An Extraordinary Early American in Europe

By Susan Russo

Portrait_of_Ira_Aldridge,_by_Taras_Shevchenko_(1858)Ira Aldridge was born in New York in 1807 to free black parents: Daniel, a clerk and preacher, and Luranah Aldridge. Ira was schooled at home until 1820, when at the age of 13, he was enrolled in the African Free School Number Two. In the 1820s in New York City William Alexander Brown, a West Indian, started four “backyard” or public garden theatres, with plays followed by musical entertainments. During the same period, Brown founded the first all-black “African Theatre,” presenting Richard III, followed by an opera and a ballet. City officials closed all of Brown’s and others’ similar enterprises shortly after each opening following complaints, the last closing culminating in a riot.

At 14, Aldridge found a job in New York as a dresser at the whites-only Chatham Garden Theatre. His employer was a touring Anglo-American actor, James William Wallack. It is not known whether the connection with Wallack played a part in his decision, but, in 1824, Aldridge embarked for Liverpool, England, on his way to accept the award of a scholarship to study theology at Glasgow University. (During this period, a number of religious institutions and anti-slavery societies in England, Scotland, and America were active in supporting advanced education, but in limited subjects, for Africans and African-Americans.)

In 1825 Aldridge left the university for a chance in the theater, making his debut in England at the East London Royalty Theatre, not in a small part, but playing Othello (Othellos in the past had been played in black-face). The reviews, however, were mixed. The same year, Aldridge played Prince Oroonoko in A Slave’s Revenge, in a theater called the Royal Coburg in London—today known as the “Old Vic.” In the company was Margaret Gill, a white actor nine years his senior. Six weeks after meeting Margaret, she and Ira were married.

During the years of 1827 through 1829, Aldridge acted throughout England, Scotland and Ireland. In Belfast, he played Othello to Edmund Kean’s Iago, Ira’s first appearance with the renowned British actor. In 1830, Kean fell ill during a run of Othello in London, at the Royal Covent Garden Theatre. Aldridge was asked to play Othello and received great audience applause, but the critics were universally condescending and outright insulting, with comments that were clearly racially motivated. The management of the theatre closed the production, and Aldridge did not appear in London again 27 years. London, however, seemed to be the only place where Aldridge was not welcomed and applauded. He continued to perform throughout the rest of the British Isles for the following two decades. In 1852, he widened his touring through France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Serbia, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Switzerland, and Holland. A Russian critic, S. Almazov, wrote, “Aldridge had nothing in common with those theatrical personalities from the West who visited us in recent times… He concentrates all your attention only on the inner meaning of the speech… Moves about completely naturally, not like a tragedian but like a human being…[he shows] a highly truthful understanding of art, a deep knowledge of the human heart….” Finally, in London in 1857 and 1858, he returned triumphant. An observer reported, “The audience, with one impulse rose to its feet amid the wildest enthusiasm… ’Othello’ was called before the curtain and received the applause of the delighted multitude.”

Aldridge was awarded many honors worldwide: in Haiti, Commission in the Army of Haiti; in Ireland, Brother Mason of the Grand Lodge, and Brother of the Grand Royal Arch Chapter; in Austria, the Gold Medal of the First Class for Art and Science, the Medal of Ferdinand, and the Grand Cross of the Order of Leopold presented by the emperor himself; in Hungary, Honorary Member of the Hungarian Dramatic Conservatoire; in Switzerland, the White Cross; in Saxony, from the Royal Saxon House of Order, he became Chevalier Ira Aldridge, Knight of Saxony; in Russia, Honorary Member of the Imperial Academy of Beaux Arts St. Petersburg, and the Imperial Jubilee de Tolstoy Medal; and finally, in England, in 1863, British citizenship.

Ira Aldridge died in Lodz, Poland in 1867 and was given a Polish state funeral. Despite his worldwide fame, Aldridge was virtually unknown in America. Neither Ira Aldridge’s parents, nor America, ever saw his victorious performances. In New York City, the only remembrance acknowledgement of Ira Aldridge is a bust in the Schomburg Center for Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library. In 1932, Ira Aldridge was honored with a plaque at the Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon in England.

Ira Aldridge’s children continued his legacy in the arts. His daughter Irene Luranah became an opera singer in Europe. Ira Frederick became a musician and composer. Amanda Christina became an opera singer, teacher, and composer in England (under the male pseudonym Montague Ring), giving elocution lessons to Paul Robeson in 1930 before Robeson’s first performance as Othello in London. She later was a singing teacher to Marian Andersen, Paul Robeson, and others. At the age of 88, Amanda appeared on British television in a program entitled “Music for You,” and died in 1956.