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The Legacy of Ira Aldridge

Ira Aldridge achieved great success during his lifetime, he was largely forgotten after his death but in recent years his popularity has been building once more and his story has been a source of inspiration to generations.

Victoria Joynes
Ira Aldridge as Othello

The immediate legacy of Ira Aldridge was his children. His younger daughter, Amanda, became an opera singer, composer and teacher and worked with Paul Robeson on his voice and diction. In this way Aldridge's mantle was directly passed on to the new acting generation, Robeson used what he learned with Amanda to take him into his first performances of Othello in 1930 and became renowned for his deep voice. In Amanda's possession when she passed away was a signed photograph of Robeson inscribed with the following:

To Miss Aldridge - With many thanks for the fresh inspiration received from all the reports of her father's greatness. I realize that I can only carry on in the "tradition of Aldridge".

Paul Robeson as Othello, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1959. (Photograph: Holte)
Paul Robeson as Othello, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1959. (Photograph: Holte)

In 1932 Ira Aldridge was one of 33 theatre professionals and notable people who were honoured with chair plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. After the original theatre burned down in 1926 there was a huge fundraising effort to raise money to rebuild the theatre. Part of this was the gathering of subscriptions by individuals and groups nominating a figure to be honoured with a bronze plaque on the back of a chair in the stalls. The American Shakespeare Foundation raised money through crowd sourcing with 100 members of the African American and Afro-Caribbean communities raising £1000 for the plaque for Ira Aldridge. James Wheldon Johnson presented a cheque to the Prince of Wales in 1932. The University of Lodz is holding an exhibition relating to Ira Aldridge in November.

Original Ira Aldridge chair plaque from the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre
Original Ira Aldridge chair plaque from the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (from the RSC museum collection)

Aldridge is given credit for bringing Shakespeare to countries including Poland which up until that point could only hear Shakespeare's dramas in German or Russian, the two dominant language translations of the original texts. Ira was also important in promoting Shakespeare in Serbia and performed in a city near Belgrade before the National Theatre was built. Because Aldridge showed how Shakespeare's English could be translated into Serbian, a plaque was placed in the first National Theatre in Belgrade, built two years after Aldridge's death. They did not forget what he had contributed to the Serbian world of theatre.

Several plays have been written about Ira Aldridge, the most famous being Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. Earlier this year a blue plaque was unveiled in Coventry to celebrate his tenure as manager of the Coventry Theatre which was lost in the bombing raids of the second world war.

After Ira Aldridge the next black actor to play Othello in Stratford was Paul Robeson, he had played the role in London in 1930. Progress was clearly slow after the initial success of Aldridge and there was still a long way to go before black actors were able to have the same opportunities for parts as white actors, for example white actors continued to play Othello long into the mid-late 20th century. For more information on black and Asian actors and performances take a look at the University of Warwick's resource BBA Shakespeare. Throughout October the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has hosted Debra Ann Byrd as artist in residence. Debra Ann is the director of the Harlem Shakespeare Festival and has been studying in our Reading Room viewing material on Ira Aldridge and the performance history of Othello. As she herself has played the role, she was pleased to realise that she was the first female Othello to visit Stratford!

You can find all the materials we hold on Ira Aldridge in one place for the first time on our new online exhibition.

Ira Aldridge's entry in the Birthplace Visitors book 1851

There are two quotes from Aldridge which seem to sum up the kind of man he was, one he wrote in the Birthplace visitor book and the other he included in his announcement when he became manager of the theatre in Coventry in 1828:

"He desires only to be judged by his actions, and relies on that discrimination and generosity which appreciates endeavour and rewards effort."


Sources:

Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock, Ira Aldridge: the Negro tragedian. 1968

Bernth Lindfors, Ira Aldridge. 2013-15. (4 volumes)

The Guardian, Black Shakespeare champion working to change views on 'colour-blind' casting, 28 October 2017

University of Warwick: British Black and Asian Performance Database

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