Ira Aldridge – the first black Shakespearian tragedian
On November 10, 2014, a plaque was unveiled commemorating the connections of Ira Aldridge (1807-1867), first black Shakespearian tragedian with the city of Łódź. The ceremony was attended by numerous representatives of the Łódź world of politics, culture and science. The plaque was placed on the front of the house located at Piotrkowska Street no. 175, the former hotel and Paradyz theatre, where the actor died unexpectedly during the rehearsal of Shakespeare’s Othello, on August 7, 1867. He was buried in the Lutheran cemetery (Cmentarz Ewangelicko-Augsburski) at Ogrodowa Street.
The recordings of the event made by Professor Sławomir Kalwinek of the National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź.
Ira Aldridge was born in New York, in 1807. In 1825 he emigrated to Great Britain, where he performed in the London theatres as well as in the provincial venues. He began his European tours in 1852. Not only did he play the roles of black Shakespearian protagonists as Othello and Aaron, but also white-face characters, for instance Macbeth, Richard III, King Lear or Shylock. And it was precisely these performances in countries throughout Europe (i.e. Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic, France, Turkey, Ukraine, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands, Serbia and Poland, I give here the current names of these countries) that brought him international fame and recognition. Among other things, Aldridge introduced Shakespeare to Serbian culture. In 1858 he was cast as Richard III, Othello and Macbeth in Novi Sad, the centre of Vojvodina, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His visit accelerated, as some specialists maintain, the construction of the National Theatre in Belgrade. In 1858, when he acted as Richard III in Kraków, Polish audience had the first opportunity to see that play in the theatre. His interpretation of the tragedy of Othello in Polish theatres, which he visited seven times, contributed to the emergence of the first Polish translation of the play. It was first staged in Warsaw, in 1862, with Aldridge in the title role. He was also the first actor to present the Shakespeare repertoire before the audience of a theatre in Constantinople (1866).
During his tours Aldridge performed in big metropolitan cities and in small towns, wherever the theatres had enough room and the right conditions to accommodate the crowds that wanted to see him. And he was successful everywhere he went. In recognition of his achievements, Aldridge received many national honours and awards. For example, the king of Prussia bestowed on him the Gold Medal of the First Class for Arts and Science – besides Aldridge the recipients included only baron Von Humboldt, German philosopher and scientist, Luigi Gasparo Sponti, Italian composer and Franz Liszt, Hungarian pianist and composer. In Austria, he received the Grand Cross of the Order of Leopold; in Switzerland, he was given the White Cross of Merit. He was made a honorary member of many scientific and cultural organizations, among them The Imperial and Arch-ducal Institution of ‘Our Lady of the Manger’ in Pest (Hungary), The Royal Czech Conservatory in Prague, Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg (Russia). He was also given the title of the Honorary Commission of Captain in the Republican Army of Haiti for the promotion of skills and talent of his race.
The theatre records and criticism, which recognized and appreciated Aldridge’s professional achievements in his lifetime, mainly come from the European countries visited by him during his performances. Gazeta Wielkiego Xiestwa Poznańskiego of January 23, 1853 called him the ‘first magnitude star’. He was, in the opinion of the reporter for the Kurier Warszawski newspaper, “greeted by a crowded houses everywhere, and princes and [ordinary] people were eager to see him, while honours, orders and medals were showered upon him.” Richard Wagner (1813-1883) observed that during his performances Aldridge would stir uncontrollable enthusiasm, Theophile Gautier (1811-1872) described his unmatched success in his popular Voyage en Russie published in 1896, and Taras Shevchenko drew Aldridge’s portrait as a token of their friendship.
The list of those who knew and remembered Aldridge, often enthusiastically, includes not only his colleagues and professional acquaintances such as Ellen Tree, Edmund Keene, Charles Keene, J. Philip Kemble, Madge Kendall. Among people, who stayed in touch with him and took a special interest in following his career were also representatives of the literary and artistic world; among them Sir Walter Scott (1771-1831), Tyrone Powers (1791-1841), Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1837), Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), baron von Humboldt (1779-1859), Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Charles Dickens (1812-1870), Jenny Lind (1820-1887) and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).
The Aldridge family memorabilia include a number of photo albums filled with pictures sent to him after his visits to Russia, Mongolia and the Ukraine with expressions of gratitude for his acting. Students at Kazan University bestowed upon him a special document written in Latin bearing an enormous wax seal and ribbons, in which they expressed their gratitude for his performance. In St. Petersburg, the enthusiastic audience unharnessed the horses after his performance and dragged the carriage to the hotel.
The connection between Lódź and this great Shakespeare artist was mainly limited to registering his death and funeral that lasted over ten hours. The Lodzer Zeitung (August 10, 1867) reporter wrote that the city authorities of that time rose to the occasion, generously providing financial resources for its organization. A few hours before the funeral service, countless crowds of local residents were already gathered in front of the theatre. The funeral procession was led by a pastor and a parish cantor of St. Matthew’s. The cantor’s responsibilities included the coordination of singing and the supervision of the appropriate ranking of school youth that belonged to a Musical Society of the local Lutheran parish. Young people sang songs, selected especially for the occasion. They were assisted by joined choirs and singing ensembles from the entire city, among them those that worked at Łódź factories.The orchestra of the Russian dragoon regimen that accompanied the singing, marched right behind them. Members of the Rife Society and the Theatrical Society proceeded with dignity behind the orchestra, carrying the red and velvet cushions, which held state awards conferred on Aldridge during his lifetime, as well as a huge laurel wreath.
The hearse on which the corpse was placed was pulled by four horses covered with a pall. Members of the Rife Society dressed in ceremonial attire, with rifles on their shoulders and their banner, formed a natural protection for the hearse. As the first of the mourners, right behind the hearse, walked “in a deep regret August Hentschel, the theatre owner, who was accompanied by the Mayor, [. . .] and another person,” the latter being, unfortunately, unidentified. Next, twelve Łódź guilds paid their last respects to Aldridge. Their decorative banners were carried by respective delegations. In that order, right behind them, was the closed carriage, in which the bereaved widow was riding. Behind the carriage proceeded others. There were so many of them that the reporter was unable to specify the names of their owners. At the end of the funeral procession were countless crowds of Łódź residents.
To the sound of the music, singing and chiming of the church bells, the whole intricately organized funeral procession marched slowly along Piotrkowska Street, the main street of the town, towards the cemetery. Since there was no time to prepare a suitable place at the cemetery, manufacturer Charles Frederick Moes, himself of German origin, agreed to place Aldridge’s body in his newly erected tomb. Over Aldridge’s grave, the pastor delivered a speech, in which he paid his respects to the deceased, emphasizing the tragedian’s virtues and devotion to God. He drew attention of those present to “the fragility of human life and fate, which often casts people far away from their place of birth, where they have to rest for ever, away from the loved ones and friends.” Then the singers took up a dirge, and the pastor consecrated the corpse. A laurel wreath was mounted on the coffin and it was laid in the tomb; the sounds of trumpets could be heard, played by almost all professional and amateur trumpeters of the town. The tomb was showered with flowers and wreaths.
Thus, in 1867, according to the Warsaw reporter, our multicultural and multireligious Łódź paid her last respects to the great artist, taking on the responsibility of caring for his grave. The tomb was recently restored in 2001 – the money was collected at the Łódź cemetery during All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day – and it had always remained under the special protection of the inhabitants of the city. Attempting to honour the memory of this great artist, over the past few years American schools, theatres, and Aldridge’s devotees have been appealing to the current authorities of Łódź, initially to place his name on the Walk of Fame in Piotrkowska Street, however, this turned out to be impossible due to formal reasons. Since 2010, I have corresponded with Ms. Barbara Johnson Williams, from Memphis, conducting on her behalf the negotiations with the Museum of Cinematography, which, with time, agreed to help with posting the commemorative plate (Ms. Williams visited our town four times during this process). And so, as of October 10, 2014 we have a plaque, designed by Professor Marian Konieczny, a famous Polish artist, which reminds the residents of Łódź not only about this prominent actor, but also about the location of the first stationary theatre in the city. The speakers at the ceremony of the unveiling of the plaque, led by Ms. Elżbieta Czarnecka, curator of the Museum of Cinematography, included Ms. Barbara Johnson Williams, Mr. Mieczyslaw Kuźmicki, director of the Museum of Cinematography, Senator Ryszard Bonisławski, Professor Zofia Wysokińska, Pro-Rector of UŁ International Cooperation as well as myself. The laudatory speech of Professor Anna Kuligowska-Korzeniowska was read by Łódź actors: Jarosław Wójcik and Gracjan Kielanowski. The spectators, who gathered, listened to selected jazz standards performed by alumni of Wyższa Szkoła Muzyczna (Higher School of Music) from the class of Professor Jacek Deląg.