Paul Robeson was a Black actor and civil activist in the 1930s-50s who lived a life of great conviction and accomplishment, as well as tragedy. On Tuesday, April 13 we heard about Robeson’s fascinating life from Dr. Robert Sawyer, professor of English at ETSU. In “The Artist Must Take Sides: Paul Robeson, Othello, and Civil Unrest”, Dr. Sawyer explored the intersection of Robeson’s acting career and civil activism.
Dr. Sawyer was joined by Professor Herb Parker of ETSU’s Department of Theater and Dance, and creator and chair of its Diversity in Acting Scholarship. Parker shared his experiences performing the role of Othello in modern times.
We talked with Dr. Sawyer recently about his academic work on Robeson and Shakespeare, and how Dr. Sawyer sees Robeson’s lifelong commitment to civil rights as relevant in today’s culture.
JCPL: How did you first become interested in Shakespeare and Paul Robeson? When did you see the two overlapping in your academic interests?
DR. SAWYER: My father was a Baptist minister and he loved Black gospel music. Gospel is how Robeson got his start, so I listened to him growing up. I became interested in Shakespeare in college, but I became more intrigued in Robeson some years later when I went to Spain to give a talk about Shakespeare. Robeson had been involved in the democratic cause during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and while I was in Spain I learned more about him.
Once I started reading and writing about Robeson, I wanted to explore in depth his civil activism, civil unrest, and protest, all of which overlapped with his theater career.
Robeson dealt with racial discrimination his whole life, even at the height of his celebrity when his work was praised by whites and blacks alike. He started out his career as a singer, that’s how he first became popular. When he was just singing on gramophone and radio, people were more accepting. When television came along though, when people could physically see that he was Black, it created problems for him.
At the height of his career, he was one of the top entertainers in the nation and he actually broke color barriers. Robeson was the first Black man to play Othello on stage; he played him off and on in England and the U.S. for 20 years. Actually, the 1942 Broadway production of Othello was the longest running Shakespeare play in history, with almost 300 shows.
Robeson’s acting career has served as a backdrop to a lot of the pieces I’ve written about him, but I’ve focused most on his activism.
Sometimes you start out studying one aspect and it’s not the main thing you’re researching but it becomes so interesting, and sometimes personal, that you can’t let go of it. I mean, I knew Robeson’s songs from my dad singing them. But I didn’t come back to his biography until I was focused on Shakespeare, and I started reading more about Robeson because of his 1930s production of Othello. Over the years, he’s just continued to come up in different ways.
JCPL: Why do you think Robeson is a compelling historical figure for us to learn about?
DR. SAWYER: His life is an example of how racism is always there, even if it’s under the surface. It’s underlying everything whether visible or not. From Robeson’s experience we can see that racism doesn’t go away because of celebrity status. The feeling is, “just entertain us, and stay in your lane”, you know? But Robeson believed that you have to call attention to racism, make it visible, so the seemingly invisible is exposed. That’s what he spent his life doing. He felt that, in his words, “the artist must take sides.” People with celebrity status can’t just be neutral; they have a responsibility to speak out, according to Robeson.
The other side, though, of an “artist must take sides” is that taking a stance can come back to haunt you. And it did for Robeson. His life took a turn when he started studying society’s dealing with racism and began to feel a bond with all these different cultures, Jewish, Welsh, Polish and so on. And later in this process, he came to believe that Soviet-style communism was the only way to create the utopian society he’d always wanted, where no one is discriminated against. He even enrolled his son Paul Robeson, Jr. in school in the USSR.
The unfortunate outcome of this shift in perspective is that he alienated almost everyone in U.S. society, whites and blacks alike. Black celebrities like Jackie Robinson came out against Robeson, believing he was hurting the democratic civil rights movement that Robinson and so many others were struggling for. The NAACP came out against him, and he was termed a “Kremlin stooge.” At that point, almost all his supporters, both Black and white, turned their back on him, and he could no longer record or perform.
The State Department revoked his passport, so he couldn’t even travel overseas, where he was still an admired artist and activist. He eventually was invited to play Othello for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England, and from others lobbying on his behalf he finally was given a passport to go. But the damage had been done, you know? He was one of the most celebrated performers in the U.S for years, but he ended up with a vastly diminished income and a tarnished reputation.
Dr. Robert Sawyer is Professor of English at East Tennessee State University, where he teaches Shakespeare, Victorian Literature, and Literary Criticism. He is the author of Victorian Appropriations of Shakespeare, and co-editor of Shakespeare and Appropriation as well as Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare. His book entitled Marlowe and Shakespeare: The Critical Rivalry was published in 2017, and his most recent book, which examines Paul Robeson in depth, is entitled Shakespeare Between the World Wars and was published in 2019. It will be available in the Library’s collection soon.
Dr. Sawyer’s presentation at the Library, “The Artist Must Take Sides: Paul Robeson, Othello, and Civil Unrest,” was taken from a chapter in a new book of essays on Shakespeare and Civil Unrest, which was published by Routledge in late 2021.