Ira Aldridge had a remarkable life and career. Born in lowly circumstances in New York City, educated for a few years at an African Free School, self-taught as an actor but prevented from appearing in plays at white theaters in America, he emigrated to England, began performing as a headliner at minor London theaters while still a teenager, then toured for more than a quarter of a century all over the British Isles, and finally, during the last fifteen years of his life, earned a reputation on the European Continent as one of the greatest tragedians of his day. Aldridge traveled farther, was seen by more people in more nations, and won a greater number of prestigious honors, decorations, and awards than any other actor in the nineteenth century.
Yet his extraordinary accomplishments are not very well known today. He is seldom discussed in histories of British or European theater, and because he had virtually all his professional experience abroad, he tends to be ignored in histories of American theater. Throughout his career he was an itinerant player, moving from place to place fulfilling short-term engagements on stages large and small. He was never under contract to a major metropolitan theater for more than a few weeks at a time, so he made no long-lasting impact on audiences in London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Berlin, Stockholm, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Constantinople, Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Moscow, or any of the other cities in which he was sporadically seen. As a luminary, he was more a comet than a fixed star—here today, gone tomorrow—and as a consequence he shines less brightly now, forgotten amidst more constant reminders of theatrical brilliance.
Nearly fifty years ago there was an attempt to bring him out of the shadows and place him before the world in a more conspicuous position so that his trailblazing achievements could be better appreciated. This was the fine documentary biography, Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian (1958), coauthored by Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock. With help from Aldridge's octogenarian daughter Amanda, Marshall and Stock were able to assemble an impressive record of Aldridge's activities by using materials supplied by Amanda and supplementing these with what they were able to find in libraries and archives throughout Europe and America.