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A guest post by London Historians member Sheila Cavanagh. 

ira aldridge plaque 250

London Remembers

On a recent London Historians tour of the Crystal Palace area, our guide Richard Watkins stopped on a street corner to point out an English Heritage blue plaque marking the London home of American/British actor Ira Aldridge, who lived from 1807-1867 and who was the first actor of African descent to play Othello in the West End.  Many people today do not know his name, although they may have seen his image in one of the paintings depicting him at the Tate Britain and elsewhere.  James Northcote portrayed Aldridge in his role as Othello, for example, and  Aldridge is thought to have modelled for John Simpson’s “Head of a Man” and “The Captive Slave,” now at the Tate. 

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Ira Aldridge after James Northcote. Private Collection.

Due to the racial tensions and laws associated with the American Civil War, Aldridge was unable to perform on stage in the United States, so he spent most of his career in Europe, where he attracted significant attention. He was cast as Othello, for instance, at the Covent Garden Theatre after leading actor Edmund Kean died suddenly in 1833.  Reviews of this performance were mixed, however, and it became clear that not everyone was prepared to see a man like Aldridge presenting Shakespeare.  This production was soon cancelled, but Aldridge performed the part in many other venues over the years.  Adrian Lester recently played Aldridge (in London and New York) in Red Velvet, a play about these years in Aldridge’s life written by London playwright (and Lester’s wife) Lolita Chakrabarti.  Aldridge’s own account  of his life (from 1850) is available in print or online in Ira Aldridge: the African Roscius, edited by Bern Lindfors (2007; 2017). 

During the 1850’s, Aldridge performed across the Continent, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Russia, but he returned to England in the 1860’s where he successfully applied for British citizenship.  During the time he lived at the house in Upper Norwood which carries the Blue Plaque. He apparently maintained a tumultuous personal life.  He shared the house with his first wife, Margaret Gill, with whom he had no children.  Rumours suggest, however, that he fathered six or more children by several other women, one of whom became his second wife, Amanda von Brandt.  The wives and children all lived at this address. Two of his daughters became opera singers.  Aldridge was successfully sued by the husband of one of his children’s mothers, actor William Stothard, but this does not appear to have affected Aldridge’s career. 

Aldridge received innumerable awards during his lifetime and performed – often before royalty – for many years. He is also honoured by a bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. He died, while on tour, in Poland, where I can personally attest that his grave is available for viewing.  Aldridge is well-known in Shakespearean circles, even though he has largely disappeared from view in other arenas. Historically, black college Howard University in Washington, D.C. has named a theatre in his honour.  Aldridge’s life and career are well-worth further investigation and Red Velvet is a memorable play to see if it returns to London.  He was a widely acclaimed actor during his time and deserves wider recognition among those with interests in theatrical history and the place of those of African descent in nineteenth century London. 

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Professor Sheila T. Cavanagh. Professor of English, Emory University; Fulbright/Global Shakespeare Centre Distinguished Chair, 2015-2016; Director, World Shakespeare Project ; Co-Director, “First Folio: the Book that Gave us Shakespeare” and Emory’s Year of Shakespeare, 2016-2017.
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Blue plaque image courtesy London Remembers

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