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  • Title: Othello: A History of Performance
  • Author: Jessica Slights
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-466-0

    Copyright Jessica Slights. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Jessica Slights
    Peer Reviewed

    Othello: A History of Performance

    1 The first record of a performance of Othello is an entry in the Accounts Book of Master of the Revels Edmund Tilney noting that on 1 November 1604 "the King's Majesty's players . . . [acted] a play in the Banqueting House at Whitehall called The Moor of Venice [by] Shaxberd." This performance at the London palace of James I was just one of many early outings for what would become one of Shakespeare's most popular plays. According to the title page of the first quarto edition of the play, Othello was performed "diverse times" at both the open-air Globe Theatre and the indoor Blackfriars Theatre. Records show that the play was performed by the King's Men in celebration of the 1612 wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and that Othello continued in the repertory until the early days of the English Civil War when, in 1642, Parliament banned the staging of plays in London theaters.

    We know little about these first productions, though we can assert with some certainty that they would have looked and sounded quite different from most modern performances of Othello. Acting styles, stage technologies, even expectations about audience behavior have undergone enormous changes over the last four hundred years, and some shifts in theatrical convention—particularly those involving casting practices—have had significant impact on the play. In the seventeenth century, for instance, the parts of Othello and Desdemona would have been played by white men. Richard Burbage,the foremost tragedian of Shakespeare's acting company, was almost certainly the first Othello, while Desdemona would have been acted by a young male actor from the troupe, since women were banned from the public stage in England until the second half of the seventeenth century.

    Modern readers sometime assume that such casting decisions would have created a distracting artifice in these early productions, interfering with the play's ability to generate a powerful emotional response in its audience. There is no evidence to suggest that Othello's first viewers felt disengaged from its wrenching story, however. Instead, as the comments of one attentive audience member suggest, cross-dressed male actors were accepted as female characters even under close scrutiny, and the affective force of their performances could be formidable: "Desdemona," he reports, "murdered by her husband in our presence, although she always pled her case excellently, yet when killed moved us more, while stretched out on her bed she begged the spectators' pity with her very facial expression." Detailing the expression on the actor's face while at the same time designating him with the feminine pronouns "her" and "she," this early theater critic demonstrates that early modern audiences could simultaneously read and read through the bodies of the male actors who took female roles.

    When London's theatres reopened after the war, professional female actors were finally permitted on English stages for the first time. Othello was quickly revived and diarist Samuel Pepys, who attended one of the first performances at the Cockpit Theatre on 11 October 1660, reports seeing Nicholas Burt in the title role. Pepys makes no mention of who took the female lead, though he does note that "a very pretty lady that sat by me, called out, to see Desdemona smothered," an anecdote which suggests that the play continued to generate passionate (even bloodthirsty!) responses in its audiences. Records suggest that just two months later the King's Company performed Othello with Margaret Hughes as Desdemona, probably making her the first professional female actor to play the role on a public stage in England.

    5While it seems plausible that the regular appearance of female actors in productions of Othello might have resulted in increased interest in the play's female characters throughout the later seventeenth and into the eighteenth century, the popularity of play's titular role with leading men seeking to establish a strong following among paying audiences appears instead to have produced a particular fascination with the figure of Othello at the expense of Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca. Indeed, scholars have noted that although the play was not extensively adapted at its revival as so many of Shakespeare's plays were at the Restoration, the roles of its female characters were consistently diminished thanks to the removal of ostensibly unseemly sexual references, modifications which may, in turn, have contributed to the growing interest in the figure of Othello.

    Although there was a general fascination with Othello and his transformation from eminent general and loving husband to murderer and suicide, there was what many modern readers find surprisingly little discussion about Othello's racial identity during these years. Nor was there much variety in the ways that Othello's Moorishness was staged: Othello was played by white actors who darkened their skin using stage makeup to present him as a sub-Saharan "black Moor." While their understanding of the physical characteristics of Othello's racial identity was fairly consistent, however, the leading men of this period offered varied readings of his temperament. James Quin, for instance, a popular Othello in the first half of the eighteenth century, chose to emphasize the general's dignified professionalism, presenting his lines in a then-stylish declamatory fashion while costumed in full British military uniform and wearing a powdered wig above his heavily blackened face. David Garrick, on the other hand, challenged the depiction of Othello as a confident leader, playing him instead as a taught, anxious figure topped with an elaborately plumed turban that lent him an isolating exoticism. The tall, deep-voiced Irish actor Spranger Barry also appeared turbaned and in blackface, though his famously electrifying performance—characterized by emotional turmoil and physical vigor—proved far more popular than Garrick's more neurotic one.

    Among the most interesting of the late-eighteenth-century Othellos was John Philip Kemble, who took the role several times over his long career. Unlike the tumultuous Othello presented by Spranger Barry, Kemble's Othello was majestic and stately, and his restrained performances were not always popular with audiences, especially early in his career. While experience doubtless enriched his approach to the character as the years went by, comments by his contemporaries suggest that at least some of the negative response to his earliest performances resulted from the destabilizing effect of his dignified Othello on widely held assumptions about the inability of Africans to control their ostensibly tempestuous passions. Recalling a 1785 Drury Lane Theatre production, his friend and biographer James Boaden celebrates Kemble's Othello as "grand, and awful, and pathetic," but then qualifies his praise this way: "but he was a European: there seemed to be philosophy in his bearing; there was reason in his rage" (145). There was little room, it seems, for a thoughtful or reasonable Othello on the late-eighteenth-century English stage. However, by the time Kemble revived the play at Covent Garden in 1803-04, playing opposite his famous sister Sarah Siddons, his production was praised as "better than it was ever performed in the memory of the oldest critic" (Shattuck ii).

    In 1814, an even more significant shift in performance tradition occurred when Edmund Kean presented the first of the so-called "tawny" Othellos. Kean gave audiences a light-skinned, North African Othello rather than the black, sub-Saharan Othello they had grown accustomed to seeing. But if Kean's lightened stage makeup challenged established theatrical convention, his reading of Othello did little to destabilize entrenched stereotypes about the savagery of non-Europeans. His was a performance remarkable for its bursts of passion, and writer and critic Leigh Hunt wrote in The Examiner on 8 October 1818 that he "never saw anything that so completely held us suspended and heart-stricken." Indeed, rather than opening a dialogue about the politics of race, Kean's radical break with theatrical custom allowed theaters to stage Othello even as they avoided engaging with increasingly divisive public debates about the moral viability of a lucrative trade in black African slaves that had flourished in England for two hundred years.

    The innovation of the "tawny Othello" at first unsettled audiences familiar with Kemble's dark-skinned version of the role, but eventually the idea of a scimitar-wielding North African Othello at the mercy of his passions caught on and successfully held the stage in England and the United States for the next hundred years. In the 1840s, Edwin Forrest, the first notable American Othello, brought to the role an animated physicality that prompted comparisons to wild animals, and, although audiences were reportedly sympathetic to Forrest's proclamation that he was proud to be what his biographer called "the impersonator of oppressed races," his Othello seems to have relied on, rather than to have dislodged, persistent generalizations about the relationship of race to temperament and morality. Starting in 1875, Italian-born Tommaso Salvini could play into what had become firmly entrenched stereotypes about the inability of African men to control their innate savagery to perform Othello as a barbarian lurking under a veneer of European sophistication, and at the beginning of the twentieth century Herbert Beerbohm Tree was still playing him as a "stately Arab" whose jealous rage transforms him into a "wild beast" (Hankey 67; quoted in Potter 90).

    10While the practice of casting white actors who "blacked up" to play Othello continued to dominate throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, a significant challenge to this convention was initiated in 1825 when an American teenager named Ira Aldridge arrived in London and became the first professional black actor to perform the role. His appearance at East London's Royalty Theatre received mixed reviews, and Aldridge left the city fairly quickly to build his repertoire and his experience in England's provincial theaters. Although he would become one of the nineteenth century's better known actors, in the early days of his career Aldridge was billed as the "Gentleman of Colour," and his acting skills were often overshadowed by a preoccupation with his skin color. Some critics dismissed his casting as a marketing gimmick, while others argued that his race made him unsuited for major theatrical roles, including those designated as "Moors." Still others acknowledged the affective power of Aldridge's performances, but, relying on the same stereotypes associating black men with excessive displays of emotion that had led eighteenth-century critics to praise Spranger Barry for his acting skill, dismissed as "natural" Aldridge's ability to embody an Othello so tempestuous that he could wrench audiences from terror to sympathy over the course of a brief scene.

    Rather than trying to downplay his racial difference, Aldridge took advantage of widespread fascination with his background by overwriting his modest beginnings as the son of a New York clerk and claiming instead to be Senegalese royalty. Playbills trumpeting his fictionalized heritage appeared widely and must have resonated especially with those who saw him in the role of Othello, that other man of color who claims descent from "men of royal siege." After almost a decade of touring, Aldridge returned to London where he played Othello opposite Ellen Tree at Covent Garden. Although audiences were mostly enthusiastic, the papers, heavily influenced by a pro-slavery lobby whose financial backing they received in exchange for supportive copy, were hostile to the idea of a black man performing a leading role in a play by the nation's most revered playwright. The Times review was marked by a thinly-veiled racism that constructed Aldridge's accent as "unpleasantly, and we would say vulgarly, foreign" and found his "manner, generally, drawling and unimpressive." The bigotry of other critics was even more overt. The Athenaeum reviewer, for instance, railed against the "blow at respectability" of having a "black servant in the character of OthelloOthello forsooth!!! Othello, almost the master-work of the mastermind." Aldridge did not return to the London stage for some time after this, though his exhilarating style proved popular throughout Europe where he was mostly warmly received, and he continued to perform in the role of Othello until 1865.

    It took until 1930 before American singer and civil rights advocate Paul Robeson became only the second black man to be cast as Othello in a major London production. Directly challenging pernicious associations between blackness and savagery that continued to dominate in the theater, Robeson moved away from readings of Othello as domestic psychological drama and instead presented the play as a tragedy about racial conflict. Robeson's Othello, dignified but finally defenseless in the face of Iago's malignant racism, proved immensely popular with audiences and, increasingly, with critics, and his 1943 taboo- and record-breaking appearance on Broadway opposite Uta Hagen—which marked the first time a black man kissed a white woman on a major American stage—ran longer than any other Broadway performance of Shakespeare.

    It became more common for black actors to perform Othello after Robeson's commercial and critical success in the role, but the blackface tradition that dominated the first three hundred years of Othello's rich performance history proved remarkably resilient. White actors continued to play the part well into the 1960s, including John Gielgud in a much derided 1961 Stratford production directed by Franco Zeffirelli, Laurence Oliver in a legendary 1964 National Theatre production that was turned into a film directed by Stuart Burge the following year, and Michael Gambon in a 1968 Birmingham Repertory Company production set during the Crimean War. Since the 1970s, however, black actors have regularly played Othello in England and the United States, and some notable performances include those by Tony-award winner James Earl Jones, Jamaican-born opera singer Willard White, television's David Harewood, BAFTA award-winning actor Chiwetel Ejifor, British standup comedian Lenny Henry, and, most recently, Adrian Lester, whose performance was broadcast around the world as part of the National Theatre Live project. Other memorable Othellos have included an apartheid-era South African production starring John Kani, an American production featuring black actors Avery Brooks and Andre Braugher in the roles of Othello and Iago, and a "photo negative" production featuring Patrick Stewart as a white Othello among a predominantly African American cast.

    15In addition to a rich and varied history on the stage, Othello has had a successful career in film and television. The first English-language film version of the play was Orson Welles' 1952 production. With Welles himself in the title role, Micheál MacLiammóir as Iago, and Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona, the film presents a psychologically taut exploration of marriage, military life, and racial difference against a starkly shot backdrop of Morocco. Ten years later, the Othello story again found its way onto the big screen, this time as a loose adaptation set in the jazz/beat music world of early 1960s London called All Night Long (1962). Featuring black actor Paul Harris in the central role and shot, like the Welles, in black and white, director Basil Dearden's film follows attempts by jealous drummer Johnnie Cousin (Patrick McGoohan) to destroy the marriage and musical careers of Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) and his loving wife Delia Lane (Marti Stevens). The film is most notable for musical appearances by jazz greats Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus, and Johnny Dankworth, but is also of interest for its revision of the play's tragic ending: at the conclusion of All Night Long when Cousin's wife Emily (Betsy Blair) recognizes that her husband's claims about Delia's infidelity are inventions, his machinations are revealed and Aurelius and Delia are reconciled.

    The next full-length film of the play, this one featuring Shakespearean language and characters, was Stuart Burge's Othello (1965), which recorded a version of John Dexter's National Theatre production of the previous year. Featuring strong performances by Maggie Smith as Desdemona and Frank Finlay as Iago, the film is best remembered for Laurence Olivier's legendary blackface presentation of the title character. Olivier's performance, embellished by a wig of kinked dark hair, heavy black stage makeup, and an accent that has been described variously as Nigerian, South African, or West Indian now appears as a grotesque impersonation of blackness but was widely praised at the time for its ostensible authenticity and was greeted with enthusiasm by audiences. His Othello dominates the film throughout, grandly controlling in the opening scenes, relentlessly brutal in its closing moments, and always the sensual victim of Iago's eerily gentle manipulations. Identifying in Iago an anxiety based in repressed homosexuality—a reading that would influence later portrayals of the character by such actors as David Suchet (1985), Ian McKellen (1989), and Kenneth Branagh (1995)—Finlay plays him as a man whose angst about his own nature arouses in him a viciously racist revulsion of his commander.

    A decade later, another musical Othello found its way to the big screen, although this time rock rather than jazz provided the soundscape for a loose adaptation of the play. Based on a stage musical that had had limited tours of the US and the UK a few years earlier, 1974's Catch My Soul again involved All Night Long's Patrick McGoohan, this time in his only venture as a director. The film, set in the New Mexico desert, gave singer-songwriter Richie Havens, known to contemporary audiences for his opening performance at 1969's legendary Woodstock Festival, his first acting role as Othello, the pacifist leader of a hippie commune. Lance LeGault, later known for a recurring role on the 1980s TV series "The A-Team," plays a devilish dropout named Iago. Although the film was panned by critics who found its attempts to integrate Shakespeare's play with contemporary anxieties about race and religion both clumsy and tedious, the soundtrack, which includes memorable tracks by Havens, Tony Joe White, and Jerry Lee Lewis, is now much sought after by collectors.

    No big-screen Othello was released in the 1980s, but Jonathan Miller's adaptation for BBC TV appeared in 1981. Returning to the tradition of featuring white actors in the play's title role, Miller's production stars Anthony Hopkins as a stony Othello whose dark side is gradually nurtured by Bob Hoskins's energetically nasty Iago. Crowded interior shots give this studio production a claustrophobic texture that appears at first to emphasize its personal over its political dimensions, but the film develops a feminist edge as the malevolence of the male characters is increasingly focused on Desdemona (Penelope Wilton) and Emilia (Rosemary Leach), whose love and wit prove woefully inadequate defenses against the forces of patriarchal outrage. Twenty years later, another made-for-TV movie, this time a modern-language adaptation set among senior officers of the London Metropolitan Police, explored the play's intersections of sexism and racism by turning Othello into a taught crime thriller about the death of a black drug addict at the hands of three white police officers. Black officer John Othello (Eamonn Walker) is promoted over white Assistant Commissioner Ben Jago (Christopher Eccleston) as scandal rocks a metropolitan police force, and Othello's wife, Dessie Brabant (Keeley Hawes) becomes the target of neo-Nazi thugs. When Dessie's ostensible infidelity is established using to falsified DNA evidence, she is murdered by her husband who then commits suicide, clearing the way for Jago to be appointed Commissioner. In a moment of triumphant revisionism, Eccleston's Jago closes the film by peering directly into the camera and insisting that the film's events have had nothing to do with race or politics, but only with love. Directed by Geoffrey Sax for Masterpiece Theatre, this stylish production's explicit confrontation of institutionalized bias and its deep cynicism seem even more apt now than they did when the film first aired.

    The years between Miller and Sax's television Othellos produced two Hollywood film adaptations of the play. 1995's Othello was directed by Oliver Parker and stars Laurence Fishburne in the title role, Kenneth Branagh as an engagingly scheming Iago, and Irène Jacob as a beautiful if rather vague Desdemona. This is a visually lush film that emphasizes the stark isolation of its stunning Mediterranean setting and the casual sexism of the masculinist military culture it depicts. Parker draws on the play's lengthy production history, offering knowing nods to memorable moments from earlier stage and film productions, but he also provides innovative touches, adding, for instance, a dream sequence depicting Desdemona's alleged adultery. The film takes full advantage of the camera's ability to approach its subjects unseen and so to draw viewers uncomfortably close to the action. This manufactured voyeurism is then jarringly exposed and exploited by Branaugh's Iago as he peers jauntily into the lens to confide his destructive plans to the viewer. Branaugh's is an Iago disturbing primarily in his ordinariness. There are private flashes of a sinister and brooding habit, but his outward manner is so relaxed, amusing, and temperate that his perfidy seems improbable even as it unfolds. Fishburn's Othello, by contrast, is a commanding physical presence whose unassailable strength—we see him defeat Iago handily as the two fence—foreshadows his eventual descent into violence.

    20While Parker employs Shakespeare's language and period costumes, Tim Blake Nelson's 2001 film O is a considerably freer adaptation that exchanges early modern poetry and clothes for more modern patterns of speech and fashions. With a twenty-something cast including Mekhi Phifer as Odin (Othello), Josh Hartnett as Hugo (Iago), and Julia Stiles as Desi (Desdemona), Otargets a young audience by engaging with concerns about violence, drugs, and racism in youth culture, school shootings, and sexual violence on campus. Brad Kaaya's screenplay shifts the action from a Cypriot citadel to a private American boarding school, transforms the play's external threat from an Ottoman armada into a rival basketball team, and effects a generic transformation tragic romance to contemporary teen thriller.

    The most recent English-language film version of Othello is Zaib Shaikh's made-for-TV adaptation Othello, the Tragedy of the Moor (2008). Produced for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and aired both as a radio drama and on television, this self-consciously post-9/11 production presents Italian-Canadian actor Carlo Rota as Othello as a North African Muslim whose ethnic identity determines his relationships in ways that exceed his control. The film offers some interesting performances but its heavily cut text and short runtime prevent it from analyzing in any depth with the ideas about race and religion with which it engages.