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Playing Othello

Paul Robeson, a football all-American at Rutgers and a 1923 graduate of Columbia Law School, soon left the legal profession to pursue an acting career. But as a black actor in the segregated United States, he was frustrated by the limited opportunities available, and sought success on the London stage. In London Robeson played the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones in 1925 and stood out in the 1928 musical Show Boat. This promptbook documents the 1930 London production of Othello in which he starred opposite Peggy Ashcroft—a mixed-race casting for the classic play that would have been unthinkable at that time in the United States.


As American racial attitudes began to change, Robeson appeared at home as Othello, first in 1942 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then in 1943 at the the Shubert Theatre in New York. The New York Othello had the longest run to that time of any Shakespearean production on Broadway, with more than 280 performances. It also took a more contemporary approach than the London production, which had used heavy, period costumes. This costume sketch for the Broadway production is by costume designer Robert Edmond Jones, who devised looser garments that literally as well as figuratively added flexibility to the role. The attached swatches of four fabrics show how Robeson’s costume must have looked. The sketch was given to the Folger by James O. Belden in memory of Evelyn Berry Belden.


Robert Edmond Jones. Costume design for Paul Robeson as "Othello". Drawing, 1943.

London, Savoy Theatre. Othello. Promptbook, 19 May 1930

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Infinite Variety
To find similar stories about other items from the Folger collection, look for Infinite Variety: Exploring the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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