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Basalik 1935

Play starring Paul Robeson and Coral Browne at the Arts Theatre Club, 1935

The plan was straightforward: a two month concert tour of the English provinces, then tryout openings in small theatres for two new plays with politically promising themes: Basalik, about an African chief who resists white encroachment and, and Stevedore, a play about racial and trade-union conflict that had already successfully debuted in New York. If the two plays went well, Robeson planned to tour them in repertory theatres for six months in the provinces.

The three-performance tryout of Basalik (step two of Robeson's agenda) faltered at the Arts Theatre Club. The play's strong ideological appeal to Robeson was not buttressed by much artistry. Basalik, chief of an African country bordering on a British protectorate, carries off the British governer's wife as a hostage - treating her subsequent sexual advances with royal disdain - in a successful effort to extract a promise that his people will be left in peace. The formula of the Noble Savage dictated that Robeson, as Basalik, would do little more than stand around in regal silhouette, making majestic, monosyllabic noises. The critics handled him sympathetically, commiserating with his inability to find a vehicle suitable to both his gifts and his political integrity, but they gave no encouragement to any notion of extending the play's run beyond three performances.

Because the play did not draw enough of an audience to extend its run, Robeson's plans for doing for doing both Basalik and Stevedore in repertory for six months in the provinces had to be canceled.

Margaret Webster was in the cast of Basalik and came away with the best set of reviews (e.g. the Morning Post and the Daily Sketch, April 8, 1935). Coral Browne, as the governor's wife, also did well, winning applause for her "cool and stylish" performance (The Observer, April 14, 1935). In calling the play "thin and unsatisfying," the Daily Telegraph (April 8, 1935) struck the representative note. The contract for Basilik in RA reveals that the author was an American woman, Norma Leslie Munro (she adopted the pseudonym Peter Garland, and her identity was kept secret). She granted Robeson exclusive rights to the play for six months.

Martin Bauml Duberman, Paul Robeson


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