Ira Aldridge was a well-known actor who performed in the most prestigious theatres
in England . He was born in 1807 in New York , part of the city's free black
community. His father intended him to join the Church, but Aldridge was drawn
to the theatre, and particularly inspired by the black American actor James
Hewlett. Although an African Theatre had just opened in New York , a black
actor could still only reach a limited audience in America , so the young Aldridge
emigrated to Britain , working his passage to Liverpool as a ship's steward.
His first known performance in Britain was in 1825 at the Coburg Theatre (which
would later become the Old Vic). He received mixed reviews, most of the hostile
ones being because of his colour.
Soon after this he married an English woman, Margaret Gill, and then went
on to tour the provinces, playing both white and black roles. His talent was
increasingly recognised by audiences, fellow-performers and reviewers – a review
of his Othello in Scarborough in 1831, called him “an actor of genius” – but
he also suffered racist attacks in the press, especially in London . When he
returned to the capital to play Othello, one reviewer objected “in the name
of propriety and decency” to his touching Ellen Tree, the white actress who
played opposite him.
Frustrated by his reception in London , Aldridge embarked on two continental
tours, playing in France , Germany , Switzerland , Austro-Hungary and Russia
. In all these countries he was lionised, and given medals and honours. After
this, he was rather grudgingly offered roles in London 's West End , though
he also continued to tour in Russia where he was wildly popular.
He became a British citizen in 1863 at the age of 56, and after the death
of his first wife married a Swedish opera singer, Amanda Pauline von Brandt.
He died in 1867, leaving three surviving children all of whom went on to have