Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Othello/me": Racial Drag and the Pleasures of Boundary-Crossing with Othello

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

"Othello/me": Racial Drag and the Pleasures of Boundary-Crossing with Othello

Article excerpt

In Othello, the boundary between Self and Other is famously, and perilously, permeable. Othello's assimilationist efforts to claim a selfhood within the Venetian community leads, for him, to a fatal hybridity: he ends, as Ania Loomba and others have discussed, as the Venetian instrument for slaying the foreign infidel within himself. (1) What I want to examine here is how, in Othello's performance history, the self/ other boundary has long been felt to be permeable in the other direction as well. For centuries, firsthand reports from both actors and audiences have centered on a common theme: the profound emotional intensity of watching or performing the role of Othello, an intensity very frequently (and perhaps surprisingly, given Othello's status as an "extravagant ... stranger") attributed to a profound identification with the character's emotional experience.

From its earliest stage history, Othello seems to have aroused strong audience responses: a 1610 letter describing an Oxford performance mentions that the actors "drew tears not only by their speech, but also by their action." (2) The particular strain of response I am interested in here, however, is one reported again and again by white audience members and by white (or part-white) actors: the experience, both unnerving and deeply pleasurable, of the loss of ego boundaries, as Othello's tremendous passion overtakes and even overwhelms the actor who plays him, and "swells" or "surges" out into the bodies of those who watch him perform. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Spranger Barry's immensely popular Othello--known for its slow-building crescendo from from "dignified and manly forbearance of temper" to "wildness of rage" and "extravagance of passion" (3) -- seems to have given pleasure because it allowed audiences to experience the crescendo of emotion along with him. (4) According to one satisfied reviewer, "[t]he very frame and substance of our hearts was shaken, as if ... we swelled and trembled as he did." (5) Another member of the audience enthused that at the climax of the "volcanic" performance

   [y]ou could observe the muscles stiffening, the veins distending, and the
   red blood boiling through his dark skin--a mighty flood of passion
   accumulating for several minutes--and at length, bearing down its barriers
   and sweeping onward in thunder, love, reason, mercy all before it. The
   females, at this point, used invariably to shriek whilst those with stouter
   nerves grew uproarious in admiration; for my own part, I remember that the
   thrill it gave me took my sleep the entire night. (6)

In the early nineteenth century, Edmund Kean's acclaimed performance of the role was praised for being, in the words of Blackwood's magazine, the "most terrific exhibition of human passion that has been witnessed on the modern stage." Like Barry's, Kean's Othello generated language of surging and swelling, of pressure exerted against barriers that might not hold: he was like "the heaving of the sea in a storm," his inner torment "threaten[ing] ... to burst out into a volcano." Watching Kean opposite William Charles Macready's Iago, George Henry Lewes remarked "how puny he appeared beside Macready, until the third act, when, roused by Iago's taunts and insinuations ... he seemed to swell into a stature which made Macready appear small." The emotional effect on the audience was as powerful as that of Barry's. His voice, wrote Hazlitt, "struck on the heart like the swelling notes of some divine music, ... [laying] open the very tumult and agony of the soul." At the conclusion of Kean's performance, Lewes reported, "old men leaned their heads upon their arms and fairly sobbed." Byron wept. For at least one audience member, the emotional intensity crossed the line from exciting to just plain terrifying, haunting him even after he left the theater: "I was frightened, alarmed; I cannot account for what I felt. I wished to be away, and saw those eyes all night . …

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