The American actor Paul Robeson (1898–1976) played the title role of Othello, with Uta Hagen as Desdemona, in the Theatre Guild production in New York in 1943–44. It became the longest running Shakespeare play in the history of Broadway.
Mixed reactions to Robeson as Othello in London and New York
Robeson, the son of an escaped slave, made his name as a singer and athlete before developing his acting career. Having faced racism at home, he first played Othello, alongside Peggy Ashcroft’s Desdemona, in London in 1930.
Zoë Wilcox and Tony Howard explore the mixed reactions to Robeson as Othello:
[Robeson] told the press in 1930: “They certainly wouldn’t stand in America for the kissing and for the scene in which I use Miss [Peggy] Ashcroft roughly ... The audience would get very rough: in fact might become very dangerous.” His Othello of 1930 was a West End success, but racist prejudices lived on in many reviews, while offstage, Peggy Ashcroft received threatening letters …
Robeson used the new mass media to insist that the play was a challenge to the modern world. “It is a tragedy of racial conflict,” he told transatlantic radio audiences. “Othello in the Venice of that time was in practically the same position as a coloured man in America today.”
In 1937 Robeson rejected an offer to play the role again; instead he sang at the front in the Spanish Civil War. “The Artist,” he said, “must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice.” But when he and his family returned to America he became convinced that Othello spoke to a racially divided nation at war. As he had predicted, commercial producers were nervous of this ‘dangerous’ play; nevertheless, Robeson’s second Othello opened in New York in 1943 and ran for 296 performances.
This extract is from Zoë Wilcox and Tony Howard’s chapter entitled ‘“Haply for I am black”: The Legacy of Ira Aldridge’ in Shakespeare in Ten Acts (London: The British Library, 2016), pp. 133–38.