Paul Robeson was one of the most impressive human specimens of the 20th century – statuesque, courageous, polymorphously talented to a ridiculous degree.
He was a two-time All-America football star at Rutgers (as well as lettering in three other sports). And he was a Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian. Earned a law degree from Columbia University, then became a world-class concert vocalist and stage actor. And he was a political activist on a global scale. (Unfortunately, some of that activism was on behalf of Stalin.)
I have savored Robeson’s singing for years. (If you don’t own any recordings of “Water Boy” or “Scandalize My Name” or “No More Auction Block,” you really ought to do something about that.)
But I had never heard him recite Shakespeare till a few weeks ago.
Paul Robeson famously portrayed Othello on the London stage in the 1930s, and on Broadway in the 1940s. Drama critic Lewis Nichols raved about Robeson’s acting in a 1943 New York Times review:
“He looks the part. He is a huge man, taller by inches than anyone on the stage.... His voice, when he is the general giving orders to stop the street brawl, reverberated through the house; when he is the lover of Desdemona, he is soft. His final speech about being a man ‘who loved not wisely but too well’ is magnificent.”
Would you like to hear that magnificent speech? I’ve got it streaming on my Vox audio stash. Just click here.
(You will notice that Mr. Robeson changes Shakespeare’s famous line; he makes it “... loved full wisely but too well.” Which doesn’t quite make sense. I don’t know why he changed it. If there’s a story behind that, and you know what it is, please let me know.)
This track is from the CD “Paul Robeson Live at Carnegie Hall,” recorded on May 9, 1958. The album is downloadable from iTunes.
Now here’s a bonus for all you lovers of fine acting. I’m streaming another version of that same speech from “Othello,” this time by William Marshall.
He will always be remembered as “Blacula,” but the cat was classically trained. Click here to check him out.