Ira Aldridge, 1807-1867: The African Roscius*

Beatles’ fans are generally hip to the figure of Pablo Fanque, black circus entrepreneur and accomplished acrobat.   It’s all laid out in the song and the poster.

Not a lot of contemporary posters for Ira Aldridge, whose stage career was a bit more upscale.  Certainly in his time he was better known.  Pable Fanque was a star of England.  Aldridge was an international star.

He was a New York native, son of free blacks and beneficiary of a classical education at the African Free School of New York.  He also spent time at the Park Theatre in lower Manhattan and was soon working at African Grove.

In a path that became to all too familiar (think Josephine Baker and Nina Simone among others) , he thought he would find more opportunity in Europe than in America.  He was right.  He attended the University of Glasgow for a period, but was soon back on the stage.  At first assumed to be a novelty – fancy an actor who could play black without burnt cork! – Aldridge tended to be somewhat typecast:  (The Ethiopian, or the Quadroon of the Mango Grove; The Negro’s Curse; The Death of Cristophe, King of Hayti).

He did not exactly wow the critics, who at best thought he lacked experience (true enough) and at worst had things to say about his race.  To hell with the critics.  The audiences loved him, which was encouragement enough.  He was not yet nineteen. Desirous of honing the craft, he went on the road, and never failed to put bums on seats. In 1825 he finally got Othello, a role he played opposite Charles Kean’s Iago (Charles Kean being the son of Edmund Kean, widely considered the greatest tragedian of his age).

He was best known for The Black Doctor, a tale of impossible love across the social and color lines, adapted from a Le Docteur Noir by Auguste Aniscét-Bourgeois and Philippe François Pinel Dumanoir.  Rarely performed these days.

Not that Aldridge confined himself to black roles.  He was perfectly willing to put on whiteface if it meant getting the part (suspension of disbelief went only so far).  It seemed hardly to have mattered.  When the critics could get over the race thing, they took note of Aldridge’s impressive naturalism. This in an age when declamation was the order of the day.  In time he played Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III and eventually King Lear, generally to good reviews.

He married an English girl, Margaret Gill (no children) and after her death, Amanda von Brandt (four children), self-styled daughter of a Swedish count but in fact the daughter of a Swedish blacksmith.  Theater does tend to make for make believe.  (For the scandal hungry out there, be it known that the first Aldridge child was born while Margaret was still alive.)

He got his big break in 1833 in the best Hollywood cliché manner.  Edmund Kean was to play Othello at Covent Garden Theatre (opposite his son Charles as Iago) when the great man was suddenly taken ill on stage.  Kean was carried off stage.  The show must go on.  So, it seemed, must Aldridge.  He was there, he knew the part.

He came back a star.**

Aldridge was skilled at comedy as well, and something of a song and dance man,  accomplished with the guitar, back when that sort of thing was something of a novelty. Much of his work involved short stints in regional theaters and private shows bankrolled by moneyed amateurs. Think Elton John for your birthday party.

After some fifteen rich years, Britain could not hold him and he set out for Europe.  The receptions there were even more ecstatic.  Crowned heads and the elite dropped all sorts of awards and decorations on him.  Not just in Europe, either – he was made  Aide de Camp Extraordinary to his Excellency the President Boyer of Santo Domingo (a place he had never been to) for having refuted “the assertion that his race is incapable of mental culture”.  A credit to his race, as they used to say. Or, those “inky-visaged children of the Sun”,  as one critical supporter put it. By the later years, even the London critics had  been won over.

Russian students were so impressed that when he finished his performance in Moscow, they unhitched the horses form his sleigh and dragged him back to his quarters themselves.

And he kept it real, as they say.  His curtain calls ended with calls on the audience for abolition, and this at a time when the issue was not completely settled even in Britain.  Money from his own purse went to buy freedom for at least one slave.  Hard to imagine that he didn’t help change a few minds or inspire some real action somewhere along the line.

How could he not?  He was, as far as a stage actor could be in those days, an international star. He was concomitantly wealthy, with several houses and a fortune of $250,000 when he died.  Staggering money back in the day, and proof that there could be good profits in acting even before the talkies. No question he had made it, and was even considering a tour of the United States.

It never happened.  He died in Poland, of all places, after a quick illness and was buried there.  Polish theatre people tended his grave at least as late as the 1950s.  Closer to home (his home – he requested and got British citizenship in 1857) he is honored with a  plaque at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

A good life, presumably, but as evanescent as any stage play.  His tragedy, such as it is, was not to have a poster hanging in John Lennon’s apartment.

Not enough somersets, I suppose.

***

* The epithet Roscius was not as obscure then as it is now.  Quintus Roscius Gallus was a Roman slave who trod the boards to such good effect that his owner Sulla granted him freedom and gave him a gold ring.  He was said to have coached Cicero on how to declaim, and indeed, was defended in court by that orator.  The details can be found in Pro Roscio Comoedo.

** Well, more of a star, in any event.   His part was somewhat overshadowed by  elder Kean’s final days, and those immortal  final words being “dying is easy; comedy is hard.”  But Aldridge’s part is not entirely neglected.  In one of those hard-to-believe coincidences that dog writers, I found after starting this piece that the Kean collapse is currently  being dramatized by the always interesting Adrian Lester.  Oh, to be in London!

 

Ira Aldridge:: The Early Years, 1807-1833 (Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora)

Ira Aldridge: The Vagabond Years, 1833-1852 (Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora)

Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius (Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora)

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One thought on “Ira Aldridge, 1807-1867: The African Roscius*

  1. You have a picture on your website of Ira Aldridge dressed as Othello. What is the name of that picture? I”m attempting to use this image in a documentary and I’d like to give credit to the rights owner.

    Can you help me?

    Thank you in advance,

    Omar
    omar_mcclinton@yahoo.com

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