Timeline 1900 – 2021

Paul Robeson and Peggy Ashcroft

19 March 1930 saw Dame Edith Margaret Emily [Peggy] Ashcroft (1907–1991) playing Desdemona opposite Paul Leroy Robeson’s (1898–1976) Othello at the Savoy Theatre.

The Daily Mirror announced the event with the headlines ‘Coloured man as Othello’ and ‘Negro Othello’, only a year earlier Robeson having been subject to the ‘colour bar’ operated by the Savoy Hotel in London. The only black actor previously to have attempted the role was Ira F Aldridge: in 1825, the pro-slavery lobby had closed his production and The Times’s critic had noted: ‘Owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English’.

Robeson’s performance was much acclaimed and the audience gave Robeson 20 curtain calls. The Daily Express’s critic saw the casting of a black actor as a historic event. He reported overhearing people saying ‘Why should a black actor be allowed to kiss a white actress?’ and his review, subtitled ‘Coloured Audience in the Stalls’, concluded that Robeson had ‘triumphed as a negro Moor, black, swarthy, muscular, a real man of deep colour’. Robeson himself reported his nervousness: ‘That girl couldn’t get near to me…I was backin’ away from her all the time. I was like a plantation hand in the parlour, that clumsy’. What the audiences didn’t know at that time was that, although both married, Robeson and Ashcroft’s offstage relationship had also blossomed, Peggy Ashcroft explaining that ‘what happened between Paul and myself… was possibly inevitable’. In a biography of Robeson’s, Ashcroft was quoted as saying, ‘how could one not fall in love in such a situation with such a man?”

How could one not fall in love in such a situation with such a man?”

— Peggy Ashcroft, cited in Bauml Duberman, M. (1988), Paul Robeson: A Biography, New York: Knopf.