Ira Aldridge

Copy of a photograph of Ira Aldridge portraying Othello
Ira Aldridge portraying Othello, circa 1840s
Illustration of Ira Aldridge as Othello from the cover of <em>Theatre Times</em>, 1848
Illustration of Ira Aldridge as Othello from the cover of Theatre Times, 1848
Autographed photograph of Amanda Ira Aldridge, July 4, 1936
Autographed photograph of Amanda Ira Aldridge

The Herbert Marshall collection of Ira Aldridge, 1831-1977, documents the career of Ira Frederick Aldridge, the first African American actor to gain international acclaim. Born in New York City in 1807 to a minister, Aldridge studied at the African Free School in New York, where he was introduced to the stage. As a teenager, he was encouraged to join the African Grove Theatre, a prestigious all-black troupe founded in 1821. Aldridge apprenticed under James Hewlett, the first African American Shakespearean actor. Experiencing hostility in the United States toward black performances of white authored plays, Aldridge immigrated to Europe in 1824.

After honing his voice and dramatic skills at the University of Glasgow, Aldridge moved to England, debuting as Othello in 1825 in London. When critics compared Aldridge to Roscius, a versatile ancient Roman actor, Aldridge embraced it and began using the stage name “The African Roscius”. Aldridge also promoted himself by claiming to be descended from a Senegalese prince whose family fled to the United States.

Considered to be a leading Shakespearean actor and tragedian of the 19th century, Aldridge challenged social boundaries by performing opposite white actresses in England. Although he was known for his portrayal of Othello, he also performed in King Lear, Macbeth, and the Merchant of Venice, and adapted classical plays. He performed throughout Britain and in a series of continental European tours that began in 1852, receiving many honors and medals. He died in 1867 while on tour in Lodz, Poland. Memorial plaques honoring Aldridge are at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and in Lodz, Poland.

Two daughters of Aldridge and his second wife, Swedish "Baroness" Amanda Brandt, were also talented performers. Luranah, born in 1860, became a well-known actress and opera singer. Amanda, born in 1866, studied voice at the Royal College of Music in London and later worked as a concert singer, piano accompanist, and voice teacher. She published around thirty songs in addition to instrumental music in a variety of styles from 1907 to 1925 under the pseudonym Montague Ring.

Herbert Marshall documented Aldridge's life in his book, Ira Aldridge: Negro Tragedian. A substantial amount of the Herbert Marshall collection of Ira Aldridge consists of Marshall's manuscripts and research material for the book and drafts of screenplays.

The SIUC Department of Theater offers the Ira Aldridge Award to a currently enrolled African American student who has demonstrated leadership potential, participated in productions in Department, University and/or community productions, and who shows competence in his/her chosen area.

LEARN MORE

Ira Aldridge article in BlackPast.org

Ross, Alex. 2013. Othello's Daughter: The rich legacy of Ira Aldridge, the pioneering black Shakespearean. In The New Yorker, April 29, 2013. — An article about Aldridge's talented daughter Luranah

Hill, Anthony D., and Douglas Q. Barnett. 2009. Historical dictionary of African American theater. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press.

Lindfors, Bernth. 2007. Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Lindfors, Bernth. 2011. Ira Aldridge: the early years, 1807-1833. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press.

Lindfors, Bernth. 2011. Ira Aldridge: the vagabond years, 1833-1852. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press.

Marshall, Herbert, and Mildred Stock. 1968. Ira Aldridge: the Negro tragedian. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.