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Ira Aldridge
Ira Aldridge
Famous 19th century black Shakespearean actor

Ira Aldridge was born in New York on 24th July 1807. His father, a clerk and lay preacher who became a minister, intended him for the church and sent him to New York's African Free School, where many future leaders of the American abolitionist movement were educated. But young Ira was attracted to the theatre, at a time when British actors were playing in New York, and when the city's free black community had just launched its own African Theatre.

Aldridge made his acting debut as Rolla in Pizarro, a Sheridan adaptation of August von Kotzebue's Die Spanier in Peru. But the only way for an ambitious young actor to succeed was to emigrate. Accordingly, when he was 17 or18, Aldridge worked his passage to Liverpool as a ship's steward.

His first known British performance was at the Royal Coburg (now known as the Old Vic) on 10th October 1825, as Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam, or A Slave's Revenge. The playbill announced him as a 'Man of Colour' - for the novelty. His first performance had a mixed reception. The Times claimed that it was utterly impossible for him to pronounce English properly 'owing to the shape of his lips'. The Globe, on the other hand, found his enunciation 'distinct and sonorous'. Purely because of Aldridge's colour, the press was largely hostile, which prevented him from establishing himself in London.

He therefore honed his craft for the next few years, travelling and performing all around England. He became the victim of a sustained London press campaign motivated by racism, and found it difficult to secure engagements, but he never gave up. Outside London, he continued to win respect; a Hull paper said his Othello 'was such as can be equalled by very few actors of the present day'. His contemporaries also praised his work. In the provinces, he played to crowded houses, but was boycotted by the West End stage, so in 1852, Aldridge and his family sailed for Europe.

He returned from his European tours so loaded with honours that the West End stage could no longer exclude him. Having become Chevalier Ira Aldridge, Knight of Saxony, he was at last in 1858, deemed worthy to perform at the Lyceum. 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, Lear, Shylock and Macbeth 'were undoubtedly the best I have ever spent in the theatre'. 'After Aldridge', wrote another, 'it is impossible to see Othello performed by a white actor, even Garrick himself'.

After another tour of the British provinces in 1859-60, Aldridge went to Russia again. Between 1861-66, he embarked on a lengthy tour, visiting many places no foreign actor had ever been. He died on tour, in the Polish town of Lodz, on 7th August, 1867, aged 59. The whole town turned out to mourn the passing of an artist of world stature.

His youngest daughter, Amanda, gave elocution lessons to the young Paul Robeson in 1930 when he was preparing for his first appearance as Othello in London.




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