Ira Aldridge takes the stage

Ira Aldridge
Ira Aldridge as Aaron in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

Since their revival by David Garrick in the early eighteenth century, Shakespeare and his plays have always generated a certain aura of celebrity, sometimes referred to as “Bardolatry.” Following in the footsteps of Garrick, stage actors regularly rose to stardom on the strength of their Shakespearean performances, and would continue to play their “signature” roles throughout their careers.

In the mid-19th century, one of these actors was Ira Aldridge, who gained fame for his portrayals of Othello and Aaron the Moor. Born in New York City in 1807, he was educated at the African Free School, and was able to see Shakespeare plays at the Park Theatre and the African Grove Theatre. He later acted with the African Grove Theatre, where his roles included Romeo in a production of Romeo and Juliet. However, New York was generally not a welcoming space for black actors. Roles were limited, and some white theatergoers even attempted to prevent black companies from performing Shakespeare at all. By 1824, Aldridge left for London, travelling with James Wallack, a New York impresario who had supported his early career.

In London, Aldridge’s rise was quick, but not untroubled. His first appearance was in 1825 at the Royal Coburg Theatre (today the “Old Vic”), as the lead in a production of Revolt of Surinam, an adaptation of Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko (itself an adaptation of Aphra Behn’s novel). He performed under the name “Mr. Keene,” which he would continue to use for the next several years of his career. In 1831, he encountered another “Mr. Keene”—Edmund Kean, the celebrated Shakespearean actor, who commended his performance as Othello at the Theatre Royal in Dublin. Both Edmund Kean and his son Charles, also a Shakespearean actor, supported Aldridge’s career, and the younger Kean appeared with him in several performances.

Ira Aldridge
Ira Aldridge’s first appearance as Othello at Covent Gardens in London. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Aldridge’s major London break came, sadly, with Edmund Kean’s death. Kean was starring as Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden when he collapsed during a performance in March 1833, and Aldridge was asked to fill the role for the rest of the play’s run. However, his performance was not well received by the London theater scene, especially in comparison to the well-established and well-liked Kean; critics objected to his race, his youth, and his inexperience. Aldridge performed as Othello only twice before the show was cancelled. Despite the negative reviews, however, Aldridge’s career continued to grow steadily as he took roles with smaller theaters and honed his acting skills. In the 1840s, he performed as Aaron in a version of Titus Andronicus that had been specially re-written to re-cast the villain as a noble and tragic figure. However, by the end of the decade, Aldridge’s career had progressed as much as it could in England, and he turned to Continental Europe.

There, he found great success. His first foray was a tour of the Continent, playing the lead in Othello with a touring company of actors to support him. Below are several playbills from Aldridge’s first tour, during which he visited Germany, Hungary, and more.

The playbill above features an illustration of Aldridge, and describes him as “vom Königl. Conventgarden-Theater, in London” (i.e. from the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, London). Even though he only performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, for those two ill-fated performances in 1833, the association with such a prominent theater stayed with him.

The second playbill notes “In Englischer sprache,” or “spoken in English.” While Aldridge initially toured with an English company (also mentioned in the first playbill—”in Begleitung seiner englischen Gesellschaft”) and performed whole plays in his native language, he later began to work with local theater troupes, performing in English while the rest of the cast would perform in German, Swedish, etc. Despite the language barrier, Aldridge’s performances in Europe were highly acclaimed, a testament to his acting skills.

Aldridge continued to tour Europe and Russia throughout the 1850s and 1860s. In 1855, he returned to London for the first time to great acclaim, having revitalized his career. He died at the height of his career in 1867, having added Shylock, Richard III, and King Lear to his successful Shakespearean roles. For decades following his death, he was largely forgotten by theater historians; the first major scholarly biography of Aldridge only appeared in 1958. However, he has received increasing scholarly attention since the 1990s, and has even been the subject of two plays in recent years—Black Othello (by Cecilia Sidenbladh) and Red Velvet (by Lolita Chakrabarti).