Portrait of Aldridge by James Northcote
|Born||24 July 1807|
New York City
|Died||7 August 1867 (aged 60)|
|Years active||early 1820s-1862|
|Margaret Gill, Amanda von Brandt|
Ira Frederick Aldridge (July 24, 1807 - August 7, 1867) was an American and later British stage actor and playwright who made his career after 1824 largely on the London stage and in Europe, especially in Shakespearean roles. Born in New York City, Aldridge is the only actor of African-American descent among the 33 actors of the English stage honoured with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. He was especially popular in Prussia and Russia, where he received top honors from heads of state.
He was married twice, once to an Englishwoman, once to a Swedish woman, and had a family in England. Two of his daughters became professional opera singers.
Aldridge was born in New York City to Reverend Daniel and Luranah (also spelled Lurona) Aldridge on July 24, 1807. At the age of 13, Aldridge went to the African Free School in New York City, 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. His classmates at the African free school included Charles L. Reason, George T. Downing, and Henry Highland Garnet. His early exposure to theater included viewing plays from the high balcony of the Park Theatre, New York's leading theater of the time, and seeing productions of Shakespeare's plays at the African Grove Theatre.
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. In 1821, the group built the African Grove Theatre, the first resident African-American theatre in the United States.
Aldridge made his acting debut as Rolla, a Peruvian character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Pizarro. He may have also played the male lead in Romeo and Juliet, as reported later in an 1860 memoir by his schoolfellow, Dr. James McCune Smith.
Confronted with the persistent discrimination which black actors had to endure in the United States, Aldridge emigrated to Liverpool, England, in 1824 with actor James Wallack. During this time the Industrial Revolution had begun, bringing about radical economic change that helped expand the development of theatres. The British Parliament had already outlawed the slave trade and was moving toward abolishing slavery in the British colonies, which increased the prospect of black actors being able to perform.
Having limited onstage experience and lacking name recognition, Aldridge concocted a story of his African lineage, claiming to have descended from the Fulani princely line. By 1831 he 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 BCE.
On October 10, 1825, Aldridge made his European debut at London's Royal Coburg Theatre, 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, or A Slave's Revenge; this play was an adaptation of Thomas Southerne's Oroonoko (itself adapted from Aphra Behn's original work).
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 Theater New York City. The second playbill refers to him as 'The African Tragedian'. So everybody goes to the theater expecting to laugh because this is the man they think Mathews saw in New York City.
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. Especially 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 and the passionate desire for freedom of those held in bondage.
During Aldridge's seven-week engagement at the Royal Coburg, the young actor starred in five plays. He earned admiration from his audiences while most critics emphasized 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."The Times critic also found fault with Aldridge's "copper" complexion, considering it insufficiently dark for Othello.
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 appropriately 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; at several locations in southern Ireland, where he created a sensation in the small towns; as well as in Bath, England and Edinburgh, Scotland. The 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, also identifying his birthplace as "Africa" in his entry in the 1851 census. In June 1844 he made appearances on stage in Exmouth (Devon, England).
By at least 1848 he had added the anti-heroic role of Zanga in Edward Young's The Revenge to his repertoire. The Revenge (1721) race-flips the plot of Othello by showing how Zanga, a captured Moorish prince who has become the servant and confidant of the noble Don Alonzo, vengefully tricks him into believing his wife is unfaithful. Alonzo finally kills himself and Zanga exults: "Let Europe and her pallid sons go weep; / Let Afric and her hundred thrones rejoice: / Oh, my dear countrymen, look down and see / How I bestride your prostrate conqueror!"
An illustrated review of this performance at the Surrey Theatre shows Aldridge triumphing over Alonzo, dressed in flowing Moorish robes, which, according to the critic, "reminds one of the portraits of Abd-el Kader". The same reviewer praised Aldridge's comic talents in the contrasting role of Mungo (in the Bickerstaffe farce The Padlock), describing them as a refreshing corrective to current stereotypical "blackface" representation, "...differing entirely from the Ethiopian absurdities we have been taught to look upon as correct portraitures; his total abandon is very amusing."
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, about this time, he played the title role of King Lear (in England) for the first time. He purchased some property in England, toured Russia again (1862), and applied for British citizenship (1863). Shortly before his death he was apparently ready to consider a return to America. In its obituary of Aldridge, The New York Times stated he had been booked to appear in the city's Academy of Music in September, but "Death has prevented the fulfilment of his intention".
Soon after going to England, in 1824 Aldridge married Margaret Gill, an English woman. They were married for 40 years until her death in 1864.
Aldridge's first son, Ira Daniel, was born in May 1847. The identity of his mother is unknown, but it could not have been Margaret Aldridge, who was 49 years old and had been in ill health for years. She raised Ira Daniel as her own; they shared a loving relationship until her death. He emigrated to Australia in February 1867.
Aldridge bought 5 Hamlet Road, in the prosperous suburbs of Upper Norwood, London, in 1861-2 shortly before becoming a naturalised British citizen in 1863. It was where his wife, Margaret, and later his second wife, Amanda, brought up his children. He named the house 'Luranah Villa' in memory of his mother. It now bears his English Heritage blue plaque.
A year after Margaret's death, on April 20, 1865, Aldridge married his mistress, the self-styled Swedish countess Amanda von Brandt (1834-1915). They had four children: Irene Luranah, Ira Frederick and Amanda Aldridge, who all went on to musical careers, the two girls as opera singers. Their daughter Rachael Frederica was born shortly after Aldridge's death and died in infancy. Brandt died in 1915 and is buried at Highgate Woods, London.
Aldridge spent most of his final years with his family in Russia and continental Europe, interspersed with occasional visits to England. He planned to return to the post-Civil-War United States, but he died in August 1867 while visiting ?ód?, Poland.
His remains were buried in the city's Old Evangelical Cemetery; 23 years passed before a proper tombstone was erected. His grave is tended by the Society of Polish Artists of Film and Theatre.
A half-length portrait of 1826 by James Northcote shows Aldridge dressed for the role of Othello, but in a relatively undramatic portrait pose, is on display at the Manchester Art Gallery (in the Manchester section). Aldridge performed in the city many times. A blue plaque unveiled in 2007 commemorates Aldridge at 5 Hamlet Road in Upper Norwood, London. The plaque describes him as the "African Roscius".
In 1856 Aldridge was successfully sued by actor William Stothard, who alleged Aldridge had had an affair with his wife Emma three years before, resulting in the birth of a son. (Under English law of the time the husband of an adulterous wife was entitled to sue her lover for compensation.) At a hearing on January 14 in London before Mr. Justice Erle the jury found for the plaintiff Stothard, but in view of mitigating circumstances awarded him only £2 in damages. Aldridge was away on tour in Ireland when the trial took place but he was heading the bill at a London theatre by the following year, indicating the scandal caused his career no lasting damage.
Aldridge enjoyed enormous fame as a tragic actor during his lifetime, but after his death, he was soon forgotten [in Europe]. The news of Ira Aldridge's death in Poland and the record of his achievement as an actor reached the American black community slowly. 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.
Many troupes were being founded in various places around America. In the late nineteenth century Aldridge-titled troupes were established in Washington, DC, in Philadelphia, and in New Haven, their respective productions at the time being an adaptation of Kotzebue's Die Spanier in Peru by Sheridan as Pizarro in 1883, School by Thomas William Robertson in 1885, and George Melville Baker's Comrades in 1889.
The most prominent troupe named for him was the Ira Aldridge Troupe in Philadelphia, founded 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 in annals of minstrelsy; it was named for a Black actor who had left his homeland some 35 years before and achieved fame in Europe. Unlike most, later, Black minstrel companies, the Aldridge Troupe apparently did not do plantation material, although they were billed as a 'contraband troupe'--that is, fugitive slaves. Perhaps because of their substantially Black audience, the troupe felt no need to "put on the mask." Although much of the material the group performed was standard fare, several of the company's acts were downright subversive.
The Ira Aldridge Troupe appearing during the American Civil War made it "unique in the annals of minstrelsy." The Clipper (New York City) thought it was important enough to review; and it performed before a mixed audience, at a time when often white and black audiences were separated. Third, it was a black troupe presenting a program designed to appeal to their black audience. The Ira Aldridge Troupe performances eschewed the southern genre of old "darkies" longing for the plantation. The exclusion of southern nostalgia may have been in deference to a majority-black audience. The New York Clipper reported them as "A more incorrigible set of cusses we never saw; they beat our Bowery gods all to pieces."
The troupe also created performances and songs that referred to the continuing Civil War. A ballad, "When the Cruel War is Over", became well known; it was performed by three members of the troupe--Miss S. Burton, Miss R. Clark, and Mr. C. Nixon. The song sold over a million copies of sheet music and was one of the most popular sentimental songs of the Civil War. The song describes a soldier's farewell to his lady, the wounds he receives in battle, and his dying request for a last caress. The song, highly popular with white minstrel groups, was an example of the change in white minstrelsy that had been occurring at this time.)
Another popular production was a farce called The Irishman and the Stranger, with a Mr. Brown playing a character called Pat O'Callahan and a Mr. Jones playing the Stranger. This farce displayed black actors in white face speaking in a "nigger accent". The Clipper reporter referred to the performance as a "truly laughable affair, the 'Irish nagur' mixing up a rich Irish brogue promiscuously with the sweet nigger accent". Perhaps the Aldridge Troupe's audience got its biggest satisfaction, however, from the role reversal inherent in the piece: since the beginning of minstrelsy, minstrels of Irish heritage, such as Dan Bryant and Richard Hooley, had been caricaturing Black men--now it was the turn of Black men to caricature the Irish.
The history of minstrelsy also shows the cross-cultural influences, with Whites adopting elements of Black culture. The Ira Aldridge Troupe tried to pirate that piracy, and, in collaboration with its audience, turn minstrelsy to its own ends.
The Black Doctor, originally written in French by Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois, was adapted by Aldridge for the English stage. The Black Doctor is a romantic play about Fabian, a bi-racial physician, and his patient Pauline, the daughter of a French aristocrat. The couple falls in love and marries in secret. Although the play depicts racial and family conflict, and ends with Fabian's death, Aldridge portrays his title character with dignity. Some plot points mirror Aldridge's own life, as he married a white Englishwoman.