(July 24, 1807 – August 7, 1867) born in was an American and later British stage actor and playwright who made his career after 1824 largely on the London stage and in Europe, especially in Shakespearean roles. Born in New York City, Aldridge is the only actor of African-American descent among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. He was especially popular in Prussia and Russia, where he received top honors from heads of state.
He was married twice, once to an Englishwoman, once to a Swedish woman, and had a family in England. Two of his daughters became professional opera singers.
Aldridge was born in New York City to Reverend Daniel and Luranah Aldridge July 24, 1807. At age 13, Aldridge went to the African Free School in New York City, established by the New York Manumission Society for the children of free black people and slaves. They were given a classical education, with the study of English grammar, writing, mathematics, geography, and astronomy. His early exposure to theater included viewing plays from the high balcony of the Park Theatre, New York’s leading theater of the time, and seeing productions of Shakespeare’s plays at the African Grove Theatre.
Aldridge’s first professional acting experience was in the early 1820s with the African Company, a group founded and managed by William Henry Brown and James Hewlett. In 1821, the group built the African Grove Theatre, the first resident African-American theatre in the United States.
Aldridge made his acting debut as Rolla, a Peruvian character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Pizarro. He may have also played the male lead in Romeo and Juliet, as reported later in an 1860 memoir by his schoolfellow, Dr. James McCune Smith.
Confronted with the persistent discrimination which black actors had to endure in the United States, Aldridge emigrated to Liverpool, England, in 1824 with actor James Wallack. During this time the Industrial Revolution had begun, bringing about radical economic change that helped expand the development of theatres. The British Parliament had already outlawed the slave trade and was moving toward abolishing slavery in the British colonies, which increased the prospect of black actors being able to perform.
Having limited onstage experience and lacking name recognition, Aldridge concocted a story of his African lineage, claiming to have descended from the Fulani princely line.By 1831 he had taken the name of Keene, a homonym for the then popular British actor,Edmund Kean. Aldridge observed a common theatrical practice of assuming an identical or similar nomenclature to that of a celebrity in order to garner attention. In addition to being called F.W. Keene Aldridge, he would later be called African Roscius, after the famous Roman actor of the first century BC.
On October 10, 1825, Aldridge made his European debut at London’s Royal Coburg Theatre, the first African-American actor to establish himself professionally in a foreign country. He played the lead role of Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam, or A Slave’s Revenge; this play was an adaptation of Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko (itself adapted from Aphra Behn’s original work).
According to the scholar Shane White, English people had heard of the African Theatre because of British actor and comedian Charles Mathews, so Aldridge associated himself with that. Bernth Lindfors says:
[W]hen Aldridge starts appearing on the stage at the Royalty Theatre, he’s just called a gentleman of color. But when he moves over to the Royal Coburg, he’s advertised in the first playbill as the American Tragedian from the African Theater New York City. The second playbill refers to him as ‘The African Tragedian’. So everybody goes to the theater expecting to laugh because this is the man they think Mathews saw in New York City.
During Aldridge’s seven-week engagement at the Royal Coburg, the young actor starred in five plays. He earned admiration from his audiences while most critics emphasized Aldridge’s lack of stage training and experience. According to modern critics Errol Hill and James Vernon Hatch, early reviews were mixed. For The Times he was “baker-kneed and narrow-chested with lips so shaped that it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English”; the Globe found his conception of Oroonoko to be very judicious and his enunciation distinct and sonorous; and The Drama described him as “tall and tolerably well proportioned with a weak voice that gabbles apace.”
Aldridge performed scenes from Othello that impressed reviewers. One critic wrote, “In Othello (Aldridge) delivers the most difficult passages with a degree of correctness that surprises the beholder.” He gradually progressed to larger roles; by 1825, he had top billing at London’s Coburg Theatre as Oronoko in A Slave’s Revenge, soon to be followed by the role of Gambia in The Slave, and the title role of Shakespeare’s Othello. He also played major roles in plays such as The Castle Spectre and The Padlock. In search of new and suitable material, Aldridge also appeared occasionally as white European characters, for which he would be appropriately made up with greasepaint and wig. Examples of these are Captain Dirk Hatteraick and Bertram in Rev. R. C. Maturin’s Bertram, the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard III, and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
In 1831 Aldridge successfully played in Dublin; at several locations in southern Ireland, where he created a sensation in the small towns; as well as in Bath and Edinburgh, Scotland. The actor Edmund Kean praised his Othello; some took him to task for taking liberties with the text, while others attacked his race. Since he was an American black actor from the African Theatre, The Times called him the “African Roscius”, after the famed actor of ancient Rome. Aldridge used this to his benefit and expanded African references in his biography that appeared in playbills.
Aldridge first toured to continental Europe in 1852, with successes in Germany, where he was presented to the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and performed for Frederick William IV of Prussia; he also performed in Budapest. An 1858 tour took him to Serbia and to Imperial Russia, where he became acquainted with Count Fyodor Tolstoy, Mikhail Shchepkin and the Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko, who did his portrait in pastel.
Now of an appropriate age, about this time, he played the title role of King Lear (in England) for the first time. He purchased some property in England, toured Russia again (1862), and applied for British citizenship (1863).
Soon after going to England, in 1824 Aldridge married Margaret Gill, an English woman. They were married for 40 years until her death in 1864.
Aldridge’s first son, Ira Daniel, was born in May 1847. The identity of his mother is unknown, but it could not have been Margaret Aldridge, who was 49 years old and had been in ill health for years. She raised Ira Daniel as her own; they shared a loving relationship until her death. He emigrated to Australia in February 1867.
A year after Margaret’s death, on April 20, 1865, Aldridge married his mistress, the self-styled Swedish countess Amanda von Brandt (1834-1915). They had four children: Irene Luranah, Ira Frederick and Amanda Aldridge, who all went on to musical careers, the two girls as opera singers. Their daughter Rachael Frederica was born shortly after Aldridge’s death and died in infancy. Brandt died in 1915 and is buried at Highgate Woods, London.
Aldridge spent most of his final years with his family in Russia and continental Europe, interspersed with occasional visits to England. He planned to return to the post-Civil-War United States, but he died in August 1867 while visiting Łódź, Poland.
His remains were buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery; 23 years passed before a proper tombstone was erected. His grave is tended by the Society of Polish Artists of Film and Theatre.
A half-length portrait of 1826 by James Northcote shows Aldridge dressed for the role of Othello, but in a relatively undramatic portrait pose, is on display at the Manchester Art Gallery (in the Manchester section). Aldridge performed in the city many times. A blue plaque unveiled in 2007 commemorates Aldridge at 5 Hamlet Road in Upper Norwood, London. The plaque describes him as the ‘African Roscius’.