LEFT FOR GOOD
Singer and actor Paul Robeson’s activism was pointed and poignant, writes 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