“Why, how now, ho! from whence ariseth this? / Are we turn’d Turks, and to ourselves do that / Which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?”
Othello Act II, scene iii.
Daniel Spector’s version of Othello is compressed and concise, which is a blessing in the dog days of summer, in a black box theater that can’t run air conditioning and stage lights at the same time. Though the cuts to the script leave a couple of faint scars, the staging of what remains is coherent and convincing. The actors do their part too, reciting their lines with the modest truth, nor more, nor clipped, but so. Nothing ruins Shakespeare like languorous, rambling delivery that tries to get out of the poetry’s metrical straightjacket. And some clever stage and light design heighten the intimacy between the performers and the audience.
Adam Reich’s approach to Iago is solid and workmanlike. He is sinister and obsequious, shifty and earnest, clever and foolish by turns, and the turns all happen in the right places. Othello, like most of Shakespeare’s greatest work, is about solidity and mutability, what you can count on and what you are foolish to credit, and Iago is the villain who most transparently, that is honestly, spins his web of lies. This problem — of solidity versus mutability — is the core problem that gets reworked by generation after generation of theater folk.
Some critics, like Victor Hugo, conceived this problem as a metaphysical one. Hugo imagined Othello as the unstable half of the metaphysical dyad of day and night:
Now what is Othello? He is night. An immense fatal figure. Night is amorous of day. Darkness loves the dawn. The African adores the white woman. Desdemona is Othello’s brightness and frenzy! And then how easy to him is jealousy? He is great, he is dignified, he is majestic, he soars above all heads, he has an escort bravery, battle, the braying of trumpets, the banner of war, renown, glory; he is radiant with twenty victories, he is studded with stars, this Othello: but he is black. And thus how soon, when jealous, the hero becomes monster, the black becomes the Negro! How speedily has night beckoned to death!
Chinaza Uche plays Othello in this register. Mr. Uche, who has displayed his mercurial talents in roles as diverse as construction worker Brendan Sullivan in Honey Fist, The affable Dr. Peter in Hearts Like Fists, and Demetrius the student in the ten minute play Poor Posturing, rises to Hugo’s hyperbolic vision of the Moor by paradoxically exercising formal constraint for the first four acts of the play, and only letting the majestic rage of the Moor explode onto the stage in the final, tragic movement. Though the other actors keep their American accents, Mr. Uche affects an accent that sounds alien but unplaceable. Dressed in a kakhi uniform, he reminds me of Forest Whitaker playing Idi Amin, which seems to be the best possible choice for the Moor in New York in 2013.
Why does Othello as Idi Amin work so well today? In part because our contemporary cultural assumptions about race, in particular race in sexual relationships, have become thoroughly Romanticized. I use the word in the literary-historical sense of a discourse of individual freedoms and rights, the most important of which is the right to love whom you wish. For us, it’s a foregone conclusion that fate or, or kismet, or whatever brings a person together with their life-mate. But for Europeans in the early 17th century, many if not most marriages of the upper classes were arranged. This was partiucularly so in socially conservative Italy, the setting of the play, though it was also true in somewhat more liberal England.
Brabantio’s line “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: / She has deceived her father, and may thee,” which was cut from this production, must have sent shivers down the spine of every man in the Globe Theater. The family, conceived as a microcosm of the state, operated (more in theory than practice, to be sure) by the rules of a strict hierarchy legitimated by (a male) God. Honor and duty maintained justice and equilibrium in the world, as everyone knew and respected their place, as well as the places of their betters and their inferiors. Daughters accepted the wisdom of their fathers, whose primary goal in life was to preserve and promote the interests of the family.
Exogamy — sending daughters to live with the families of their husbands — was the general European rule, and the fact that the Moor has already abandoned whatever of his kin remains alive to live in Venice means Desdamona’s defection won’t result in any awkward cross-cultural family dinners. In this sense they really do embody the Romantic ideal of a chosen — rather than inherited — family. But because their relationship is based on choice, something that comes from inside them, and not on God’s law, it is, as Iago makes sure to point out, subject to dissolution if the preferences or tastes on which they based their choices change. And you don’t have to be a genius to see that a taste for novelty or adventure will become bored if the novelty isn’t continually renewed.
We might think of this as an example of Early Modern jungle fever, and Iago is happy to cast the marriage of Othello and Desdamona in those terms. But “moor” in Early Modern England was not simply synonymous with “negro.” Moor also connotes muslim, and though Othello may have been born a Christian or converted to Christianity, as a “moor” his very being is infused with a the law of an alien God that is the enemy of the Venetians Othello serves.
The Ottoman Empire reached its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries, knocking on Vienna — Europe’s backdoor — in 1529 and again in 1683. At its height, it rivaled Ancient Rome in the extent of its territorial conquests. At the same time, North African pirates from semi-independent Barbary states like Tunis played both sides of the battle between the Europeans and Turks, sometimes acting as an arm of the Turkish navy, and sometimes working as European mercenaries, as Othello seems to do. There was good money in piracy, and some Englishmen made immense fortunes “turning Turk” and joining the Barbary pirates as ship captains. The Dutch, chafing under Charles V, also surreptitiously supported the pirates by giving them the latest naval technology to revenge themselves on their hated Spanish overlords. If it’s possible to imagine an modern analog, however imperfect, Othello working for the Venetians would be like the United States hiring Osama bin Laden to fight against the Soviet Union. Oh wait, that actually happened.
Complicating matters further, the Reformation had brought the dependability of God’s law, given through Christ, into question. The Catholic Church and its representative on Earth, the Pope, were no longer guarators of that law in places like England where Luther and Calvin taught people to look inside themselves to understand the divine will. The Reformation privatized God, which had the unintended consequence of making it impossible to know who was really godly and who was a devil faking piety in order to seduce the faithful. At least the Turks had the courage of their convictions. The Europeans were dangerously changeable in their loyalties, which they excused by appealing to an invisible, untestable “conscience.”
Under the rule of conscience, every European might be a law unto him or herself, which is exactly why Brabantio despises Desdamona’s appeal to conscience dressed as love in her unilateral decision to marry Othello. It is worth noting too that Iago is a Florentine, not a Venetian, which alludes to the fact that the Italian city states fought between themselves as fiercely as the Christians against the Turks. Indeed, if we look through the paranoid spectacles of an Englishman in 1603, all we see in Italy are Christians who would rather slaughter each other with strategems than put aside their fractious pride and fight the living embodiment of evil in the world.
For modern audiences, Othello’s blackness, his Muslimness, and his intensity all support our current ideas about the authenticity of the Other, which ideas recognize their ancestors in the anxiety of Christian Europeans over the unified front the Turks presented in 1603. Mr. Uche plays on these deeply held modern feelings of guilt and xenophobia masterfully when he acts the part of a post-colonial African dictator who has been totally embued with the European discourse of human rights, but who, we fear, may revert to his traditional culture, which is the source of his power and authenticity, as soon as it serves his purpose. Mr. Uche’s Othello is as expansive — as seductive, as profound, as terrifying — as night, which makes this already entertaining performance into a powerful theatrical experience.
Sometimes it seems like we see Shakespeare out of a sense of duty. Especially those folks who could give a fig for ye olde culture and get chills and thrills from reality TV must see Shakespeare as a duty to get through rather than a potentially life-changing, soul-enriching experience. I thought someone like that was sitting next to me during the performance. She was figeting for the first hour, and after her cell phone disrupted the show, she didn’t even bother turning it off, anticipating, I suspect, some more important call in the near future. But when Laura Piccoli as Desdamona pleaded for her life, and Othello tore his soul to shreds deciding whether or not to destroy the love of his life, this woman started crying tears of deep (hopefully cathartic) feeling. That’s the proof of good theater.
At Access Theater until June 30th.