Paul Robeson and the Cold War Performance Complex
Race, Madness, Activism
2 Key performances by Paul Robeson shed light on the Cold War era
Actor and singer Paul Robeson’s performances in Othello, Show Boat, and The Emperor Jones made him famous, but his midcentury appearances in support of causes ranging from labor and civil rights to antilynching and American warmongering made him notorious. When Robeson announced at the 1949 Paris Peace Conference that it was “unthinkable” for blacks to go to war against the Soviet Union, the mainstream American press declared him insane.
Notions of Communism, blackness, and insanity were interchangeably deployed during the Cold War to discount activism such as Robeson’s, just a part of an array of social and cultural practices that author Tony Perucci calls the Cold War performance complex. Focusing on two key Robeson performances—the concerts in Peekskill, New York, in 1949 and his appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956—Perucci demonstrates how these performances and the government’s response to them are central to understanding the history of Cold War culture in the United States. His book provides a transformative new perspective on how the struggle over the politics of performance in the 1950s was also a domestic struggle over freedom and equality. The book closely examines both of these performance events as well as artifacts from Cold War culture—including congressional documents, FBI files, foreign policy papers, the popular literature on mental illness, and government propaganda films—to study the operation of power and activism in American Cold War culture.
“Extraordinary and pathbreaking in its analysis of the far-reaching significance of Paul Robeson as a major figure in American history, this book does what no other study on Robeson has done more compellingly and convincingly: examine Robeson’s artistry and activism as a means of extending Cold War culture from common discussions of post-war power blocks and contesting ideologies of freedom to a more urgent and interesting discussion of state controlled ‘madness’ and assemblages of pathologies of power that influenced every thread—micro and macro—of American life and politics.”
—D. Soyini Madison, Northwestern University
Tony Perucci is Assistant Professor of Performance and Cultural Studies at the University of North Carolina.
Photo: Paul Robeson, Leonard McCombe/TIME & LIFE Images/Getty Images