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Chevalier Ira Aldridge

Ira Aldridge found his greatest success when he toured Europe and was showered with honours before ending his days in the Polish city of Łódź.

Victoria Joynes
Drawing of Ira Aldridge by a Ukranian poet
Drawing of Ira Aldridge by Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevtshenko

In 1852 Ira Aldridge sailed for Europe, accepting invitations to appear in Germany, Prussia, Switzerland and Russia. When he started touring the continent the public wanted to see him play classic roles from Shakespeare that they knew from translation. By this point as a Shakespearean actor Aldridge was specialising in four tragic roles: Othello, Shylock, Macbeth and Richard III. His success on the continent started in Germany where Shakespeare was already very popular, possibly more so than in England at that time. Ira's performances there further entrenched the popularity of the famous characters. One of Aldridge's great skills was that he could convey emotions and expressions through his body language so that audiences in other countries could understand the performance without needing the words to be translated into their own language. Ira's techniques and gift to convey feeling and emotion to audiences without the use of language continued to bring him success in Poland and Hungary. A Polish reviewer said:

'Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body...'

Such acting required no translation. Wherever he went Aldridge made a good impression on audiences and critics, he received rave reviews and his success was being noted in Britain and America. 

A reviewer in the newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung said 'I do not believe that Shakespeare’s intentions regarding the character of Othello have ever found a better interpreter, nor that they ever will.'

The critic for the Neue Preussiche Zeitung thought that 'the Macbeth of Aldridge radiates the deepest understanding of the bard. ... Oh, if only many a German actor mastered the word of Shakespeare as Aldridge masters his spirit.'

Ira Aldridge was selling out theatres, receiving the best reviews of his career and this success was finally earning him a fortune. He was also welcomed into elite society. Aldridge won more national honours and awards than any other 19th century actor.  

Aldridge still faced prejudice but to a lesser extent and he was able to use his race as a tool to promote himself and draw in audiences. The excellence of Aldridge’s acting was enough to rebuke and reform racial stereotypes of Africans in 19th century Germany. Through Aldridge's hard work and virtuosity he was able to overturn stereotypes which were entrenched in 19th century society. When Aldridge suffered racial abuse from critics in London, he hardly ever replied to these attacks.  He preferred instead to let his artistry on stage speak for him.  He saw himself as an educator, and was advancing an argument for racial equality.


Ira Aldridge
OSPC 83.6 Ira Aldridge having been made Member of the Order of Art and Science and wearing the Medal of Leopold and the White Cross

Aldridge was awarded the “Golden Medal for Art and Sciences” by the German king in 1853. This was a huge honour only awarded to three people before him:  German naturalist and explorer Baron Alexander von Humboldt, Italian composer Gaspare Spontini, and Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Lizst.

In a letter Ira says:

'His Majesty, The King of Prussia, has condescended to honour me with the Large Gold Medal for Art and Sciences, the Emperor of Austria with the Medal of Ferdinand, and Switzerland with the White Cross.  I have also received letters of recommendation from the courts of Prussia, Austria and Saxe-Coburg ...'

In 1858 he was given the title Chevalier Ira Aldridge, Knight of Saxony. 

Ira Aldridge increased Shakespeare's popularity in many parts of Europe and encouraged translations of Shakespeare's works into some European languages for the first time. Whilst on tour in Poland in 1867 Ira Aldridge fell ill with pneumonia and died in the town of Łódź aged 59.

Ira Aldridge's grave in Lodz
The grave of Ira Aldridge in Łódź, Poland

Ira Aldridge became a true citizen of the world. Born in New York, marketing himself as African, moving to Britain, starting a family there and gaining British citizenship, moving to Europe and receiving honours in Russia and France and finally ending his days and being laid to rest in Poland. 

Many thanks to Anna Vines for completing research for this blog post in our Reading Room

Sources:

Lindfors, Bernth, Ira Aldridge: Performing Shakespeare in Europe, 1852 - 1855, 2013

GL5/83.6 Aldridge, Ira - Miscellaneous newscuttings

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