With his performances as Othello at Covent Garden’s Theatre Royal in 1833, Ira Aldridge (July 24, 1807 – August 7, 1867) became the first black actor to perform the principal role in a Shakespearean tragedy on the legitimate stage in London. Born to a free African-American couple in Lower Manhattan and educated at the African Free School, at the age of 14 Aldridge worked as a dresser to the actor Henry Wallack at the Park Theatre. He was introduced to the stage at Mr. Brown’s African Grove Theatre in New York, one of the first black theatre companies in America. Mr. Brown was an ex ships-steward who wanted a theatre for a black American audience and bought a house precisely for this purpose. A young, talented black actor named James Hewlett led the company and Ira Adridge worked within the company. The theatre experienced many challenges from white society. Mr. Brown’s theatre was forced to move premises several times, the company was threatened, assaulted and the theatre burned down.
Confronted by this discrimination, Ira Aldridge emigrated to Liverpool, England in 1824. Slavery was not abolished in the United States until 1865. Aldridge made his European debut at London’s Royal Coburg Theatre (now the Old Vic) on October 10, 1825, establishing himself as the first African-American actor to perform professionally in a foreign country. In 1824 Ira Aldridge married an English woman, Margaret Gill, who he was married to for 40 years until her death in 1864. Aldridge’s first son, Ira Daniel, was born in May 1847. A year after his wife Margaret’s death, Aldridge married his mistress, the Swedish countess Amanda von Brandt (1834-1915). They had four children:Irene Luranah Pauline, Ira Frederick Olaff, Amanda Christina Elizabeth andRachael Margaret Frederika, who was born after Adridge’s death and died in infancy.
When Edmund Kean, arguably the greatest actor of his generation, collapsed on stage in April 1833, Pierre Laporte, the manager of the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, asked Ira Aldridge to step in as Othello. At the same time Parliament was about to vote on whether to abolish slavery in all British colonies. Feelings in London were running very high; there was a lot of money at stake. Pro slavery lobbyists wrote long tracts about the positive effects of slavery on the idle Negro. The newspapers were owned by the wealthy, the wealthy invested in slavery. When Ira Aldridge played the role of Othello at Covent Garden, the audiences were appreciative and the press were not.
In the United Kingdom, Aldridge toured and played to great acclaim across the provinces including Dublin, Belfast and Edinburgh. Aldridge launched the first of a total of nine tours in continental Europe in 1852, with successes in France, Hungary, Switzerland, Sweden, Poland and Germany. In 1858, he traveled to Serbia and, for the first time, to Imperial Russia, where he became the highest-paid actor in the world, reportedly earning the equivalent in today’s currency of $2.5 million for 22 performances.
Among the honors bestowed on Ira Aldridge during his lifetime were an honorary commission as Captain in the Republican Army of Haiti (17th Regiment of Grenadiers) and as Aide-de-Camp to the President of Haiti; membership in the Prussian Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Society’s First Class Gold Medal presented by His Majesty Frederick William IV; the Grand Cross of the Order of Leopold the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria; the Imperial Jubilee de Tolstoy Medal from St. Petersberg; the White Cross of Switzerland (“Pour la Merité”); the Golden Cross of Leopold from the Czar of Russia; membership in the Hungarian Imperial and Archducal Institution of “Our Lady of the Manger;” knighthood in the Royal Saxon Ernestinischen House Order and the Verdienst Medal of the Order (in Gold) presented by Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Meiningen; membership in the National Dramatic Conservatoire of Hungary; membership in the Royal Bohemian Conservatory of Prague; and honorary membership in St. Petersburg’s Imperial Academy of Beaux Arts. Ira Aldridge was granted English citizenship in 1863.
Ira Aldridge died, possibly of pneumonia, while on tour in Łódź, Poland, several weeks after his 60th birthday in 1867, where he was given a state funeral. At the time of his death, he was in negotiations to return to United States for the first time since his emigration, for a series of performances at the Academy of Music in Manhattan. He was buried in Łódź, Poland where a commemorative plaque, dedicated in 2014, marks the location of his death. In the nearly 150 years since then, Ira Aldridge has been the subject of numerous novels, plays, musicals, poems, radio broadcasts, television productions and theatrical films. He is the only actor of African-American descent among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with a dedicated chair and bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1961, Howard University in Washington, D.C., opened its Ira Aldridge Theater, which is still in operation today.