The centerpiece of Houghton’s current exhibition, Shakespeare: His Collected Works, is a life-size poster from the 1943 Broadway production of Othello starring Paul Robeson.
Paul Robeson was the son of an escaped slave who became his generation’s most outspoken defender of civil liberties. A graduate of Rutgers and Columbia Law School, he was a distinguished athlete, concert baritone, orator, and stage and screen actor.
In 1929, racial intolerance in the U.S. forced Robeson abroad to Britain, where he became the first black actor cast as Othello since Ira Aldridge a century earlier. When the eminent director Margaret Webster paved the way for an American production in 1942, Robeson chose his appearances cautiously, starting with a two-week engagement not far from Houghton Library at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. The production then travelled to Princeton and, finally, with commercial backing from the Theatre Guild, to Broadway, where a record-smashing run of 296 performances culminated in a lengthy and culturally daring national tour.
Robeson was an uncompromising activist who refused to be bullied into an “inferior brand” of citizenship, even though his views often left him professionally ostracized. “I’m looking for freedom,” he declared years later, “full freedom.” As a testament to his celebrity and bargaining clout, his contract for Othello denied to any segregated venue the pleasure of his enthralling performance. In a letter to producer John Haggott (Harvard Class of 1935), the chair of the English department at Baylor University wrote to clarify these terms, pointing out that it was illegal in Texas for the university to host a non-segregated ticket. “I am quite sure that nobody in Waco would come to any kind of show where the negroes and whites sit together. … It would not be allowed in Texas where the Jim Crow laws are enforced quite definitely.”
Haggott responded matter-of-factly, “The phrase which we use in our Standard Theatre contract is: ‘There shall be no segregation, grouping or setting apart of audiences because of race, color or creed.’ It would seem that you got the idea the first time and am sorry that any negotiations are impossible.”
The tour did not stop in Waco—or any other city in the South.
Robeson’s Othello possessed the same unswerving conviction, alternating between seat-shaking fury and unstrained nobility. It remains the longest-running production of Shakespeare in Broadway history.
Dale Stinchcomb, Curatorial Assistant for the Harvard Theatre Collection, contributed this post.