Postcard of Olivier as Othello, 1964


The British actor, Laurence Olivier (1907–1989) played Othello for the National Theatre at The Old Vic in 1964. Maggie Smith took the part of Desdemona while John Dexter was Iago. As this photographic postcard shows, Olivier ‘blacked up’ to play the part, as was common until the early 1980s.

Described as ‘a tropical storm of energy’, Olivier’s Othello was vain and proud, making his sudden display of jealousy more plausible. He received rapturous reviews from fans and many critics, though others were angered by his personification of Black stereotypes.

The following year, the production was made into a film directed by Stuart Burge.

Laurence Olivier and Paul Robeson

The Black American actor Paul Robeson had played Othello in London in 1930 having faced racism at home. After returning to the USA, he was arrested in 1957 on suspicion of being a Communist. Robeson was then blacklisted and his passport was confiscated, making it impossible for him to work abroad. British trade unionists, politicians and actors joined together to petition for his passport to be returned so that he could once again play Othello in the UK.

Laurence Olivier refused to support London County Council’s Paul Robeson Committee in its endeavours because he wished to ‘have a bash’ at the role himself.

Full title:
Olivier Archive. Vol. CMLXVIII (ff. ). Olivier in the New York production of Becket; the television version of The Power and the Glory; and the National Theatre productions of Othello and The Master Builder
1964, London
Postcard / Photograph / Illustration / Image
© [Add MS 80733A/olvwork619972], Angus McBean Photograph. © Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Held by
British Library
Add MS 80733

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