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Ira Aldridge:

Ira Aldridge:: The Early Years, 1807-1833

Bernth Lindfors
Volume: 48
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    Ira Aldridge:
    Book Description:

    ‘Ira Aldridge: The Early Years, 1807-1833’ chronicles the rise of one of the modern world's first black classical actors, as he ascended from an impoverished childhood in New York City to a career as a celebrated thespian on the British stage. After a successful debut in London in 1825, Aldridge began touring the British provinces, billing himself grandiloquently as the "African Roscius," and attracting crowds with his powerful presence and style. He received accolades not only as a tragedian in classic roles such as Othello and Oroonoko but also as a comic actor in popular farces and musicals. In 1833, when a bill to abolish slavery was being debated in Parliament, he was called back to London to perform at one of the city's most prestigious theaters, where his appearance, now under his own name but also billed as "a native of Senegal," created a great deal of controversy. In dealing with Aldridge's emergence as a professional actor in the United Kingdom, Lindfors here records in detail the ups and downs of his itinerant existence in a world where no theatergoer had ever seen anyone like him on stage before. Aldridge was genuinely a unique phenomenon in Britain at a pivotal point in history. Bernth Lindfors is professor emeritus of English and African literatures, University of Texas at Austin, and editor of ‘Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius’ (University of Rochester Press, 2007).

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-734-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-3)

    Ira Aldridge pretended to be an African. I became intrigued by this, wondering what advantage that gave him as an actor in Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Africans commonly were thought to be among the most uncivilized beings on earth—mere brutes whose full membership in the human family was at times questioned. Certainly Aldridge’s ethnic charade had novelty value, but was that enough to sustain him in a career that lasted more than four decades and took him to nearly every corner of the British Isles and to most of the major cities and towns...

  6. 1 The Lives of Ira Aldridge
    (pp. 4-16)

    Ira Aldridge had an unusual life and a remarkable career. Born in lower Manhattan on July 24, 1807, he grew up in humble circumstances but was fortunate enough to receive several years of formal education at an African Free School established by the Manumission Society. His father, Daniel—a straw vendor and lay preacher—had wanted him to enter the religious profession, but Ira, after having taken part in a few plays put on by a troupe of black performers, aspired to become a professional actor. Finding no adequate outlet for his ambition in New York, he left for England...

  7. 2 Family Matters
    (pp. 17-22)

    Little is known about Ira Aldridge’s early life. Using statements made by Aldridge himself on playbills, in a diary he kept on one of his Continental tours, and in his application for British citizenship, Marshall and Stock were able to establish that he was born in New York City on July 24, 1807. James McCune Smith adds another level of detail, locating his birthplace as “Chapel Street (now West Broadway)” in lower Manhattan,¹ and Longworth’s Directory for 1812² confirms that Aldridge’s father, Daniel, was living at the rear of 93 Chapel Street five years later, so it is more than...

  8. 3 Life in New York City
    (pp. 23-46)

    Daniel Aldridge had wanted his son Ira to follow in his footsteps and become a preacher. To this end he enrolled him in one of the two African Free Schools that had been established in New York City by the Manumission Society “for the special purpose of opening the avenues to a gratuitous education to the descendants of an injured race, who have a strong claim on the humanity and justice of our State.”¹ A more explicit purpose was to educate “young men of colour, to be employed as teachers and preachers among the people of colour in these States...

  9. 4 Charles Mathews and James Hewlett
    (pp. 47-60)

    Before following Aldridge to London, allow me to mention two other actors who indirectly helped Aldridge launch his theatrical career: namely, Charles Mathews the Elder, England’s most popular comedian, and James Hewlett, the leading thespian at the African Theatre in New York City.

    Mathews made his first professional tour of the United States in 1822–23, performing a variety of light comic roles in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston to large, enthusiastic audiences. Like earlier British stage stars, he had been lured to the New World by Stephen Price who had dangled before him the prospect of making lots...

  10. 5 A Gentleman of Colour
    (pp. 61-74)

    It is generally accepted that Ira Aldridge made his debut in London at the Royal Coburg Theatre on October 10, 1825, by playing the role of Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam; or, A Slave’s Revenge, an adaptation of Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko. Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock, in their influential biography Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian, had made this claim because they could find no documentary evidence to support the statement in the anonymously authored stage biography Memoir and Theatrical Career of Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius that

    Mr. Aldridge commenced at the Royalty, at the East End, under the...

  11. 6 The African Tragedian
    (pp. 75-94)

    The Royal Coburg Theatre was much closer to the West End than the Royalty Theatre had been, but it was situated south of the Thames in a rural industrial region of Lambeth. The theater historians Jim Davis and Victor Emeljanow record that it was built as a “speculative venture … in the wake of the opening of Waterloo Bridge in 1817,” the investors believing that the bridge would lead to rapid development of upscale housing and profitable commercial enterprise.¹ The theater, still in business today as the Old Vic, was therefore built in an elaborate, ornate style suited to what...

  12. 7 The African Roscius on Tour
    (pp. 95-111)

    London had been a good place for Aldridge to launch his career on the British stage. The months he spent performing at the Royalty and Coburg theaters had provided him with valuable experience, a regular salary, and a small measure of fame. And because he was such an unusual phenomenon, he had been given top billing as a “Gentleman of Colour,” an “African Tragedian,” and exaggerated claims had been made about his previous acting experience in the United States. This kind of media puffery, combined with the notoriety of Charles Mathews’s humorous parody of an incompetent black actor butchering Shakespeare...

  13. 8 A Fresh Start
    (pp. 112-128)

    The year 1827 started in a more promising way for Aldridge and Margaret, his wife. They had moved north so he could take advantage of opportunities offered in some of the larger cities and towns in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Durham, and Northumberland. In January he performed in Sheffield and Halifax, in February in Manchester, and in March in Sunderland and Newcastle upon Tyne. In late March and early April he made his first foray into Scotland, appearing at the Theatres Royal in Glasgow and Edinburgh. He enacted his usual characters—Othello, Oroonoko, Gambia, Hassan (in The Castle Spectre), and Mungo—but...

  14. 9 A New Venture
    (pp. 129-137)

    Aldridge began 1828 in the Midlands of England, shuttling in January and February between theaters in Coventry and Birmingham, which were only eighteen miles apart. In both cities he performed with the same company, one run by a Mr. Melmoth who was not a particularly effective manager. Melmoth had scored a success in Coventry earlier in January by engaging Miss Maria Foote, “a beautiful actress, whose amatory and matrimonial affairs were somewhat sensational”¹ and who consequently drew large crowds to the theater. During the same month he had also engaged Miss Graddon, a vocalist from London’s Drury Lane and Surrey...

  15. 10 Expanding the Repertoire
    (pp. 138-159)

    For the next twenty months Aldridge returned to touring the provinces, playing mostly in small towns where he had never before been seen. Some of these towns—Lichfield, Leamington, Ledbury—had no newspapers in 1828, and others that were larger—Worcester, Southampton, Hereford—gave him little or no coverage, so there is scant evidence to show how his performances were received for the remainder of this year. The remarks in the Worcester Journal that “it excites surprise that he is national only in his figure; close application, aided by a voice fine, flexible and manly, has overcome all the imperfections...

  16. 11 London Again
    (pp. 160-173)

    Aldridge may have been negotiating for a contract at one of London’s patent theaters not long after he left the Royal Coburg in November 1825. The advertisement for his appearances in Exeter in April 1826 spoke of him performing there “Previous to his Engagement at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.”¹ The same was said on the playbill heralding his enactment of Othello in Penzance in August that year.² When he took the stage in Halifax in January 1827, the playbill stated that he was “engaged to appear at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden in the course of the present Season.”³...

  17. 12 Playing New Roles
    (pp. 174-189)

    Aldridge, at the age of twenty-one, had now been on stage in the British Isles for nearly five years. Up to this point in his career, he had appeared in at least seventeen different plays, had enacted scenes from King Richard III, and had done an imitation of Charles Mathews’s skit on the African Tragedian. After performing eight of these roles in his first year at the Royalty and Royal Coburg Theatres in London, he had added only four more plus a version of the Mathews skit in his initial three years on tour, and in 1829 he had ambitiously...

  18. 13 Pale Experiments
    (pp. 190-207)

    Aldridge began 1831 by performing in Gloucestershire with a company run by a Mr. Watson in the neighboring towns of Gloucester and Tewkesbury. The troupe apparently had been going through hard times, leading Watson “to assure his kind Patrons and Friends of this City and its Neighborhood, that however untoward the present Season, from local difficulties has been, he is no ways disheartened, nor in the least will shrink from his duty in catering for the public taste.”¹ This must have been why he hired the African Roscius, hoping that “the very singular and unprecedented Novelty of a NATIVE AFRICAN,...

  19. 14 Dublin
    (pp. 208-220)

    According to his Memoir, Aldridge had not been invited to perform in Dublin.

    Notwithstanding the favourable impression “the African Kean,” as he was then termed, made wherever he appeared, he repeatedly failed in procuring an engagement at Dublin. Mr. Calcraft, the spirited and accomplished manager of the Theatre Royal, could not be prevailed upon by letter to accept the services of the man of colour, at a venture: there was “something so absurd about it.” Mr. Aldridge, therefore, went there at his own cost, and had an interview with the manager. The result was favourable to his ambition, and he...

  20. 15 Racial Compliments and Abuse
    (pp. 221-231)

    On arriving in Bath, Aldridge sent a message to Bellamy asking for free tickets to the theater, a courtesy normally accorded to visiting actors.

    Aldridge opened his engagement in Bath on the following Tuesday, January 10, 1832, with his favorite double bill—Othello and The Padlock—a combination of contrasts calculated to display to best advantage the full range of his abilities as an actor. As usual, he took his audience completely by surprise. The Bath Herald remarked,

    Having drawn our notions of Negro performers from the descriptions of the facetious Mr. Mathews, we expected on Tuesday night to have...

  21. 16 Re-engagements
    (pp. 232-244)

    Aldridge was re-engaged by Calcraft at Theatre Royal Dublin during December 1832, but this time, instead of performing only four nights spread over half a month, he acted eighteen nights over a period of seven weeks. The year before he had been eclipsed by Edmund Kean who had arrived just as Aldridge was about to depart. Kean had seen Aldridge perform in The Padlock and possibly The Slave,¹ and had been impressed with his abilities as a comedian, but was unwilling to share the stage with him the following night by playing Iago to Aldridge’s Othello. A year later Aldridge...

  22. 17 Shakespeare Burlesques
    (pp. 245-252)

    In the years that Aldridge had been away from London, he had not been totally forgotten by the theatergoing public. Or, rather, the image of an incompetent black actor butchering lines from Shakespeare hadn’t been allowed to fade away. Charles Mathews, by continuing to perform his Trip to America at his annual At Home performances at the English Opera House and on his extensive provincial tours, had kept the stereotype of the bungling African Tragedian alive. After Mathews teamed up with fellow mimic Frederick Henry Yates to own and run the Adelphi Theatre a few years later,¹ they gave new...

  23. 18 A Satirical Battering Ram
    (pp. 253-260)

    Gilbert Abbott à Beckett was only twenty years old when he founded Figaro in London during December 1831. By then he was already an experienced editor, albeit merely of a string of short-lived publications. Not long after leaving Westminster School at age seventeen, he had joined his two older brothers in founding a biweekly periodical called The Censor, “a youthfully ebullient journal of ephemera, gossip, tales, and theatre notices” that lasted only seven months.¹ Even earlier he had teamed up with schoolmate Henry Mayhew to launch a satirical scandal sheet, The Cerberus; or, The Hell Post, but when his father,...

  24. 19 Covent Garden
    (pp. 261-273)

    Covent Garden was a theater in which a single performance could make or mar an unknown actor’s reputation. It was a rigorous testing ground for provincial actors who had attracted attention outside London and had thereby earned an opportunity to display their talent before a large metropolitan audience. Being invited to perform at a patent theater in the capital was a sign of professional recognition but it was no guarantee of success. The performer would have to please not only the manager who had hired him and the numerous critics whose job it was to evaluate him publicly but also...

  25. 20 Other London Engagements
    (pp. 274-286)

    It is true that while this storm over his professional competence was raging in the press, Aldridge, having been deprived of further employment at Covent Garden, had accepted an invitation to perform at the Surrey Theatre. The announcement of his engagement there “for two nights” came as early as Wednesday, April 17, just a day after his third appearance at Covent Garden had been cancelled. The playbill carrying the announcement stated that

    the circumstance of a MAN of COLOUR performing OTHELLO, on the British Stage, is indeed an epoch in the history of Theatricals; and the honor conferred upon him,...

  26. 21 Moving On
    (pp. 287-290)

    Up to this point Aldridge’s career onstage in the United Kingdom had resembled both a melodrama and a farce—a mixture of success, failure, and absurdity. He had managed to make a respectable debut at the Royalty Theatre in East London in 1825 as a teenager, had parlayed that unlikely start into a longer, well-publicized run at the Royal Coburg, and had set out on his first provincial tour with plentiful press notices in his pocket. Nonetheless, his controversial notoriety as a black performer—a “genuine nigger” and “right earnest African tragedian” in the words of Charles Mathews and several...

  27. Notes
    (pp. 291-360)
  28. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 361-364)
  29. Index
    (pp. 365-387)
  30. Back Matter
    (pp. 388-393)