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Shakespeare's 'Othello'

The Playgoer

By Caldwell Titcomb

"Othello is, perhaps, the greatest work in the world," wrote that famous man of letters Thomas Macaulay. And nothing, I think, has happened in the century since to alter his verdict. Giraldo Cinthio's story of the Moor of Venice, his ensign Iago and his wife Desdemona has, in fact, been the source of several superlatives: it gave us Rossini's Otello, his finest serious opera; it gave us the best of all Italian opera libretti (by Arrigo Boito), which, when set to music by Verdi, became the supreme Italian tragic opera of the Romantic century; and it gave us Shakespeare's unequaled, Baroque-styled drama (as distinguished from his Renaissance plays like Romeo and Richard II, and from his Mannerist plays like Hamlet and Lear). It gives us now another superlative--the production of Shakespeare's masterpiece that has inaugurated the third season of the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre. I have seen some seven or eight Othello productions over the years, and this far surpasses all the others.

What is Othello about? Sexual jealousy, most people will say at once. True, but it is also a play about miscegenation, about reason and passion, about different personal approaches to good and evil, about inferiority and superiority complexes, about the interaction of two kinds of unusual egoist, and about many other things. There is a whole universe in this play.

The Festival Theatre's artistic director, John Houseman, served as the director of this production. Clearly understanding the special demands of the play, he has avoided all the major pitfalls and most of the minor ones. For the constructive plan of Othello, Shakespeare's most masterly, and most daring, occurs nowhere else in the playwright's works. Othello lacks the usual extraneous trappings and non-essentials. We do not have here scenes of tension or conflict alternating with scenes of "comic relief"; nor do we have any separate sub-plots. Everything is directly related to the main current of the drama. Once Iago begins to poison Othello's mind, the play moves slowly, unswervingly and unalterably to the final catastrophe like a runaway steamroller grinding down a hill. But the conflict between Iago and Othello (if we can call it a conflict, for it is a battle in which one of the two combatants does not realize there is a battle at all, except within himself) does not start at once. Iago's scheme has a long incubation period, which we in the audience watch with suspense until it bursts out and sweeps us along with it. Now this incubation is hidden from the others on stage; so Shakespeare skilfully wrought a preliminary though related conflict between Othello and his father-in-law Brabantio.

Houseman has come up with a superb example of living theatre, a production of tremendous impact and impetus. The marvelous characteristically Baroque drive and momentum are there, thanks in part to the right pace throughout. To this end he has wisely allowed only one ten-minute intermission. And he insisted that there be no pause or lowering of curtain between scenes, a demand that fortunately Rouben Ter-Aruntunian's ingeniously mobile slatted sets and a precision-drilled stage crew have been able to meet. He moves his cast fluidly over the stage and the apron that projects into the audience; his blocking of characters is imaginative and tastefully unmechanical; and the "stage business" and byplay are always meaningful.S

I regret, however, that Houseman succumbed to the temptation of "improving" the play by cutting, although there are fewer cuts than one normally finds. A museum director does not crop a Rembrandt painting to fit the space on the wall; nor do music publishers and performers "correct" Beethoven's and Chopin's "mistakes" as they used to. We should be allowed to judge a play just as the author left it, without the benefit of the director's superior insight as to how it ought to have been written. And, of all Shakespeare's plays, Othello is the one that most unhappily suffers cutting. The playing-time of this production is 165 minutes; the restoration of all the cuts would make the total running-time about three hours. Surely audiences now accustomed to four-hour movies and O'Neill plays can take three hours of Shakespeare. Hamlet, a much longer work than Othello, was given at Harvard this season without a single cut, and without any intermission whatever, with good results. So, at an institution exclusively devoted to Shakespeare, let's have him with both ears, with ten fingers and with ten toes.

The Othello of this production is Earle Hyman, whom local playgoers will recall for his excellent work during the past year in Saint Joan and Waiting for Godot. He is ideal for the role, if perhaps still a bit young. Handsome and six-feet-three, he properly cuts a figure of great physical and moral stature. A rich, sonorous voice is complemented by an extraordinarily expressive face as, going from calm imperiousness through tormenting doubts and jealousy to become a tragically pitiful uxoricide, the Devil's agent Iago gradually wreaks the havoc of his human lord and the heavenly Desdemona (see cuts on page 10).

Hyman has played this role with the Shakespearewrights in New York and at the Antioch Festival in Ohio; it is obvious from his present performance that he has lived with the role a long time and knows exactly what he is doing. Most Othellos make the mistake of getting enraged too soon; consequently as the play progresses they try to bellow and shriek ever more loudly until the limit of intelligibility has been left far behind. But Hyman is careful to adjust to the big time scale of this process, so that the proper prolonged Beethovenian crescendo results. For, contrary to the popular conception, Othello is not by nature disposed toward jealousy: he is "one not easily jealous, but being wrought perplex'd in the extreme." He says of his wife, for example, "I'll tear her all to pieces." Most actors would here face the balcony and bellow their guts out. But Hyman, realizing that at this point in the drama Iago has not yet fully drawn out Othello's latent bestiality, delivers the line at medium volume and with his back to the audience! But he underscores the thought by extending his right hand overhead and pulling it down to his side like a claw grating on glass. That is real artistry; the effect is electric. And he makes the most of the poetry in the role; for, although a soldier, Othello is the most poetic of all Shakespeare's heroes, including Hamlet. Just as Richard Burbage was the great Othello of Shakespeare's day, David Garrick the great Othello of the 18th century and Tommaso Salvini of the 19th century, Earle Hyman bids fair to be the great Othello of our century.

Now it is possible to have a good Hamlet almost in vacuo. But a good Othello is impossible without a good Iago, and vice versa. Alfred Drake shows here that he can excel in something besides musical comedy. He brings a welcome restrained maturity to the role, and we are spared the moustache-twirling, eyeball-rolling villain. Instead of black garb with cape, how refreshing to see Iago in a series of brown costumes! Although he occasionally indulges in too studied a pose, he handles his lines with nuanced variety, often spitting them out rapidly in keeping with Iago's lightning-quick intellect. But more than that, we sense the Machiavellianism where it belongs--inside Iago's mind--even when he is just lurking silently on the sidelines. It would be easier to externalize his deviltry entirely, but it would be wrong. To the personages of the drama, Iago must seem honest; otherwise Othello becomes a stupid idiot (which he is not), to say nothing of Iago's own wife, Emilia, who only at the very end learns the true nature of her spouse. Drake is right to look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under't.

Jacqueline Brookes is fine as Desdemona, "the sweetest innocent that e'er did lift up eye." Her handling of the moments when she is slapped and bewhored by Othello is deeply affecting, and her dying words most touching. Olive Deering does well as the loose Bianca. But Sada Thompson's Emilia is too Desdemona-like; she ought to be sharply contrasted with her mistress--less refined, more common and blunt, at times even vulgar. I suspect the result would have been better if the Misses Thompson and Deering had exchanged roles.

Richard Waring's dupable Cassio is convincing. But it is a mistake for him to be clean-shaven, since Iago makes a pointed reference to his beard. As the love-sick, not-too-bright Roderigo, Richard Easton indulges in the right amount of humor, even incorporating a few Harpo Marxian mannerisms. He properly appears with clean face at the beginning of the play; but, after Iago tells him to disguise his baby-face and increase the manliness of his appearance with "an usurped beard," he should of course don false whiskers for the rest of the drama.

Stanley Bell (who is the eighteenth generation in a line of actors going back to a member of Shakespeare's own Globe Theatre troupe) speaks clearly, but he makes the Duke of Venice far too young. The Duke has a marriageable daughter; and, in Bell's conception, his daughter could not be out of elementary school yet. Larry Gates, Kendall Clark, John Colicos and Jack Bittner are commendable in their supporting roles. In fact, one of the virtues of this company is that everyone has good diction; there are no harsh vowels or dropped consonants.

Rouben Ter-Aruntunian's costumes are stunning. And Jean Rosenthal has contrived gorgeous lighting, including the unobtrusively judicious use of a "follow spot"; the lighting is by no means realistic, but rather underlines the shifting moods of the drama. Virgil Thomson's trumpet calls and occasional tenuous sound effects add virtually nothing.

All in all, despite its few minor flaws, this is a lustrous production of "the greatest work in the world" and ought not to be missed. The drive from Harvard Square to the air-conditioned Stratford Theatre at legal speeds takes just a little over three hours if one uses the new Massachusetts Turnpike and takes Exit 53 from the Wilbur Cross Parkway after New Haven. And the curtain always rises on the dot.

Performances of Othello will continue the rest of the summer, with The Merchant of Venice joining the schedule on July 10 and Much Ado About Nothing on August 3.

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