IRA ALDRIDGE (1807-1867)
By
Jennifer Carnell

The engraving above shows Aldridge in the role of Aaron in Titus Andronicus in 1852.

Ira Aldridge was one of the most important and celebrated actors of the mid-nineteenth century, becoming the most famous and successful black actor of the age.

Born in America, he moved to the United Kingdom as a young man to pursue his career as an actor, and was acting at the Surrey Theatre in London as early as 1833. He was often billed as the 'African Roscius' and his popularity with audiences was immense.

While admired by audiences and respected by stage managers, Aldridge's success as an actor and his personal charisma sometimes aroused jealousy and racism in his fellow actors. J. B. Howe acted with him in the early 1850s and conceded it could not be denied that Aldridge was an 'educated' and 'a clever man' whose 'powers of tragedy and comedy alike were most marvellous,' but what disturbed him was the adulation of his 'multitude' of female admirers in the audience:

'It shocks a sensitive nature to see a pure blonde with almost angelic features and form, putting on a most bewitching smile and using every art of feminine blandishment to win the notice and deserve the esteem of the true, bred "American Nigger." '

In between stints in London, and tours in European countries, Aldridge would guest star with provincial theatre companies for a few days at a time. It was during these guest appearances in the provinces that Mary Elizabeth Braddon, under her stage name of Mary Seyton, came to act with Ira Aldridge a number of times. On one occasion Braddon acted opposite him in The Slave, when Aldridge starred as Gambia and Braddon (later herself to write a novel about an octoroon slave) played the quadroon slave, Zelinda.

While acting with Braddon and the company of Henry Nye Chart at the Theatre Royal in Brighton in 1858, a local newspaper critic claimed to be mystified by Aldridge's popularity with his audience after a successful performance of Othello:

'It may be that they tolerate in the African what they would not submit to in the European; but then that is indicative of their sympathy for the coloured race rather than significant of a want of artistic appreciation.' (quoted by Jennifer Carnell, The Literary Lives of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, 1999)
By the time the review was published, Aldridge had left Brighton for his next engagement in Europe. However, a copy of the newspaper was forwarded to him, and he wrote a letter to the editor which was then published. In his letter he defended himself vigorously, explaining how for twenty years he had argued against ignorance and intolerance whenever he came across it:
'I have struggled hard, encountering almost insurmountable difficulties, to make not only for myself, a name, but to refute the assertions propagated by the enemies of my race and colour, - that we blacks are incapable of mental cultivation. I did not come to Brighton unsolicited. Mr. N. Chart, a friend of long standing, gave me an invitation, which I (sojourning temporarily in the neighbourhood) accepted. [...] I was mortified and pained on perusing, in Prague [...the newspaper]. Sir, I am not one of those who affect to treat with indifference what the newspapers say of them. When such an assertion is made in my presence I unhesitatingly class the speaker as a false-speaking knave or fool.' (quoted by Jennifer Carnell, The Literary Lives of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, 1999)

Recommended Reading:
Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock, Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian (London: Rockliff, 1958).
Owen Mortimer, Speak of Me As I Am: The Story of Ira Aldridge (Australia: Private printing, 1995).
A biography aimed at children: Mary Malone, Actor in Exile: The Life of Ira Aldridge (New York: Crowell-Collier, 1969).
Jennifer Carnell, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the Victorian Theatre (Sensation Press, 2016)
Jennifer Carnell, The Literary Lives of Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Sensation Press, 1999).

Ira Aldridge in the role of Mungo.

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