Ira Frederick Aldridge was born on July 24, 1807 in New York. However, his birthplace remained questionable until 40 or so years ago. It has also been listed as Senegal(Africa), and Maryland. However conclusive evidence was found in the 1950s that he was born in New York.
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Included in this evidence are his British Naturalization papers and Death Certificate. His father was Reverend Daniel Adlridge , a straw vendor and preacher in “Old Zion”. His mother was Lurranah. Ira grew up in a house on what is now West Broadway in New York City. He attended the African Free School No.2, which provided free education for Black children. The African Free School was established in 1787 on Cliff Street with one classroom for 40 children. After it was burnt down in 1814, it was relocated to No. 245 William Street. In 1820, A second African Free School was built in 1820 on Mulberry Street. This was known as the Arfrican Free School No. 2. It was here that Ira attended school. However, it is believed that he also attended No. 1 in his earlier childhood years. The African Free Schools are credited with contributing to the Abolitionist movement. They inspired them to fight for equal rights and use themselves as living examples that Blacks and Whites have the same potentials.
Ira spent much of his childhood at neighborhood theaters where he watched Black people perform many roles varying from skits to Shakespearean roles, such as Richard III. He mainly attended two theaters. The first one was the Park Theater that opened in 1798.Two frequent actors were Brits by the names of James and Henry Wallack. In this theater he didn’t get such great seats since it was segregated, so he preferred the African Theater, owned by a gentleman by the name of Mr. Brown. One of the actors who frequently performed there was James Hewlett. He was very talented and had a profound impact on young Ira. When he entered his teens he performed a skit called “Opossum up a gum tree” locally. People were impressed, and he was dubbed the “African Roscius.” Ira became friendly with the Wallacks and was their personal attendant.
In that time, when Blacks were starting to be accepted in American culture, a religious profession was something to aspire to. Therefore, Daniel constantly urged Ira to follow in his footsteps. He took him out of the theater so he could sit next to him in his church.
Daniel desperately wanted to send Ira to theological school. He was sent to Schenactedy College, near New York to study theology. However, the college thought he was not suited for theological studies. Ira never explicitly disobeyed his father, but even Daniel eventually began to realize that Ira had already decided on his career, the theater. In 1825 , when Ira was only 18 years old, he went to England with the Wallacks. He then attended Glasgow College, where many Blacks from the US went to attend college when they were not accepted in the US. He studied Latin Composition there under the tutelage of Professor Sanford. He remained there for 18 months until he moved on to actual acting. During the time he was in college he performed A Slave’s Revenge as Oroonoko, a slave sold into slavery several times in the Coburg Theater. His debut was on October Aldridge as Othello in England 10, 1825. To make his name more appealing, he added the last name Keene, but he later dropped it. In 1806, he made history by playing Othello in the Shakespearean play of Othello in Coburg Theater of London. Ira Aldridge became the first black actor to play the role of the black Moorish general named Othello. His performance was an astounding success. Othello became his trademark .He was then dubbed yet again with another name, the Negro Tragedian.
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However, a reporter of The Times did not think much of Ira Aldridge, and predicted a short career but he was devastatingly wrong. He was also booked in Brighton Theater for 1825. Aldridge repeated the same routine for quite a while. Othello and Oroonoko each once a week. Many people tried to view his performances. However at the end of his first year of acting he fell ill on the stage and did not perform in 1826. By the time he was acting again in 1827 he was desired by the rest of the world. He performed King Lear and many other plays in Britain. He then appeared in Sheffield, Halifax, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Lancaster, Liverpool and Sunderland in that year. During this time, he discovered a talent of his- he could sing. His first singing part was in The Padlock as Mungo. During his travels, he performed with his proceeds going to help free his enslaved brothers. He traveled for many years. Then he got a big break-Dublin, 1831. He got much renown and was desired back from his native London. Pierre Francois Laporte arranged for Aldridge to come on April 10, 1833 and perform in his Covent Garden for a few days. As expected, it was very inhabited on his first night performing. This is a copy of the playbill.His name is found in the center with a description of him and announcing that this is his first time performing on this stage.
In the following weeks he received countless praise for many literary publications. It was a sensational success. The audience could Covent Garden Playbill feel every beat of his heart. However, some of the more dignified classes found it most displeasing with their racist remarks that his speech was slurred and did not properly represent English. As soon as his Covent Garden engagement was over, he was invited by the Surrey theater to perform. The Surrey theater was one of the more important of the minor theaters in London. Ira Aldridge’s first performance there was on April 22, 1833. On May 10th of that year he received a white part and even though they did all sorts of things to make him look white, it didn’t work because it seemed that his inspiration came from his color. Proof of his greatness was in 1933 when Aldridge filled in for Edmund Kean, a renowned actor as Othello when he fell ill.
The next 20 years of Ira Aldridge’s career is a blur of tours, provinces and performances. It is not very well known in specifics what he did these twenty years. The African American Review in the Fall ‘94 edition quotes the researchers at Indiana State University who say the following: For the next twenty years Aldridge played almost exclusively in the provinces, building up a loyal following and a considerable fortune. He was on the road most of the year. Performing in cities, towns, and villages throughout the British Isles. Restless for new challenges, he extended his Shakespeare repertoire, experimenting with white roles such as Shylock, Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth and (King) Lear. In July 1852 he set out on his first major European tour and earned standing ovations wherever he went. After three years abroad, he returned to England laden with medals, decorations and honors, but he still could not find regular engagements in London. The trouped through the provinces for a while, toured Europe again, then came back to England once more. By this time he was world famous, but success on the London stage continued to elude him. Finally, after twenty years of touring the British Isles, Ira Aldridge was at least partially accepted to perform in the major theaters of England and Europe.
However, worldwide he received much praise. Dublin called his style “The perfection of acting.” Germany prtrayed him as “The greatest of all actors.” Danzig said that his Othello, Shylock and Macbeth “Left him without a rival in the theater.” Poland referred to his Othello as exactly how Shakespeare meant him to be portrayed. In France he represented ” for the first time a hero of tragedy speaking and walking like a common mortal, void of exaggeration either in posture or exclamation”. A critic in Russia said he was “the greatest thing in nature.” After over twenty five years of experience, an English critic who previously scorned Ira Aldridge for playing white roles adamantly stated:
We find that not only does the sable artist pronounce our language distinctly and correctly, but with elocutional emphasis and propriety, and that his general action is marked with elegance and ease….Mr. Aldridge has formed a conception of Othello peculiarly his manner….He is manifestly an intelligent man, has studied his art with earnestness and gained felicity in it’s exercise.
In 1853, Ira Aldridge went on his first continental tour. It was as usual a success and returned to England in 1855 for a provincial tour. He was finally recognized by Queen Victoria and played for her. He became a British citizen, never to return to the Us in 1863. It was during this time Ira Aldridge accumulated about 60 roles in his 27 years of traveling.
Ira was now in even more demand. He played in distinguished theaters, what he tried to accomplish all his life. He contemplating doing a New York City tour, but while he was performing in Lodz, Poland he had a respiratory affliction and died there. He was buried with many honors and was mourned by all. He never got to return to America.
In 1825 he married Margaret Gill of England. She died in 1864. In 1865 he remarried to Countess Amanda von Brandt of Sweden. He had two sons and three daughters. One of them who is considered to be illegitimate was Ira Daniel. He became a language teacher who migrated to Australia in 1867. Three of his other children became opera singers, composers and musicians. His fifth son, who was born posthumously died in infancy.
During Ira’s life, he slept with many women and had a few illegitimate children. He was sued by acouple of their husbands. However, it did not make a big dent on his career.
Today, there is a chair dedicated to him in the Shakespeare Memorial Theater in Stratford-on-Avon, England. There are at least 2 Biographies and countless mentions in most Shakespeare books.
1. Marshall and Stock, Ira Aldridge, Most of the book, Arcuturus Books, April 1968 in the USA
2. Hill, Errol, Shakespeare in Sable, Pages 17-27, University of Massachusets Press, 1984, Amherst, Massachusets
3. Mortimer, Owen, Speak of me as I am: Ira Aldridge (Internet Abreviated Version) www.netc.net.au/locallit/ira
4. African American Review, Fall 1994 edition
5. Theater Arts at Howard University home page -howard.edu
6. Encarta Online 4/30/99 1:13 PM