Othello in Rehearsal

by dramaturg Philippa Kelly
Today is my first blog posting for the rehearsal process of Othello, our first show with our new Artistic Director, Eric Ting, at the helm. I’d describe the rehearsal period so far as fast, furious, and focused. But Eric is also encouraging us, at every point, to be deeply thoughtful and self-questioning as we tackle this hugely dense text in the tiny 3 and a half weeks’ rehearsal period we have. 
 
The world he’s creating is one where Othello is a Muslim, likely converted to Christianity, the textual suggestions for which might live in lines like: ‘“For Christian shame put by this barbarous brawl!” “Are we turned Turks?” And then of course there’s the final soliloquy in which, in the devastation of his deed, Othello depicts himself as both the Christian punisher and the “malignant and…turbann’d Turk” who must be punished.
 
Yesterday Eric asked our Assistant Director, Denmo Ibrahim, to tease out some of her thoughts and questions. Denmo is wondering about Othello’s striking of, and eventual strangulation of, Desdemona—if we suggest a Muslim background to his life (and still perhaps a private Muslim practice in the play?), are we helping to imprint stereotyped media images of Muslim men and violence? Denmo also asked: “Does Othello bring his faith to bear through the killing? Or does he leave behind his faith in order to do the killing? Is the strangulation a liberation or a hate crime?”
 
Denmo’s words moved me to contemplate Othello’s conversion to Christianity as perhaps both his “real” identity (the identity of the “Othello now”) and the palimpsest—you scrape it away and there is the convert who is always, by virtue of conversion, “other.” Aldo (playing Othello) also talked about otherness as his own lived identity: he has, for instance, been pulled over by the police 37 times with no viable cause other than the color of his skin.
 
Our culture today is in many public aspects one of “seeming”—we’re bombarded by images from all kinds of media. We post on Facebook quick messages that we admire each other on so many levels (what levels?). We become electronic “friends” with people we’ll never meet, but to whom we treat images of a lunch or a dinner or an event that was awesome or in some way inspiring. Who are we really, behind these images? 400 years ago, things both were and were not similar. In a society moving out of feudalism, clothes literally made the man: the more you wrapped yourself in the attributes of your role, the more “true” you were to your self. There were even laws against nurturing private ambitions that might lead you to comport yourself beyond your station. Today’s familiar division between outward and inward selves is a modern phenomenon born largely of capitalism, and Shakespeare was at the cusp of the change, where “seeming” began to spell “public,” and “who we really are” had a private ring to it. 
 
In Othello Shakespeare has created a play that echoes with that change. The play is full of images of “being” and “seeming”—“I think my wife is honest.” “Long live she so, and long live you to think so.” “Men should be what they seem.” And images of Othello’s being happy if the whole army had tasted Desdemona’s sweet body “So had I nothing known”… It’s not until the image is punctured, in other words, that the truth is a problem. And in the end, the whirl of being and seeming collapse Othello’s reason and judgment: he just wants proof as his truth, and, sadly, will do anything to get it. 
 
And here’s another question: today, as then, do we set up our human killing machines at the expense of their humanity and personal relationships, however much we plaster the noble warrior, the Westpoint officer images, across it?
 
Finally, I dedicate this to Larry Smith, my friend across the Pacific, who died yesterday while rehearsal was in process. Larry was a professor of Business and Management, but loved theater. (Why is there a “but” there?!)  Death is an end-point: though in Shakespeare’s Othello, it’s not. Many characters speak quite lengthily after they’re stabbed and even strangulated. Why is this? Perhaps because death is so final; and theater gives us the chance to think that perhaps it need not be: that there can BE a last word, instead of the unknown, never-fully-prepared for, eclipse.
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3 Responses to Othello in Rehearsal

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    Capitalism? Really? Laughable. Except it isn’t. The division between outward and inward selves is as old as humans. You might, if you are so inclined, try Erikson: Identity and the Life Cycle, Childhood and Society, Young Man Luther. But Capitalism? You could easily have said Christianity, Communism, or self-absorbed techies.

    • Philippa Kelly says:

      Dear Allen,

      If you get the chance, please include pieces of the texts you’re mentioning – it sounds like material you’re passionate about: your tone sounded quite outraged! So I can’t wait to see a few choice passages from you to elucidate what’s gotten you so juiced up. From my perspective as a theater historian and literary historian of selfhood, Shakespeare was living at a really intriguing time for shifts in understandings of who and what the self was, and how it was thought about in terms of “inward” and “outward.” For example, there was even a huge arc in the meaning of the word “individual” as the centuries moved on. From the unwillingness to be divided from one’s mate, to “individual mates,” the word moves from the indivisible (that is, the “individual mate” – “you and I are individual/indivisible”) to the very features that divide one particular person from another. By the time we reach its common usage in the nineteenth century, “individual” has settled into an unequivocal mark of singleness and autonomy: “An individual is that which cannot be divided without ceasing to be what it is” (William Thomson, Outline of the Laws of Thought [1842]).This has huge impact for the sense of how people came to see the “inner” self so very differnetly. If you want more detail, come see me in the grove at Othello (I’ll be doing all preview talks, opening, and Sunday talks), and we can talk more. In the meantime, you might want to get a hold of a little piece I wrote some years back in Early Modern Literary Studies: Shaping a Reflected Self – just look for my name on the journal site and it’ll take you there, or, if you have more time and patience, go to Early Modern English Lives, Bedford, Davis and Kelly, and Early Modern Autobiography, Bedford, Davis and Kelly.

  2. John Engell says:

    Dear Phillipa,
    When we spoke very briefly after your comments yesterday before Shaw’s YOU NEVER CAN TELL, you suggested I email you.
    In 1899 Frank Norris’s MCTEAGUE, the first great California (and San Francisco) novel, was published. McTeague is a dentist practicing on Polk Street. I had no idea that there was a play by one of the greatest English-language playwrights dating from a couple of years before and featuring a dentist as the main character. It’s rather extraordinary; surely these are the first two works of literature, at least in English, to feature a dentist as the central character. Moreover, a turning point in Norris’s novel is set in the Cliff House, the apparent setting of the Cal Shakes production of YOU NEVER CAN TELL! Truly curious.
    Norris’s novel takes place primarily on Polk Street. It’s a ‘naturalist’ tragedy. Norris was the son of wealthy Chicago parents who moved to San Francisco when he was a boy. He went to Berkeley, then Harvard, and wrote MCTEAGUE in his twenties. He died or a burst appendix at age 32, after writing two other superb novels, and is buried in Oakland. His family mansion was on Van Ness; the working-class folks who served the Van Ness elite lived on Polk. Both enclaves were destroyed by the earthquake.
    In 1924 the brilliant but eccentric German director, Erich von Stroheim, who had come to California, directed a film called GREED, based on McTeague, and shot entirely in San Francisco and other California locations, including the Gold Country and Death Valley. In spite of the film’s mutilation by idiotic Studio Producers, GREED is considered among the greatest films ever made. I have taught the novel and film many times, always unaware of Shaw’s play. I told my students (in my ignorance) that MCTEAGUE must be the first work of literature to feature a dentist as a central character.
    You might want to read the novel and screen the film; I’d be delighted to talk with you about both.
    I thoroughly enjoyed YOU NEVER CAN TELL and am delighted I’ve finally discovered Cal Shakes this year. I saw the superb production of FENCES (a play I have taught several times) and plan to attend OTHELLO, a play I have taught but never seen on stage. Given my teaching schedule at San Jose State, Sunday matinees are my best bet for your fine productions.
    All best, John (Engell)

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