Ira Frederick Aldridge was born on July 24, 1807 in New York City to Reverend Daniel and Luranah Aldridge who were “free Negroes.” According to Aldridge, his paternal grandfather was a Christian chief of the Fula in Senegal in Western Africa.
At age 13, Aldridge went to the African Free School in New York City where he won many oratory contests. His early "education" in theater included viewing plays from the high balcony of the Park Theatre, New York's leading theater of the time.
His mother later died in 1818 when Aldridge was 15. When his father remarried, he ran away from home. Aldridge worked on a ship and when it docked in North Carolina, a slave dealer offered to buy him for $500. The captain refused the offer and Aldridge returned to New York City to work backstage at the Chatham Theatre, where he received acting experience.
Aldridge's first professional acting experience was in the early 1820s with the company associated with the African Grove, the first theatre in the United States to cater to and was managed by African Americans. He debuted as Rolla in ‘Pizzaro’ the Richard Brinsley Sheridan adaptation of August von Kotzebue’s play, ‘Die Spanier.’ He went on to play Shakespeare's Romeo and later became a notable Hamlet.
Longing to take on major roles, he was confronted with the persistent discrimination which black actors endured in the United States. His solution was to emigrate to England. Upon his arrival in 1824, he first worked as a dresser to the British actor Henry Wallack.
On October 10, 1825, he debuted as the first black actor at London's Royal Coburg Theatre (now known as the Old Vic) playing the role of ‘Prince Oroonoko of Africa' sold into slavery in melodrama "The Revolt of Surinam, or A Slave's Revenge". His performance had a mixed reception – the "London Times" claimed that it was utterly impossible for him to pronounce English properly "owing to the shape of his lips." The "London Globe", on the other hand, found his enunciation "distinct and sonorous." Purely because of his color, the press was largely hostile, which prevented him from establishing himself in London.
However, according to the scholar Shane White, the English population had heard of the African Theatre because the well known British actor and comedian Charles Mathews; in the one man shows he developed made up of a variety of parts, one piece, "The African Tragedian," he added while touring in America after he saw the African American actor James Hewlett perform. 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." In his performances, he used his skill to reverse what was expected.
Aldridge performed scenes from ‘Othello’ that stunned reviewers. One critic wrote, "In ‘Othello’ (Aldridge) delivers the most difficult passages with a degree of correctness that surprises the beholder." The Hull, an England newspaper said his Othello “was such as can be equaled by very few actors of the present day.” His contemporaries praised his work.
For the next 27 years, Aldridge honed his craft, traveling and touring theatre circuits in provinces of the British Isles as a star of about sixty roles in melodrama, romantic drama, operetta, comedy and Shakespeare.
Outside London, Aldridge continued to win respect. In the provinces, he played to crowded houses, but was boycotted by the West End Stage (England's professional theatre circuit).
Soon after going to England, in 1824 Aldridge married Margaret Gill. They were married for 40 years before her death in 1864.
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’, and played several roles of specifically white characters, including 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, he successfully played in Dublin; several locations in southern Ireland, where he created a sensation in the small towns; as well as in Bath, 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.
In 1833, he made a highly successful debut in London when he replaced Edmund Kean as Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Since he was an American black actor from the African Theater, the ‘Times’ called him the "African Roscius" after the great Roman comic actor. Aldridge used this to his benefit and expanded African references in his biography that appeared in playbills as he made triumphant tours of Europe in several Shakespearean roles, including Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.
Aldridge first toured to continental Europe in 1852, with successes in Germany, where he was presented to the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, performed for Frederick William IV of Prussia, and performed in Budapest.
He returned from his European tours after receiving so many honors that the West End stage could no longer exclude him.
After 1853, he played mostly on the European continent, receiving honors from the Emperor of Austria and other heads of state in Switzerland, Prussia, and Russia, among others.
In 1858 he became the first actor to be knighted when he was bestowed the Royal Ernestinischen House Order by Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Meiningen, becoming Chevalier Ira Aldridge, Knight of Saxony.
At last deemed worthy to perform at London's Lyceum Theatre, he performed "Othello" in Russia and was lionized, earning more money than any Russian actor. One Russian critic said that the evenings on which he saw "Aldridge's ‘Othello', ‘King Lear', ‘Shylock' and ‘Macbeth' were undoubtedly the best I have ever spent in the theatre".
Honored as African prince and German baron, he remained a man of the people. At the close of many of his performances, he would play the guitar and sing an anti-slavery song appealing to audiences for "respect for his African race". England's Anti-Slavery Society referred to his presence on stage as a significant contribution to the struggle for abolition. With his wealth he contributed to fund-raising campaigns of Negro State Conventions prior to Emancipation.
An 1858 tour took him to Serbia and to Imperial Russia, where he became acquainted with Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Shchepkin and the Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko, who did his portrait in pastel. Aldridge mastered Russian well enough to perform roles in that language. He was the first American actor to perform in Russia.
After another tour of the British provinces in 1859 to 1860, he went to Russia again.
From 1861 to 1866, he embarked on a lengthy tour, visiting many places no foreign actor had ever been. 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 in 1862 and was granted British citizenship in 1863. At one point, he studied at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.
A year after Margaret's death, on April 20, 1865, Aldridge married his mistress, the self-styled Swedish countess Amanda von Brandt, with whom he already had a son, Ira Daniel. They had four more children: Irene Luranah, Ira Frederick and Amanda Aldridge, who all went on to musical careers, the two girls as opera singers. Their daughter Rachael was born shortly after Aldridge's death and died in infancy.
- Ira Daniel Aldridge, 1847 – unknown. Teacher. Migrated to Australia in 1867.
- Irene Luranah Pauline Aldridge, 1860–1932. Opera singer.
- Ira Frederick Olaff Aldridge, 1862 – unknown. Musician and composer.
- Amanda Christina Elizabeth Aldridge (Amanda Ira Aldridge), 1866–1956. Opera singer, teacher and composer under name of Montague Ring.
- Rachael Margaret Frederika Aldridge, 1867, died in infancy.
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 at the age of 59 in August 1867 while on tour visiting Poland. The whole town turned out to mourn his passing, and he was buried with State Honors. His tomb is now a national shrine that is cared for by Society of Polish Artists of the film and Theatre.
The American born English tragedian is considered one of the greatest interpreters of his day. He is the only actor of African-American descent among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Other awards received for his art from European heads of state and governments include:
- 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 Berne, Switzerland.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Ira Aldridge on his 100 Greatest African Americans.
Compiled from Wikipedia, http://www.biography.com/articles/Ira-Frederick-Aldridge-9179881, http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=9366046 and http://www.findbiography.org/actors-and-actresses/ira-frederick-aldridge.