Paul Robeson was one of the most famous African Americans of his time, known for his acting and his talent as a singer. But his career was hit hard by his radical left-wing sympathies. Nicholas Wright’s new play 8 Hotels recalls the controversial politics but also Robeson’s relationship with actress Uta Hagen.
Wright says there are two things which obsess him – theatre and politics.
“And here was a story about real people involved in both – so I knew I had to write it.
“The idea began to develop years ago when I met Uta Hagen – a fantastically good American actress who was also an important teacher of acting. In 1995, late on in her career, she did a tour of a play I’d written called Mrs Klein, which started in San Francisco.
“After the show I was eating with her in an old hotel and it was so obvious that Uta was in an ecstatic state of happiness. I realised that decades earlier she’d stayed in the same hotel during her affair with Paul Robeson. So that was the beginning of my interest and it’s a love story at its centre.”
Hagen was 20 years younger than her co-star. Both were already married – she to the actor José Ferrer, who also features as a character in 8 Hotels. Ironically the play they were touring around America was one of the great studies of sexual jealousy – Shakespeare’s Othello. In 1943 Robeson became the first black American to play the title role on Broadway. (He’d already played it in London in 1930 opposite Peggy Ashcroft.)
In 8 Hotels, Hagen is played by Canadian actress Emma Paetz, who also stars in the new TV series Pennyworth. She knew a little about Hagen but mainly as an influential teacher.
“In America most aspiring actors know her books and have probably read them. And of course she’d been the original Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But I only really knew that teaching perspective and she never had a film career – so I find young British actors don’t always know her.
“But what matters are the shifting dynamics between Paul and Uta and her husband José Ferrer – it’s what makes the play so good to act in. You think it’s a particular kind of romance but then you realise the way Nicholas has written it there’s more to play as well.
“There are huge things talked about such as inter-racial relationships and racism and the political persecution in America in the McCarthy era.
“Lots of those themes find an echo today. But what I really love is that it’s all filtered through intimate, very personal conversations with just a small cast. It’s very passionate.”
The production doesn’t make use of the many recordings of Robeson singing. American actor Tory Kittles has to evoke him without seeming to impersonate the hugely distinctive Robeson sound.
“His was a once in a generation voice but I’m not interested in trying to sound like him on stage. That big, booming voice was what he used singing. If you go online and hear him interviewed it’s very different. What matters now are his ideas.
“I think people in America know less about Paul than they did in the 1950s: maybe he’s been erased a little. American culture and civil rights activism changed a lot in the decade after that and I think he was no longer a big part of that conversation.
“He wrote that, when he went to Soviet Russia, it was the first time he felt like a full human being. He denied being a Communist Party member but some Americans despised him as a Soviet stooge. He insisted that as an American he was free to voice support for any cause.
“For most of the 1950s his passport was taken away – a huge blow for a man who made his income mainly in Europe. He went from $100,000 a year to making $6,000. But through it all he remained a warrior for humanity.”
The play’s director Richard Eyre says “one of the reasons Nick’s script is so topical is that it’s about identity politics and the nature of authority”.
“But it’s also about the relationships involved – José Ferrer as much as the others. It’s about the nature of acting too.
“I saw Uta Hagen on stage in 1964 playing Martha in Virginia Woolf. It remains probably the best stage performance I have ever seen. It was absolutely incandescent and I’d never seen acting like it. She was one of the catalysts which pushed me to think that the theatre’s the most extraordinary medium to work in.
“One of the great things about Nick’s play is that it suggests what made her a great actress, even though she’s quite young when we meet her. She was able to communicate a lucid rationality and combine it with an intense passion on stage.”
The script suggests Robeson’s performance as Othello was never a match for Hagen as Desdemona.
“I think the truth is that he wasn’t really an actor,” says Wright. “There’s a sort of mentality that you need to have a natural acting talent and he just didn’t have it. He didn’t want to step into the shoes of someone else or perhaps he just couldn’t.
“He was a magnificent figure on a stage. He looked and sounded wonderful but it was always monumental.
“One of the reasons he wanted to do Othello was to show a black man who was dignified and in a position of authority with a full emotional life. To some audiences the very idea of a black man playing a love scene with a white actress was scandalous.”
Kittles admires the courage of their 1940s Othello. “They dared raise the topic of inter-racial love at a time and in places where it was taboo.
“The love between Uta and Paul is fascinating but also there’s a love between Paul and José. It’s a powerful story and at one level the play’s about the power of theatre. That production was a taboo-breaker around the topic of race and it helped change the conversation in America about inter-racial relationships.
“We need reminding that there were people who stood up, people who shouted out about things that were no good in society and which needed to change. That’s one of the reasons why theatre and storytelling exist.”
8 Hotels is at the Chichester Theatre from 1 – 24 August.
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