Forgotten for so long, Ira Aldridge has in recent years become literally the poster boy for all things Shakespearean. He was the first known black Shakespearean actor and made his fortune on the stage, though he wasn’t always welcome in his adopted country.
Born in New York in 1807 to a free black family, Aldridge received a classical education at the African Free School and was introduced to the theatre (and Shakespeare) through the African Grove Theatre, a theatre run and attended by the free black community of New York City in the early 1820s. The African Grove didn’t last long but Aldridge had already found his calling. It was difficult to find acting work as a man of colour in the US at that time and Aldridge decided to try his luck in Europe, taking the boat to Liverpool in 1824. He met his first wife, Margaret Gill, soon after he arrived in Britain.
With little stage experience, it took Ira a while to find his feet in Britain. He worked as a dresser and created a new persona for himself as an African tragedian rather than American. After some smaller roles, Aldridge made his debut as a lead actor on October 10, 1825 at the Royal Coburg, London (now the Old Vic) playing the lead role of Oronoko in A Slave’s Revenge. Aldridge’s most famous role was Othello, but he played a wide variety of characters including Richard III and Shylock, in later years becoming known for his King Lear (interestingly, he wore white face paint to play these roles). He caused a sensation and his fame spread across the country. He also toured Ireland successfully. Audiences loved him but the critics were less kind, usually commenting on his appearance as much as his ability. Edmund Kean, the eminent actor of the time, was very complimentary, and in 1833 Aldridge made his ill-fated appearance at Covent Garden when Kean fell ill.
Immortalised in the play Red Velvet, by Lolita Chakrabarti, Aldridge was engaged to play Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House), one of the only two theatres in London to be awarded the royal patent to present ‘spoken word’ plays (this patent system was revoked in 1841 – before that, only comedy, pantomime or melodrama could be shown in theatres. The other patent theatre was the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane). Edmund Kean had been playing Othello to his son Charles’ Iago when he fell ill on stage in March 1833. Aldridge was brought in but only performed twice before the production was cancelled. There is much speculation that the cancellation was due to issues of race, that the audiences of Covent Garden were not as open minded as those in the provinces or the lower classes, but there are newspaper reviews commenting that Aldridge was well received. It is known that he did take a few liberties with the standard text, which at the time was very much frowned upon, and it is most certainly a fact that the press were hostile. Either way, his time at Covent Garden was over.
In the 1850s Aldridge began to tour abroad, finding fame and fortune in Germany and Russia in particular, consorting with Leo Tolstoy and performing before the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. He is said to actually be the first actor to perform Shakespeare in the Russian provinces. He purchased property in London (his blue plaque hangs at 5 Hamlet Road, Upper Norwood – perhaps it was the street name that attracted him…) and became a British citizen in 1863.
The personal life of Ira Aldridge was as interesting as his professional exploits. He stayed married to his wife Margaret until her death in 1865 but she remained childless. Aldridge’s children were all born to his mistress, Swedish opera singer, Amanda von Brandt. They had five children, though the youngest was born after Aldridge’s death. The pair married after Margaret’s death but it was only two years later that Ira Aldridge himself died, while on tour in Poland. He was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery and today his grave is tended by the Society of Polish Artists of Film and Theatre.