THE LIFE OF IRA ALDRIDGE
When Ira Frederick Aldridge was born, the son of free parents, in New York City in 1807, slavery was legal in the state of New York. His father was a straw merchant and lay preacher. At the age of thirteen, Ira began what was likely just two years of formal schooling at one of New York’s African Free Schools, founded to educate the children of slaves and the city’s free-born population. Among his jobs growing up, he ran errands for the English actor Henry Wallack. His father wanted his son to pursue a religious career, but Ira had discovered his passion for the theater. After performing at New York’s African Grove Theatre, at seventeen he sailed to England in 1824 to seek roles unavailable to him in America. He was eighteen when he secured his first roles on London’s stages performing in traditionally black roles, and married an Englishwoman named Margaret Gill. Two years later, Aldridge began his extensive touring career throughout the British provinces.
When Edmund Kean—the most renowned tragedian of his era—in 1833 collapsed onstage as he performed Othello, the twenty-five-year-old Aldridge was asked to step into the role he had played with much success in the provinces. But this time his platform was one of London’s most prestigious theaters, the Royal Coburg in Covent Garden. Working alongside the great actors of London’s stage, including Ellen Tree as Desdemona, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Opinions differed widely among London’s critics, but most reviews revealed their authors’ racial prejudices, citing Aldridge's physical features, lack of intellectual understanding, unusual accent and pronunciation, and his interactions with white actors, as reasons to condemn his performance as unworthy of the Convent Garden stage. The production was cancelled following Aldridge’s first two performances.
Aldridge resumed his touring across England, and later launched his first continental tour in 1852, becoming one of the most renowned and celebrated actors of the nineteenth century. Aldridge was met with critical success across Europe, becoming one of the highest-paid actors in the world at the time. After his wife died in 1864, he married Amanda von Brandt, a Swedish woman and the mother of his three children.
Aldridge became known across the Continent for other great Shakespearean roles, as well, including Shylock, Macbeth and, in later years, King Lear. As was customary at the time, he played what were held as traditionally white roles in “whiteface.” He was the first to perform Shakespeare in Serbia and in parts of Russia, where his performances were so powerful that they provoked uprisings, and led to several Shakespeare texts being banned entirely. Performing the role of Aaron, he restored one of Shakespeare's early works, Titus Andronicus, to the stage for the first time in 128 years. He was acclaimed for his performances in non-Shakespearean plays too, including A Slave’s Revenge, The Padlock, The Virginian Mummy, The Slave, and The Castle Slave. In 1867, at the age of sixty and suffering from a lung infection, Ira Aldridge died in Lodz, Poland, where he was given a state funeral. He never returned to America after leaving his birthplace more than forty years before.