The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0688  Monday, 24 July 2006

From: 		Harold Rogge <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date: 		Monday, 24 Jul 2006 13:04:16 -0400
Subject: 	A Day, a Life, a Word

:::[1]::: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

For Life of the Day complete with portrait
[Ira Frederick Aldridge as Othello], visit

Aldridge, Ira Frederick  (1807?-1867), actor, was probably born on 24 
July 1807 in New York city, the son of Daniel Aldridge, a lay preacher. 
Little is known of his mother, Lurona, who died when he was a youth. He 
was the first major African-American actor, although virtually all of 
his appearances were in Britain or on the continent; best known for his 
tragic roles, he was also successful in a variety of comic parts.

Aldridge's origins have often been romanticized: an anonymous 1849 
publication, Memoir and Theatrical Career of Ira Aldridge, tells a tale, 
often repeated, that he was born in Senegal, the son of a royal family 
of the Fulah tribe.  Based on the evidence, it seems most likely that he 
and his father were both free-born African-Americans. The Memoir is 
sometimes attributed to Aldridge, who may have had a hand in creating 
such a marketably romantic 'history'.

Aldridge was attracted to the theatre as a child, and attended 
performances at New York's Park Theatre. While a student at the city's 
African Free School he became involved in the short-lived African 
Theatre, where, according to the Memoir, he first played the part of 
Rolla in Sheridan's Pizarro, a part to which he would later return. 
After the closing of the African Theatre, when it became apparent that 
the opportunities for roles would be severely limited in the United 
States, Aldridge sailed for England some time around 1824. According to 
another popular but unconfirmed tale he travelled as a servant to the 
American actor Henry Wallack.

Aldridge made his London debut on 10 October 1825, at the Royal Coburg 
Theatre, playing the part of Oronooko in The Revolt of Surinam, or, A 
Slave's Revenge (an adaptation of Thomas Southern's Oronooko). During 
his time at the Royal Coburg he performed in such other works as Thomas 
Morton's The Slave and J. H.  Amherst's The Death of Christophe. From 
the beginning of his career, reviewers focused on his appearance: he was 
generally described as tall and well built; it was common for critics to 
note, with some surprise, that he was not as dark-skinned as actors in 
'blackface', but rather was 'almost a light brown', with a 'mulatto 
tint'. His voice was described as 'rich and melodious', but some 
reviewers considered it nasal or whiny; the contradiction may be on 
account of varying responses to an American accent (many critics comment 
on his 'strikingly un-English' pronunciation, and George Eliot found it 
intolerable).  He was given the sobriquet 'the African Roscius'.

Much of Aldridge's early career in Britain, when he was known as 'Mr 
Keene', found him in the provincial theatres, including those at Hull, 
Brighton, Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool, and Edinburgh, and in the 
theatres of London's East End. Othello, The Slave, and Bickerstaffe's 
The Padlock were the staples of his repertory. He was married for the 
first time shortly after his arrival in England, to Margaret Gill 

Aldridge made his West End debut at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in 
1833, when he played Othello barely two weeks after the death of Kean, 
who had been playing the Moor on that very stage. Aldridge was forced to 
circulate handbills defending his adoption of Kean's part. The reviews 
were a fascinating mix, indicative of the feelings Aldridge inspired in 
critics. Some, as in The Athenaeum, were unable to get beyond a 
consideration of his race; the Theatrical Observer, in a typical pun, 
noted that his performance was 'very fair for a black'. In general the 
more even-tempered reviewers focused on his 'naturalness'. Notably, they 
mention the overwhelmingly favourable response from the audience. After 
two performances Covent Garden closed for five days, and Aldridge's 
remaining performances were cancelled, possibly as a result of the 
hostility of the press. Aldridge sought out new roles beyond those of 
his standard repertory, and he in fact revived Shakespeare's rarely 
produced Titus Andronicus at the Britannia Theatre in 1852; in his 
revision the Moor Aaron became an unlikely tragic hero.

After continuing his work in the provinces and in Ireland, Aldridge 
began his first continental tour in 1852, and it was here that he 
received his warmest welcome from the theatrical community. Appearances 
in Switzerland and Germany, where he played in Othello, The Padlock, and 
Macbeth, were met with great acclaim; there and in various parts of the 
Austro-Hungarian empire he was able to move with ease among aristocrats 
and artists. On his visits to Russia in 1858 and 1862 he was credited 
with introducing a more naturalistic acting style and encouraging the 
production of Shakespeare's plays. It was on one such European tour, in 
1857 or 1858, that he met the woman who was to become his second wife, 
Amanda Pauline von Brandt (d. 1915). They married on 20 April 1865, 
after Margaret Aldridge's death the previous year, and had four children:

Irene (1860-1932), Ira Frederick Olaff (1862-1886), Amanda Christina 
Elizabeth Aldridge  (1866-1956), and Rachel Margaret Frederika (b. 1868, 
after her father's death). Aldridge's eldest child, Ira Daniel, was born 
in May 1847, when his first wife was nearly fifty and already in ill 
health; the child apparently was not hers.

Having returned to England in 1855, Aldridge again toured the provinces 
and appeared in the East End. After a second continental tour had 
enhanced his reputation he was offered work at the Lyceum, and the 
response of the London press this time was much more respectful. Still, 
the theatres and audiences on the continent evidently offered Aldridge 
greater artistic range and freedom. It was on one such continental tour, 
when in Lodz, Poland, that he died of an apparent lung infection on 7 
August 1867. He was buried on 9 August in the city's Evangelical cemetery.

Heidi J. Holder

:::[2]::: Wordsmith

roscian (ROSH-ee-uhn) adjective

    Of or related to acting.

[After Quintus Roscius Gallus (c.126-62 BCE), a Roman actor famous for his
talent in acting.]

Roscius was born in slavery but his success on stage won him freedom 
from the dictator Sulla. He was considered the greatest comic actor and 
Cicero took elocution lessons from him. Cicero later returned the favor 
by defending him in a lawsuit and the defense speech survives to this 
day. In his honor, accomplished actors are sometimes called Roscius.

Anu Garg

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