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Othello on Stage
by Garry Walton, Meredith College
The history of Othello is in part a history of how the title role has been played, and by whom. Though repeated productions of the play have demonstrated that Iago, not Othello, is in many ways the starring role, the part of Othello is crucial. Without a strong Moor at the center, the play cannot succeed.
Though it is impossible to know what makeup or costume Burbage wore in this role, it may be that his stage appearance owed something to the illustrations of national costumes and races portrayed by the Italian woodcut artist Vecellio in 1598.
Vecellios sketches show 1598 Venetian fashions.
Here Vecellio depicts a courtesan, a Moor, and a newly married Venetian lady.
Whether or not he knew Vecellios woodcuts, Burbage would have certainly known of the Moorish ambassador to Queen Elizabeth, depicted in the following portrait from about 1601.
The Italian Salvini was the first Othello reported to have struck his Desdemona.
The illustration for Nicholas Rowes 1709 edition, showing a black Othello in British army uniform, reflects an 18th century stage tradition and may depict Betterton.
This illustration from Hanmers 1743 edition of the play shows an Othello at once darker and more domesticated than Rowes. It may be based upon the dignified performance of James Quinn, who wore an English military uniform, a large powdered wig, and white gloves over blackened skin.
The most famous Othello of the 19th century was Edmund Kean, whose great innovation in the role was to portray Othello as a tawny Moor, not a Negro.
Kean stressed the Oriental nature of Othello in props and costume as well as color. In the famous final scene, he entered Desdemonas bedchamber with a lighted lamp in one hand and a naked blade in the other.
The first black to play Othello was Ira Aldridge. A Maryland native, he was accepted on stage only in England and Germany in the 1830-1840s.
Though Aldridge played Othello in Germany and Russia, he was not welcome to enact the role in antebellum America.
Contemporaries report that Edwin Forrest (1840s) enacted Othello with an unexpected scale and fervor of the passions. He was reportedly a robust, vigorous, muscular actor with a magnificent voice.
Mantell returned to the Oriental look for his performance early in this century.
Robeson opened in London in 1930 with noted stage actors. Reviewers and audiences focused most on seeing a Negro make love to a white woman and throw her around.
When Paul Robeson as Othello kissed Uta Hagen (Desdemona) on Broadway in 1943, it marked the first time a black actor kissed a white actress on a major American stage.
The most famous stage Othello in this century was Laurence Olivier, who played a dark, ferocious primitive and said: Its tremendously sexual because its a black man.
Oliviers exotic casual dress stressed his intimacy with Maggie Smiths Desdemona.
Olivier and Billie Whitelaw mimic the earlier pose of Quayle and Jefford, with the added contrast of skin tones.
Just as Olivier was wowing London audiences with his black-faced portrayal of Othello in 1964, a young black American called Jim Jones was beginning his New York run in the part. He is shown here in 1981 in a Broadway performance with Christopher Plummer.
This performance stressed Othellos age more than his race.
Baritone Willard White and Ian McKellen starred on stage in a 1990 Stratford production.
The recent film continues to dramatize the inter-racial love story, now nearly 400 years old.
The R-rated films ad campaign stressed the sensuality of the story.
But as the following painting illustrates, the sensuality of this play was being emphasized long before the 1995 film.
Here is a link to a great site on the Web for artwork inspired by Shakespeares plays: