Keith Hamilton Cobb
The greatest difference between Elizabethan drama and contemporary American drama, it seems to me, is that the former is largely plot-driven and the latter is character-driven. In Shakespeare’s plays, or at least in Othello, characters, however unrealistically, do what the story demands of them in order for it to be told, much like a soap opera. We see it often in “B” horror films and other faulty cinema as well, where characters, in order to further the plot, do all manner of things that any self-preserving human being would never do. Whenever I experience this as an audience member, I immediately lose interest in the story, empathy for the characters and faith in the filmmaker. It always strikes me as much too avoidable a creative error. If it is not avoidable that the characters act like oblivious idiots, then the story probably has no business being told. It’s a “bad” story. The Shakespeare scholar, Harold Bloom, suggests that Shakespeare’s characters behave like human beings, in fact, that Shakespeare imbues them with depths of humanity that we of less heightened thought have absolutely no awareness is in us until Shakespeare, with Bloom’s help apparently, has shown us that it is. I would suggest without malice that, when it comes to Shakespeare in America, this is a practice of self-aggrandizing bullshit that white America perpetually sanctions itself to indulge. The fanciful narrative of white America that continues to be told is also a plot-driven story, with all of the characters fitting just as they must in order to serve it. The prevailing structures of power go to extreme lengths to maintain the telling of that fairy tale and push back hard when any aspect of it is seriously impugned. And here we are… Who gets to say who the characters in Othello are, why they do what they do and what tools they ply in attempting to achieve their various ends? Shakespeare? No, not for centuries. Harold Bloom and others assuming the role of the “Shakespeare-explainer?” They neither. If you give them space and time, care and feeding, a diverse company of actors in a rehearsal studio will discover it and show it to you. They may bloody themselves and one another in the process. Misogyny does that, so does racism and the myriad misuses of religion, all at issue in this of Shakespeare’s plays. Certainly the honest and in-depth exploration of these interacting energies would put a company of focused creatives in danger of doing the same, but then delivering a production to be considered that is no simple evening at the theater. Such ones, in earnest search of purpose, have often been willing to take the risk for nothing more than the promise of a meager wage, a middling creative return and some polite applause at the end of a three-week rehearsal process. What will such ones do for the opportunity to be part of something truly new, to do something as yet undone, to aim for something that even approaches transcendence? What will they show us about ourselves? Certainly not simply what we would most like to see… But I begin to get ahead of myself.
I’m not sure that attempting to superimpose realistic, contemporary human motivations and behaviors onto the antiquated operative structures of Shakespeare’s plays can cause anything but a train wreck. However, the practice of perpetually reproducing the museum piece of Othello—and my contemplating the reasons that anyone would want to—so greatly offends my sensibilities that I feel I must at least offer another perspective. A contemporary production of a 400 year-old play means neither here nor there. You cannot do King Lear, a play with a plot that hinges upon the writing, intercepting and mis-delivery of letters, if everyone carries a cell phone, or even has access to a land line for that matter. And yet, without the infusion of contemporary human reality onstage, a consideration of what contemporary people do as well as what contemporary audiences see, hear, and can understand, the form remains oddly lifeless. At the same time, the air of antiquity that permeates the work is also what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare. It was not written for us, and it is not Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. So, where to begin, and how to know when you are in fact telling a more truthful story? I like the idea of Shakespeare’s plays set in no place and no time, so that audiences cannot be distracted by trying to connect some heavy-handed director’s dots — “Look, 11thcentury Scotland is really the American West circa 1860!” — but must focus on the human beings and the pursuit of human objectives. This is not easy. If you have no swords, you cannot speak of swords in your text, nor call a gun a sword, or any other similar nonsense. It only continues to be distracting. As much as possible in my adaptation, I attempt to edit so that the human animals alone are left. There is very little room for obscure Elizabethan colloquialisms or utterances of questionable meaning that no one can prove even exist on the page in the form that the playwright intended. Even much that is perfectly clear need not be spoken, as its intention was ever to serve the melodrama and not the truth. Othello need not interject his instability and rage on voice at regular intervals from Act 3 onward. We can watch him feel it, fight against it; in the hands of any good actor that will be far more interesting than listening to him roar “O monstrous, monstrous!” and moan about the “Propontic and the Hellespont.” What the fuck are they anyway, and why should I give a shit? That was all a circus meant for a very different audience… We should remove from the mouths of characters anything they say that we should be able just as readily to see them do. Life is not spoken, it’s lived. It is a series of actions. That doesn’t mean that we can’t still “hear” the play as the Elizabethans did. But we require more exhibition than exposition. How honest does Iago actually appear to be if other characters are not constantly referring to him as such? And should he even appear to behonest? Or is it more realistic to have him struggle a bit as if he were not in fact the smoothest sociopath ever invented, while giving other characters the opportunity to appear remotely intelligent…like humans? There is extreme creative license required but ultimately, if the characters manifest as actual people and the ends they achieve as the most obvious results of their dysfunctional interactions appear plausible, perhaps such slashing and burning will be forgiven. If it is not forgiven, the most important conversation for the theater makers and audience going forward will be “why?”.
I’ll assume that there is a great deal about what Shakespeare wrote that works, certainly as poetry, and sometimes as acceptable drama. As an actor, I only really care about what’s in front of me. I will begin with a scene by scene analysis of Othello, and everything in it that, from my perspective, doesn’t work. Some of it I may be able to rectify in an editing of the script. Other of it is so egregiously nonsensical that there is no work-through nor work-around. Can Othello get to the end of the play with dignity? No. As written, he is the ultimate loser with largely himself to blame. But perhaps I can get him to his journey’s end with plausible reasons for having ended there. If I cannot, which is to say if I cannot find or if I must create reasons that make of him a fully drawn African-descended man of accomplishment, intellect, strength, and purpose who sadly but quite realistically self-destructs, then it seems the only reason to have made him an African-descended man at all must have been to make him a joke. And I cannot and will not abide that.