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A Visit From Ira Aldridge

Norma Hampson is a long-standing volunteer at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive and has written this blog to share details from her current project: listing visitors from the early Birthplace visitor books. Meet Ira Aldridge, a prominent African-American Shakespearian actor from the Victorian era.

Norma Hampson

Ira Frederick Aldridge (1807–1867) was a prominent African-American Shakespearian actor who visited the Birthplace several times.

On his first visit, 2 May 1851, he was accompanied by his wife, Margaret, and their son, Daniel, entering his residence as London. On his second visit three days later, he entered his residence as Senegal, Africa. According to the 1851 census his residence at the time was a boarding house, St. Mary’s Gate, Derby. This document also shows his birthplace as Africa, although there is no evidence to suggest that he ever visited or lived there.

Ira Aldridge Signature
Ira Aldridge's entry in the visitor book

He was, in fact, born in New York, the son of “Free Negroes”, and received his early education at New York’s African Free School where he displayed a talent for oratory. His father, the Reverend Daniel Aldridge, a lay preacher, would have preferred him to follow in his footsteps, but Ira was drawn to the theatre. Following his mother’s death and father’s re-marriage, he ran away to sea and had a narrow escape when a slave dealer wanted to purchase him from the ship’s captain. Fortunately, the offer was rejected and he returned to New York, working, for some time, backstage at the Chatham Theatre in New York where he received some acting experience. However, his acting ambitions were thwarted as it was difficult for him to obtain roles on the legitimate stage in the United States due to his race. His option was to emigrate, and he arrived in England in 1824. The following year, he made his debut at the Royalty Theatre playing Othello, followed by a stint at the Coburg Theatre in the role of Prince Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam. His performances received mixed reviews but, boycotted by the West End, he toured provincial theatres where he played to crowded houses and much acclaim.

Ira Aldridge
Ira Aldridge

In 1825, he married Margaret Gill, a white woman from Yorkshire, who was ten years his senior. Their son Ira Daniel was born in 1848. In 1852 he sailed for Europe, accepting invitations to appear in Germany, Prussia, Switzerland, and Russia.  In 1858 he became the first actor to be knighted, becoming Chevalier Ira Aldridge, Knight of Saxony, an honour bestowed by Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Meiningen. London could no longer ignore him, and he returned to England. 

His wife remained in London with their son at 4 Wellington Road, St. Pancras (1861 census). In a published letter to his old friend and schoolmate Jas. M’Cune Smith M.D., dated 4 June 1860k he mentions his son’s scholastic success and his wife’s illness. She died in 1864. The following year, he married his mistress Amanda von Brandt, a Swedish opera singer with whom he already had two children. 

After another tour of the English provinces in 1859-1860, he returned to Europe to embark on a lengthy tour, during which he died in the Polish town of Lodz in 1867, at the age of 59. His grave in Lodz is regarded as a national shrine. He had become a British subject in 1863. Von Brandt was pregnant with their fourth child at the time of his death.

Aldridge was among thirty-three actors honoured with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1932.

Red Velvet, Lolita Chakrabarti’s play about the life of Aldridge, is in performance at the Tricycle Theatre 23 January–8 March 2014 with Adrian Lester in the role of Aldridge. It will then transfer to New York.

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