Ira Aldridge. African tragedian.
ALDRIDGE Ira.; BARABÁS Miklós (1857.)
THE FIRST ACTOR OF AFRICAN DESCENT TO PLAY OTHELLO: A SIGNED COPY
Member of the order of Art and Science conferred by his Majesty King William 4th of Prussia and holder of the medal of Leopold and the White Cross etc etc. [Text repeated in German].
Second issue. Lithograph portrait measuring 390 by 320mm. Inscription and signature by Aldridge clipped and laid down, some small closed tears, a little glue residue, trimmed unevenly around the edges, but very good. Vienna, J. Rauch lith., c.
A rare, inscribed portrait of the famous actor. Dated Berlin 1861, it is inscribed to "Madame Arline Bach with the best wishes of Ira Aldridge." (Alas, we have been unable to learn anything more about her.)
Born in New York City, Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) attended the African Free School and opted for a career on the stage rather than the clergy as his father preferred. While he got his start in the Brown's Theatre (known as the African Theatre), New York, his prospects were brighter in England and he emigrated in 1824. Aldridge's debut came the next year in a production of The Revolt of Suriname in which he played the enslaved prince Oroonoko. Other roles followed quickly, such as The Ethiopian, The Libertine Defeated, and The Negro's Curse, which was written for him. For the next seven years he performed under the stage name the "African Roscius." Importantly, his first performance as Othello was in 1826, making him the first actor of African descent to perform the role.
While the novelty of seeing an African-American on English stages was healthy for the box-office, Aldridge was subject to much racist criticism and the occasional, unexplained, cancellation of performances. He persevered nonetheless, and performed throughout the United Kingdom. In an interesting twist, from 1830 he began to play white roles, powdering his face and wearing blond wigs when required. Meanwhile, he continued to play Othello, with the Royal Theatre at Bath and, in 1833, in Theatre Royal Covent Garden.
ANB continues the story: "In 1852 he began his first tour of the Continent. His success in Europe was unequaled by any other in his career. His first tour through Belgium, Hungary, Germany, Austria, and Poland lasted three years. In 1857 he toured to Sweden, and after this time he continually toured the continent, including Russia, until his death, returning to England periodically to play the provinces. It was on his first tour that he added the roles of Macbeth, King Lear, and Richard III to his repertoire and received great honors from the princes of Europe. The king of Prussia awarded him the Gold Medal of the First Class for Art and Sciences." He received similar garlands in Austria, Hungary, and Russia.
Aside from Henry Brigg's c.1830 painted portrait of Aldridge (as Othello) at the Garrick Club, it was only as his reputation rose in Europe that published images of him became more common. One of the earliest is as Mungo in the Padlock (New York, c.1851); then as Aaron in Titus Andronicus (London, c.1852); and, naturally, as Othello (Mannheim, 1854). The Illustrated London News included an image of him in that role in a lengthy article on him in their 3 July 1858 issue. There are others, but this portrait is by far the most distinguished. It acknowledges his work as an artist instead of a mere curiosity.
First published in 1853, the image was composed by Miklós Barabás (1810-1898) during a run at the Hungarian National Theatre in Pest. Aldridge had come to Hungary after performing in Berlin in January of that year, "where his spirited portrayals of Othello and Macbeth prompted a dispute among theatre critics about the strengths and aesthetic shortcomings of this unusual foreign actor. The issue appeared to have been settled in his favor when King Wilhelm Frederick IV of Prussia awarded him the Gold Medal (First Class) for Arts and Sciences" (Lindfors). Accordingly, the image has been updated here to reflect the 1857 Prussian award, which now hangs around his neck plus the addition of the captions in English and German.
Aldridge finally managed to gain acceptance in London and performed at the Lyceum 1858. Five years later he became a British citizen, though he continued to perform on the Continent. In 1867, he passed away in Lodz, Poland, en route to St Petersburg.
Examples of the issue lacking the awards and text can been see in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG D7311) and the British Museum (1875,0710.5975) which is slightly different again.
Lindfors, B., Ira Aldridge: the Last Years, 1855-1867 (Rochester NY, 2015) pp.1-2.
Stock Code: 239679