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Paul Robeson and the Cold War Performance Complex

Race, Madness, Activism

Tony Perucci

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Theater: Theory/Text/Performance


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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Introduction: The Red Mask of Sanity

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pp. 1-30

When Paul Robeson allegedly stated at the 1949 Paris Peace Conference that it would be “unthinkable” for blacks to fight in a potential war against the Soviet Union, he was vilified in the United States as a mentally unstable traitor. While the U.S. press in general dubbed Robeson as un-American, the New York Times claimed he suffered from “twisted...

Part I: Tonal Treason and HUAC’s Psychoanalytic Theater

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One: Black Performances and the Stagecraft of Statecraft

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pp. 33-61

In the decades since the height of their power in the late 1940s and 1950s, the hearings held by the House Committee on UnAmerican activities (HUAC) have become widely seen as spectacles that operated at nexus of ritual and theater. Victor Navasky, for example, calls the hearings a “ritual...

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Two: Performing Informing and Shrieking Innocence: Surveillance, Informance, and the Performance of Performance

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pp. 62-88

There were a few revelations for committee members during Robeson’s HUAC hearing, just as in most other HUAC spectacles. In fact, many witnesses were even provided with names to offer up to the committee. This absence is perhaps the most significant quality of HUAC hearings as technologies of the Cold War performance complex. The hearings...

Part II: Discordant Tones and the Melody of Freedom at Peekskill

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Three: Anticommunism and the American Lynching Imagination

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pp. 91-111

Upon Paul Robeson's return to New York from the Paris Peace Conference in July 1949, Harlem residents filled the streets to welcome home their sometimes neighbor. Residents were undeterred by the national press’s vilification of Robeson for his Paris remarks that it was “unthinkable"...

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Four: Shedding Blood and Beating Back Fascists

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pp. 112-135

With a thousand state and county police on hand, the many New York City blacks and Jews who filled school buses for the September 4 concert thought themselves to be safe. Many even brought their children and a picnic lunch. In Peekskill, however, residents planned once again to disrupt the concert. Stephen Szego, who had rented his pasture...

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Five: Staging Anticommunism, Staging Racist Violence

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pp. 136-159

When i is addressed in historical accounts of anticommunism during the Cold War, the violence in Peekskill is usually considered anachronistic. Anticommunism is thought to be the purview of the social violence of blacklisting and public shaming, rather than direct bodily harm...

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Coda: The Complex and the Rupture

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pp. 160-162

Reckoning with the cold war assemblages of power, discourse, and spectacles as a “performance complex” highlights not only those networks’ elaborate and far-reaching breadth and control, but also the tenuousness of their stability and the vulnerability of power at a key site of...

Appendix: Testimony of Paul Robeson before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, June 12, 1956

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pp. 163-172


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pp. 173-198


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pp. 199-214


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pp. 215-217

E-ISBN-13: 9780472028207
E-ISBN-10: 0472028200
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472051687
Print-ISBN-10: 0472071688

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 23 B&W illustrations
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Theater: Theory/Text/Performance
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OCLC Number: 794493884
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Paul Robeson and the Cold War Performance Complex

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Performance art -- Poltical aspects -- United States.
  • Racism -- United States -- History -- 20th century
  • Robeson, Paul, -- 1898-1976 -- Political activity.
  • Freedom and art -- Political aspects -- United States.
  • Politics and culture -- United States.
  • Cold War -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • United States -- Race relations.
  • Anti-communist movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States. Congress. House. Committee on Un-American Activities.
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