July 24, 1809
August 7, 1867
Born a free black in New York City, Ira Aldridge traveled to London at the age of seventeen to pursue a theatrical career. When he died fifty years later, he was known throughout Britain, Europe, and Russia as the greatest actor of his time.
Aldridge attended the African Free School in New York and possibly performed with the African Theatre of lower Manhattan before he left for England as a steward to the actor James Wallack. His first London stage appearance took place in 1825 at the Coburg Theatre, primarily a house for melodrama, where in a six-week season he performed five leading parts, including the title role of Oroonoko in Thomas Southerne's play and Gambia in The Slave, a musical drama by Thomas Norton.
Six years of touring followed in the English provinces, in Scotland, and Ireland. The title role in Shakespeare's Othello and Zanga the Moor in Edward Young's The Revenge were added to his repertoire. Aldridge also excelled as Mungo, the comic slave in Isaac Bickerstaffe's musical farce The Padlock, which was often billed as an afterpiece to Othello. In consequence, Aldridge was later compared to the great eighteenth-century English actor David Garrick, who was equally renowned in both tragedy and comedy.
Having exhausted the number of acceptable black characters in dramatic literature, Aldridge began to perform traditionally white roles such as Macbeth, Shylock, Rob Roy from Walter Scott's novel, and Bertram in the Rev. R. C. Maturin's Bertram, or, The Castle of Aldobrand. He received high praise in the provincial press, being referred to as "an actor of genius" and "the perfection of acting."
By this point he was only twenty-four, and he set his heart on performing at a major London theater. His opportunity came in 1833, when the leading English actor Edmund Kean collapsed while playing Othello at the Covent Garden theater. Despite resentment from several London papers, Aldridge accepted the role, which he played to public, though not critical, acclaim.
After further provincial traveling, Aldridge at forty-five began touring in Europe, concentrating on performing Shakespeare. To his repertory of Othello, Macbeth, and The Merchant of Venice he had added King Lear, Hamlet, Richard III, and Aaron the Moor in an edited version of Titus Andronicus. He played in bilingual productions, speaking English himself while the rest of the cast spoke their native language. These tours were largely successful and brought him considerable fame; many honors were conferred on him by ruling houses. "If he were Hamlet as he is Othello, then the Negro Ira Aldridge would [be] the greatest of all actors," wrote a German critic. The Moscow correspondent for the French publication Le Nord praised Aldridge's "simple, natural and dignified declamation … a hero of tragedy speaking and walking like a common mortal."
Aldridge was invited to perform Othello in 1858 at the Lyceum Theatre in London, and in 1865 at the Haymarket, winning a favorable press on both occasions. He was thinking of returning to the United States when he died in 1867 of lung trouble while on tour; he was buried in Lódz, Poland.
Aldridge was twice married and raised four children, three of whom were professional musicians. In addition, his daughter Amanda taught voice production and diction.
Marshall, Herbert, and Mildred Stock. Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958. Reprint, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968; Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1993.
errol g. hill (1996)