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Black History Month – Ira Aldridge (1807 – 1867)

This year it is 150 years since the death of 19th century actor, Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello on the English stage. Battling prejudice throughout his career, Aldridge enjoyed a varied stage career, managed a theatre and rose to star status when touring Europe.

Victoria Joynes
Ira Aldridge
OSPC 83.6/ALD Ira Aldridge

As many honour Ira Aldridge this year (the 150th Anniversary of his death) for the 30th Black History Month he is our focus for a series of blog posts. We have explored our collections to find the materials we hold relating to this great man who achieved so much at such a challenging time in the nineteenth century. 

Ira Aldridge is a fascinating character and it is particularly exciting that he performed in Stratford, spending eight days in the town, he visited Shakespeare’s Birthplace twice and performed in seven plays at the Royal Shakespearean Theatre on Chapel Lane. The evidence we have of his time in Stratford shows some of the interesting parts of his character: the way he managed his career to find success, the prejudice he battled against, and the myths he built up around his background, mainly that he was born a prince in Senegal. 

Ira Aldridge, Othello playbill
Part of a playbill for Ira Aldridge's performance as Othello at the Royal Shakespearean Theatre, Stratford. 1851.

The truth of Ira Aldridge’s background is that he was born in New York in 1807 to poor parents, his father, the Reverend Daniel Aldridge, was a straw-seller who was also a lay preacher. He was educated at the African Free School in Manhattan. Ira was drawn to the theatre from an early age and started by working backstage at the Chatham Theatre in New York where he began to gain experience in acting too. Ira found that it was impossible to pursue a career acting in America, it seemed difficult for him to obtain legitimate roles due to his race. He came to England in 1824 at the age of 17 to make his name and in 1825 he made his debut playing Othello at the Royalty Theatre. Aldridge continued to battle prejudice, particularly in the reviews he received, but he was extremely popular with the audiences. He found further success by moving out of London to the provinces, he also became manager at Coventry Theatre in 1828. He played a range of Shakespearean roles and even assisted in adapting Titus Andronicus so that he could play the villainous Aaron as a hero. He ended up finding most success by touring continental Europe. It seems that he knew how to manage his career and use his legend to take him as high as he could in the world of theatre.

There will be blogs posted throughout Black History Month which will cover Ira in performance, his visit to Stratford in 1851, his success on the continent and his leagacy. Take a look at this timeline of Ira's life and from 23 October you will be able to view our online exhibition of Aldridge-related items from our collections. 


Sources:

Stanley Wells, Great Shakespearean Actors 

Bernth Lindfors, Ira Aldridge The Early Years 1807 - 1833

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