Sam Wanamaker Talks About Paul Robeson

CD (Globe Editions, 2007)

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In April 1987, a young Trinidadian author by the name of Ron Ramdin came to what was then the Globe Theatre building site, to interview Sam Wanamaker for research into a biography he was writing about the legendary black singer, actor and activist, Paul Robeson. Over a period of nearly two hours Sam Wanamaker spoke to Ron Ramdin about America, art, fascism, racism, and of course the acclaimed 1959 Stratford-upon-Avon production of Othello, in which he starred with Robeson.

It is fascinating to listen to Sam talk about his friendship with one of the greatest black men of the last century, and the tumultuous and turbulent events which shaped both their lives.

Sam Wanamaker first met Paul Robeson in the early 1940’s when sharing platforms at anti-fascism meetings. Like Robeson, Wanamaker leaned politically to the left and the two men soon bonded.

Throughout the 1940’s, Paul Robeson championed the Russian people which was tolerated while America and its allies fought a common enemy, but once hostilities ceased and the Cold War came into being, Robeson was regarded with suspicion and anger, and was labelled a supporter of communism. And by default anti-American.

Overnight, Robeson went from national hero to pariah status, his reputation in tatters.

Sam Wanamaker was called to testify before the notorious House Un-American Committee for his beliefs. At the time he was working in England and was subpoenaed, but the committee did not have legal jurisdiction in this country and the subpoena could not be served. Wisely he declined to return.

Robeson was not so fortunate. He was called to appear before the committee and consequently they withdrew his right to travel abroad for five years. Essentially, he was subjected to internal exile.
Ironically, it was America which was behaving like the Soviet state, as opposed to the ‘Land of the Free’.

Eventually, in 1959, the two men came together again in Stratford-upon-Avon in what would prove to be one of the most famous Shakespearian productions of all time.

It was clear that Robeson was a broken man, profoundly affected by events of the previous decade. He was cast in what was to be his final performance as Othello, with Sam playing opposite as Iago. During rehearsals and informal improvisation sessions Sam helped build Robesons fragile confidence by giving him a greater understanding of the emotional depth of Othellos character, channelling Robesons angst and insecurity into his role as the tragic moor.

This legendary Stratford performance left Sam Wanamaker in no doubt that Paul Robeson was the‘definitive Othello of our time.

My task was to produce a CD from two hours of informal conversation into a coherent narrative that would engage, entertain and illuminate. In short, I have produced a half-hour ‘programme’ using snippets of Robeson’s music, and contextualising ‘links’ by Ron Ramdin. Essentially, it’s the kind of thing one might hear in the afternoon on Radio 4. The eight page CD booklet features liner notes by Ron Ramdin and photographs by Lord Snowdon of the 1959 Stratford production.

Working closely with author Ramdin, I believe we have produced something of great historic value to The Globe, providing a compelling insight into the thoughts of our founder.

It is interesting to speculate that if Sam Wanamaker had returned to America and appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, would there have been a Globe Theatre? I, for one, am glad he didn’t.

 

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