THE TRADITION OF ALDRIDGE
In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting the life of Ira Aldridge (1807 – 1867), the 19th century Black American actor who rose to fame playing Shakespearean roles on the British stage and had an acclaimed career in Europe, breaking barriers and becoming one of the highest paid actors of his day.
Born to a lay minister and his wife in New York City in 1807, Aldridge made his stage debut in New York at the African Grove Theatre in Greenwich Village around 1821. Finding his options and opportunities limited in the United States, he left for England in 1824, taking work as an assistant to a London producer and actor. He made his London stage debut in 1825 (at the age of 17) in a production of Othello, becoming the first Black actor to play the title role in Britain. Critics noted of his performance that “his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed.”
Despite his popularity with audiences, his London career was derailed by racism and bias as critics began to pillory his performances, openly calling for him to be removed from the stage. Forsaking London for a time, Aldridge launched a tour of theatres around the country. This tour proved to be massively popular and successful and Aldridge eventually expanded to tour Ireland and Scotland as well.
Not content to limit himself just to the traditional Black roles in Shakespeare, his repertoire expanded to include a range of contemporary plays, devised solo pieces, and the title roles in Macbeth, King Lear, and Richard III. He also adapted and starred in a version of Titus Andronicus that restructured the story to focus on Aaron the Moor as the hero.
Aldridge began touring Europe in the 1850s to great acclaim and is credited as the first actor to perform Shakespeare in English in Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe. In his late fifties, he began to plan a homecoming tour of the United States with more than 100 stops but he fell sick and died in Poland shortly before the tour was due to begin.
His impressive legacy includes not only his acting work, his array of ‘firsts’ (including that he was the first Black man to manage a British theatre when he was named manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828), his acclamations and honors from heads of state across Europe, but also his impact on and direct line to ensuing generations of actors: Paul Robeson trained with Aldridge’s younger daughter, a voice teacher and opera singer, while preparing to play Othello in Stratford in 1959. Robeson was the second Black actor to take on the title role in Stratford, playing the Moor of Venice almost 110 years after Aldridge first played the part at the Royal Shakespearean Theatre at Chapel Lane. Robeson acknowledged his debts in a note to her: “To Miss Aldridge – With many thanks for the fresh inspiration received from all the reports of her father’s greatness. I realize that I can only carry on in the ‘tradition of Aldridge’.”
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