Othello

Performance history

Pre-20th century

Othello possesses an unusually detailed performance record. The first certainly known performance occurred on 1 November 1604, at Whitehall Palace in London, being mentioned in a Revels account on "Hallamas Day, being the first of Nouembar", 1604, when "the Kings Maiesties plaiers" performed "A Play in the Banketinge house at Whit Hall Called The Moor of Venis." The play is there attributed to "Shaxberd".[34] Subsequent performances took place on Monday, 30 April 1610 at the Globe Theatre, and at Oxford in September 1610.[35] On 22 November 1629, and on 6 May 1635, it played at the Blackfriars Theatre. Othello was also one of the twenty plays performed by the King's Men during the winter of 1612, in celebration of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick V, Elector Palatine.[36]

At the start of the Restoration era, on 11 October 1660, Samuel Pepys saw the play at the Cockpit Theatre. Nicholas Burt played the lead, with Charles Hart as Cassio; Walter Clun won fame for his Iago. Soon after, on 8 December 1660, Thomas Killigrew's new King's Company acted the play at their Vere Street theatre, with Margaret Hughes as Desdemona – probably the first time a professional actress appeared on a public stage in England.

It may be one index of the play's power that Othello was one of the very few Shakespearean plays that was never adapted and changed during the Restoration and the eighteenth century.[37]

As Shakespeare regained popularity among nineteenth-century French Romantics, poet, playwright, and novelist Alfred de Vigny created a French translation of Othello, titled Le More de Venise, which premiered at the Comédie-Française on 24 October 1829.

Famous nineteenth century Othellos included Edmund Kean, Edwin Forrest, Ira Aldridge, and Tommaso Salvini, and outstanding Iagos were Edwin Booth and Henry Irving.

20th century

The most notable American production may be Margaret Webster's 1943 staging starring Paul Robeson as Othello and José Ferrer as Iago. This production was the first ever in America to feature a black actor playing Othello with an otherwise all-white cast (there had been all-black productions of the play before). It ran for 296 performances, almost twice as long as any other Shakespearean play ever produced on Broadway. Although it was never filmed, it was the first lengthy performance of a Shakespeare play released on records, first on a multi-record 78 RPM set and then on a 3-LP one. Robeson had first played the role in London in 1931 in a cast that included Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Ralph Richardson as Roderigo, and would return to it in 1959 at Stratford on Avon with co-stars Mary Ure, Sam Wanamaker and Vanessa Redgrave. The critics had mixed reactions to the "flashy" 1959 production which included mid-western accents and rock-and roll drumbeats but gave Robeson primarily good reviews.[38] W. A. Darlington of The Daily Telegraph ranked Robeson's Othello as the best he had ever seen[39] while the Daily Express, which had for years before published consistently scathing articles about Robeson for his leftist views, praised his "strong and stately" performance (though in turn suggested it was a "triumph of presence not acting").[40]

Actors have alternated the roles of Iago and Othello in productions to stir audience interest since the nineteenth century. Two of the most notable examples of this role swap were William Charles Macready and Samuel Phelps at Drury Lane (1837) and Richard Burton and John Neville at The Old Vic (1955). When Edwin Booth's tour of England in 1880 was not well attended, Henry Irving invited Booth to alternate the roles of Othello and Iago with him in London. The stunt renewed interest in Booth's tour. James O'Neill also alternated the roles of Othello and Iago with Booth.

The American actor William Marshall performed the title role in at least six productions. His Othello was called by Harold Hobson of the London Sunday Times "the best Othello of our time,"[41] continuing: "...nobler than Tearle, more martial than Gielgud, more poetic than Valk. From his first entry, slender and magnificently tall, framed in a high Byzantine arch, clad in white samite, mystic, wonderful, a figure of Arabian romance and grace, to his last plunging of the knife into his stomach, Mr Marshall rode without faltering the play's enormous rhetoric, and at the end the house rose to him."[42] Marshall also played Othello in a jazz musical version, Catch My Soul, with Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago, in Los Angeles in 1968.[43] His Othello was captured on record in 1964 with Jay Robinson as Iago and on video in 1981 with Ron Moody as Iago. The 1982 Broadway staging starred James Earl Jones as Othello and Christopher Plummer as Iago, who became the only actor to receive a Tony Award nomination for a performance in the play.

When Laurence Olivier gave his acclaimed performance of Othello at the Royal National Theatre in 1964, he had developed a case of stage fright that was so profound that when he was alone onstage, Frank Finlay (who was playing Iago) would have to stand offstage where Olivier could see him to settle his nerves.[44] This performance was recorded complete on LP, and filmed by popular demand in 1965 (according to a biography of Olivier, tickets for the stage production were notoriously hard to get). The film version still holds the record for the most Oscar nominations for acting ever given to a Shakespeare film – Olivier, Finlay, Maggie Smith (as Desdemona) and Joyce Redman (as Emilia, Iago's wife) were all nominated for Academy Awards. Olivier was among the last white actors to be greatly acclaimed as Othello, although the role continued to be played by such performers as Donald Sinden at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1979-1980, Paul Scofield at the Royal National Theatre in 1980, Anthony Hopkins in the BBC Television Shakespeare production (1981), and Michael Gambon in a stage production at Scarborough directed by Alan Ayckbourn in 1990. Gambon had been in Olivier's earlier production. In an interview Gambon commented "I wasn't even the second gentleman in that. I didn't have any lines at all. I was at the back like that, standing for an hour. [It's] what I used to do – I had a metal helmet, I had an earplug, and we used to listen to The Archers. No one knew. All the line used to listen to The Archers. And then I went and played Othello myself at Birmingham Rep I was 27. Olivier sent me a telegram on the first night. He said, "Copy me." He said, "Do what I used to do." Olivier used to lower his voice for Othello so I did mine. He used to paint the big negro lips on. You couldn't do it today, you'd get shot. He had the complete negro face. And the hips. I did all that. I copied him exactly. Except I had a pony tail. I played him as an Arab. I stuck a pony tail on with a bell on the end of it. I thought that would be nice. Every time I moved my hair went wild."[45] British blacking-up for Othello ended with Gambon in 1990, however the Royal Shakespeare Company didn't run the play at all on the main Stratford stage until 1999, when Ray Fearon became the first black British actor to take the part, the first black man to play Othello with the RSC since Robeson.[46]

In 1997, Patrick Stewart took the role of Othello with the Shakespeare Theatre Company (Washington, D.C.) in a race-bending performance, in a "photo negative" production of a white Othello with an otherwise all-black cast. Stewart had wanted to play the title role since the age of 14, so he and director Jude Kelly inverted the play so Othello became a comment on a white man entering a black society.[23][24] The interpretation of the role is broadening, with theatre companies casting Othello as a woman or inverting the gender of the whole cast to explore gender questions in Shakespeare's text. Companies have also chosen to share the role between several actors during a performance.[47][48]

Canadian playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald's 1988 award-winning play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) is a revision of Othello and Romeo and Juliet in which an academic deciphers a cryptic manuscript she believes to be the original source for the tragedies, and is transported into the plays themselves.[49]

21st century

Othello opened at the Donmar Warehouse in London on 4 December 2007, directed by Michael Grandage, with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello, Ewan McGregor as Iago, Tom Hiddleston as Cassio, Kelly Reilly as Desdemona and Michelle Fairley as Emillia. Despite tickets selling as high as £2000 on web-based vendors, McGregor and Reilly's performances received largely negative notices. Ejiofor, Hiddleston and Fairley all received nominations for Laurence Olivier Awards, with Ejiofor winning. Stand up comedian Lenny Henry was the latest big name to play Othello. He did so on a tour at the start of 2009 produced by Northern Broadsides in collaboration with West Yorkshire Playhouse.[50]


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