Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

The Blackfaced Bard: Returning to Shakespeare or Leaving Him?

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

The Blackfaced Bard: Returning to Shakespeare or Leaving Him?

Article excerpt

As Dympna Callaghan has argued, "Othello was a white man" (Callaghan 75-96). That is, he was originally created for, and performed by, the white Renaissance actor Richard Burbage. Despite the modern production history to the contrary--with its long line of famous black actors performing the eponymous role--the part and the play were not written for black or even dark skinned actors. Instead, Othello was a white man in blackface makeup. In turn, Elise Marks has posited that black actors who play Othello have been received more coolly by film and theatre reviewers than white actors because "only a non-African knows how to be the perfect African, at least for the emotional fantasy-use of a thrill-seeking white audience. A real black actor ... has too much independent selfhood getting in the way" (Marks 117). Although Marks does specify how this "fantasy-use" performance of blackness ought to be staged in practical terms, several other scholars and practitioners have advocated for a return to blackface productions of Othello. Despite the fact that these scholars and practitioners disagree on theoretical grounds, they nonetheless come to similar practical conclusions: that Othello should not be performed by a black actor and, thus, blackface must be a viable performance option if productions of Othello are to continue.

I list four examples at length because it is important to analyze how these scholars and practitioners grapple with the factors that impact the semiotic significances of blackface performances of Shakespeare. For example, in 1997, Sheila Rose Bland, a freelance actor and director, argued that a modern performance of a:

blackfaced Othello would be seen by the audience, both black and white, as "other"--an outsider--a caricature. This would alienate and cause discomfort to the audience. By casting "real" blacks to play Othello ... Shakespeare's original intent in writing Othello may well have been cloaked.... To see an actual black man kissing an actual white woman on stage is a powerful image--but one that misrepresents an even more powerful image on stage intended by Shakespeare: to see a white man in blackface kiss a white man in woman's clothing. (Bland 31 & 38)

The following year, Hugh Quarshie, the celebrated black British actor, made a similar argument when addressing the University of Alabama Hudson Strode Theatre. Quarshie declared:

if a black actor plays Othello does he not risk making racial stereotypes seem legitimate and even true? When a black actor plays a role written for a white actor in black make-up and for a predominantly white audience, does he not encourage the white way, or rather the wrong way, of looking at black men.... Of all parts in the canon, perhaps Othello is the one which should most definitely not be played by a black actor. (Quarshie 5)

Likewise, Hugh Macrae Richmond has argued that "a more accurate title for the play would be Iago, acknowledging that, because of [the audience's] superior knowledge of [Iago's schemes], we can never identify fully with Othello's overtly mistaken point of view" (Richmond 94-95). Because of this interpretation, Richmond questions the modern tradition of casting black actors to play Othello.

The irony is that such casting invites a non-aesthetic identification with the actors as truly representatives of the historical victims of just such condescension, which is potentially at odds with the author's more objective intent, to display the tragic fact that racism may distort its victims' own behavior.... [W]e might identify less with the emotional extravagance of Othello if we know he is not acted by someone of actual African descent. (Richmond 96)

More recently, Virginia Mason Vaughan has argued that "a major ingredient in the audience's fascination with the Moor is the pleasure of seeing the white actor personate a black man and knowing that this is what he or she is seeing" (Vaughan 97). …

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