When Paul Robeson met Peggy Ashcroft

First encounters

For a black man, the question of playing Othello on stage in 1930 was a thorny one, even in England. It had been suggested to Paul Robeson by Mrs Patrick Campbell eight years before, and at 24 he had been flattered, and had gone right out to buy a copy of Shakespeare's plays. But the dark Moor's wife is young, beautiful and white - ay, there's the rub - and Othello's skin colour had always been a matter of make-up. Now the part was offered him, and he accepted, although there was the risk that the London who had loved the gentle giant in Show Boat, with his marvellous basso "Ol' Man River", would be appalled.

One inducement for Robeson was the chance to select his own Desdemona, and that, at least, proved easy. On a night out at the theatre, he saw her on stage - Miss Peggy Ashcroft, the programme read - only 22, but already a presence. He asked her to audition - a daunting prospect to one who, along with her contemporaries, admired him enormously. "I can't sing in tune," she later reported, "and I had to perform the "Willow Song" in front of Paul Robeson."

Rehearsals began, and the race issue surfaced at once. It wasn't Ashcroft's problem; her stance was Desdemona's own. But the press's prurient interest in public reaction to a black man's embracing a white woman made Robeson tense. "That girl couldn't get near to me," he said later. "I was backin' away from her all the time. I was like a plantation hand in the parlour, that clumsy."

Opening night arrived. Ashcroft got rave reviews, and Robeson 20 curtain calls, but his notices were mixed. He was too genteel, critics said - afraid of losing himself. Indeed, he may have been. His father had begun life as a slave, and it was the actor's ordeal as a black man in a white world that dominated offstage conversation. Ashcroft was all sympathy; she was also powerfully attracted. Later she admitted, without specifics, that "what happened between Paul and myself" was "possibly inevitable". Although both were married, she made no apology for falling in love. Shakespeare would have understood. "She loved me for the dangers I had passed," Othello says, "and I loved her that she did pity them"

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