Ira Frederick Aldridge was an American and later British stage actor and playwright who made his career after 1824, largely in London and in Europe and is most famous for his Shakespearean roles.
Born in New York City, Aldridge went to the African Free School in New York City at aged 13. The school was established by the New York Manumission Society for the children of free Black people and slaves. They were given a classical education, with the study of English grammar, writing, mathematics, geography, and astronomy.
Aldridge’s first professional acting experience was in the early 1820s with the African Company, a group founded and managed by William Henry Brown and James Hewlett. Aldridge made his acting debut as Rolla, a Peruvian character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Pizarro and according to the 1860’s memoir of Dr James McCune Smith, Ira may have also taken the male lead in Romeo and Juliet.
Aldridge emigrated to Liverpool in 1824 with actor James Wallack after the pair became tired of the constant discrimination they faced in America. As their arrival coincided with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, Britain had the means to erect theatres and the fact that the slave trade had already been outlawed, made the prospect of Black actors performing in Britain somewhat acceptable, albeit with some prejudice.
Having limited onstage experience and no presence in the media, Aldridge concocted a story of his African lineage, claiming to have descended from the Fulani princely line.
On October 10, 1825, Aldridge made his European debut at London’s Royal Coburg Theatre, making him the first African-American actor to establish himself professionally in a foreign country. He played the lead role of Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam, ‘A Slave’s Revenge’; this play was an adaptation of Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko.
According to the scholar Shane White, English people had heard of the African Theatre because of British actor and comedian Charles Mathews, so Aldridge associated himself with that. Bernth Lindfors says:
[W]hen Aldridge starts appearing on the stage at the Royalty Theatre, he’s just called a gentleman of color. But when he moves over to the Royal Coburg, he’s advertised in the first playbill as the American Tragedian from the African Theatre New York City. The second playbill refers to him as ‘The African Tragedian’. So everybody goes to the theatre expecting to laugh because this is the man they think Mathews saw in New York City.
By 1831 Aldridge had taken the name of Keene, a homonym for the then popular British actor, Edmund Kean. Aldridge observed a common theatrical practice of assuming an identical or similar nomenclature to that of a celebrity in order to garner attention. In addition to being called F.W. Keene Aldridge, he would later be called African Roscius, after the famous Roman actor of the first century BC.
An innovation Aldridge introduced early in his career was a direct address to the audience on the closing night of his engagement at a given theatre. In the years leading up to the emancipation of all slaves in the British colonies in 1832, he would speak of the injustice of slavery to his closing night audiences.
During Aldridge’s seven-week engagement at the Royal Coburg, he starred in five plays. He earned admiration from his audiences while most critics emphasised Aldridge’s lack of stage training and experience. According to modern critics Errol Hill and James Vernon Hatch, early reviews were mixed. For The Times he was “baker-kneed and narrow-chested with lips so shaped that it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English”; the Globe found his conception of Oroonoko to be very judicious and his enunciation distinct and sonorous; and The Drama described him as “tall and tolerably well proportioned with a weak voice that gabbles apace.”
Aldridge performed scenes from Othello that impressed reviewers. One critic wrote, “In Othello (Aldridge) delivers the most difficult passages with a degree of correctness that surprises the beholder.” He gradually progressed to larger roles; by 1825, he had top billing at London’s Coburg Theatre as Oronoko in A Slave’s Revenge, soon to be followed by the role of Gambia in The Slave, and the title role of Shakespeare’s Othello. He also played major roles in plays such as The Castle Spectre and The Padlock. In search of new and suitable material, Aldridge also appeared occasionally as white European characters, for which he would be made up with greasepaint and wig. Examples of these are Captain Dirk Hatteraick and Bertram in Rev. R. C. Maturin’s Bertram, the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard III, and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
In 1831 Aldridge successfully played in Dublin where he created a sensation in the small towns; as well as in Bath and Edinburgh, Actor Edmund Kean praised his Othello; some took him to task for taking liberties with the text, while others attacked his race. Since he was an American Black actor from the African Theatre, The Times called him the “African Roscius”, after the famed actor of ancient Rome. Aldridge used this to his benefit and expanded African references in his biography that appeared in playbills.
Aldridge first toured to continental Europe in 1852, with successes in Germany, where he was presented to the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and performed for Frederick William IV of Prussia; he also performed in Budapest. An 1858 tour took him to Serbia and to Imperial Russia, where he became acquainted with Count Fyodor Tolstoy, Mikhail Shchepkin and the Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko, who did his portrait in pastel.
Now of an appropriate age, he played the title role of King Lear (in England) for the first time. He purchased some property in England, toured Russia again in 1862 and applied for British citizenship on his return in 1863.
Aldridge enjoyed enormous fame as a tragic actor during his lifetime, but after his death, he was soon forgotten in Europe despite his death in Poland.
As such, the news of his death and record of achievements reached America slowly, with some cases of people hearing of his death 30 years after the fact.
In African-American circles, Aldridge was a legendary figure. Many Black actors viewed him as an inspirational model, so when his death was revealed, several amateur groups sought to honor his memory by adopting his name for their companies.
The most prominent troupe named for him was the Ira Aldridge Troupe in Philadelphia, which was created soon after his death in 1863, some 35 years after Aldridge left the US for good. The Ira Aldridge Troupe was a minstrelsy group that caricatured Irish white men. The Ira Aldridge Troupe is unique, as unlike most minstrel groups of the time, the Aldridge Troupe apparently did not do plantation material, although they were billed as fugitive slaves.
Legacy and honours
Aldridge received awards for his art from European heads of state and governments: the Prussian Gold Medal for Arts and Sciences from King Frederick William III, the Golden Cross of Leopold from the Czar of Russia, and the Maltese Cross from Bern, Switzerland.
Aldridge is the only African American to have a bronze plaque among the 33 actors honoured at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Aldridge’s legacy inspired the dramatic writing of African-American playwright Henry Francis Downing, who in the early 20th century became “probably the first person of African descent to have a play of his or her own written and published in Britain.”
Howard University Department of Theatre Arts, a historically black university in Washington, DC, has a theatre named after Ira Aldridge.