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.