wildest enthusiasm. At the end of the third act, Othello was called before the curtain, and received the applause of the delighted multitude. I watched the countenance and every motion of Bulwer Lytton with almost as much interest as I did that of the Moor of Venice, and saw that none appeared to be better pleased than he. The following evening I went to witness his Hamlet, and was surprised to find him as perfect in that as he had been in Othello for I had been led to believe that the latter was his greatest character. The whole court of Denmark was before us but till the words, “’Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,” fell from the lips of Mr. Aldridge, was the general ear charmed, or the general tongue arrested. The voice was so low, and sad, and sweet, the modulation so tender, the dignity so natural, the grace so consummate, that all yielded themselves silently to the delicious enchantment. When Horatio told him that he had come to see his father’s funeral, the deep melancholy that took possession of his face showed the great dramatic power of Mr. Aldridge. “I pray thee do not mock me, fellow-student,” seemed to come from his inmost soul. The animation with which his countenance was lighted up, during Horatio’s recital of the visits that the ghost had paid him and his companions, was beyond description. “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” as the ghost appeared in the fourth scene, sent a thrill through the whole assembly. His rendering of the “Soliloquy on Death,” which Edmund Kean, Charles Kemble, and William C. Macready have reaped such unfading laurels from, was one of his best efforts. He read it infinitely better than Charles Kean, whom I had heard at the “Princess,” but a few nights previous. The vigorous starts of thought, which in the midst of his personal sorrows rise with such beautiful and striking suddenness from the ever-wakeful mind of the humanitarian philosopher, are delivered with that varying emphasis that characterizes the truthful delineator, when he exclaims, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” In the second scene of the second act, when revealing to Guildenstern the melancholy which preys upon his mind, the beautiful and powerful words in which Hamlet explains his feelings are made very effective in Mr. Aldridge’s rendering: “This most excellent canopy, the air, the brave o’erchanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire. . . . What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a God!” In the last scene of the second act, when Hamlet’s imagination, influenced by the interview with the actors, suggests to his rich mind so many eloquent reflections, Mr. Aldridge enters fully into the spirit of the scene, warms up, and when he exclaims, “He would drown the stage with tears, and cleave the general ear with horrid speech,—make mad the guilty, and appall the free,” he is very effective and when this warmth mounts into a paroxysm of rage, and he calls the King “Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” he sweeps the audience with him, and brings down deserved applause. The fervent soul and restless imagination, which are ever stirring at the bottom of the fountain, and sending bright bubbles to the top, find a glowing reflection on the animated surface of Mr. Aldridge’s colored face. I thought Hamlet one of his best characters, though I saw him afterwards in several others. Mr. Aldridge is a native of Senegal, in Africa. His forefathers were princes of the Foulah tribe, whose dominions were in Senegal, on the banks of the river of that name, on the west coast of Africa. To this shore one of our early missionaries found his way, and took charge of Ira’s father, Daniel Aldridge, in order to qualify him for the work of civilizing and evangelizing his countrymen. Daniel’s father, the reigning prince, was more enlightened than his subjects, probably through the instruction of the missionary, and proposed that his prisoners taken in battle should be exchanged, and not, as was the custom, sold as slaves. This wish interfered with the notions and perquisites of his tribe, especially his principal chiefs and a civil war raged among the people. During these differences, Daniel, then a promising youth, was brought to the United States by the missionary, and sent to Schenectady College to receive the advantages of a Christian education. Three days after his departure, the revolutionary storm, which was brewing, broke out openly, and the reigning prince, the advocate of humanity, was killed.
Daniel Aldridge remained in America till the death of the rebellious chief, who had headed the conspiracy, and reigned instead of the murdered prince. During the interval, Daniel had become a minister of the gospel, and was regarded by all classes as a man of uncommon abilities. He was, however, desirous to establish himself at the head of his tribe, possess himself of his birthright, and advance the cause of Christianity among his countrymen. For this purpose he returned to his native country, taking with him a young wife, one of his own color, whom he had but just married in America. Daniel no sooner appeared among the people of his slaughtered father, than old disagreements revived, civil war broke out, the enlightened African was defeated, barely escaping from the scene of strife with his life, and for some time unable to quit the country, which was watched by numerous enemies anxious for his capture. Nine years elapsed before the proscribed family escaped to America, during the whole of which time they were concealed in the neighborhood of their foes, enduring vicissitudes and hardships that can well be imagined, but need not be described.
Ira Aldridge was born soon after his father’s arrival in Senegal, and on their return to America, was intended by the latter for the church. Many a white parent has “chalked out” in vain for his son a similar calling, and the best intentions have been thwarted by an early predilection quite in an opposite direction. We can well account for the father’s choice in this instance, as in keeping with his own aspirations and we can easily imagine his disappointment upon abandoning all hope of seeing one of his blood and color following specially in the service of his great Master. The son, however, began betimes to show his early preference and ultimate passion. At school he was awarded prizes for declamation, in which he excelled and there his curiosity was excited by what he heard of theatrical representations, which he was told embodied all the fine ideas shadowed forth in the language he read and committed to memory. It became the wish of his heart to witness one of these performances, and that wish he soon contrived to gratify, and finally he became a candidate for histrionic fame.
Notwithstanding the progress Ira had made in learning, no qualities of the mind could compensate, in the eyes of the Americans, for the dark hue of his skin. The prevailing prejudice, so strong among all classes, was against him. This induced his removal to England, where he entered at the Glasgow University, and, under Professor Sandford, obtained several premiums, and the medal for Latin composition.
On leaving college, Mr. Aldridge at once commenced preparing for the stage, and shortly after appeared in a number of Shaksperian characters, in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, and other provincial cities, and soon after appeared on the boards of Drury Lane and Covent Garden, where he was stamped the “African Roscius.” The London Weekly Times said of him, “Mr. Ira Aldridge is a dark mulatto, with woolly hair. His features are capable of great expression, his action is unrestrained and picturesque, and his voice clear, full, and resonant. His powers of energetic declamation are very marked, and the whole of his acting appears impulsed by a current of feeling of no inconsiderable weight and vigor, yet controlled and guided in a manner that clearly shows the actor to be a person of much study and great stage ability.” The Morning Chronicle recorded his “Shylock” as among the “finest pieces of acting that a London audience had witnessed since the days of the elder Kean.”
In 1896, a thirty-six-year-old opera singer named Luranah Aldridge travelled to Germany to prepare for performances of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung,” at the Bayreuth Festival. Dozens of young singers had made such a journey before her: thirteen years after Wagner’s death, Bayreuth had become a summit of the operatic world. Aldridge, though, was of mixed race: an English native, she was the daughter of an African-American and a Swede. The casting of a nonwhite performer in Wagner’s Nordic-Teutonic saga might have been expected to arouse opposition, given the notorious racism of the composer and many of his followers, yet an advance guide to the 1896 festival treats Aldridge simply as a promising novelty:
A name that may well ring strangely in the ears of even the most observant art lovers is that of Luranah Aldridge, who will sing one of the eight Valkyries. Of Luranah Aldridge one cannot say that she did not come from far off, as she hails—from Africa. She is the daughter of the African tragedian Ira Aldridge and studied singing in Germany, England and France, and has appeared with great success in operas and concerts outside of Germany. She is praised as the possessor of a true contralto voice with a wide range. In the course of the festival there will be an opportunity to put these statements to the test.
The singer fell sick during rehearsals and did not perform that summer. Despite encouragement from Cosima Wagner, the composer’s widow, Aldridge faded from view. A few reference works mention her otherwise, she has vanished from the historical record.
Not long ago, I stumbled upon the passage quoted above, and decided that the apparition of a mixed-race singer at Bayreuth six decades before Grace Bumbry officially broke the color barrier, in 1961, was a mystery worth exploring. I delved into archives, piecing together fragments of a forgotten life. I soon realized that I could not understand Luranah without understanding her remarkable father. Ira Aldridge, a New Yorker who moved to England when he was in his teens, achieved immense fame in mid-nineteenth-century Europe, mesmerizing kings, emperors, and, it would seem, Richard Wagner with his renditions of Shakespeare. He is now much more obscure, although a dramatization of his life, by Lolita Chakrabarti, won notice in London last year, and will come to St. Ann’s Warehouse in March. In recent years, the scholar Bernth Lindfors has published a two-volume biography of the actor and compiled a book of essays about him, revealing the paradoxes of a man who falsified his biography, toyed with audiences, and undermined the racial assumptions of his age. Lindfors calls Aldridge “the most visible black man in a white world in the middle of the nineteenth century.” Three of his children were musicians music must have seemed the next world for the Aldridge clan to conquer.
The leaders of the New Negro movement of the early twentieth century took pride in the fact that a black performer had breached the citadels of European culture. Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson celebrated Ira W. E. B. Du Bois inducted him into the Talented Tenth—that company of exceptional individuals who were to lead the black population to salvation. Admittedly, Aldridge’s success did little to change the fundamental dynamics of racial hatred. Even if his performances of Shakespeare—or, for that matter, his daughter’s singing of Wagner—momentarily caused white people to rethink their ideas about the inferiority of other races, the epiphany didn’t stick. Still, such singular careers demonstrate what is possible, even if it remains improbable. Looking into the faces of Ira and Luranah, you see something more than talent: you sense an imperious disbelief in what passes for reality.
African-Americans who crossed the Atlantic in the nineteenth century found themselves in a markedly less hostile world. Racism ran through every sector of society and infected the highest minds of the age, yet the animus against people of color lacked the state-sanctioned viciousness of its American equivalent, at least on European soil. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833 Prussia outlawed serfdom in 1807. In theory, one could go where one wanted and do as one wished. Black people were, for the most part, unthreatening curiosities those who displayed intellectual distinction tended to arouse wonder rather than resentment. Du Bois, a Massachusetts native, recalled that when he went to Berlin to study political economy, in 1892, he felt, for the first time, truly free. “I began to realize that white people were human,” he said.
Ira Aldridge was born in Manhattan in 1807. His family belonged to the world of the “quasi-free,” to take a phrase from the historian John Hope Franklin. Slavery was gradually being abolished in New York, but the black population was hemmed in by Jim Crow-like restrictions—notably, drastic limits on voting rights. Aldridge’s father, Daniel, worked as a street vender and served as a lay preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church his mother, of whom almost nothing is known, was named Luranah. Aldridge’s early education took place at the African Free School, a network of schools set up by antislavery advocates to educate “the descendants of an injured race.” Daniel Aldridge wanted his son to be a minister, but Ira fell in love with the theatre.
In his teens, he caught a rare opportunity. From 1821 to 1823, an impresario named William Brown ran the African Theatre, the first African-American theatre company. All-black productions of “Richard III,” “Othello,” and other plays were presented in downtown Manhattan. Brown did not have an easy time: neighbors complained, the police intervened, a competitor sent in gangs of thugs, and the newspaper editor Mordecai Manuel Noah, who also happened to be the sheriff of New York, mocked the effort by printing spoofs in black dialect. (Noah, at the time one of very few Jewish figures in American politics, might have known better than to indulge in racial stereotyping.) Aldridge played several roles and apparently took part in street fights that erupted in response to the venture. The violence foreshadowed the anti-abolitionist riots of 1834, which devastated black homes, churches, and businesses. If Aldridge had remained in America, his acting career would surely have gone nowhere.
Aldridge reached England with the assistance of two acting brothers named Wallack. In May, 1825, he made his London début, playing Othello at the Royalty Theatre, a low-profile establishment in the East End. A critic chided this “Gentleman of Colour lately arrived from America” for his unreliable delivery of the text, but concluded that “his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed.” Aldridge was seventeen.
A curious twist boosted his rise. In the early eighteen-twenties, Charles Mathews, an English comedian known for his one-man entertainments, came into contact with James Hewlett, the star of the African Theatre. Although Mathews never saw the company in person, he burlesqued it in a wildly successful solo show, “Trip to America,” in 1824. In one skit, a black actor delivered a garbled version of “To be or not to be,” changing the line “by opposing end them” to “by opossum end ’em.” In Mathews’s telling, when the audience heard this, it began yelling for the popular song “Opossum Up a Gum Tree,” which the actor then performed. As the scholar Marvin McAllister has argued, the emerging phenomenon of blackface minstrelsy, which Mathews helped inspire, was in part a “metaphorical assault” on the aspirations of black actors.
When Aldridge began performing at the more upscale Royal Coburg Theatre, patrons anticipated a replica of Mathews’s malapropist bungler. One paper provided this preview: “Theatrical dogs, horses, and elephants have passed away—those of monkeys seem to be on the decline, and now for a more monstrous exhibition than all the rest, we are to be treated with a Black Actor, a right earnest African Tragedian.” Instead, audiences encountered a performer of skill and refinement. Lindfors suggests that they were “left with a chastened appreciation of black virtuosity.” 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.
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. With this juxtaposition, Lindfors proposes, Aldridge made audiences aware of the artificiality of stereotypes, while also indulging their—and his—love for low humor. He later incorporated “Opossum Up a Gum Tree” into “The Padlock,” appropriating Mathews’s appropriation. Lindfors believes that Aldridge was engaging in creative subversion, whereas other scholars see a mercenary capitulation to the marketplace in any case, the effect must have been dizzying.
Aldridge took on other dark-skinned roles that were popular on European stages at the time. These included Oroonoko, an enslaved African prince who suffers in his love for a white woman (“There is no mean, but death, or liberty”) Gambia, a slave who wins freedom by defending his masters (“Liberty! give me the language of gods, to tell that I am free!”) and assorted villains bent on vengeance. The actor sometimes rewrote his parts to make them more sympathetic or complex. When, in 1849, Aldridge played Aaron the Moor in an adaptation of “Titus Andronicus,” a hate-fuelled character became virtuous.
Elegant delivery aside, Aldridge did not stint on showmanship, travelling from town to town in a fancy carriage and indulging freely in public-relations hokum. He began claiming to be the descendant of a princely Fula line, and in later years spread the fiction that he had been born in Senegal. He also called himself the African Roscius, after a famous actor of ancient Rome. In 1825, he married Margaret Gill, of Yorkshire, but there were other women, all apparently white, and four of his six children—including Luranah, the future Wagner singer—were illegitimate. In America, Aldridge’s private life would have been as uncommon as his public one, and far more dangerous.
Such a flamboyant character could not avoid making enemies. In 1833, the Theatre Royal, in Covent Garden, offered Aldridge a short run in “Othello,” and much of the London press made a project of taking him down. The Figaro in London launched a breathtakingly vile campaign, promising to inflict on Aldridge “such a chastisement as must drive him from the stage he has dishonoured, and force him to find in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” The Athenaeum was scandalized to see Ellen Tree, the Desdemona, “being pawed about” by a black man. Afterward, the Figaro boasted of having “hunted the Nigger from the boards.”
Even those who praised Aldridge almost always framed him in racial terms, as Lindfors’s citations of reviewers show. “Away flew all our pre conceived notions and prejudices,” one said. Another declared, “The only real difference between an African and a European, is in the colour of the skin. The mind, the soul, the heart, are the same.” In 1831, a young woman named Miss Smedley composed a poem in Aldridge’s honor:
O may thy tongue indeed prophetic be,
And England loose the chain of Slavery,
That long hath bound the Negro’s energy,
Then shall his mind be like his body—“Free!”
At times, Aldridge articulated a political agenda, saying that he wished to “assert the claims of my kind to equality of intellect and right feeling with the more favoured portion of the human race.” He was hardly a radical, though. As Lindfors notes, he “made a compelling case for both the abolition of slavery and the advancement of the colonial enterprise.” His Senegalese deception erased his American upbringing and cast him as an exotic, almost magical being.
After the Covent Garden setback, Aldridge retreated to the provinces, and in Ireland, among other places, he became a full-on star, his popularity only heightened by stories of Londoners’ disdain. (In the writings of Thomas Carlyle, among others, the Irish were considered just a step above blacks.) In a high-flown address at the end of one of his Dublin runs, Aldridge flattered his audience by characterizing them as freedom fighters: “Here the sable African was free (cheers) / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”
In 1835, seeking to maximize his mobility, Aldridge put together a solo entertainment that mixed lectures on drama, recitations of Shakespeare, commentary on racism, and popular songs. And he kept up his meta-racial games. In the same period, the American blackface entertainer Thomas Rice toured England with his notorious “Jim Crow” act back home, he bragged of having convinced the British of the inferiority of blacks. Aldridge promptly added a version of Rice’s routine to his one-man show. He also parodied parodies of himself, reciting Shakespeare in mangled English. His most provocative move was to answer blackface by putting on whiteface. His repertory included Richard III, Rob Roy, a Russian who disguises himself as a Moor, and, in one skit, a Bavarian maid.
Aldridge might have finished his career on the provincial circuit, but in 1852 he ventured out on a Continental tour, bringing with him a troupe of British actors. In Germany, he found himself the subject of mass adulation, with full houses greeting him in each town and critics vying with one another to invent superlatives. One critic suggested that Aldridge might be “the greatest of all actors.” Another said that “since the time of the ancient kings of the Athenian stage no one has seen anything like it.” Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, conferred on Aldridge a Gold Medal for Art and Science Emperor Franz Josef of Austria gave him the Grand Cross of the Order of Leopold. Numerous other honors followed. His most impressive title was Chevalier Ira Aldridge, Knight of Saxony, and he did not hesitate to use it.
Richard Wagner, who idolized Shakespeare, was most likely an Aldridge admirer. In 1857, Aldridge went to Zurich, where Wagner was living, having taken refuge in the wake of the failed revolutions of 1848 and 1849. Wagner wrote to Mathilde Wesendonck, the muse of “Tristan und Isolde,” “Wednesday: Othello Ira Aldridge. Tickets to be booked in a timely fashion.” There is no reason to think that he did not go several of his Zurich associates were in attendance that night, including the leftist poet Georg Herwegh, who wrote a rave review. In the period of the Harlem Renaissance, the potential link between Aldridge and Wagner drew notice Langston Hughes, who once placed “Tristan” on a list of his favorite things, mentioned Wagner’s interest in his 1954 children’s book, “Famous American Negroes.”
“Wait–which is evidence and which is lunch?”
The German enthusiasm for Aldridge may seem strange, given the contemporary tendency to view nineteenth-century German culture as a continuous crescendo toward the racial hatred of the Nazi era. Indeed, the religiously based bigotry of prior eras was giving way to pseudo-scientific theories on the inequality of races, which Wagner helped to promote. Yet German thought contained other, more egalitarian strains, going back to Johann Gottfried Herder, who, in his “Negro Idylls,” of 1797, adopted the point of view of oppressed African peoples. Similar sympathies surfaced among the revolutionaries of 1848, more than a few of whom fled to America and became active in the abolitionist cause. Quentin Tarantino’s depiction, in his recent film “Django Unchained,” of an alliance between a German adventurer and a black American is not as absurd as audiences might assume.
Wagner’s own remarks about black people, as recorded in Cosima’s diaries, vacillate between disdain and a surprising sympathy. During the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, he speaks admiringly of Cetshwayo, the Zulu leader, and announces that “the Zulus are also human beings like ourselves.” If only he had grasped the same about the Jews.In 1858, Aldridge went to Russia, where, unexpectedly, his fame reached its zenith. It’s difficult to judge Russian descriptions of his acting, since by this time he was performing with a troupe of Germans, who recited in German while he carried on in English. The spectacle must have been more visual than verbal. Nonetheless, Aldridge cast his usual spell, especially in progressive circles. One critic wrote, “From Othello is torn the deep cry, ‘Oh misery, misery, misery!’ and in that misery of the African artist is heard the far-off groans of his own people, oppressed by unbelievable slavery and more than that—the groans of the whole of suffering mankind.” When Aldridge played Shylock, he was understood to be creating a compound study in racial adversity:
Ira Aldridge is a mulatto born in America and feels deeply the insults levelled at people of another colour by people of a white colour in the New World. In Shylock he does not see particularly a Jew, but a human being in general, oppressed by the age-old hatred shown towards people like him, and expressing this feeling with wonderful power and truth. . . . His very silences speak.
Toward the end of his career, Aldridge began to escape the racial frame in which he had been confined. In the late eighteen-fifties, his Macbeth, which one critic described as a “terrible battle of noble-mindedness with the demon of ambition,” made a strong impression on Georg, the future Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, whose acting company decisively influenced late-nineteenth-century theatre. The French poet and critic Théophile Gautier saw Aldridge in the role of King Lear, and marvelled at the actor’s impersonation of old age. Errol Hill, in his 1984 book, “Shakespeare in Sable,” proposes that Aldridge deserves credit for introducing greater naturalism into the Victorian theatre.
Thanks to his European sojourns, Aldridge acquired enough wealth to buy a home in London near the Crystal Palace—on Hamlet Road, no less—and other property nearby. While Margaret, his first wife, underwent a physical decline, he formed a relationship with Amanda Brandt, a Swedish-born singer who shared his habit of self-aggrandizing fictions: she claimed, falsely, to be a baroness. They were married in 1865, a year after Margaret’s death.
Nearing the age of sixty, Aldridge had one more mighty gesture in mind. In the summer of 1867, while on tour in Poland, he negotiated terms for an American tour, which would have involved a hundred performances across the country, beginning at the Academy of Music, near Union Square. Sizable fees were set, although, Aldridge advised, “the expenses of the Baroness Aldridge would be borne by me.” Performing Shakespeare in post-Civil War America would almost certainly have stirred up more opposition than Aldridge had lately been accustomed to. “A novel sensation is in store for our politicians, humanitarians, ethnologists and critics,” the Times said, seeming to sneer in anticipation.
A week before he was to sail, Aldridge fell fatally sick, possibly as a result of a lung condition. He died in Lodz on August 7, 1867, and was buried there, amid such pomp as befitted the first and last black Knight of Saxony.
Great performers are often poor parents, and it may not be a coincidence that only one of Aldridge’s children had a long and relatively happy life. Ira Daniel, his oldest, went to Australia, failed at acting, and descended into a life of crime. At the age of twenty-four, Ira Frederick, after showing promise as a pianist, composer, and conductor, flung himself from a window in a state of delirium. Amanda, a singer, composer, and teacher, was the survivor, finding a modest place in the London music scene. Her vocal students included Roland Hayes, Marian Anderson, and Paul Robeson—three history-making black performers of the early twentieth century.
The story of Luranah, Ira’s most gifted child, borders on tragedy. The best evidence of her life can be found in her sister’s papers, at Northwestern University. There is also a passage about her in Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock’s 1958 biography of Ira, which draws on interviews with Amanda they call Luranah “a strong-willed, dominating and pleasure-loving woman.” She was born in 1860, attended a convent school in Ghent, and studied in London, Berlin, and Paris. Her early reviews were encouraging a Hamburg critic praised her “strong, darkly colored instrument, well developed in the lower register.” Charles Gounod, the renowned composer of “Faust,” recommended her effusively to Augustus Harris, the impresario of opera at Covent Garden: “Do you want to hear one of the most beautiful voices that exist? Very well! Give an audition to Mademoiselle Luranah Aldridge.”
Harris featured Luranah in a Grand Wagner Orchestral Concert at St. James’s Hall in 1893, and the same year cast her as one of the Valkyries in the “Ring.” She sang again in “Ring” cycles in London in 1898 and 1905. Elsewhere, she evidently essayed the bigger role of Erda, the earth goddess of the “Ring,” for the Aldridge collection contains a photograph of the Russian-born soprano Félia Litvinne, attired as Brünnhilde, with the inscription “à mon Erda.” In her own portraits, Luranah has no trouble adopting a grand pose, her head tilted back and her eyebrows imperiously arched.
At the end of the nineteenth century, there was no more powerful woman in music than Cosima Wagner, who had assumed the direction of Bayreuth after her husband’s death, in 1883. The illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and the leftist historian Marie d’Agoult, the Meisterin, as she was known, was a person of monumental will and fierce intelligence. George Eliot called her a genius, adding that Richard resembled a petty grocer. Yet Cosima was no less bigoted than her husband, and considerably more rigid in her artistic thinking.
Luranah auditioned for Cosima in late 1895 or early 1896, and was cast in that summer’s “Ring”—the first Bayreuth production of the cycle since the inaugural festival of 1876. Sometime in the spring, Luranah went to Bayreuth, to take part in rehearsals. When she fell ill, she repaired to a spa in Rupprechtstegen, not far from Bayreuth. It was an expensive place, for which Cosima probably paid the bill. Eva Wagner, one of Richard and Cosima’s children, wrote to her on May 30th, “Mama and we all were happy to get good news from you, and we hope that every day will be a progress! Mama spoke immediately to Mr. v. Gross, who surely meanwhile will have fulfilled your wish.” (Adolf von Gross was Bayreuth’s business manager.) The familiar tone of Eva’s note bears out Marshall and Stock’s claim that the singer became close to the Wagner family—indeed, that she stayed for a time in Wahnfried, the Wagner home.
The idea of a woman of color consorting with the Wagners is disorienting. By the end of the century, Bayreuth had become a gathering place for ultra-nationalists and philosophers of Aryan supremacy. Cosima had befriended Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose 1899 best-seller, “The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century,” tells the story of Western civilization as the forward march of the Teutonic peoples. In early 1896, just when Luranah may have been living with the Wagners, Cosima responded to an outline of Chamberlain’s book with a string of comments, one of which said, “The Negroes have surprised me. But I am entirely prepared to be convinced.” She was apparently reacting to Chamberlain’s declaration that the Aryan peoples faced a “struggle for existence” with the Chinese and the Negroes, the latter being “considerably more dangerous” than the former. The presence of Luranah may have led Cosima to question, at least for a moment, one aspect of Chamberlain’s grotesque theory.Having recovered from her illness, Luranah inquired about singing at Bayreuth in 1897. In the Northwestern archive, I found a reply from Cosima herself, in the polished, slightly stilted English that she acquired in her schooling:
My dear Miss Aldridge, I am very sorry indeed to be obliged to tell you that our personelle is complete and that it is now too late to invite you to take a part in our performances. I am very sorry about it, but I was very glad to hear that you are well again and that you can use your fine voice. Only I would advise you to go to a good master in order to learn how to manage this fine voice, and not to destroy it before time. I should have been very glad to have seen you again, dear Miss Aldridge, I assure you, and with best wishes for you, my children and I send you kindest regards.
There is no other Wagner correspondence in the archive. Perhaps Luranah was offended at the notion that she needed further training. It’s possible, though, that Cosima had correctly identified a problem in Luranah’s technique, and that the singer had prematurely taken on heavier Wagnerian roles.
Luranah gave recitals in London until the First World War, her repertory ranging from lieder to chansons to parlor songs. Her programs were pointedly diverse, not unlike the ones that her father had created in his “Lecture in Defense of the Drama”: on one occasion, Wagner’s “Schmerzen,” from the “Wesendonck Lieder,” gave way to Amanda’s “Three African Dances.” But her health problems intensified, and after the war she became bedridden with rheumatism. Her sister looked after her devotedly. When, in 1921, W. E. B. Du Bois invited Amanda to attend the Second Pan-African Congress, she answered, “As you know, my sister is very helpless. . . . I cannot leave for more than a few minutes at a time.”
On November 20, 1932, at the age of seventy-two, Luranah Aldridge committed suicide by taking an overdose of aspirin. She was buried in a public section of Gunnersbury Cemetery, in London. On a recent visit there, I went in search of her grave, but could find no headstone. Watching the cemetery keeper dust off old records, I had the sense that no one had gone looking for her in a long time.
The first half of the Aldridge family saga is a triumph—a solitary, idiosyncratic triumph, but a triumph all the same. If the African Roscius did nothing to halt the radicalization of racism in the course of the nineteenth century, he provided glimpses of another world, stage fantasies of a future redistribution of power. His achievement loomed over subsequent generations of African-American performers black acting companies in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Baltimore adopted the name Aldridge Players or Aldridge Dramatic Club. In 1930, Paul Robeson assumed Ira’s mantle by playing Othello in the West End Amanda Aldridge was in attendance, and gave Robeson the gold earrings that her father had worn as Othello. Thirteen years later, as if completing Ira’s intended arc, Robeson appeared in “Othello” on Broadway.
As for Luranah, she offers a glimpse of a world that never was: one in which a black singer overcame late-nineteenth-century prejudice and established herself at the Wagner festival. What would have happened if she had sung that summer, before an audience that included George Bernard Shaw, Diaghilev, Renoir, Colette, Mahler, and Albert Schweitzer? Would there have been an outcry from right-wing factions? Would Bayreuth have earned praise from progressives? Might she have returned in bigger roles? As it was, history followed its seemingly inevitable course. In 1908, Eva Wagner, Luranah’s former friend, married Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the beady-eyed Aryan philosopher. She was present when Hitler first visited Bayreuth, in 1923. When she died, in 1942, her coffin was draped in a Nazi flag, and Hitler sent a wreath.
There is a curious epilogue to the tale of the first black Wagnerian. In 1936, Du Bois travelled to Germany on a grant from the Oberlaender Trust, his stated aim being to study industrial education, although he also wished to compare German racism with its American counterpart. A longtime Wagner fan, Du Bois included Bayreuth on his itinerary, attending performances of “Lohengrin” and the “Ring.” Here is another disorienting picture: the author of “The Souls of Black Folk” visiting the Wagner temple, amid the trappings of Hitler’s pseudo-Wagnerian regime.
Channeling a Breaker of Barriers
LONDON — The story is gripping. It is the mid-1820s, and a young black American actor improbably moves to London while still a teenager, tours the provinces and gets his big break a few years later, when he is asked at the last minute to replace Edmund Kean as Othello at Covent Garden in 1833. Can he overcome the innate prejudice of his fellow actors, the public and the critics? Will he succeed?
His name was Ira Aldridge, and when the British actor Adrian Lester was asked, way back in 1998, to do an informal reading of some writings about Aldridge, he was astonished by the story.
“Have you ever heard of Ira Aldridge?” Mr. Lester asked his wife, Lolita Chakrabarti, an actress and writer, when he got home. It turned out to be a leading question. The outcome was “Red Velvet,” written by Ms. Chakrabarti, starring Mr. Lester and directed by Indhu Rubasingham, which opens at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn for a monthlong run on March 25, after two sold-out seasons at the Tricycle Theater in northwest London.
“An early instinct told her,” Mr. Lester, 45, said in an interview at the Tricycle late last month. “She knew there was a story there.”
Ms. Chakrabarti had to cling tenaciously to that belief. Until the Tricycle took on “Red Velvet,” she wrote and rewrote the play for more than a decade, meeting with rejection every step of the way. After the play’s October 2012 opening, it won numerous awards for Ms. Chakrabarti and Mr. Lester and rapturous reviews. “A cracker of a play: gripping, intelligent and passionate,” Sarah Hemming wrote in The Financial Times. “History springs into startlingly vigorous life,” Kate Bassett wrote in The Independent on Sunday.
But just before it finally was produced, Ms. Chakrabarti, 44, said she had been about to give up on the project entirely.
“I was really discouraged by the lack of encouragement,” she said by telephone. “So many people had said no that I began to think, ‘Maybe we are wrong, and it’s really not brilliant.’ And when it then went so well, I thought, ‘How random it all is.’ ”
Bored between acting jobs, Ms. Chakrabarti had been looking for a writing project. Her imagination, she said, was immediately fired by what Mr. Lester told her.
“Now everything is online and cataloged, but at the time it was pre-Internet, so you had to trawl around bookshops and write letters to libraries, and phone them long distance, and then they would fax you lists of playbills and letters and illustrations,” she said. “I found a biography, then some material on the period at a black bookshop on a trip to Los Angeles. The more I read, the more I felt that his history and story were so important and significant. I couldn’t believe that no one, even real theater buffs, had heard of him.”
Aldridge is an anomaly in theater history: a black actor — and an American — who achieved mainstream success in grand Shakespearean roles at a time when no black actor had ever been seen on the stage of a major London theater, and who went on to win considerable renown in Europe, honored with titles and medals by crowned heads of state.
Feeling that the sweep of the narrative was a broad, encompassing social and political history as well the actor’s personal story, Ms. Chakrabati thought it should be a film. She wrote a detailed treatment, but no producer would take the bait. Discouraged, she abandoned the project.
“But Ira stayed with me, kept knocking on the door,” she said. “In 2000, I was working at the National Theater, in a play Indhu was directing, and I told her about Ira. She said, ‘Write it as a play, it will be quicker.’ ” Ms. Chakrabarti paused. “And we are still friends.”
Quicker it was not. On and off, between acting jobs and other projects, Ms. Chakrabarti wrote and rewrote the play, showing Mr. Lester and Ms. Rubasingham every draft.
There was a lot to get in. Aldridge’s Covent Garden debut in 1833 coincided with the abolition of slavery in the British colonies, and the heightened debate over the decision. His performances in “Othello,” well received by the audiences, were vilified by critics after two shows, the management closed the theater, and Aldridge never appeared again on a mainstream London stage. Until he died at 60, in Poland, he toured Europe relentlessly, becoming something of a celebrity in Eastern Europe and Russia.
Eventually, Ms. Chakrabarti decided to focus on Aldridge’s big break, his chance to play “Othello” at Covent Garden, and the repercussions of those performances. This central section is framed as a flashback, bookended by scenes of an older, unwell, irascible Aldridge, as he prepares for the title role of “Lear” in Poland.
“The commitment and dedication of an actor who is freelance, that moment when you get your chance and it makes or breaks you — I thought, that would really affect your whole life,” Ms. Chakrabarti said, adding that in the process of distilling the story, she had discarded numerous characters and events that she had originally thought essential.
Renowned Actor Ira Frederick Aldridge Gets His Start at the African Grove Theatre
Ira Frederick Aldridge is today remembered as one of the most renowned actors of the nineteenth century, one of the highest-paid actors of his time, and the first Black American to establish an acting career in another country. Although the venerable Shakespearean performer and tragedian spent most of his life overseas, Aldridge in fact got his start as an actor at the African Grove Theatre in Greenwich Village.Ira Aldridge as “Othello,” 1887. Photo courtesy of the NYPL Digital Archives.
Ira Frederick Aldridge was born in New York on July 24, 1807. At the time, slavery was still legal in the state, but both of Aldridge’s parents, Daniel and Luranah Aldridge, were free. Aldridge’s father worked as a straw merchant and a lay preacher, and hoped that his son would also develop a religious career. The family resided in proximity to Greenwich Village’s “Little Africa,” which for much of the 19th century was was the largest and most important African American community in New York, centered around today’s Minetta Lane and Minetta Street.
Aldridge studied in the neighborhood’s African Free School starting around the age of thirteen for about two years. The first school for Black students in America, the African Free School was founded over three decades before — on November 2, 1787 — in Lower Manhattan by the New-York Manumission Society and founding fathers Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. The institution prepared the city’s Black students, many of whom were the children of enslaved people, to enter the public school system. A number of renowned figures were students here, including the abolitionist, educator, orator, and Greenwich Village resident Henry Highland Garnet.
Ultimately consisting of seven schools, the third African Free School was located in Greenwich Village, at 120 West 3rd Street, then known as Amity Street. According to his biographer, Bernth Lindfors, Aldridge graduated from the school’s Mulberry Street location, which was constructed in 1820. It is likely that he previously attended African Free School No. 1 on William Street, or a separate church school. While here, Aldridge received awards for his oratory skills.
“The History of the New-York African Free Schools,” 1830. Photo courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections.
From a young age, Aldridge was completely captivated by the theater. The Memoir and Theatrical Career of Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius, quoted by Lindfors, reveals:
“His first visit to a theatre fixed the great purpose of his life, and established the sole end and aim of his existence. He would be an actor. He says at this hour that he was bewildered, amazed, dazzled, fascinated, by what to him was splendour beyond all that his mind had imagined, and mimic life so captivating, that his own real existence would be worthless unless he in some way participated in such imitations as he witnessed.”
Soon Aldridge began performing with the African Company/African Grove Theatre in the early 1820s. The troupe was founded by William Alexander Brown, a pioneering Black actor and playwright who had learned about different types of theater while traveling extensively as a ship’s steward. Upon Brown’s return to New York City, he bought a house on 38 Thompson Street and began the African Company.
The Company members would meet and perform in the building’s back yard, until they began receiving what were undoubtedly racist complaints from the neighbors, and the police forced them to move. Brown shifted the Company north to Bleecker and Mercer Streets, but soon found it was too far from his core audience, and so returned to Mercer and Houston Street. Brown’s African Grove Theatre was located near the Park Theater, which served white audiences and with which it often competed. The African Grove Theatre put on both Shakespearian plays and original works, and Aldridge’s first role with the organization was Rolla from Pizarro.
Devastatingly, the African Company and the African Grove Theatre were disbanded in 1823, as a result of both financial distress and discriminatory city intervention. While the theater and company was not the first attempt to create a Black theater within New York City at this time, Grove is remembered as the most financially successful.The African Grove Theatre poster, 1821. Photo courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections.
Like most Black actors of his time, Aldridge was sometimes treated with great hostility from white audiences and managers, and denied access to a number of roles because of his race. He decided to travel to Europe to pursue his acting career, and in 1824, at the age of seventeen, he sailed to England. Here he enrolled at the University of Glasgow, and found work performing in traditionally Black roles. On October 10, 1825, he debuted as the first Black actor at the Royal Coburg Theatre in London as Prince Oroonoko of Africa in The Revolt of Surinam.
Aldridge went on to tour the United Kingdom, and was perhaps best known for his Shakespearean roles such as Othello, Shylock, Macbeth, and King Lear. In 1833, when Edmund Kean collapsed and died in the middle of an Othello run, Aldridge was called to take his place. In Othello, arguably Aldridge’s greatest role, he broke barriers playing opposite white actresses, which would have been unthinkable in almost any American theater at the time. Though critics objected to this and other performances, frequently using racist rhetoric, Aldridge continued to tour and grow his reputation. In 1852, he embarked on his first European tour, and five years later conducted a series of highly-regarded shows in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Throughout his life, Aldridge was also an avid abolitionist. He contributed financially to the cause and even paid for the freedom of enslaved people himself. He also incorporated songs of freedom into his work.Ira Aldridge as “King Lear,” 1850-1959. Photo courtesy of NYPL Digital Collections.
Aldrige’s first wife, Margaret Gill, died in 1864, after which Aldridge married Amanda von Brandt of Sweden. Together, the couple had three children. On August 7, 1867, at the age of sixty, Aldridge passed away and was buried Lodz, Poland, where he received a state funeral.
Over the course of his career, Aldridge received a number of honors including Switzerland’s White Cross. The Ira Aldridge Memorial Chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and a theater at Howard University, are named in his honor. His legacy as a boundary-breaking Black actor, theater artist, and abolitionist made an impact internationally, reverberating far beyond the Greenwich Village neighborhood from which he emerged.
To learn more about Little Africa, the African Free School, the African Grove Theatre, and other African American History sites in our neighborhoods, check out our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map.
The Past Uncovered: Ira Aldridge
“Aldridge has nothing in common with those theatrical personalities from the West who visited us in recent times…He concentrates only on the inner meaning of his speech. He does not bother either about the majestic stride, but moves completely naturally, not like a tragedian, but like a human being.”
–Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian by Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock
Ira Aldridge was born in 1807 in New York City. As a young performer, he witnessed the demise of The African Company and the difficulties Black classical actors faced in America including violence. With “hope his skin color would not prove an insurmountable barrier to his advancement,” Aldridge set sail for England, and a career on the European stage.
Over time, Aldridge played major roles across Europe in Paris, Munich, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Constantinople, and Warsaw, portraying almost all of Shakespeare’s great leading roles including Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Richard III, and Shylock.
Despite his success, Aldridge still faced numerous hurdles due to his race. Although Aldridge called Europe home, he yearned to return to the United States, especially after the end of Civil War seemingly opened the door for him to return. That dream would not come true, and he died while in Poland on the stage at the age of 60.
Ira Aldridge made history by setting the standard of Othello being played by a Black actor.
Born a free black in New York City, Ira Aldridge traveled to London at the age of seventeen to pursue a theatrical career. When he died fifty years later, he was known throughout Britain, Europe, and Russia as the greatest actor of his time.
Aldridge attended the African Free School in New York and possibly performed with the African Theatre of lower Manhattan before he left for England as a steward to the actor James Wallack. His first London stage appearance took place in 1825 at the Coburg Theatre, primarily a house for melodrama, where in a six-week season he performed five leading parts, including the title role of Oroonoko in Thomas Southerne's play and Gambia in The Slave, a musical drama by Thomas Norton.
Six years of touring followed in the English provinces, in Scotland, and Ireland. The title role in Shakespeare's Othello and Zanga the Moor in Edward Young's The Revenge were added to his repertoire. Aldridge also excelled as Mungo, the comic slave in Isaac Bickerstaffe's musical farce The Padlock, which was often billed as an afterpiece to Othello. In consequence, Aldridge was later compared to the great eighteenth-century English actor David Garrick, who was equally renowned in both tragedy and comedy.
Having exhausted the number of acceptable black characters in dramatic literature, Aldridge began to perform traditionally white roles such as Macbeth, Shylock, Rob Roy from Walter Scott's novel, and Bertram in the Rev. R. C. Maturin's Bertram, or, The Castle of Aldobrand. He received high praise in the provincial press, being referred to as "an actor of genius" and "the perfection of acting."
By this point he was only twenty-four, and he set his heart on performing at a major London theater. His opportunity came in 1833, when the leading English actor Edmund Kean collapsed while playing Othello at the Covent Garden theater. Despite resentment from several London papers, Aldridge accepted the role, which he played to public, though not critical, acclaim.
After further provincial traveling, Aldridge at forty-five began touring in Europe, concentrating on performing Shakespeare. To his repertory of Othello, Macbeth, and The Merchant of Venice he had added King Lear, Hamlet, Richard III, and Aaron the Moor in an edited version of Titus Andronicus. He played in bilingual productions, speaking English himself while the rest of the cast spoke their native language. These tours were largely successful and brought him considerable fame many honors were conferred on him by ruling houses. "If he were Hamlet as he is Othello, then the Negro Ira Aldridge would [be] the greatest of all actors," wrote a German critic. The Moscow correspondent for the French publication Le Nord praised Aldridge's "simple, natural and dignified declamation … a hero of tragedy speaking and walking like a common mortal."
Aldridge was invited to perform Othello in 1858 at the Lyceum Theatre in London, and in 1865 at the Haymarket, winning a favorable press on both occasions. He was thinking of returning to the United States when he died in 1867 of lung trouble while on tour he was buried in L ó dz, Poland.
Aldridge was twice married and raised four children, three of whom were professional musicians. In addition, his daughter Amanda taught voice production and diction.
Amanda Ira Aldridge was the youngest daughter of famous actor Ira Frederick Aldridge, who was born in New York City and who made a career as a Shakespearean actor on the world stages of England, Europe, and United States. He is one of the only African American actors to be honored at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. The success of his career on the stage was beneficial in helping his daughter, Amanda, develop a career in performing as well.
Amanda Ira Aldridge was born in 1866 in the U.K. and lived until age 89, becoming a famous opera singer in Europe. Being a singer of mixed race, (African American and Swedish/Caucasian), and with her family background in the performing arts, she was provided with the opportunities to both obtain an education at the highest level and to have the experiences that she needed to establish a solid career. Aldridge studied voice at the Royal College of Music and performed and taught throughout her life. Throughout her career, she was driven to explore the importance to her ties to African American culture through composition. Aldridge was as a pivotal performer for African American classic songs in this time period.
After studying with Jenny Lind (known as the “Swedish Nightingale”) and George Henschel, Amanda made her career creating and composing art songs that often contained poetry by African American poets. Her most famous work was Three African Dances for piano, which was inspired by West African Drumming. All of her compositions were under a pen name “Montague Ring,” which was an association to her father’s acting career. This was the beginning of sharing African American culture between London and the U.S., more specifically, Harlem. Many students that eventually appeared on U.S. stages had Aldridge as their teacher among her students were Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson.
Later, Amanda Ira Aldridge turned to Tin Pan Alley to compose music of broader varieties. She was heavily influenced by her parents, who exposed her to a wide pan of diversity. Although it was uncomfortable for her, having been given her European background, Amanda explored world outside of classical music in the U.S. and sought to compose art songs that gave voice to African Americans. She understood that her father had been exposed to an unbalanced playing field in his career, as well as racial bias. Minstrel songs and slave songs were an outlet that he used in advance his career, and this history is reflected through Amanda.
-Eliana Barwinski (Christie Finn, ed.)
This biographical essay is made possible because of the Song of America Initiative for African-American Classic Song, a collaboration between the Hampsong Foundation and Dr. Scott Piper’s Winter 2016 course “The Art Songs of African American Composers” at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.