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Ira Aldridge, Shakespearean actor

African-American actor and abolitionist

black and white illustration portrait of an actor on stage
Adrian Murphy (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Ira Aldridge was an African-American actor, playwright and theatre manager who achieved fame across Europe in the 19th century. Famed for his Shakespearean roles, he became an English citizen in 1863.

Ira Aldridge was born in New York City in 1807, to Reverend Daniel and Lurona Aldridge. He was educated at the African Free School, where he learned English grammar, writing, mathematics, geography and astronomy.

He made his acting debut in his teenage years, in the early 1820s, with the African Company, a theatre group which built the African Grove Theatre, the first resident African-American theatre in the United States.

Due to the persistent racism and prejudice faced by Black actors in the United States, Aldridge emigrated to Liverpool, England in 1824 as the valet for British-American actor James William Wallack. Thereafter, he made his career in England and across Europe.

Aldridge eventually moved to Glasgow, Scotland and studied at the University of Glasgow.

black and white illlustration of Ira Aldridge, he wears formal clothing and holds a book

Aldridge first appeared on stage in London in 1825, aged just 17 - first in a low-profile production of Othello in May and later in October, in The Revolt of Surinam, or A Slave's Revenge by Thomas Southerne.

At the time, a common theatre tradition was for actors to take the name or surname of other, more popular actors. Thus Ira Aldridge was known for a time as F. W. Keene Aldridge, taking the name Keene from the very popular British actor, Edmund Kean.

Aldridge's career through the 1820s progressed well. He soon was receiving top billing in plays, including the title role of Othello. He also played in other Shakespearean plays, such as King Lear, Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice.

black and white illustration portrait of Ira Aldridge, he wears a crown-like headpiece and robes

From the late 1820s and through the 1830s, Aldridge's acting career took him beyond London. In 1828, he toured throughout England with a tour of Ireland following in 1831.

sepia-toned photograph of Ira Aldridge, a bearded man in a theatrical costume sitting down

In 1852, Aldridge began a tour of Europe in Brussels, Belgium. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, his tours brought him to France, Serbia, Switzerland Poland, Prussia and Russia. He received many awards and accolades, including the Prussian Gold Medal for Arts and Sciences from King Frederick, the Golden Cross of Leopold from the Czar of Russia, and the Maltese Cross from Berne, Switzerland.

painted colour portrait of Ira Aldridge, who wears white robes

Throughout his career, Aldridge was known for speaking directly to audiences, particularly on closing nights, about a variety of social issues. In particular, he spoke often about the Abolition of slavery in the United States and beyond.

In 1825, Aldridge had married Margaret Gill, an English woman, in London. They were married for nearly 40 years until her death in 1864. In 1865, Aldridge married again to Swedish Amanda von Brandt. However, this marriage was short-lived, as Aldridge died in 1867, in Łódź, Poland, having completed a 70-city tour of France.

Actors Black history