Ira Frederick Aldridge (Ira Frederick Aldridge)

Ira  Frederick  Aldridge

Actor. He gained fame in the 19th century as one of the most prominent African-American Shakespearian actors and the first American actor to perform in Russia. Born in New York City, New York, he was the son of poor citizens of class known as “Free Negroes.” Educated at New York’s African Free School, he won many oratory contests and later studied at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. During this time he became attracted to the theatre. His mother later died in 1818 and after his father remarried, he ran away from home. Aldridge worked on a ship and when it docked in North Carolina, a slave dealer offered to buy him for $500. The captain refused the offer and Aldridge returned to New York City to work backstage at the Chatham Theatre, where he received acting experience. His acting debut was as ‘Rolla’ in “Pizzaro”, the Richard Brinsley Sheridan adaptation of August von Kotzebue’s play “Die Spanier “. Unable to obtain major roles in the United States because of his race, he was forced to emigrate to further his acting career. Arriving in England in 1824, on October 10, 1825, he debuted as the first black actor at London’s Royal Coburg Theatre (now known as the Old Vic) playing the role of ‘Prince Oroonoko of Africa’ sold into slavery in melodrama “The Revolt of Surinam, or A Slave’s Revenge”. His performance had a mixed reception – the “London Times” claimed that it was utterly impossible for him to pronounce English properly “owing to the shape of his lips.” The “London Globe”, on the other hand, found his enunciation “distinct and sonorous.” Purely because of his color, the press was largely hostile, which prevented him from establishing himself in London. For the next 27 years Aldridge honed his craft, traveling and touring theatre circuits in provinces of the British Isles as a star of about 60 roles in melodrama, romantic drama, operetta, comedy and Shakespeare. He became the victim of a sustained London press campaign motivated by racism, and found it difficult to secure engagements. Outside London, Aldridge continued to win respect; a Hull, England newspaper said his ‘Othello’ “was such as can be equaled 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 (England’s professional theatre circuit). In 1852, Aldridge, who by this time had married and had children, sailed for Europe. He returned from his European tours after receiving so many honors that the West End stage could no longer exclude him. In 1858 he became the first actor to be knighted when he was bestowed the Royal Ernestinischen House Order by Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Meiningen, becoming Chevalier Ira Aldridge, Knight of Saxony. At last deemed worthy to perform at London’s Lyceum Theatre, 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’, ‘King Lear’, ‘Shylock’ and ‘Macbeth’ were undoubtedly the best I have ever spent in the theatre”. After 1853, he performed mostly in Europe, receiving honors from the Emperor of Austria, in Switzerland, and in Russia, among others. Honored as African prince and German baron, he remained a man of the people. At the close of many of his performances, he would play the guitar and sing an anti-slavery song appealing to audiences for “respect for his African race”. England’s Anti-Slavery Society referred to his presence on stage as a significant contribution to the struggle for abolition. With his wealth he contributed to fund-raising campaigns of Negro State Conventions prior to Emancipation. After another tour of the British provinces in 1859 to 1860, he went to Russia again. From 1861 to 1866, he embarked on a lengthy tour, visiting many places no foreign actor had ever been and became an English citizen in 1863. At the age of 59, he died on tour in the Polish town of Lodz in 1867. The whole town turned out to mourn his passing, and he was buried with State Honors. His grave is now a national shrine that is cared for by Society of Polish Artists of the film and Theatre. His name is inscribed at the Shakespearean Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

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  • July, 24, 1807
  • USA
  • New York, New York


  • August, 07, 1867
  • Lodzkie, Poland


  • Lodz Evangelical Cemetery
  • Lodzkie, Poland

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