Othello: Discovering Robeson

At the Shakespeare Institute Library we like to involve all our staff in the production of exhibitions which highlight the breadth and depth of our collections. Our current exhibition on Othello in Performance was a truly collaborative effort. In this blog, Othello; Discovering Robeson, our LSA, Sara Westh captures the wonder of discovering a legend and exploring a period in performance history new to her.



Photograph from exhibition on Othello in Performance

Not so very long ago, I was told to start work on Paul Robeson for the current Shakespeare Institute Library exhibition on Othello. I had absolutely no idea who Robeson was, but I assumed since the subject was Othello, that he was probably an actor, and probably the lead.
I picked up his autobiography Here I Stand from among the books set aside for exhibtion research, and started reading. He had me at once: “I am a Negro. The house I live in is in Harlem – this city within a city, Negro metropolis of America. And now as I write of things that are urgent in my mind and heart, I feel the press of all that is around me here where I live, at home among my people.” (from the author’s foreword).

Photo shows Harlem in the early 1900’s. Credit: www.family-heritage.org

Photo shows Harlem in the early 1900’s. Credit: http://www.family-heritage.org

I kept reading through his early years, his awe for his father, the loss of his mother, his love of Harlem, the first time he met his wife, completely forgetting about the tea-break! Robeson was born into segregated America, had lived through hatred most of us find it hard to imagine, and had been outspoken against the ever-present racism of America in the 1890’s. Another biography by Duberman, and very concisely titled Paul Robeson, told me that he had played Othello at the start and end of his Shakespearean career: at the Savoy Theatre in 1930 and at the RSC in 1950. Duberman also supplied some truly captivating behind the scenes stories, that really brought the background to Robeson’s two performances to life, from squabbling between production team and cast in 1930 to pleas and stress in 1950.
What I didn’t know until I discussed my task with the other LSA, Eilis Smyth, was that Robeson was famous for his voice long before he trod the boards. Her response when I looked up from my books for long enough to utter a whole sentence was something close to “Wait. THE Paul Robeson?!” His 1928 rendition of Old Man River in Show Boat defined the song for generations to come – you can listen to it here:

As it turns out, he was the first black performer to sing in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, as well as being the first black actor to play the moor since Ira Aldridge.

Othello, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1950

Othello, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1950

Peggy Ashcroft & Paul Robeson, Othello, Savoy Theatre, 1930

Peggy Ashcroft & Paul Robeson, Othello, Savoy Theatre, 1930

The materials carefully collected by the SI Library in their archive, pamphlet and newspaper cuttings collections, along with the extensive RSC Archive held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust provided the final fleshing out of this 2-decade story. From carefully preserved Savoy theatre programmes to a thick album of production photos and reviews, it all highlighted how the shows had been received, and opened a window to the theatre world of an age ago.

Sara Westh, Library Support Assistant

Robeson, Paul. Here I Stand (New York : Othello Associates, 1958)

Duberman, Martin. Paul Robeson (New York : New Press, 1989)


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