Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

13 Surprising Facts About George Orwell

Cassowary Colorizations, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Cassowary Colorizations, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Before he assumed the pen name George Orwell, Eric Arthur Blair had a relatively normal upbringing for an upper-middle-class English boy of his time. Looking back now, his life proved to be anything but ordinary. He's best known for penning the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four—regarded as one of the greatest classics of all time—but writing novels was only one small facet of his life and career. In remembrance of Orwell, who was born on June 25, 1903, here are 13 facts about his life that may surprise you.

1. George Orwell attended prep school as a child—and hated it.

Eric Blair spent five years at the St. Cyprian School for boys in Eastbourne, England, which later inspired his melodramatic essay Such, Such Were the Joys. In this account, he called the school’s proprietors “terrible, all-powerful monsters” and labeled the institution itself "an expensive and snobbish school which was in process of becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive." While Blair's misery is now considered to be somewhat exaggerated, the essay was deemed too libelous to print at the time. It was finally published in 1968 after his death.

2. He was a prankster.

Blair was expelled from his "crammer" school (an institution designed to help students "cram" for specific exams) for sending a birthday message attached to a dead rat to the town surveyor, according to Sir Bernard Crick's George Orwell: A Life, the first complete biography of Orwell. And while studying at Eton College, Orwell made up a song about John Crace, his school’s housemaster, in which he made fun of Crace’s appearance and penchant for Italian art:

Then up waddled Wog and he squeaked in Greek:
‘I’ve grown another hair on my cheek.’
Crace replied in Latin with his toadlike smile:
‘And I hope you’ve grown a lovely new pile.
With a loud deep fart from the bottom of my heart!
How d’you like Venetian art?'

Later, in a newspaper column, he recalled his boyhood hobby of replying to advertisements and stringing the salesmen along as a joke. “You can have a lot of fun by answering the advertisements and then, when you have drawn them out and made them waste a lot of stamps in sending successive wads of testimonials, suddenly leaving them cold,” he wrote.

3. He worked a number of odd jobs for most of his career.

A photo of Orwell with a BBC microphone
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Everyone’s got to pay the bills, and Blair was no exception. He spent most of his career juggling part-time jobs while authoring books on the side. Over the years, he worked as a police officer for the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (present-day Myanmar), a high school teacher, a bookstore clerk, a propagandist for the BBC during World War II, a literary editor, and a war correspondent. He also had stints as a dishwasher in Paris and as a hop-picker (for breweries) in Kent, England, but those jobs were for research purposes while “living as a tramp” and writing his first book about his experiences, Down and Out in Paris and London. (He chose to publish the book under a pseudonym, George Orwell, and the name stuck.)

4. He once got himself arrested. On purpose.


The National Archives UK // Public Domain

In 1931, while investigating poverty for his aforementioned memoir, Orwell intentionally got himself arrested for being “drunk and incapable.” This was done “in order to get a taste of prison and to bring himself closer to the tramps and small-time villains with whom he mingled,” biographer Gordon Bowker told The Guardian. At the time, he had been using the pseudonym Edward Burton and posing as a poor fish porter. After drinking several pints and almost a whole bottle of whisky and ostensibly making a scene (it’s uncertain what exactly was said or done), Orwell was arrested. His crime didn’t warrant prison time like he had hoped, and he was released after spending 48 hours in custody. He wrote about the experience in an unpublished essay titled Clink.

5. He had knuckle tattoos.

While working as a police officer in Burma, Orwell got his knuckles tattooed. Adrian Fierz, who knew Orwell, told biographer Gordon Bowker that the tattoos were small blue spots, “the shape of small grapefruits,” and Orwell had one on each knuckle. Orwell noted that some Burmese tribes believed tattoos would protect them from bullets. He may have gotten inked for similarly superstitious reasons, Bowker suggested, but it's more likely that he wanted to set himself apart from the British establishment in Burma. "He was never a properly 'correct' member of the Imperial class—hobnobbing with Buddhist priests, Rangoon prostitutes, and British drop-outs," Bowker wrote.

6. He knew seven foreign languages, to varying degrees.

Orwell wrote in a 1944 newspaper column, “In my life I have learned seven foreign languages, including two dead ones, and out of those seven I retain only one, and that not brilliantly.” In his youth, he learned French from Aldous Huxley, who briefly taught at Orwell’s boarding school and later went on to write Brave New World. Orwell ultimately became fluent in French, and at different points in his life he studied Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Burmese, to name a few.

7. He voluntarily fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Like fellow writer Ernest Hemingway and others with leftist leanings, Orwell got tangled up in the Spanish Civil War. At the age of 33, Orwell arrived in Spain, shortly after fighting had broken out in 1936, hoping to write some newspaper articles. Instead, he ended up joining the Republican militia to “fight fascism” because “it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.” The following year, he was shot in the neck by a sniper, but survived. He described the moment of being shot as “a tremendous shock—no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing.” He wrote about his war experiences in the book Homage to Catalonia.

8. His manuscript for Animal Farm was nearly destroyed by a bomb.


Thomas D, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In 1944, Orwell’s home at 10 Mortimer Crescent in London was struck by a “doodlebug” (a German V-1 flying bomb). Orwell, his wife Eileen, and their son Richard Horatio were away at the time, but their home was demolished. During his lunch break at the British newspaper Tribune, Orwell would return to the foundation where his home once stood and sift through the rubble in search of his books and papers—most importantly, the manuscript for Animal Farm. “He spent hours and hours rifling through rubbish. Fortunately, he found it,” Richard recalled in a 2012 interview with Ham & High. Orwell then piled everything into a wheelbarrow and carted it back to his office.

9. He had a goat named Muriel.

He and his wife Eileen tended to several farm animals at their home in Wallington, England, including Muriel the goat. A goat by the same name in Orwell’s book Animal Farm is described as being one of the few intelligent and morally sound animals on the farm, making her one of the more likable characters in this dark work of dystopian fiction.

10. He coined the term "Cold War."

The first recorded usage of the phrase “cold war” in reference to relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union can be traced back to Orwell’s 1945 essay You and the Atom Bomb, which was written two months after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the essay, he described “a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.” He continued:

“Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly centralized police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace.’”

11. He ratted out Charlie Chaplin and other artists for allegedly being communists.

Orwell self-identified as a democratic socialist, but his sympathy didn’t extend to communists. In 1949, he compiled a list of artists he suspected of having communist leanings and passed it along to his friend, Celia Paget, who worked for the UK’s Information Research Department. After the war ended, the branch was tasked with distributing anti-communist propaganda throughout Europe. Orwell's list included Charlie Chaplin and a few dozen other actors, writers, academics, and politicians. Other notable names that were written down in his notebook but weren’t turned over to the IRD included Katharine Hepburn, John Steinbeck, George Bernard Shaw, Orson Welles, and Cecil Day-Lewis (the father of Daniel Day-Lewis).

Orwell’s intention was to blacklist those individuals, whom he considered untrustworthy, from IRD employment. While journalist Alexander Cockburn labeled Orwell a “snitch,” biographer Bernard Crick wrote, “He wasn’t denouncing these people as subversives. He was denouncing them as unsuitable for counter-intelligence operation.”

12. He really hated American fashion magazines.

A woman reads a fashion magazine in the '40s
Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images

For a period of about a year and a half, Orwell penned a regular column called As I Please for the newspaper Tribune, in which he shared his thoughts on everything from war to objective truth to literary criticism. One such column from 1946 featured a brutal takedown of American fashion magazines. Of the models appearing on their pages, he wrote, “A thin-boned, ancient-Egyptian type of face seems to predominate: narrow hips are general, and slender, non-prehensile hands like those of a lizard are quite universal.”

As for the inane copy that accompanied advertisements, he complained:

"Words like suave-mannered, custom-finished, contour-conforming, mitt-back, inner-sole, backdip, midriff, swoosh, swash, curvaceous, slenderize, and pet-smooth are flung about with evident full expectation that the reader will understand them at a glance. Here are a few sample sentences taken at random: 'A new Shimmer Sheen color that sets your hands and his head in a whirl.' 'Bared and beautifully bosomy.' 'Feathery-light Milliken Fleece to keep her kitten-snug!' 'Others see you through a veil of sheer beauty, and they wonder why!'"

In the rest of the column, he went on to discuss traffic fatalities.

13. He nearly drowned while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One day in 1947 while taking a break from writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell took his son, niece, and nephew on a boating trip across the Gulf of Corryvreckan in western Scotland, which happens to be the site of the world's third-largest whirlpool. Unsurprisingly, their dinghy capsized when it was sucked into the whirlpool, hurling them all overboard. Fortunately, all four survived, and the book that later came to be called Nineteen Eighty-Four (originally named The Last Man in Europe) was finally published in 1949, just seven months before Orwell's death from tuberculosis.

This story has been updated for 2019.

Robert Friend, One of the Last Surviving Tuskegee Airmen, Dies at 99

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

One of the remaining original members of the Tuskegee Airmen—the first group of African-American pilots to serve in the U.S. military—passed away on Friday. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Friend was surrounded by family and friends when he succumbed to sepsis at 99 years old on June 21, according to CNN. His passing follows that of Dr. Granville Coggs, another Tuskegee veteran who died in May.

The Tuskegee Experience, an Army Air Corps program designed to train African-American pilots for combat, was established in 1941 by the Roosevelt Administration. The group, soon to become known as the Tuskegee Airmen, would eventually lead more than 15,000 air attacks during World War II and helped to persuade President Truman to desegregate the armed forces in 1948.

Born in South Carolina but raised in New York City, Friend took an interest in aviation while observing Zeppelin aircraft and constructing model planes. According to the Los Angeles Times, Friend himself flew 142 missions during the war, and would later see action in Korea and Vietnam.

His first wife's likeness can be seen in the form of the famous "Bunny" painting found on the side of the restored P-51 Mustang he once flew. He would retire as a lieutenant colonel after 28 years of service, although flying aircraft was not his only field of expertise: Friend directed Project Blue Book—a series of studies launched by the U.S. Air Force that dealt with UFO sightings. In a 2012 interview concerning the project, Friend told HuffPost, "I, for one … believe that the probability of there being life elsewhere in this big cosmos is just absolutely out of this world—I think the probability is there."

CNN reports that Friend's funeral will most likely be held the weekend of July 4.

[h/t CNN]

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