The Politics of Paul Robeson's Othello

The Politics of Paul Robeson's Othello

Lindsey R. Swindall
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    The Politics of Paul Robeson's Othello
    Book Description:

    Lindsey R. Swindall examines the historical and political context of acclaimed African American actor Paul Robeson's three portrayals of Shakespeare's Othello in the United Kingdom and the United States. These performances took place in London in 1930, on Broadway in 1943, and in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1959. All three of the productions, when considered together, provide an intriguing glimpse into Robeson's artistry as well as his political activism.The Politics of Paul Robeson's Othello maintains that Robeson's development into a politically minded artist explicates the broader issue of the role of the African American artist in times of crisis. Robeson (1898-1976) fervently believed that political engagement was an inherent component of the role of the artist in society, and his performances demonstrate this conviction.In the 1930 production, audiences and critics alike confronted the question: Should a black actor play Othello in an otherwise all-white cast? In the 1943 production on Broadway, Robeson consciously used the role as a form for questioning theater segregation both onstage and in the seats. In 1959, after he had become well known for his leftist views and sympathies with Communism, his performance in a major Stratford-upon-Avon production called into question whether audiences could accept onstage an African American who held radical-and increasingly unpopular-political views. Swindall thoughtfully uses Robeson's Othello performances as a collective lens to analyze the actor and activist's political and intellectual development.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-825-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-2)
    (pp. 3-10)

    May 1944 was a tense month in the struggle against fascism. The Allied bombing of Germany continued unabated while clandestine operations for an invasion of France coalesced on the coast of England. As soldiers dutifully followed orders in the European theater of war, artists back in the United States waged a battle of their own. That month, the Entertainment Industry Emergency Committee sponsored a radio program in New York City which was broadcast over the Blue Network. For this half hour, African American tenants of apartments in Harlem and brownstones in Brooklyn could visualize the impact their brothers, sons, and...

  5. CHAPTER ONE An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Othello
    (pp. 11-25)

    Most scholars agree that Shakespeare’sOthellowas written between 1603 and 1604, with its first recorded performance being staged in 1604. The King’s Men, the company with which Shakespeare was a affiliated, producedOthelloon the first of November. King James had recently ascended to the English throne upon the death of Queen Elizabeth the prior year. It was, thus, a time of political transition in Britain. Times were also evolving for Shakespeare, whose company had previously been designated as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.¹ As with many of Shakespeare’s plays, the plot ofOthellowas not original. In this case,...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Robeson’s Professional Debut as Othello
    (pp. 26-49)

    In the spring of 1930, the United States was still reeling from the shock of the stock market crash the previous autumn. However, the full onslaught of the depression was not yet apparent. The unemployment rate had not hit the epidemic proportions that it would by 1932. The young Communist Party in the United States began to take a more radical stance by opposing the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and organizing in the South among the textile workers in Gastonia, North Carolina. The party would also soon try to unionize sharecroppers in Birmingham, Alabama. For Paul Robeson, 1929 had...

  7. CHAPTER THREE A Burgeoning Political Consciousness: Robeson in the 1930s
    (pp. 50-68)

    In 1938, Paul Robeson visited Spain and was very moved by the courage and energy displayed by the residents of Madrid who had mobilized against fascism. While there, he sat for a brief interview in which he discussed the current civil war as well as his artistic endeavors. He explained how, early in his career, he had been eager about the prospect of playing Brutus Jones in Eugene O’Neill’s playThe Emperor Jonesbecause in it he “saw the possibilities that a Black [actor] had in dramatic art.”¹ However, he continued, “I must tell you that for me this was...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Robeson’s Othello on Broadway
    (pp. 69-107)

    In his bookCreating a Role, the influential theorist of dramaturgy Constantin Stanislavsky created a framework through which an actor could approach a new role. He maintained the fundamental importance of understanding the play in its entirety in order to place the character one was portraying into the broader context of the play itself. Stanislavsky suggested that the outer trappings of plot and circumstance would lead the actor to discover the true inner mysteries of the character. He posited, “There is a direct bond between the internal and external circumstances of a play…. It is difficult to assess them separately....

  9. CHAPTER FIVE “I Give of My Talents to the People”: Robeson’s Politics in the 1940s
    (pp. 108-134)

    “Robeson … in more senses than one, IS the play,” Samuel Putnam asserted in his review ofOthelloon Broadway. Similarly, Mike Gold believed that “Paul Robeson is the greatest personality in America today, the richest force for American democracy and art.” Nathaniel Buchwald also suggested, “Yes, the great, the original, the compelling, the revealing element in Paul Robeson’s Othello is Paul Robeson.” These writers all signaled an important theme emerging from that record-breaking production. It was Robeson: his charisma, his persona, his countenance and physical comportment that coalesced onstage brilliantly and powerfully as Othello. These elements, however, were present...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Robeson, Othello, and the Politics of the Cold War
    (pp. 135-166)

    “My Pop’s influence is still present in the struggles that face me today. I know he would say, ‘Stand firm, son; stand by your beliefs, your principles.’ You bet I will, Pop—as long as there is a breath in my body.”¹ This avowal, which appeared in his monthly column inFreedomnewspaper, was indicative of Robeson’s steadfast posture throughout the most repressive period of his career. The metaphor of Robeson being as solid as a majestic oak had appeared in the reviews of his Othello on Broadway and was evoked again in 1951 when cold war politics were jeopardizing...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Robeson at Stratford
    (pp. 167-189)

    In May 1954, four years before deciding on travel restrictions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in the landmarkBrown v. Board of Educationcase. Following this decision, domestic black protest campaigns attracted the world’s attention. The brutal murder of young Emmett Till in Mississippi in the summer of 1955 helped mobilize the postwar generation against racial violence and discrimination. The year-long boycott against segregated busses in Montgomery, Alabama, from late 1955 to 1956 roused the media and secured a Supreme Court decision against segregation in public transportation. A youthful preacher named Martin...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 190-194)

    1963 was an iconic year in the southern nonviolent civil rights movement. The previous year, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s strategy of direct action nonviolence had received little press attention and achieved few tangible goals in the fight against segregation in Albany, Georgia. However, moving on to Alabama in the spring of 1963, SCLC’s campaign to challenge segregation confronted Birmingham’s notorious police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor. His tactics secured national and international headlines. Connor infamously ordered the assault of the nonviolent activists, including young people and children, with police dogs and fire hoses which filled...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 195-218)
    (pp. 219-228)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 229-233)