Who is Othello Today | The Meighen Forum 2019


(tranquil orchestral music) (audience chattering) – I guess we should have
read the visitors guide. “Who is Othello Today?”
is that what it is? OK.
(audience laughing) Alrighty then.
– We’re actually going to talk about who he has been,
– Yeah (laughing). Yes, we can do that.
– and today. – This is going to be
very informal a look. It doesn’t feel very informal,
perched on these stools. We’re just gonna sort
of talk among ourselves, and we invite you to, we’ll certainly invite
you to ask questions towards the end of this. But if anybody feels really
impelled to break in, just stand up and wave your arms and we’ll bring you into the conversation. So what we sort of, I did a wee bit of research,
about 10 minutes’ worth, looking back over festival
productions of “Othello.” We haven’t done “Othello”
in this theater since 1987, but we have done it at the
Avon and Tom Patterson. And there some, a couple
of interesting things that you observe about this play. In the first place, I think “Othello” is a fiendishly difficult role to play, and it’s complicated by the
fact that the character is black as is specified in the text. And for much of the
Stratford Festival’s history, we didn’t really have a huge pool of actors of color to draw on, certainly none who had
kind of been through the kinds of process of
development, artistic development, that brings you to the
point where you can play this fiendishly difficult role. So, I mean, I’m sure it
will come as no surprise, but it is nonetheless slightly
embarrassing to recant that, you know, our first three “Othellos” were basically done in blackface. So 1959, we had Douglas
Campbell as Othello and Douglas Rain as Iago. ’73, an Israeli actor, Nachum Buchman, played Othello. This was, he was actually, at the time, possibly Israel’s leading actor. And I guess it’s long enough
ago that I can share with you that English wasn’t his first language. (audience chuckling) And when Othello goes into the
bedroom to murder Desdemona– – Spoiler alert. – Spoiler alert.
(audience laughing) – [Jesse] Sorry. – Anybody here not seen this play before? (audience laughing) Ah, when that happened (laughs), Mr. Buchman, according
to reports from the time, said, “It is the cows.” “It is the cows,” instead
of cause, you see? And I can never hear that
line spoken on stage, “It is the cause, it is
the,” I can never think, I can never hear that
without thinking about cows. Anyway.
(audience laughing) And then in ’79, Alan
Scarfe played Othello, and Nicholas Pennell was Iago. So it wasn’t until 1987, which was when we did it last here, we had Howard Rollins who
was in “Roots” and “Ragtime,” he played Othello. And then it’s interesting to note that when we did finally get
a black actor to play Othello, we had to go to the States to find one, as was the case with our ’94
production, where Ron O’Neal, known to movie-goers as Superfly, I guess, played Othello in a production
that Brian Bedford did. So it took us that long to have a black actor play this role. And I say all that just sort of give you a wee bit of context because it’s unthinkable to
do this role in blackface. We are now, fortunately, in a position at this point in the festival’s history where we have a stable of actors
who can take this role on, who have been through the process and who are ready to take it. And for those of you who haven’t
seen this production yet, you will encounter such an actor in the form of Michael Blake who’s playing it this
season and is tremendous. So all that is kind of
a preamble to the thing that I thought we would
start talking about, which is that, from my perspective, purely my perspective,
I’ve always wondered why Othello has to be
black in the first place. Because although there is racism expressed by certain characters in
the play, it doesn’t seem that that’s as crucial as, say, Shylock’s Jewishness is to “The Merchant of Venice.” Couldn’t you just, wouldn’t
this play work just as well if the title character were white? And I think there is an answer to that, but I’m gonna toss that question over to my friend on stage here and ask, just how important do you
think Othello’s blackness is? – Well, Shakespeare pretty
clearly identifies him as black, not, as some people have
thought, a Northern African Arab. A Moor, the term Moor, meant
a lot of different things. We don’t really know exactly. The sources of the play
are not known specifically, but there are several ideas about where the character was drawn from, including an Italian story
from the previous century and including a real figure
who was, in a way, the subject of another play here this summer called, “Birds of a Feather,” a– – Or, “Birds of a Kind,” actually. – “Birds of a Kind,” sorry. A guy named Leo Africanus,
that was his Westernized name when he became part of the court of Pope Leo the, let’s say, X, (laughs) can’t remember my Roman numerals. But anyway, he was caught by
pirates on the Mediterranean and was given as a gift to the Pope, and then was so brilliant and had such great knowledge of Africa that he became part of
the society of that time. And there’s some thought that that character comes
into the play as well, but all of the sources seem to be black. And I would argue, or I would ask you to
explain in your thesis here, there is so much language in the play that is around the ideas of blackness, now, some of it’s clearly metaphor, albeit it a racist metaphor, yes, and but other words like sooty, there was a–
– [David] The thick lips. – Thick-lipped,
– Yeah. – and other things that I think
are hard to get away from. It doesn’t mean, I’m not speaking to how we may play it today,
– Yeah. – but I’m speaking to
what was the intention and what is built into the conflicts of the play. So how do you look at that? – Well, because, to me, those, you’re absolutely right about
those things and, in fact, when I talk about this play on my own, I spend some time remarking on the fact that it’s actually, in
some ways, a difficult play to get into right at the beginning because Othello never gets named. He gets talked about as the Moor or the thick lips or he or whatever, and you’re never really quite
sure who’s being talked about. And I think it’s because
that Iago can’t bring himself to actually give this guy a
name, so deep is his hatred. But I think what’s curious is that it is only at the
level of people like Iago and, I guess, Brabantio,
Desdemona’s father that you have this racism being expressed. Because, to me, the interesting
thing about Othello is that he occupies an honored
position in the society. He, the first person who
names him is the duke or, in our production, the duchess, who addresses him as valiant Othello. This is a military leader who is accorded great
respect in the community by the people who matter in the community. They turn to him when
the state is, you know, under threat from the Ottoman Empire. Everyone speaks well of him
except for people like Iago. So I think what’s
interesting about it is that, and Nigel Shawn Williams,
who directed this production, is himself black. And for him, Othello’s ethnicity is very much a central concern, but I think not for the
reasons that we might expect. This isn’t the world of
“To Kill a Mockingbird.” What it is, is it’s Othello’s
own view of himself, I think. He is a big success in this society, but he is an outsider in the society. Not only is he black, he is, although Shakespeare doesn’t
really get into this, he is presumable a
converted Muslim as well, having been a Moor. One of the things that a Moor
meant in Shakespeare’s time was a European Muslim, so
he has obviously converted. He’s older than Desdemona, and these things make him deeply insecure. And what sticks in my mind is what Nigel Shawn Williams, the
director, said at one point when he was talking about the play, and this would obviously be
rooted in his own experience. He says, “If you’re a black
man in a white society, “it doesn’t matter how successful you are, “how much people voice
their admiration of you, “whoever professes to admire and love you, “you never quite believe it.” – But now, you’re arguing
that he is black because– – Well, yeah, no, he is. He is, and Shakespeare says he is. – Right, but I, and I’m actually, I’m more on your side than
I’m playing, right now, – Yeah.
– but I saw a production in New York, a couple years ago, at the New York Theatre Workshop, a small off-Broadway experimental theater that starred Daniel Craig
as Iago and David Oyelowo– I don’t know how you say
his last name, actually– the British movie actor, as Othello. And this production
downplayed race tremendously, in much the way you’re discussing, and including cutting a number of the most obvious lines about it. I mean, everybody cuts from “Othello.” It’s too long, even though, in my opinion, it’s one of the least ADHD
of Shakespeare’s plays. I mean, it’s pretty like, let’s go. There’s not, there’s a clown, but there aren’t a lot of
tapsters and prostitutes and, you know, there’s
no subplots, really. It’s really direct. – Well, there’s Bianca (laughs). – And yet she– – For one scene.
– OK. There is one clown, OK. But still, so this
production, in trimming it, did trim out a lot of the
specifically racial lines. Now, the actor was black, so there was no question about that, but the director seemed to
want to push more of the idea that you’re discussing,
which is outsider-ness. And also, it sort of pushes
the thrust of the play onto Iago if you downplay race because, then, the questions really become as much about, what is his motive, which is always the great
question of centuries. Why does he undermine without ever giving a reason? In fact, famously, at the end, when asked to say what the
reason is, what’s the line? – Well, he says– – “Demand me nothing.
– Yeah. – “You know what you know,”
– Yeah. – or something like that.
– Yeah, yeah. – And so it became a study of
the sort of sociopathy of Iago and Othello was more a victim of it, whose own psychology was less explored. I think that’s viable way to do it, but I, politically, today,
and I think aesthetically, you could never cast
it with a white person. – No, and I’m, I don’t,
I’m sure you couldn’t, and why should you? Because, hey, let’s give,
– Right. – let’s provide as many
opportunities as we can there. It’s like when I see Lady
Bracknell being played by a guy in drag, I think,
well, yeah, it’s fine, but let’s give the part to an older lady because there aren’t enough of them. But I think that you’re absolutely right, and obviously Othello’s
race is part of it. I’m suggesting that it’s,
the person in the play to whom it is most
important is Othello himself because he feels that insecurity. He feels that sense of, I
don’t really deserve this. I don’t really deserve Desdemona. That’s why he is so vulnerable – Yes.
– to the machinations of Iago, but, as you’re absolutely
right, that it is Iago who is the kind of key person,
I think, in all of this. And perhaps our chat
would have been better labeled, “Who is Iago Today?” rather than, “Who Is Othello Today?” Because I think in this
director’s interpretation, this director’s vision of the play, it’s very clear that we are to be reminded by Iago of a whole lot stuff that’s going on today. Nigel has spoken about this play, the world of this play being one where there’s not only racism
in certain strata of society, there’s also, you know,
it’s a patriarchal society. It’s a militaristic world that we’re in where there are very
strongly-defined roles. This is a play in which a father, you know, goes off the deep end when his daughter elopes
with the wrong person. There are very strict rules, in fact, and there is discussion
in the play, of course, between Emilia and Desdemona about the so-called chastity
and honor and so on of women. But it’s in the character of Iago that you see this kind of, to my mind, this parallel with today where you have the, Nigel has described him as like the kind of loser,
the washed-up loser, that would be sitting in his basement with Netflix and a six-pack and a bag of chips.
– Well– – You know?
– There’s that. Definitely, what you earlier talked about, like the incel mentality,
– Yeah. – but there’s, I mean, if
you look at it another way, and I, as an American, may feel especially privileged to do so, (audience laughing)
you could look at the irrational amorality of leadership. I’ll say no more. (audience laughing)
But you, I think it’s worth noting, and I gather your director
is very interested in thinking about it this way, that most of these issues that are raised in the play
are still very much with us, both in terms of leadership, regimentation, military mindset,
that it’s not an accident that it takes place in barracks and other military settings. You need that kind of
regimentation and suppression to create the hothouse
– Yeah. – in which this sort of
violence would occur. But I would also say, I was, you know, you just look at the news any day coming from my country, anywhere in the United States. One that caught my eye the other day was a black patient at a
hospital was going out for a breath of air with his friends, and he had his IV pole and
they called the police on him for stealing hospital property. – Hmm.
(audience gasping) – Now–
– Yeah. – OK, we, it is ridiculous and all that, but what is going on
in the minds of people who would have that
interpretation of that moment? The man, by the way, was
in his hospital gown. Did I mention that? (audience laughing)
I mean? And likewise, you, when I read
“Othello” or see “Othello,” I am always trying to understand
what happened to Iago. Or in what way does he reflect a society that has such a perverted way
of looking at other people? – Well, you, so that’s interesting because you think of all those cases of, you know, black doctors or
lawyers or judges or whatever who happen to be driving fancy
cars and getting pulled over – Right.
– by white cops because there’s gotta be
something wrong with that there. And I think that’s certainly at work. I think Othello knows that. He expects that, even though he has, he is in a position of trust. He has achieved great things. Again, as I said, I think
he always is prepared for it to go wrong, and that’s why he’s so vulnerable. – I would add, and this to me is one of the great elements of the tragedy, he has lately fallen in love with the pearl of Venetian society. He has had that love
returned, to his astonishment. – [David] Yeah. – He, himself, can’t really explain it other than to say, she felt sorry for me. And in that great access
of emotion over this love, he becomes vulnerable for the first time. And that’s where Iago is able to drive his poignard, so to speak. – And also, I think the
male-female thing comes out. I think that is, again, in
Nigel’s view of this play, it’s significant that, on some level, Othello kind of, as you say, can’t quite believe his good
luck with getting Desdemona. And I think, with that,
there’s a suspicion that she could be not all
she seems to be, on his part. Because there’s this
attitude in the society that, there’s a line somewhere in the play about subtle Venetian women, that the women of Venice
are supposed to have a kind of reputation for being a bit sly and not quite what they seem to be. And I think that attitude also
slightly permeates this play and, again, predisposes the older guy married to the gorgeous young woman to think, oh, sooner or
later she’s gonna go off with the tennis coach. (audience laughing) – It’s interesting to note that in the immediate predecessor source, or what many scholars
believe to be the source, with this Italian story
of the previous century, it’s much more clearly a racist document and also an anti-miscegenation document. I mean, it’s very clear
that the point is, you know, white women shouldn’t marry black men because this is what will happen. You’ll get your skull fractured. She dies differently in
that work, by the way, and much more gruesomely. Whereas, Shakespeare chose not to make that clear of a statement about it, and may not have made
that statement at all. He seems to be interested in something much more along the lines
of what you’re talking about which is not a warning to white women, but an investigation of
the problem of other-ness for either a black man
or at least a person from outside the society. – Yeah, yeah for sure. I mean, in that origin story, you know, the only person who actually has a name is Desdemona. All the other characters are, Othello is just the Moor,
but Iago is just the ensign. He’s a sergeant in this production because it’s a modern-dress production and we’ve updated ensign to sergeant. It scans the same, and it’s a rank that people probably, you know – Well, so did the cows. – Yeah (laughs).
(audience laughing) Probably more familiar with. But I, the motivation thing is interesting to me because, you’re right, apart from other changes to that origin, you’re right, Shakespeare has muddied it, and I feel he has deliberately muddied it. In the original story, it’s
quite unambiguously clear why Iago wants to destroy
Othello and Desdemona, and it’s because Iago
himself desires Desdemona. And when she doesn’t return his affection, in fact, is completely
oblivious to his desires, he assumes she must be having
it off with someone else and he decides to kill her. So Shakespeare takes that
crystal-clear motivation and deliberately muddies it, so we get Iago going on
about he hates Othello because he’s been passed
over for promotion. Othello has appointed
Cassio as his lieutenant instead of Iago. He then goes into some
weird thing about thinking that Othello had a thing going with his wife, Iago’s wife, Emilia. He just thought between, “‘twixt my sheets, he has done my office.” There’s no suggestion of
that anywhere in the play, and Iago himself never returns to that. He says it once, and then he goes away. And he also does, in a little
echo of the source material, indicate that he kind of
fancies Desdemona himself but, you know, let that go. So quite deliberately, those
motives have been made murky. And I think that ties into, well, my sense of who Iago is today, and I think it’s, a large
part, it’s Nigel’s sense, which is that this is the guy who seethes. This is the loser, the guy who is seething with a kind of inner rage, right. He is the one who is jealous. His jealousy is of everyone who
is more successful than him, who has a life. Iago’s own marriage is
very notably portrayed in this production as
seriously on the rocks. There is absolutely no
connection, really, going on with him and Emilia anymore. She’s, in this production, the Army includes women, so Emilia, who in Shakespeare’s
play is kind of a servant or a maid to Desdemona, is, in this production, a
member of the armed forces who has essentially been assigned
as Desdemona’s bodyguard. So she has a much higher status than Shakespeare accorded her, but Nigel has pointed out
that this also makes her a thorn in Iago’s flesh
because instead of being a meek, subservient little woman at home, Iago’s wife now becomes a
woman who carries a gun. And (laughs), you know?
(audience laughing) And he doesn’t like that. Everything around him makes
him seethe with resentment. And I keep coming back, and
I’ve said this in my own talks, I keep coming back to the people today who seem to be driven by some kind of bizarre hatred of other people’s happiness,
other people’s peace, other people’s contentment that they have to go around destroying it. And I’m talking about, you
know, the people who drive vans into crowds of pedestrians. I’m talking about the
high school shooters, the incels, as they’re called,
the involuntary celibate. And you know, you come back to that and, very often, as you
mentioned that famous ending about, “Why did you do this?” And he says, “I’m not
telling you,” basically. You know what you know. – I don’t think he knows. – Well, exactly, he doesn’t know, or at least he can’t articulate it. – This, to me, is another
side of the tragedy. He is quite brilliant at exploiting the loopholes
that he discovers, and he’s able to discover
them because he is amoral. One of the things that I
respond to in the play is, I don’t know if any of
you have encountered, I’m sorry to say I have in my life, people who willfully
commit a fraud against you, whether it’s a minor thing like a scam or a friend, a supposed friend, who is actually doing something else. And it feels terrible and you feel victimized and all of that. And then you think,
well, so should I change? Should I not allow that kind
of thing to happen in my life? And yet, if you do that, you’re becoming the thing that they wanted you to be
in the first place and you, this is a little diffuse, but my point is that it takes an amoral person to see the ways in to other
people’s vulnerabilities in ways that other people
would never even look for or know to look for. And it’s, to the extent that
Shakespeare is warning us in this play about something, it’s no longer about
miscegenation, certainly. I think he’s putting the
thrust of it on warnings about irrational, amoral people and the havoc they can create in confined and regimented societies. – Yes, and the credulity of
the people whom they go after, and this is who, OK, if we ask, if to touch briefly on the
advertised title of our talk, – Oh, yes.
– it– (audience laughing) If we ask who Othello is today, my answer is Othello is that guy that went into a pizza
parlor in Washington with an assault rifle because
he had believed the stories that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of it, right? – Wow.
(audience laughing) I’m gonna have to take
some time with that one. – Yeah?
(audience laughing) – I’ll get back to you. – Well, well but, I mean, to me, that parallel seems so clear. This is a play about lies, right, the power of lie, the
power of insinuation. I mean, the way Shakespeare
depicts that is so brilliant. It’s exactly what’s
going on in social media. It’s exactly what is going on in political campaigns, whatever. It’s sewing the seeds of a suspicion, however absurd, however irrational. And I, you know, I keep coming, if you actually look at the play, the timeframe of the play, when is Desdemona supposed
to have had this affair with Michael Cassio?
– Yes (laughs). – I mean, basically, she got
married like two nights ago. (laughs) Yeah, she knew him before, but presumably her virginity was evident on her wedding night. So when are these, you
know, thousand encounters that, at some point are referred
to, when did this happen? It couldn’t have happened. She physically couldn’t have done it, however much she might have wanted to. And so it’s absurd. It’s irrational. And yet, that, the power
of that suggestion, that hypnotic needling away, the constant thing is so powerful that you can be made to
believe anything absurd. Just like that guy in, where was it? Washington, I guess, the pizza parlor, – Yeah.
– it’s the same thing. And you know, there’s a line
that, I can never remember it, but there’s one just
throwaway line in the play where Iago uses a phrase. He’s just piled one insinuation,
one lie on top of another, and then he says something about, you know, take this
with the other proofs. (Jesse and audience chuckling)
– Let’s see them. – Proofs, there haven’t been any proofs. There couldn’t be any proofs. It’s not true! And yet, the fact that he says that and just, you know, it’s, that’s what the rhetorical device of begging the question actually means. You know, it was like, when
did you stop beating your wife? That kind of question, it
implies that beating your wife is a complete and utter proven fact. And that, to me, is one
of the most chilling lines in this play, just that throwaway. – And yet who has not
had a marital argument without using that little trick? Well, as we already established, in the last fight–
– Well, I don’t know. (audience laughing) – So we can’t go back to that. That is fact. We’re done. I was right, and we settled that. And, humorously, this brings me to, you talk about lies, and I grant you that is an
enormous theme of the play, but it’s an incredibly capacious work. I have a lot of problems
with some Shakespeare. Don’t be taking me
– Yeah? – to “Titus Andronicus,” OK? (audience laughing) But “Othello” compels me, and I think it must be the combination of these issues, the lies. But for me, the vulnerability of love is what makes it so intensely human. It’s very hard to connect to the amorality and
irrationality of Iago, even though we recognize it. And it’s, he’s like a
villain in an old movie. It’s very effective, but in terms of understanding
it, unless you are like that, I find that difficult and I’m fascinated by his unknowability. But the vulnerability of Othello’s love, his feeling like he has
suddenly been accepted into this world and by this woman, and perhaps we can make,
by extension, a suggestion about the lack of love in Iago’s life is what really makes it
so intensely human for me. I did want to read one quote,
– Yeah, of course. – and then maybe we can discuss it? – Yes.
– So one of the few things Iago says in explanation
of his attitude is, “I have looked upon the world “for four times seven years,” 28. (audience laughing)
(David laughing) – [David] In Roman
numerals, that would be? – I can do Arabic numerals. I just can’t do Roman numerals. “And since I could distinguish
between benefit and injury, “I never found a man that
knew how to love himself.” Love himself. Now, you know, in our
day, that would almost be a self-help book waiting to happen, but I’m interested not just in what he’s
saying about himself, but in what he’s saying about Othello, who, in a racist society, no matter what his achievements were, could not internalize
any form of self-love because it wasn’t out there for him. – Hmm, which, and you know,
it makes it very poignant because we haven’t really
talked a lot about Desdemona, but she is, I mean, she’s this incredible
presence in this play because she is love embodied, if you like. She is utterly devoted to him. She’s not a fool. She’s a smart, spirited young woman. She’s utterly genuine in her love for him. She kind of completes him. And again, because they are opposites, they come together and
they are a completion. They become a unit. She is what’s missing from his life. She is that element of love
that he may lack in himself, but she provides it to him. Of Iago and Emilia, their
marriage is completely broken. They, she’s just desperately
trying to get him back, but it’s not happening. So I think in this production, it’s very, again, Nigel wanted to emphasize that, so you’ve got a very monochromatic
production, in many ways. The military fatigues, they’re sort of grays and
earth tones and blacks, and everyone’s kind of dressed the same and the set is very monochromatic. And then Desdemona is this
kind of explosion of colors. She’s got the dresses
and the stuff that is, she is the feminine principle. She’s the fluid, loving, positive flower amidst this
militaristic stark thing. And she’s, I think she’s
very much the thing that Othello needs to find within himself, the thing that the
whole world of this play needs to find within itself, which is that, you know, that warm, loving,
caring aspect of humanity that patriarchy and militarism
and racial prejudice and all the rest of
those things stamp out. – And yet (laughs), I– – We were told to
disagree with each other. (audience laughing) You can tell we’re reaching for it. – It’s, no, I have also wondered, and I wonder if you’ve
ever seen a production that treated Desdemona, sorry, that’s the Verdi way to say it. – Hmm, like “Lysistrata.”
– Sorry. Sorry, Desdemona,
– OK. – that has treated her less purely? – Yes.
– There is an argument to be made that she
is, you know, basically a late teenager saying, sorry Daddy. You know, I’m running
off with my boyfriend, and what are you gonna do about it? But where there’s a
kind of racial exoticism to her interest, I mean, that is expressed,
– Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
– but that may be a sign of a less-than-pure and
less-than-mature love on her part. I don’t, I’m sure that’s not
the case in this production, but I wonder if that’s something
you’ve ever seen explored? – Well, I think she’s always, hmm. It’s hard to know. She’s, one line that has
always bothered me is when she’s dying and she’s asked who’s done this and she says, “Nobody.” Me, I did it myself, basically. And I’ve always thought, oh,
she’s like blaming herself? That’s just taking enabling
to its ultimate conclusion. But I think she… I think, I don’t think, I don’t see her as a
silly or a naive teenager. And I’m struggling to remember, but I don’t think I’ve
seen her played that way. I think, in order to get the full impact of her death, I think you have to be aware of the potential that has been lost. I think you have to see how stunning this
marriage could have been, how what an amazing couple
they would have made, how transformative she
could have been in his life. I think you have to see her
as being a woman of spirit, of intelligence, of utter
devotion, utter dedication. And I don’t think she’s ever petulant. You know, when she talks
to her father, it’s not, well, I’m doing what I want to do. It’s a very reasoned and
articulate and intelligent, you know, pointing out, yes, I love you the way I’m supposed to. It’s almost like Cordelia
talking to Lear, you know? Yeah, you’re my dad. I love you. But you know what? At one point in your life, you married. You loved someone. You married them. I’m gonna do the same thing. So you know, this is the way it is. I think she’s a remarkably
mature young woman, actually, in my view, in my reading of the play. And when she… She has strict principles, far stricter than Emilia’s. The famous scene where the
two women talk together and Emilia’s saying,
you know, OK, Desdemona. I mean, like Robert Redford came along and offered you a million
dollars, you know, wouldn’t you? And Desdemona’s, or something like that, and Desdemona says, “No, would you?” “Well, I might.” A million bucks, a lot of money. You know, so these two women, from very different perspectives, and they have this talk
about shades of gray. And I don’t mean that in
the sadomasochistic sense. (audience laughing) But in this black and white society, this society of polar
opposites of rigid codes, Emilia sort of sees, you know, there’s kind
of, there’s gray in there. There’s, you know, “It’s
not such a big deal “if a woman were unfaithful, is it?” And I find that a very poignant scene because, on the one hand, you might say that Emilia’s view of
the world is more mature or more real or grown-up or whatever, but you’ve got to admire Desdemona’s, “No, this is what I believe. “These are my ideals. “Right or wrong, I have
my vision of integrity,” and that’s one of the things that’s really impressive about her. – I don’t find that at
odds with the possibility that she is a young woman
who, herself, is trapped, just as he is trapped in his society, by the expectations of a very privileged, very wealthy daughter
of the top aristocracy who has no options in her life. None of the options
that are offered to her are of interest to her, presumably. – Yeah, presumably. – And she, this is her way out as well. And I, one of the things I appreciate about how Shakespeare
altered the material is to highlight how, you talked
about their complimentarity, but what she is trying to get. And so when I have seen one
production that explored, I wouldn’t say that it
painted her as a princess or as, you know, a kind of
nasty grasping character, but as someone who was looking
for how to get to her goals, which were not to be an imprisoned woman in that society, I found that quite successful. And that was that same
production I mentioned earlier, and it was played, I don’t, was “The Marvelous Mrs.
Maisel” shown here? Do you know that? So it was Rachel Brosnahan
who played Mrs. Maisel, so try to import that kind of personality into Desdemona and see what you get. – Hmm, I’m wondering if there are people in
the audience who might, there’s a gentleman with
his hand up already. (audience laughing)
– Yes. – Well–
– Whoa. – [Audience Member] I’ve
been waiting to hear “Who is Othello Today?” because I haven’t. – Ah, who is Othello today? Well, we’ve, I put forward my theory. – Well, he has an idea, I think. – [Audience Member] I believe,
if you go back to 2016, it was Hillary Clinton who
brought some problems on herself. Other people caused problems for her, and it all came together
into a legal nightmare, but only–
– And destroyed her? – [Audience Member] And
destroyed her, correctly. Comey coming up with the emails, the Obama administration not pointing out that Trump was in
conjunction with the Russians because they didn’t want to
be seen as being prejudiced, her bad campaign advice and that, and it all came together
and destroyed her. – Yeah.
– So you’re describing a kind of perfect storm – Yes.
– of evil (laughs) and of misleading and
incompetence, to some extent? – [Audience Member] Yes. – Yeah.
– That’s convincing to me. – I think, yeah, I mean, I
think Othello today is anyone who allows themselves to be deceived by lies, half-truths, conspiracy theories which seem, to me, to be
alarmingly on the uprise. I mean, I’ve been reading
a lot about Flat-Earthers, people who, and I thought
this was a joke from the past, but there are people, today, who are building homemade rockets to launch themselves into space to prove that the Earth is flat. (audience laughing) What, I, well there seems to me to be a, well, anti-vaxxers, for heaven’s sakes. I mean, there seems to be a growing gullibility amongst
the population at large, fueled by social media, the irresponsibility of which is becoming more and more apparent. So I think that the essential
dynamic of this play is Othello is us and Iago is, are all those people who want to, who have their own agendas, who have their own bizarre, twisted logic, who are desirous of promoting untruth, however illogical, however absurd, and getting us to believe it. – [Audience Member] So the
question should be, who is Iago? – Well, again, I think
Iago is just that person, that malcontent, the guy
in the basement plotting, going in white supremacist websites and plotting a shooting or, you know? It’s, well, who is Iago to you? – Well, I’m going with your incels. – OK.
– But I, to me, the question, I don’t say
that Shakespeare asks this, but I think a production of
the play asks us to ask this, which is, do we create our Iagos? I mean, we keep talking about these people as if they exist on their own like a weird species that arose, as opposed to, at least
partly, in response to what some of the rest of us, all well-meaning, may
be doing or not doing and, indeed, sometimes electing. – [Audience Member] That’s a
brutal (speech drowned out). – [Audience Member]
Because it’s presidential? (audience laughing) Oh, how they have you. – I think Desdemona, you were talking about the line when Desdemona said
– Yeah? – she did it to herself.
– Yeah. – Well, I think that Desdemona means that her passivity and her innocence, let’s face it, we have
to be pretty energetic to be innocent. And God bless, but this girl, she put it, she was energetically innocent, and look what it did to her. She was susceptible to
the Iagos of the world and to the innocents, like Othello, who are a little bit more
energetic than Desdemona. So her passivity did it.
– No one’s remarked– – Well, that’s an interesting thought. – That makes sense to me. Although I also wonder,
what could she have done? Let’s say she had had the
insight earlier in the play. – [Audience Member] Yeah, could you just repeat the question, David? – Oh, yes.
– Oh. – Sorry, we should have
repeated the question. Desdemona’s innocence,
her passivity, perhaps– – [Audience Member] You
have to be energetic to be that innocent. – You have to be energetic
to be that innocent. I’m not sure. You have to put effort into it. So maybe the thesis there is
she doesn’t try hard enough? – [Audience Member] No, what I mean is, you were wondering what that line meant. – Yes.
– And I’m saying, I think that’s her
realization, as she’s dying, that this was going on all around me and I had no frickin’ idea.
(audience laughing) – Oh, she–
– Right. – Desdemona realizes
what’s going on around her and she doesn’t, she says, “Up to this point, I had no idea.” And she should have been
more proactive, perhaps? – [Audience Member] I’m not
saying she should have been. I’m saying that’s the
explanation of her line. – I see, OK.
– That’s her understanding that she reaches before death. – Got it. – And I think that interpretation,
which is quite viable, is one that asks us to further ask, what could she, what could we do if we know the evil
that’s going on around us? She doesn’t because she keeps herself energetically in the dark. But let’s say she did,
a little bit earlier, what could she have done? What can we do? – Sir? – [Audience Member] Well, I think there’s another angle of approach
to look at all this. Both Othello and Desdemona
work in their own ways, pure and excellent. And maybe the lesson is
that purity and excellence cannot survive in a corrupt society. – So perhaps the lesson is
that purity and excellence, embodied in both Desdemona and Othello, cannot survive in a corrupt society? (sighing) I can only say
that I hope that isn’t true. I think we’re going through a
bit of a bad patch right now, but I have optimism that we will– – Well, but even in good
patches, there are many who argue that, you know, politics
is not a clean sport any more than love is. And that, so I, (laughs) well, (audience laughing) I’m neither agreeing nor
disagreeing with anybody. I just am saying.
(audience laughing) Well, I don’t know if you
followed the recent hubbub over comments that Joe Biden made about how he worked across the aisle with the people who he says,
you know, disagreed with him, but who we know were rabid racists. And he’s gotten into a lot of trouble for talking about
collegiality in the Senate and things like that. I think that’s a very good
argument to be having. But you do need to ask, how do we move forward when
people are so radically opposed in their points of view? And some of them may be
irrationally opposed, so do you, does being pure help you? Does being pure gets us anywhere
or do we have to be able to, maybe in the way you
were suggesting, have insight into our, the lack of energy we’re putting into understanding what’s really happening and doing something about it? – I mean, I think it’s interesting. I mean, I agree that Desdemona is not the most worldly
character in the play. The person that I think bears a wee bit of responsibility here is Emilia because she is worldly. She does know how things go. And the business with the handkerchief, this has always bothered
me about this play, she knows that that handkerchief is a kind of key piece of evidence. Why does she not say
earlier, “Wait a minute, “you’re going on about a handkerchief. “Well, I gave that.” She does at the end, when there are dead bodies strewn around, but she doesn’t do it up till then, which seems, to me, to be a far more culpable thing. She’s the one who should
be putting the effort into sort of seeing what’s going on, but she is in denial, I think. In this production, anyway,
I think we see quite clearly she is so desperate to win back Iago’s desire, interest in her, love, that she will do this thing that he asks. She will get that handkerchief
and give it to him and then kind of put it out of her mind until the consequences become so appalling that she can only say, oh. So I think there’s something in that. I mean, I think Emilia
is a wonderful character and I think she is not blame-free in this. And in fact, in the original story that Shakespeare took this from, or the Italian story anyway, Emilia knows everything that’s
going on all the way through and it’s not until the very
end when everyone’s dead that she sort of says, “OK, I can tell you what went on here.” (audience laughing) – She’s the narrator of the story, is she not, in the Italian? – Well, she’s, not in the translation I’ve read,
– Oh, OK. – but she’s the figure who has a way, so the only person
– Right. – in the story who is always
aware of what’s been happening. – [Jesse] Right. – (laughs) Which is– – Well, now there’s a lesson for us. – Yeah.
– Yeah. – Who else? Sir? – [Audience Member] When I
saw this program announced, I wondered if the festival was
going to posit a connection between “Merry Wives”
and “Othello,” both cases in which marital fidelity is a driver, and yet in which there was no infidelity. One’s a comedy that turns out great, and one a tragedy that
turns out tragically. Is there something there for us in the way that the festival
thinks of this pair of plays? – So the gentleman is noting that, you know, in addition
to “Othello,” this season, we have “The Merry Wives of
Windsor,” which is a comedy in which irrational jealousy plays a part and, in both cases, the
jealousy is unfounded. There is no extramarital
activity committed. And yet, in both cases, we have
an insanely jealous husband. And again, and the question really is, is there anything in that? Were we kind of consciously
making that pairing? I mean, that’s probably a question for our Artistic
Director, Antoni Cimolino, but I would say that we’re always, especially since we have
themed seasons, now, we’re always looking for
plays that fit well together. So I would say yes, very much so. You have one, you have
the Shakespearean comedy, the Shakespearean tragedy. Both feature jealousy as a part of their, and it becomes about, again, it becomes about
the ability of people to be deceived by absurd suggestions. It’s all about the
importance of actual trust and understanding and
knowing what’s going on. Ford in “The Merry Wives
of Windsor,” you know, clearly doesn’t entirely trust his wife, right from the start. And he has a counterpart in George Page, who clearly does trust his wife. These two husbands are cut
from quite different cloth even though they’re in the
same kind of social situation. So I think there’s a point there about, you know, (laughs)
don’t be a crazy guy. Don’t, you know– – Well, I saw “Merry Wives” last night, and whether the festival meant to engage that conversation
directly, they plays did. – Yeah.
– I mean, you can’t see one after the other and not
ask exactly that question. I would say what interests me particularly about “Merry Wives,” but it applies to “Othello”
as well, is basically the men are awful. (audience laughing) I mean, you, there’s also Falstaff in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” who’s a complete vain boob and is the subject of
the wives’ merry pranks. – Yes. – And you could, you can see these plays as indictments of maleness and of the ill uses of
maleness in their societies. – Yeah, absolutely. Lady, here, oh.
– Stand up. – [Audience Member] Well, thank you. OK, so in this era of
casting, modern-day casting, you know, we’ve seen
Martha Henry play Prospero, can one envision a female Othello? – Ah, so the lady’s asking,
given today’s casting practices, could we envisage a female Othello? Have you ever seen a female Othello? – No, and there’s, I’d, to
get a little clarification before we try to answer that, would, in “The Tempest”
that you’re referring to– – [Audience Member] No, I’m talking about blind-color casting, you know? – Yes.
– For Othello, is that– – But would she be playing a woman? – Well, maybe–
– Or would she be a woman playing a man? – [Audience Member] Well,
it could be like-minded. – OK, I think think a woman playing a man could work.
– You think that could be? – Yeah, yeah. – [Audience Member] So
you’re saying a woman would like did get it, Othello, as like a real Broadway Othello. – Off-Broadway. (David laughing)
(audience laughing) – Or at the Studio Theatre. – [Audience Member]
We’re gonna start working on it now, and Prosepro. – But she was–
– Prospera. – Yes, and they changed a few
words from duke to duchess and things like that.
– Yeah. – But, and I do think she
played her as a woman. You know, she was motherly, you know. We, it’s difficult here. I mean, one of the first incursions that women are getting
into these great roles is in non-romantic parts, of course. So that character is, does not have a love interest in the play. So it does–
– This is it. – Right, well, absolutely, I, let’s do it. – [Audience Member] That’s what we want. (audience laughing) You know, like it is old-fashioned to think that Othello has to be black. – Well, then you get
into the other question, which is that one of the purposes of colorblind or
colored-conscious casting is also to, you know, correct for decades and centuries
of under-representation of people of color onstage. So I wouldn’t want to see a white Othello as much as I would be interested in seeing a female black Othello. – I think, I mean, I think
the time may come when that’s, but you’re absolutely right, I think we’ve got some
injustices to redress, first. And yes? Yes. – [Audience Member] I think back to the “Merry Wives”/”Othello” parallel., it seems to me that one
of the big differences is that “Merry Wives” changed their rent for agency for the women. They are in charge. They talk to each other. They find out about each
other’s lives, you know, and as opposed to Emilia and Desdemona, who don’t seem to ever be able to connect on all those important things that might have helped
change the situation. They’re within a much more rigid society. – That’s a great point. – Yeah, the lady is pointing out that, in “Merry Wives,” the
women have agency in a way that the women in “Othello” don’t. And I think you’ve actually
answered your own point, or perhaps that the two worlds
are very different, right. “Merry Wives” is a very bourgeois society. “Othello” is largely a
kind of militaristic, rigidly-structured one. But anything to add to that? – Ah, no. (audience laughing) – (laughs) OK. – [Audience Member]
You just made the point that I’d us to talk about more of, and I mean, what makes “Othello” timeless, I mean that echoes through
the plays like “The Iliad,” it is the military structure, and that the answer in
a military structure is action and destruction. – That’s what it is.
– And not, not, I think that “Merry Wives,” we have a reckless mob at the end. We have Hugh and Falstaff
brought back into the community. But in a military structure,
you might have scapegoats and they pay a political consequence because they’re outsiders,
but they have a function. But the cancer is the
structure of the military. – No, that’s a very interesting point, and I wish I could repeat it verbatim. But in “Othello,” the military
structure of the society, there’s only a certain way
you can solve problems, and it’s by action, aggressive action. Somebody’s got to get killed,
I suppose it boils down to. In the world of “Merry Wives,” this bourgeois mercantile society, it’s much more a process
of negotiation, perhaps, if that’s a helpful way of looking at it. You can figure out ways
to solve the problem. These two women in “Merry
Wives” have the problem of this guy who’s pursuing them. They take it upon themselves to solve it by their own ingenuity, by a kind of entrepreneurial
spirit, if you like. – [Audience Member] But what keeps it, what keeps this play contemporary is that you can translate
this to any team sport, you know, whether to
extends these actions, before, talking about politics. And then, the cancer is the sport or the rigidness of the reward system, whether it’s military or
political, that that’s– – Are you a director, by any chance? – [Audience Member] No. (audience laughing) – The idea of transferring
it to the world of sports is a fascinating one. And we’ve, along with this production, we’ve seen many, now, set in barracks and in the specifically military world and I love that and I think it makes a
lot of sense of the play. But it would, I’d be quite
interested in the next iterations to see other worlds,
other contemporary worlds. I certainly don’t really want to see any more, you know, fake Venetiana in which the story might also make sense. – OK, we have time, I think, for one more, and this lady has her hand up. – [Audience Member] I think,
for me, there’s really a sense of, in “Othello,” of pure evil. And one of the reasons I would think that Iago can’t give a
reason is because he is evil. And Emilia is a collaborator. She knows the difference. And then, enter our victims, the public who, let’s say, in our world, vote for Trump,
(audience laughing) because they’ve been
persuaded by him, though. And there are the victims. But I don’t think Iago has,
he doesn’t have a reason, just like the, whatever he
is, the Deputy Prime Minister that I was reading about in
“The Times,” this morning, but of Italy or Hungary. These are people who don’t, I mean, their reason is pure, it’s inner hatred. And I mean, I have a
friend who went to school with Trump as a kid, and
she said he’s terrible. (audience laughing) – Oh, wow. I think we’ve just opened up another hour’s worth of conversation which, unfortunately, we do not have. Basically, the lady was saying there is such a thing as pure evil, and it’s currently a
resident, no, never mind. (audience laughing) Let’s not get into that. Thank you so much, everyone,
for being part of this. (audience applauding) It’s been a pleasure. – Thank you so much, Jesse and David. You are not pure evil. (audience laughing)
You were awesome. I’ll be very quick with this. Our “New York Times” Week continues with some exciting events that you will not want to miss. So on Saturday, in the Studio Theatre, “New York Times” culture
reporter, Cara Buckley, along with scholars and artists consider “The Crucible and #MeToo,” where they will discuss
Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” through the lens of the #MeToo Movement. And then on Sunday, we
have a loaded event. It’s gonna be awesome. Jesse returns with his
colleagues Cara Buckley and, Theater Editor, Scott Heller for a discussion on
politicizing theater coverage, in the Studio Theatre. Both of these weekend events
will also be livestreamed and available on our YouTube channels. So it’s a very exciting weekend for us. I hope that you can join us. Thank you again, and have a great day. (audience applauding) – Hey, thank you.

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