Singer and ac­tor Paul Robe­son’s ac­tivism was pointed and poignant, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Craven

What on earth impelled Jeff Spar­row, the Mel­bournebased for­mer edi­tor of Over­land and left-wing in­tel­lec­tual, to write a book about Paul great African-Amer­i­can singer Robe­son, the and ac­tor?

Well, he tells us: as a young man he was trans­port­ing the li­braries of a lot of old com­mu­nists to a book­shop and was in­trigued by how many of the books were by or about Robe­son.

All of which pro­vokes ap­pre­hen­sion, be­cause pol­i­tics is a funny place to start with Robe­son, even if it is where you end or nearly end.

Robe­son was one of the great­est singers of the 20th cen­tury. When I was a lit­tle boy in the 1950s, my fa­ther used to play that vel­vet bot­tom­lessly deep voice singing not only Ol’ Man River — though that was Robe­son’s sig­na­ture tune and his early record­ing of it is one of the great­est vo­cal per­for­mances of all time — but all man­ner of tra­di­tional songs. Not just the great ne­gro spir­i­tu­als (as they were known to a by­gone age; Spar­row calls them slave songs) such as Go Down, Moses, but Shenan­doah, No, John, No and Pass­ing By, as well as the rack­et­ing lazy I Still Suits Me.

My mother, who was known as Sylvie and loathed her full name, which was Sylvia, said the only time she could stand it was when Robe­son sang it (“Sylvia’s hair is like the night … such a face as drifts through dreams, such is Sylvia to the sight”). He had the dic­tion of a god and the English lan­guage in his mouth sounded like a princely birthright no one could deny.

It was that which made theatre critic Ken­neth Ty­nan say the noise Robe­son made when he opened his mouth was too close to per­fect for an ac­tor. It did not stop him from do­ing Eu­gene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun’ Got Wings or The Em­peror Jones, nor an Othello in Lon­don in 1930 with Peggy Ashcroft as his Des­de­mona and with Sy­bil Thorndike as Emilia.

Robe­son later did Othello in the 1940s in Amer­ica with Jose Fer­rer as Iago and with Uta Ha­gen (who cre­ated Martha in Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf?) as his Des­de­mona. He toured the coun­try; he toured the south, which was al­most in­con­ceiv­able. When he was told some­one had said the play had noth­ing to do with racial prej­u­dice, Robe­son said, “Let him play it in Mem­phis.”

Southern white au­di­ences were docile un­til Robe­son’s Othello kissed Ha­gen’s Des­de­mona: then they ri­oted. Robe­son also made a point, at his con­certs and stage shows, of in­sist­ing the au­di­ence not be seg­re­gated. James Earl Jones. who would play Robe­son on the New York stage, says in his short book about Othello, “I be­lieve Paul Robe­son’s Othello is the land­mark per­for­mance of the 20th cen­tury.”

Robe­son would play the Moor again in 1959 at Strat­ford-upon-Avon. By that time, though, he had fallen foul of 1950s Amer­ica. He had been called be­fore the McCarthy­ist House UnAmer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee. You can hear a drama­ti­sa­tion of his tes­ti­mony with Earl Jones as Robe­son, which in­cludes an im­memo­rial re­ver­ber­a­tion of his fa­mous words when sen­a­tor Fran­cis E. Wal­ter asked him why he didn’t just quit the US and live in Russia.

“Be­cause my fa­ther was a slave and my peo­ple died to build this coun­try, and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you. And no fas­cist-minded peo­ple will drive me from it. Is that clear?”

It’s funny how it was the real com­mu­nists such as Ber­tolt Brecht and Robe­son who han­dled the com­mit­tee best. Still, in an ex­tra­or­di­nary act of il­lib­er­al­ism, they took away his US pass­port and it took two years for the Supreme Court to de­clare in 1958 in a 5-4 de­ci­sion that the sec­re­tary of state was not em­pow­ered to with­draw the pass­port of any Amer­i­can cit­i­zen on the ba­sis of po­lit­i­cal be­lief.

It was this that al­lowed Robe­son to do his Othello in Peter Hall’s great cen­te­nary Strat­ford cel­e­bra­tion along with Charles Laughton’s Lear and Laurence Olivier’s Co­ri­olanus. It also al­lowed him to come to Aus­tralia. Very early on Spar­row tells the story of watch­ing the clip of Robe­son singing Ol’ Man River to con­struc­tion work­ers in Syd­ney with the Opera House still a dream in the process of meet­ing im­ped­i­ments. The ver­sion Robe­son sings is his own bol­shie re­write (“I must keep fightin’/ Un­til I’m dyin’ ”). No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robe­son By Jeff Spar­row Scribe, 292pp, $32.99

Well, fight he did and bol­shie he was. I re­mem­ber when I was a child my fa­ther telling me Robe­son was a bril­liant man, that he had won a sport­ing schol­ar­ship for Amer­i­can foot­ball (to Rut­gers, in fact), that he’d gone on to re­ceive a law de­gree (from Columbia, no less) and that he was so smart he had taught him­self Rus­sian.

But the sad bit was, ac­cord­ing to my fa­ther, that he’d be­come a com­mu­nist. Un­der­stand­ably so, my fa­ther thought, be­cause of how the Amer­i­cans treated the blacks. My fa­ther’s own rad­i­cal im­pulses as a school­boy had been en­cour­aged, as Robe­son’s were on a grander scale, by World War II where Un­cle Joe Stalin was our ally in the war against Hitler’s fas­cism.

But this was the Cold War now, and a lot of peo­ple thought, with good rea­son, that it was be­hind the Iron Cur­tain that to­day’s fas­cists were to be found. Even if oth­ers such as the great Ger­man nov­el­ist Thomas Mann and Robe­son thought they were en­croach­ing on Capi­tol Hill.

Spar­row’s book No Way But This is cir­cum­scribed at ev­ery point by his pri­mary in­ter­est in Robe­son as a po­lit­i­cal fig­ure of the Left rather than as a per­former and artist.

It’s an un­der­stand­able trap to fall into be­cause Robe­son was an elo­quent, in­tel­li­gent man of the Left and his sta­tus was also for a while there — as Spar­row rightly says — as the most fa­mous black Amer­i­can on Earth. So his rad­i­cal­ism is both pointed and poignant.

His fa­ther, who be­came a Methodist min­is­ter, was born a slave and was later cru­elly brought down in the world. But, un­like the old Wob­blies whose book­cases he trans­ported, Spar­row is not in­ward with what made Robe­son fa­mous in the first place and it shows.

No Way But This is a great ti­tle (“no way but this / killing my­self, to die upon a kiss” is what Othello says when he’s dy­ing over the body of Des­de­mona, whom he has killed) but Spar­row’s search for Robe­son is not a great book.

As the sub­ti­tle sug­gests, it is a quest book but Spar­row is a bit like the Maeter­linck char­ac­ter cited in Joyce’s Ulysses who ends up meet­ing him­self (whether in his Socrates or his Ju­das as­pect) on his own doorstep. Spar­row goes to some­where in the US as­so­ci­ated with Robe­son and meets a black-deaths-in-cus­tody ac­tivist full of rad­i­cal fer­vour. She in­tro­duces him to an old African-Amer­i­can who was in At­tica jail for years. There is much re­flec­tion on the thou­sands of black peo­ple who were slaves on the plan­ta­tions and the dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of them now in US pris­ons.

Yes, the fig­ures are dis­qui­et­ing. No, they are not as­pects of the same phe­nom­e­non even though ul­ti­mately there will be his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tions of a kind.

And so it goes. But this is a quest book that turns into a kind of trav­el­ogue in which Spar­row goes around the world meet­ing peo­ple who might il­lu­mi­nate Robe­son for him but don’t do much for the reader ex­cept con­firm the sus­pi­cion that the au­thor’s range of ac­quain­tance ought to be broader or that he should lis­ten to peo­ple for a bit more rather than seek con­fir­ma­tion of his own predilec­tions.

There are also mis­takes. Spar­row seems to know noth­ing about the peo­ple with whom Robe­son did Othello. There’s no men­tion of Thorndike, and when Ashcroft comes up as some­one he had an af­fair with, Spar­row refers to the great­est ac­tress of the Olivier gen­er­a­tion as “a beau­ti­ful glam­orous star”. Never mind that she was an ac­tress of such stature, Judi Dench said when she played Cleopa­tra she could only fol­low Ashcroft’s phras­ing by way of homage.

Spar­row also says “Amer­i­can ac­tor Ed­mund Kean started us­ing paler make-up for the role, a shift that cor­re­sponded with the le­git­imi­sa­tion of plan­ta­tion slav­ery”. Kean, who was the great­est ac­tor of the later ro­man­tic pe­riod, was English, not Amer­i­can. His Othello would, I think, be more or less con­tem­po­rary with Wil­liam Wil­ber­force lob­by­ing to have slav­ery made il­le­gal. Spar­row seems to be con­fus­ing Kean with Ed­win Booth, the mid-cen­tury Othello who hap­pens to have been the brother of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abra­ham Lin­coln. But it’s still hard to see where the plan­ta­tions fit in.

A few pages later — and it’s not im­por­tant though it’s in­dica­tive — we hear of the ru­mour that Robe­son was “ro­manc­ing Ed­wina Mount­bat­ten, Count­ess Mount­bat­ten of Burma”. Well, what­ever she was called in the early 1930s, it wasn’t Count­ess Mount­bat­ten of Burma be­cause her hus­band, Louis Mount­bat­ten, the supreme al­lied com­man­der in South­east Asia dur­ing World War II, didn’t get the ti­tle un­til af­ter the Ja­panese sur­ren­dered to him — guess where?

Such slips are worth be­labour­ing only be­cause they make you doubt Spar­row’s re­li­a­bil­ity gen­er­ally. It’s worth adding, how­ever, that his chap­ter about the prison house that the Soviet Union turned itself into is his most im­pres­sive. And the story of the last few years of Robe­son’s life, af­flicted with de­pres­sion, sub­ject to a lot of shock treat­ment, with re­cur­rent sui­cide at­tempts, is deeply sad.

He felt to­wards the end that he had failed his peo­ple. He just didn’t know what to do. It was the melan­choly talk­ing as melan­choly will.

It’s bet­ter to re­mem­ber the Robe­son who snapped back at some­one who asked if he would join the civil rights move­ment: “I’ve been a part of the civil rights move­ment all my life.”

It’s to Spar­row’s credit that he’s fallen in love with the ghost of Robe­son even if it’s only the spec­tral out­line of that power and that glory he gives us. is a cul­tural and lit­er­ary critic.

Paul Robe­son per­form­ing for Syd­ney Opera House con­struc­tion work­ers in 1960, left; in Othello with Peggy Ashcroft

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