Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

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7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
Lucien Aigner/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that unites philosophers, writers, politicians, and scientists across time and distance, it’s the belief that reading can broaden your worldview and strengthen your intellect better than just about any other activity. When it comes to choosing what to read and how to go about it, however, opinions start to diverge. From Virginia Woolf’s affinity for wandering secondhand bookstores to Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of a definitive “best books” list, here are seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.

1. Read books from eras past // Albert Einstein

albert einstein at home circa 1925
Albert Einstein poses at home in 1925 with a mix of old and new books.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Keeping up with current events and the latest buzz-worthy book from the bestseller list is no small feat, but Albert Einstein thought it was vital to leave some room for older works, too. Otherwise, you’d be “completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of [your] times,” he wrote in a 1952 journal article [PDF].

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses,” he wrote.

2. Don’t jump too quickly from book to book // Seneca

seneca the younger
Seneca the Younger, ready to turn that unwavering gaze on a new book.
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Seneca the Younger, a first-century Roman Stoic philosopher and trusted advisor of Emperor Nero, believed that reading too wide a variety in too short a time would keep the teachings from leaving a lasting impression on you. “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind,” he wrote in a letter to Roman writer Lucilius.

If you’re wishing there were a good metaphor to illustrate this concept, take your pick from these gems, courtesy of Seneca himself:

“Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.”

3. Shop at secondhand bookstores // Virginia Woolf

virginia woolf
Virginia Woolf wishing she were in a bookstore.
Culture Club/Getty Images

In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf described the merits of shopping in secondhand bookstores, where the works “have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

According to Woolf, browsing through used books gives you the chance to stumble upon something that wouldn’t have risen to the attention of librarians and booksellers, who are often much more selective in curating their collections than secondhand bookstore owners. To give us an example, she imagined coming across the shabby, self-published account of “a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it.”

“In this random miscellaneous company,” she wrote, “we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

4. You can skip outdated scientific works, but not old literature // Edward Bulwer-Lytton

edward bulwer-lytton
An 1831 portrait of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, smug at the thought of people reading his novels for centuries to come.
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Though his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime, 19th-century British novelist and Parliamentarian Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now mainly known for coining the phrase It was a dark and stormy night, the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. It’s a little ironic that Bulwer-Lytton’s books aren’t very widely read today, because he himself was a firm believer in the value of reading old literature.

“In science, read, by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest,” he wrote in his 1863 essay collection, Caxtoniana. “The classic literature is always modern. New books revive and redecorate old ideas; old books suggest and invigorate new ideas.”

To Bulwer-Lytton, fiction couldn't ever be obsolete, because it contained timeless themes about human nature and society that came back around in contemporary works; in other words, you can’t disprove fiction. You can, however, disprove scientific theories, so Bulwer-Lytton thought it best to stick to the latest works in that field. (That said, since scientists use previous studies to inform their work, you can still learn a ton about certain schools of thought by delving into debunked ideas—plus, it’s often really entertaining to see what people used to believe.) 

5. Check out authors’ reading lists for book recommendations // Mortimer J. Adler

mortimer j. adler in 1983
Mortimer J. Adler in 1983, happy to read the favorite works of his favorite authors.
George Rose/Getty Images

In his 1940 guide How to Read a Book, American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler talked about the importance of choosing books that other authors consider worth reading. “The great authors were great readers,” he explained, “and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.”

Adler went on to clarify that this would probably matter most in the philosophy field, “because philosophers are great readers of each other,” and it’s easier to grasp a concept if you also know what inspired it. While you don’t necessarily have to read everything a novelist has read in order to fully understand their own work, it’s still a good way to get quality book recommendations from a trusted source. If your favorite author mentions a certain novel that really made an impression on them, there’s a pretty good chance you’d enjoy it, too.

6. Reading so-called guilty pleasures is better than reading nothing // Mary Wollstonecraft

mary wollstonecraft in 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, apparently demonstrating that a book with blank pages is worth even less than a novel.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To the 18th-century writer, philosopher, and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, just about all novels fell into the category of “guilty pleasures” (though she didn’t call them that). In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she disparaged the “stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste and draw the heart aside from its daily duties.”

If her judgment seems unnecessarily harsh, it’s probably because it’s taken out of its historical context. Wollstonecraft definitely wasn’t the only one who considered novels to be low-quality reading material compared to works of history and philosophy, and she was also indirectly criticizing society for preventing women from seeking more intellectual pursuits. If 21st-century women were confined to watching unrealistic, highly edited dating shows and frowned upon for trying to see 2019’s Parasite or the latest Ken Burns documentary, we might sound a little bitter, too.

Regardless, Wollstonecraft still admitted that even guilty pleasures can help expand your worldview. “Any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement, and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers,” she wrote. In other words, go forth and enjoy your beach read.

7. You get to make the final decision on how, what, and when to read // Theodore Roosevelt

theodore roosevelt in office in 1905
Theodore Roosevelt pauses for a quick photo before getting back to his book in 1905.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Theodore Roosevelt might have lived his own life in an exceptionally regimented fashion, but his outlook on reading was surprisingly free-spirited. Apart from being a staunch proponent of finding at least a few minutes to read every single day—and starting young—he thought that most of the details should be left up to the individual.

“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be,” he wrote in his autobiography, and rejected the idea that there’s a definitive “best books” list that everyone should abide by. Instead, Roosevelt recommended choosing books on subjects that interest you and letting your mood guide you to your next great read. He also wasn’t one to roll his eyes at a happy ending, explaining that “there are enough horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple.”

In short, Roosevelt would probably advise you to see what Seneca, Albert Einstein, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other great minds had to say about reading, and then make your own decisions in the end.