Paul Robeson as “Sporting Hero”

• July 2014

Christian Høgsbjerg’s magisterial archival labor in retrieving and presenting the first playscript of C. L. R. James’s Haitian Revolution play demands to be honored as marching orders—orders to stay still, rooted in the archive.1 What follows is a small offering that takes this challenge seriously.

Historian Robert Hill brilliantly asserts, “It is the contention . . . that The Black Jacobins would have been significantly different in quality in the absence of James’s relationship to [Paul] Robeson.”2 Hill attributes Robeson’s intellectual range combined with his corporal stature as the force for James shattering a British colonial conception of black masculinity. Perhaps Robeson’s total being dismantles what George Lamming, in another context, called “the colonial structure of awareness which has determined West Indian values.”3 Hill writes, “At a very profound and fundamental level, Robeson as a man shattered James’s colonial conception of the Black physique. In its place the magnificent stature of Robeson gave to him a new appreciation of the powerful extraordinary capacities which the African possessed, in both head and body. Robeson broke the mold in which the West Indian conception of physical personality in James had been formed.”4 James refutes Hill’s prescient observation in the typescript of his autobiography, subtitled Robeson: “Hill is quite wrong when he says that Robeson shattered my West Indian conception of physical personality. We had people taking part from Guyana in Olympic Games and winning.”5 It is not quite a denial of Hill’s point but instead an admission that Guyanese athletes already settled this matter. For James, the shattering occurs earlier. It is not my task to adjudicate between these statements; rather, I want to point out that the gap between assertion and correction is generative, like the distance separating a sketch of a loved one and his or her actual self. I want to attempt to think through Hill’s insight by contrasting two pieces of writing by James on Robeson, his exemplar of black heroism—a private letter to Constance Webb, dated 5 January 1944, and James’s Robeson tribute published in The Black World 6—via a quick detour into Bertolt Brecht’s “If Mr. K Loved Someone”:


 “What do you do,” Mr. K was asked, “if you love someone?”

 “I make a sketch of the person,” said Mr. K.,

 “and make sure that one comes to resemble the other.”

 “Which? The sketch?” “No,” said Mr. K., “the person.”7

Brecht’s insight in this aphoristic, didactic Geschichten (story) introduces a discussion of the discrepancy in judgment witnessed when contrasting James’s semiprivate criticisms of Robeson (in his letter to Constance Webb) with the open and above-board appreciation essay. At stake here is not only a representative revolutionary masculinity couched in James’s description of his friend but also a matter of emblematic representation.8 To apply Brecht’s insights to James and Robeson also raises the question of romantic love as it exists in the fragment. It is not a question of implying some sort of physical intimacy between the two individuals; rather, it is to note erotics—in the most broad sense of erotics as generative force—scripted into James’s remarks. Brecht posits a theory of ideal types and how one should take idealizations of a desired love object seriously as a material force in one’s perception of the actuality of that figure. The sketch for Brecht (in what on the surface seems like a counterintuitive reversal) holds the weight of transformation here. I take this premise seriously when examining James’s assertion, “Paul Robeson was and remains the most marvelous human being I have ever known or seen.”9 James commences his appreciation with a testimonial to the magnitude of the man. He lauds this “sporting hero” in the sketch for the wide range of his professional pursuits, his immense strength and stature, and his active listening ability. He underscores Robeson’s “immense power and great gentleness10 and notes that Robeson always listened attentively to the criticisms and suggestions voiced by him and Stage Society producer Peter Godfrey.

Robeson’s active listening skills compliment his ability for asserting leadership. James once again underscores the centrality of this by introducing the Abbé Raynal speech (quoted in his essay at length, proliferating its use from play, to history, to the Robeson sketch under discussion) to recall when Robeson actively suggests where to cut the monologue. Robeson becomes for James the new “absolute standard[s] of physical perfection and development.”11 I want to highlight how the appreciation lauds Robeson as idealized sketch and reproduces indirectly James’s main point on Toussaint’s tragic degeneration. The Robeson of James’s essay is scripted as the exact opposite of a Toussaint who no longer “would leave the front and ride through the night to enquire into the grievances of the labourers and, though protecting the whites, make the labourers see that he was their leader.”12 James uses the emphatic “Gone were the days . . .” to drive home this point. James’s focus on Robeson’s physical stature, James’s repetitive emphasis on his subject’s combination mode of self-effacement and assertion, and Robeson’s ability to engage generously with the thought processes of others creates the sort of Brechtian sketch that outlines the idealized promise and potential of the desired object, in this case, Robeson. In James’s rhetorical universe, both Robeson and Toussaint work as a subtle synecdoche for the promise and potential of a liberated Black Nation. The Robeson essay, in its flattering tone, is out of sync with other appreciations James penned on comparable leaders of the black liberation movement.13 Compare, now, the public appreciation with the semiprivate musings  relayed in a letter to Constance Webb, an actress James courted for a decade in a series of correspondence ripe with political and aesthetic insights. (James’s modality as the amorous letter writer as political educator reminds one of Pablo Neruda in Michael Radford’s 1994 film Il Postino.)

The occasion for this letter from James to Webb was the actress’s interest in pursuing the role of Desdemona. James resorts to a sort of older-gentleman or school-teacher tone when counseling Webb on the aesthetic and political implications of William Shakespeare: “I think I understand something about Sh[akespeare]. I want you to know what I think.”14 James, as a Marxist confident in his mastery of Shakespeare, argues that the English playwright is seldom understood. For James, the mastery of rhythmic discipline as well as tonal control and the innovation demonstrated by the aesthetics of both Ludwig Beethoven and Shakespeare are subject to the insult of attempts by the novice. Compared to that of the public sketch, the tone of the letter, which refers to Robeson’s performance of Othello (opposite Uta Hagen), is uncompromisingly hostile:


You see, I saw the Othello. It created a tremendous stir here. In my opinion it, particularly Paul R, was lousy. Not one of them, except at odd moments, had the Shakespearean rhythm—not one. I was shocked because Margaret Webster and Uta Hagen were both trained in England. To hear John Gielgud or Edith Evans is to hear a miracle of rhythmic beauty and naturalness. Without the first, there is no Shakespeare.

Robeson was rotten. He is a magnificent figure, a superb voice, and as usual with him, at moments he is overwhelming. But in between his lack of training, his lack of imagination, were awful. For long periods he stood in one spot and said the lines, just said them. Dynamic development of the part, there was none except the crudest. And Shakespeare is dangerous for the amateur. Without strong feeling you slip immediately into melodrama. A great actor gives a standing sweeping performance in effect, but every line means something. Every phrase can stand for itself. It is built up into a whole. For long periods Robeson lacked grip. I knew he was just going on, to shout at the climax. I wish I could see it with you two or three times. How I would love to. Then I’d tell you what I think and you’d help put me right.15

James faults the actors for failing to decouple lines and, in their individual iteration of such lines, show how they build off one another. “Every phrase can stand for itself” yet “built up into a whole” is an aesthetic analog to James’s political priority to dialectically think parts and wholes, individuals and mass, the combination of of social forces that makes radical change possible. It is striking to note that in his point about diction and performance, James foregrounds the question of genre. He criticizes the actors for denigrating the play to the status of melodrama. James proceeds to laud the political import of the play in its bold depiction of love between a black man and a white woman: “Politically it is a great event. It was also very interesting, I could see it often again. It was a distinguished performance, and Robeson’s remarkable gifts and personality were very much worth watching. But the play on the whole fell short.”16 In the private correspondence, James’s language betrays a certain intention to court Webb more than to offer a critique of the performance. How else to make sense of the combination of such a bold declaration of his knowledge of the subject and advice to the young actor coupled with this throw-away line about how if she was able to view the production with him perhaps she might “help put [him] straight”? That is pure flirtation rather than a request for an intellectual interlocutor. The entire tone of the piece is not that of a thinker looking for further clarification. The letter’s momentum turns on a notion of expertise; the mastery of rhythm for the Shakespearean actor, an expertise according to James desperately lacking in Robeson.

In the public appreciation sketch, Robeson’s magnitude is built up via James’s reflections on his stature, awesome intelligence, and largesse of generosity, yet in the semiprivate rumination, a narrow assessment of skill rules the day. In this regard, coupling these two meditations on Paul Robeson work to help illuminate a sort of indirect relationship to the “tragic” iterations on the liberation of San Domingo. The awesome potential in the appreciation pushed up against the lament of failed technical mastery balances the sort of precarious footing occupied by Toussaint. Seemingly, Toussaint must assert his power in relation to the French and the planter class on the island yet still be dependent on their technical skill. For the James that sees the conditions of socialism already in the factory, one might concur that whatever mastery needed to succeed is within the grasp of the ex-enslaved Africans and can expand infinitely once the fetters of colonialism are forced off and independence seized. It is odd to witness James pen a sort of rigid projection about the specific skill set needed to accomplish a given task—whether revolution or Shakespeare—especially since this skill set as conceived by James is so dependent on Europe. He is shocked at Webster and Hagen’s mediocre performance, since they were both trained in England. However, I am not trying to argue for a dismissal of James’s semiprivate writing on the grounds of a rigid Eurocentric elitism. Anthony Bogues offers the following helpful insights on Hill’s observations:


It is here that the intricate connections between a philosophical framework grounded in one tradition and a critique of that tradition burdened by many assumptions of the dominant discourse are strikingly revealed. For even Marxism as a radical social and political critique of colonialism and imperialism encoded assumptions about personhood that were rooted in the European Enlightenment. Therefore when James becomes a Marxist his conceptions of personhood were inherited from this tradition—one in which the distinction between “primitive” and “civilised” persons had already been embedded. James had a long way to go to come to terms with the distinctive African contributions to human civilization.17

The aesthetic ruminations on the Shakespearean acting craft in general and on Robeson specifically work to both double the thematic concerns constituting James’s Haiti period and complicate a sense of James’s development in thinking as going beyond the need for revolutionary leadership (his line on the vanguard party, for example). Instead of synthesis, it is more precise to say that the gap between the two perceptions might be read as a stand-in for the sort of tragic gesture captured in both the historical study and play version of The Black Jacobins. A Glissantian gap, if you will. Instead of trying to resolve this issue, it seems more productive to see how for James it always hangs in the balance when reflecting on questions of leadership in the revolutionary process.

Robeson’s body in performance carries the weight in this account of shattering colonial mythologies of black docility challenged in both dramatic and historiographic versions of The Black Jacobins. The body on stage of a singular black radical intellectual helps solidify the strategic priorities and theoretical commitments of a key text analyzing a Caribbean past in order to think about a radical future for the African continent. Both the play’s subject matter and its conditions of performance mirror the commitment to black internationalism of James’s Pan-Africanist London milieu. The play undermines its main actor’s virtuosity by staging his actions as constitutive of a collective. It is not simply the figure of Paul Robeson that dictated the final outcome of James’s landmark historical study; the vocabulary and challenges of dramatic staging spill into the history and influence the key constitution of its categories. James’s London play signals a lifelong attempt of its author to show how the representation of individual revolutionary strivings are only intelligible as part of a collective movement.


Jeremy Glick is an assistant professor of African diasporic literature and modern drama in the Department of English at Hunter College. His book The Black Radical Tragic: Performance, Aesthetics, and the Unfinished Haitian Revolution is forthcoming from New York University Press.


1 C. L. R. James, Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts, ed. Christian Høgsbjerg (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

2 Robert A. Hill, “In England, 1932–1938,” in C. L. R. James: His Life and Work, ed. Paul Buhle (London: Allison and Busby, 1986), 74.

3 George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile (1960; repr., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1992), 36.

4 Hill, “In England,” 73.

5 C. L. R. (Cyril Lionel Robert) James Papers, boxes 5 and 2, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.

C. L. R. James, Special Delivery: The letters of C. L .R. James to Constance Webb, 19391948, ed. Anna Grimshaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 89–92; C. L. R. James, “Paul Robeson: Black Star; A Friend’s Recollection,” Black World 20, no. 1, (1970): 106–15, reprinted in C. L. R. James, Spheres of Existence: Selected Writings (Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1980), 256–64.

7 Bertolt Brecht, “If Mr. K Loved Someone,” in Stories of Mr. Keuner, trans. Martin Chalmers (1966; repr., San Francisco: City Lights, 2001), 97.

8 In a private discussion, after graciously acting as a respondent on our panel on Caribbean radicalism at the 2012 American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Anthony Bogues suggested that this tension is not just about masculinity but also about competing interpretations on Lenin. I will follow up on Bogues’s generous and perceptive point in my book-length study of Haitian revolutionary drama.

9 James, Spheres of Existence, 256.

10 Ibid.

11 Hill, “In England,” 73.

12 C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1963; repr., New York: Vintage, 1989), 276. 

13 See, for example, C. L. R. James, “Black Power,” in Spheres of Existence; C. L. R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1962; repr., London: Allison and Busby, 1982); and C. L. R. James, “Walter Rodney and the Question of Power,” in Edward A. Alpers and Pierre-Michel Fontaine, eds., Walter Rodney, Revolutionary and Scholar: A Tribute (Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, 1982), 133–46.

14 James, Special Delivery, 89.

15 Ibid., 90 (emphasis in original). For a book-length treatment of Robeson’s most famous role for the theater, see Lindsey R. Swindall, The Politics of Paul Robeson’s Othello (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2011).

16 James, Special Delivery, 90.

17 Anthony Bogues, Caliban’s Freedom: The Early Political Thought of C. L. R. James (London: Pluto, 1997), 46.


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