Paul Robeson, Othello and Mixed Britannia

Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona, Paul Robeson as Othello

The BBC has just begun a mixed race season, examining how over the past 100 years Britain has come to be a country in which inter-racial partnerships are commonplace. The first documentary in the series Mixed Britannia looked at the period 1910 to 1939, before the well-documented postwar wave of immigration.

During this period a white girl could be ostracised for dancing with a black man, and those who forged relationships with them could be branded little better than prostitutes. Some of the details were shocking: the children of mixed race couples were treated as mentally and physically inferior and the British Eugenics Society theorised that interbreeding would result in a weakening of the population. The programme was a tribute to the open-minded women who put up with this intolerance, sometimes giving up their own nationality while striving to bring up their children as the product of two sometimes conflicting cultures.

The programme included the example of Paul Robeson’s 1930 London performance as Othello. The amount of public interest in watching a black man embracing a white woman, even if just on stage, made Robson nervous: “That girl couldn’t get near to me,” he said later. “I was backin’ away from her all the time. I was like a plantation hand in the parlour, that clumsy.” The problem wasn’t Peggy Ashcroft: what the press and the audiences didn’t know until many years later was that their offstage relationship also blossomed. Although both were already married, Peggy Ashcroft delicately explained “what happened between Paul and myself” was “possibly inevitable”.

Shakespeare wrote the part of Othello for the star actor of the King’s Men, Richard Burbage. It would never have occurred to anyone at the time that a Moor should play the role. All the women’s parts, after all, were also taken by men and continued to be so for several decades.

Ira Aldridge as Othello

The earliest black man to play Othello in England was another American, Ira Aldridge, who being unable to pursue an acting career at home came to London to make his name. He first appeared as Othello in 1825, adopting the title “The African Roscius”. Convention prevented him from performing in the top London theatres but he was not seen as a threat to white men as Robeson was a century later. He played on his race’s reputation for violence, encouraging the rumour that he had actually killed some of his Desdemonas. Madge Robertson in her memoirs described how he used to drag her round the stage by her hair before smothering her. Aldridge was not just a novelty act, but an actor of quality. One reviewer wrote:

No sooner did the Moor make his appearance, than I felt myself … instantly subjugated, not by the terrible and menacing look of the hero, but by the naturalness, calm dignity, and by the stamp of power and force that he manifested.

His greatest success was Othello but in his long European career he also performed the conventionally white roles of Macbeth and King Lear, for which he rather bizarrely had to “white up”.

Paul Robeson also continued to be associated with Othello for most of his life. Embracing Socialism during the years of the Depression he worked in Russia, visited fighters in the Spanish Civil War and made British films. The 1939 film The Proud Valley questioned prejudice in a Welsh mining valley: “Aren’t we all black down the pit?”  In 1939 he returned to the USA and a few years later played Othello again. He committed himself to the war effort and Civil Rights but in 1945 was ordered to be kept under surveillance, and after a tour of Britain in 1949 his passport was revoked. His right to travel outside the USA was only reinstated in 1958. By the time he appeared as the first black Othello to perform in Stratford in 1959 he was a figure of enormous political significance. The son of a slave, a fighter for human rights, he, like Othello, was a powerful outsider in a white-dominated world.

The story of mixed race Britannia is, like the play itself, as much about love as hate and jealousy. Othello was after all “One that loved not wisely, but too well”. After Robeson, it was said that no white man would ever be able to play the part again. This wasn’t quite the case but it’s now possible for black actors in the UK to play Shakespeare’s English kings and Hamlet as well as the Moor of Venice.

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