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The Theater: Wounded Animal

3 minute read
T.E. Kalem

Othello needs to be retrieved even more than it needs to be revived. Of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, which include Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth, Othello has become increasingly less accessible to modern audiences and actors. There are several reasons for this. To the contemporary playgoer, the Moor’s marital jealousy is more amazing than it is convincing, and the evidence of the telltale handkerchief seems unbelievably flimsy. Today’s audiences are also more interested in lago’s psychologically obscure malignity than in Othello’s open nature and loftiness of soul.

For the actor, the pitfall in recent years has been to regard Othello as a racially conscious black instead of the Elizabethan he always was and always will be. Thus Olivier was the embodiment of a calypso Othello, with a Caribbean accent and swagger. The highly stylized, slightly exotic Othello of Moses Gunn might have been a Cotton Club dandy. In the current revival at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, James Earl Jones makes of Othello a wounded animal, a Jack Johnson in agonized decline.

Poet in Uniform. In each instance, the high poetic music of the play has been jangled and the nature of Othello obscured. While Othello sometimes speaks with direct and simple beauty (“Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them”), he often cloaks himself in more ornamental phraseology, and this silver rhetoric is lost on tongues of clay.

Othello is a poet in uniform, a dreamer on the field of combat, but never rude or crude—which Jones tends to forget. The Moor is not the toughest boy in the barracks but a man obsessed by romance, heroism and honor. He dwells in images and on them. Even in the act of suicide, he summons up an image of how he once smote a circumcised dog of a Turk. His love of Desdemona is a kind of image of love. His heart breaks when lago tarnishes that image, long before Desdemona herself is actually destroyed. Neither Olivier nor Gunn nor Jones has been able to convey this. Thus none of them has struck any consuming emotional fire out of the Othello-Des-demona relationship.

Misplaced Mirth. The Desdemona of the present production would cast a chill on any Othello. Jill Clayburgh is beyond her depth both artistically and temperamentally. She may well have seen the inside of a Seven Sisters college, but never for a single instant does she convince one that she has walked in the court of Venice, or even rumpled her hair, let alone been heart-ravished. As lago, Anthony Zerbe is the happiest casting choice. He brings a silky, insidious plausibility to the role, which at least accounts for Othello’s so persistently believing him to be “honest.”

In the career of James Earl Jones, the evening is a sad disappointment. The brute force and self-assured cockiness that he brought to The Great White Hope are of no use in Othello. Another of Jones’ traits, his warm, winning deep-down, irrepressible mirth, is similarly irrelevant, and actually damages some lines and scenes. His aspiration may be applauded, but his performance must be deplored. T.E.K

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