Sunday, December 23, 2007

Alice in Christmasland

Was his name Lewis "Christmas" Carroll? Not really. (It wasn't even Lewis Carroll, come to that.) But Lewis Carroll has been associated with Christmas long before Dell'Arte and Ferndale Rep both decided to do their Christmas plays based on his writing, here on the North Coast.

Since the mid 20th century, it was Walt Disney who linked Alice in Wonderland and Christmas in the American mind. Even before his animated movie version was completed, he showed a scene from it as part of his Christmas television special in 1950, co-hosted by the young Kathyrn Beaumont, who provided Alice's voice in the film. When his Disneyland show became a weekly series, he featured an hour version of the movie as his Christmas shows in 1954 and again in 1964.

All this is revealed on the two disk DVD of the Disney movie, still the best known dramatization of Alice. Moreover, the digitized DVD version reveals its breathtaking use of color, and of course the kind of sumptuous and witty animation that just isn't done anymore. (The people who made Yellow Submarine must have watched it many times.)

Alice has been dramatized many times for the stage (including ballets and musicals, and experimental dramas by the likes of Andre Gregory, whose early 1970s version is immortalized in a book of photos by Richard Avedon) and in movies and TV, where the usual practice became to fill the many brief roles with well-known actors and comedians of the time.

Jonathan Miller did a 1966 television version with Peter Sellers, John Gielgud and music by Ravi Shankar. Ralph Richardson and Michael Crawford were in a 1972 film, with Alice played by the future "Bond girl," Fiona Fullerton. There was a 1985 version, scripted by Paul Zindel and with music by Steve Allen, that featured Donald O'Connor, Martha Raye, Telly Savalas, Shelley Winters, Sid Caesar and Ringo Starr. Kate Burton was a charming Alice in her first credited role in 1983, co-starring with her father, Richard Burton, as well as Nathan Lane and Maureen Stapleton. And a 1999 TV movie featured Martin Short, Robbie Coltrane, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lloyd and Miranda Richardson with Jim Henson's puppets. (All of these and more are available on DVD.)

Charlotte Henry as Alice in the 1933
film, with script by Joseph Mankiewicz.
Posted by Picasa

Kate and Richard Burton in a 1983
TV Alice
Posted by Picasa
Stage versions of Alice in Wonderland go back so far that Charles Dodgson (the well-born clergyman who taught mathematics, and wrote for children under the name of Lewis Carroll) saw some, and even reviewed one for a London periodical. He regularly attended the theatre, and though he thought its public nature gave theatre the responsibility to depict moral behavior, he also defended it to his more severe fellow Christians. Lewis Carroll wrote plays himself, although the scripts aren't readily available, and as far as I can tell were performed as amateur theatricals for children, and by children.

From Dell'Arte's production of Lewis Carroll's
The Hunting of the Snark. (You can glimpse the
Tardis in the background, though strangely, the
Doctor is never mentioned.)
Posted by Picasa
This Christmas season, Ferndale Rep did The Party, an adaptation of the Mad Hatter scene in "Alice," written by Vikki Young, as their annual school matinee. It's described as teaching "the importance of manners," and manners certainly were central to "Alice", even when they were being dissected and demolished.

For its Christmas show, Dell'Arte dramatized a famous Lewis Carroll nonsense verse narrative, "The Hunting of the Snark." I didn't see the Ferndale show, but I did see one performance of this one, at the Van Duzer Theatre.

 The costumes (by Lydia Foreman) and set (by Jody Sekas) were terrific, and the ensemble of actors was first rate. In retrospect, I wished I'd seen it in a smaller venue (or that I'd been closer to the stage), because that kind of intimacy with the characters may have compensated for the lack of engagement I felt, which I attribute to the script and its approach.

Ever since then I've been trying to figure out why I wasn't crazy about this show. There wasn't much of a story, so while many parts were funny--characters, costumes, bits--there wasn't enough to either carry it along or give it any substance. This show tried to more or less literally translate the poem into action, though what makes it a funny and engaging nonsense poem isn't the action. It's most often the language (which this show did try to feature) and sometimes the incongruities on the page (like the blank nautical map) that don't quite have the same impact on stage. Of course, other elements have more impact--like seeing the costumes and masks move and interact. But verse can carry itself forward with rhythm and clever surprises. That's harder to sustain on stage.

Also the poem is very English, and very much a product of its time. Some of the referents are so obsolete as to be incomprehensible, like "bathing-machine," and even some of the key images in the refrain, so familiar to children of Carroll's time, are remote from the experience of today's children, or unknown:

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

One reason the Disney film succeeds (it seems to me) is that it successfully suggests Alice's English late 19th century world. So many of Carroll's nonsense verses are based on real verses that well brought-up children of Alice's era were expected to memorize and recite. The Disney film suggests this very economically, and can be a way into the book itself on that score (as it was, I believe, for me as a child.) But out of context, even some of the characters in "Snark" may be incomprehensible to children and others of today.

But even though unknown words and unfamiliar character types can still be funny, nonsense depends on contrast with sense, and successful caricatures and parodies of character types depends on knowing what the characters are supposed to be like, and how they are supposed to behave. Much depends on knowing these character types, especially when they are taking themselves very seriously, just as the vaudeville antics of the Marx Brothers (for example) often depends on some idea of what doctors, lawyers and professors, or down on their luck con men, are supposed to be like. At least before the Marx Brothers themselves became icons. And if you don't know from experience what they're like, you should get some idea from how they are portrayed. If they are only ridiculous, they lose the contrast.

It may be that the rigidity of categories and stereotypes is important--if not essential--to nonsense. What makes it nonsense is the nonsensical person or action (or combination of words) is playing it absolutely straight. Since the English upper class was notoriously stuffy, and yet also known for harboring eccentrics who embody living nonsense to some degree, the way is prepared for the kind of nonsense that Carroll creates. Clowning (which probably began as parodying the stereotype of the country bumpkin) and physical comedy, plus masks and costumes can do this, but it can also go too far into itself.

What does work, and I imagine especially for children, is that Carroll creates likeable characters that do translate to stage and screen. So the characters the actors create can delight on their own, at least for awhile. I guess what I am missing is the other layer, especially since in this case the literal story is not very interesting.

The literalization of a fanciful tale, while always tempting, can also have hidden dangers. Seeing imagined figures in brilliantly costumed splendor can be great fun. But seeing the imagined action acted out is perhaps something else.

For example, in the play as in the poem we're told that there is a kind of Snark called a Boojum, which causes the person who captures it to vanish. And in the play as in the poem, the Baker finds a Snark and vanishes, "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see." (According to Carroll, this last line of the poem was the first that came to him, out of the blue while he was walking.)

But reading the lines has quite a different effect than seeing the action. In the poem, the Baker vanishes, and that's the end. In the play, the Baker essentially dies, and the other characters react to that. That's a big difference in mood and in the kind of play it is, and whether the death is appropriate or appropriately handled become questions. It's not nonsense anymore.

All of this may itself be nonsense. Many people saw the show and it seems most enjoyed it thoroughly. Carroll was creating nonsense for children, so it was about the authoritative inconsistencies of adults, but also about those strange creatures called words and numbers, as well as about fantasies responding to the natural world and the world of dreams. Perhaps this approach works for its primary audience, the children in the dark.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

August Wilson Century Cycle

Posted by Picasa

August Wilson's Legacy

August Wilson's legacy lives. In fact it's probably only getting started. Audiences in Washington will have the opportunity to see all of his 10 plays this spring, in the order of the decades of the 20th century in which each is set, and that approach is likely to be repeated elsewhere in the coming years.

Within the theatre world, it's particularly vital. In the new issue of American Theatre, there's an interview with playwright Lucy Thurber, whose play, Scarcity, dealing with an American working class family, is printed in the issue. Thurber recalls a conversation with Wilson at the O'Neill summer playwrights conference. "I write about poor white trash," she told him. "Are you trash?" he asked her. "No," she said, "I'm just using it as a descriptive term to explain that part of the population." But Wilson said, "Again, I ask you, are you trash? Are the people that you grew up with trash? Are the people that you love trash?"

"That was a huge, emotional moment for me," Thurber said. "Where it cracked, this play was born. The language we use about ourselves is important. There is something about having the courage to talk with dignity and trust and faith about these parts of America that are us."

August Wilson wrote about the African American experience in America. But the way he wrote about it has clear lessons for all writers, as Lucy Thurber learned first hand.

Also in that issue, there is a piece by Teresa Eyring, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group that publishes that magazine as well as the August Wilson Century Cycle collection of his plays, described below. She notes that Wilson was involved in preparing for the publication, and that at the publication ceremony his widow, Constanza Romero, talked about what this publication would have meant to August, had he lived to see it. Eyring went on to extoll the process of developing each of Wilson's plays--a process that he and his collaborators essentially invented--as a model for other new plays.

Here is more about the August Wilson Century Cycle, published by Theatre Communications Group, and available for Christmas giving from your favorite booksellers:

T’is the season of the boxed set, but this one has more significance than the usual holiday gift repackaging. This is the first physical embodiment of a singular achievement—ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, which together tell a long story of African American survival. It is the first time the plays of August Wilson have been collected to tell that story chronologically.

Since Wilson completed the cycle shortly before his untimely death in 2005, the nature and extent of this achievement is slowly being recognized. No American playwright of any color has come close to a series of ten major plays like this, or participated in the acclaimed productions of all their plays. Many others helped this process in vital ways, but even so it’s fair to say that August Wilson transformed and enriched American theatre as no individual has ever done.

From Gem of the Ocean (set in 1904) to Radio Golf (1997) and including Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Jitney and The Piano Lesson--each play is carefully true to its time, yet there are few historic events even mentioned, and the characters are ordinary people—predominately in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood. The most obvious virtue of these plays is their language—a version of black speech that is at once authentic and Wilson’s own poetry-- and this alone makes these plays unusually good to read as well as to see performed.

With this set it’s possible to feel the changes and the continuities in African American culture through the century. The reader is aided in this by recurring and even legendary characters, and by ancestors and descendants in the same family—and perhaps most hauntingly, in the fate of a single house.

In this boxed set, each play has a foreword by such luminaries as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, playwright Tony Kushner, writer Ishmael Reed, actor Laurence Fishburne and former theatre critic Frank Rich. Kushner writes that Wilson grappled with theological questions: “Eugene O’Neill, the playwright August Wilson most resembles, did that.” Reed writes that Wilson’s “ear was so good that his character’s words could be set to music.” Fishburne quotes favorite lines from “Two Trains Running” (he was in its first production, along with Samuel L. Jackson): “Freedom is heavy. You got to put your shoulder to freedom. Put your shoulder to it and hope your back holds up.”

There couldn’t be a better introduction to Wilson’s work than the intro to the series by New Yorker drama critic John Lahr. The cover for the set has a great photo of the author, taken in the last year or so of his life. The set lists at $200 and can be purchased for $126, so it’s definitely a gift item. And if you don’t have someone to give it to, think about gifting your favorite local library.

If you haven't seen an August Wilson play yet, take the next opportunity (which may be the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Fences next season) or you could even track down a used DVD or video of The Piano Lesson, which is the only Wilson play to be adapted for the screen so far (it was a TV production for the Hallmark Hall of Fame, directed by long-time Wilson collaborator, Loyd Richards. Or follow Toni Morrison's lead and read the plays, possibly the most readable around, even for people who don't usually read plays.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

The Nutcracker returns this weekend.
Posted by Picasa

This North Coast Weekend

It's Nutcracker time. The annual North Coast Dance production directed by Danny Furlong is at the Arkley Center in Eureka now. It opens Friday at 8, and continues Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at various times. See North Coast There's a preview by Wendy Butler in the ER and one by Betti Trauth in the T-S.

The Very Playhouse Christmas continues at the Arcata Playhouse but with one change: the Saturday matinee has been cancelled. But the Sunday matinee is still on (2pm) as are the Friday and Saturday evening shows (8 pm). Willi Welton reviews it in the ER. Bob Doran writes about it in The Hum column in the Journal, with a lineup of guest artists for this weekend.

The Hunting of the Snark returns to Dell'Arte's Carlo Theatre tonight and through the weekend (Fri., Sat. and Sunday) at 7:30pm, with admission charge.

At North Coast Rep, Fiddler on the Roof enters its final weekend, as does Charlotte's Web at Ferndale Rep.

Finally, it's not often theatre makes news hereabouts, but the T-S did a story on the Arkley Center at first accepting then refusing the annual production of The Vagina Monologues, which benefits local organizations dealing with victims of sexual violence. That the owners of its rival paper the ER and the Arkley Center are the same (they're named after the Center, not the paper) probably has something to do with the story appearing in the T-S (and not the ER). And we may not have heard the end of it, since sponsors were hoping that the Eureka venue would mean more revenue, and are asking North Coast citizens to contact the Arkley Center and politely show their support for this cause and this show (which the Center reportedly deemed "controversial.") Plans at present are for the show to go on at HSU, as it usually does.

Update on the Vagina Monologues story: a different version of events in the Eureka Reporter and another take in the Town Dandy Journal column.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

Johanna Hembry and Robin DiCello in
Relative Captivity, world premiere of the
"bold new play" by Margaret Thomas
Kelso, in its final weekend at HSU.
Posted by Picasa

This North Coast Weekend

Relative Captivity begins its last weekend at HSU tonight at 7:30. Betti Trauth reviewed it (favorably--that's where the "bold new play" quote above comes from) at the T-S. It finishes its run Friday and Saturday. Info: HSUStage.

Tomorrow night (Friday, Dec. 7) Four on the Floor begins two weekends of a Very Playhouse Christmas: A Family Friendly Holiday Revue at the Arcata Playhouse. Jacqueline Dandeneau, Elizabeth Masters and Tyler Olsen perform, directed by David Ferney, spicing up holiday sentiment with satire and clowning around. The show plays Friday, Saturday and Sunday of this weekend and next, starting at 8 pm, with afternoon shows on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM. Different special guests are expected at various performances, including Lila Nelson, the Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir, the Blue Lake Children's Choir and the Dell'Arte student clown band. 822-1575.

Continuing: Dell Arte's Hunting of Snark at various locations, Fiddler on the Roof at NCRT and Charlotte's Web at Ferndale Rep.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Early Fiddler

Several years ago I happened upon the galley of Ghost Light, a memoir by Frank Rich, in the discard box at Northtown Books. I picked it up, amused to speculate that I was probably one of the few people in Arcata who knew who Frank Rich was, and very probably the only one who had known him personally. Not only that, but the last time I saw him, I'd been lamenting about the lack of publisher interest in my proposed book on the arts in America, and he said he was having trouble finding a publisher for this book. I didn't know it was being published. And now the book found me.

He was still theatre critic for the New York Times then--he's since become a political and cultural columnist (and has published several more books.) He'd taken me to lunch that day at Orso, a great Italian restaurant in Manhattan that was his favorite. But we'd met years earlier, when he was an editor (and the film critic) at a weekly national magazine called New Times. (Completely unrelated to the publication of that name today.) He was my first editor there. I wrote several articles for him while I was living in Cambridge, Mass. and eventually met him when I Amtraked down to Manhattan. A few years later, after Frank moved on to review film for Time Magazine, New Times devoted most of an issue to my piece, "The Malling of America."

But it was only earlier this year that I actually read Ghost Light, and learned all kinds of things I didn't know about Frank. I knew he grew up in Washington, but I didn't realize how much theatre had been a part of his childhood and adolescence. Both of his parents, and later his stepfather, encouraged this devotion. As a teenager he even got a job at the National Theatre.

We are close to the same age, so I recognized a lot about the cultural context of his experiences. But I couldn't match his experiences with theatre. At that lunch he flattered me by referring to my "obvious love of the theatre." But I had nothing like his background in seeing Broadway shows, especially in the era of Washington as a tryout town.

This memoir is about more than shows or even growing up in the 50s and 60s. He writes about his mother and father as individuals, and about the complexities of his step-father, who helped him in many ways, but who also was physically violent. It's an absorbing, very readable book.

But the point of bringing it up here is Fiddler on the Roof. As an adolescent, Frank spent summers at an arts camp in Stockbridge, Mass. His closest friend there was named Harry Stein. That was another big surprise for me. I also knew Harry Stein--he was an editor at New Times after Frank left, and then at Esquire. I visited him at the Esquire offices once and he introduced me to Nora Ephron. (Harry later wrote a column on ethics for Esquire and became known as the "ethics guy.") But I didn't know that Harry and Frank knew each other, and certainly not that Frank and Harry were boyhood friends.

Nor did I know that Harry Stein's father was Joseph Stein, the man who wrote the play, Fiddler on the Roof, as well as many others. According to
Wikipedia, his show biz career began with a chance encounter with Zero Mostel, leading him to write for various radio stars and then as part of the legendary writing team for the Sid Caesar television show (along with Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner.) He is apparently still writing, by the way--this article mentions a 2007 musical based on Thorton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, that had its first production at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut--a storied theatre where in recent years Westporters Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward have been heavily involved.

It turns out that Frank and Harry were present for a lot of the early history of Fiddler, and Frank writes about it in Ghost Light. Joe Stein was going through a bad patch in his career. His last few musicals hadn't gone well, and his TV series was being regularly ridiculed on That Was the Week That Was, a wonderful early 60s satirical TV show that I completely loved at the time. So Harry--and then Frank--were worried from time to time that his new show was going to be another flop.

Joe had permitted Frank and Harry to witness the very earliest manifestation of the musical he based on stories by Sholom Aleichem: a backer's audition. It happened one night after dinner at the Stein's apartment, while Joe read from the script while the composer played the songs on the piano and the lyricist sang them. This was the first pre-production, mimeographed script Frank had ever read. At that point, the show was entitled The Old Country.

But it was several years before the show got to an actual stage. It had changed producers, its title and its star--now it was Joe Stein's first inspirer, Zero Mostel. The first thing that worried Harry and Frank was the title. They thought Fiddler on the Roof was silly, and might doom the show. "Harry and I admitted to each other that it sounded like a children's show, not a real Broadway musical. What was wrong with The Old Country?"

After a tryout in Detroit (where it got unenthusiastic critical notices), Fiddler came to Washington in the summer of 1964. Neither Frank nor Harry had seen it when they were allowed to attend what they thought was a dress rehearsal. They were shocked by the lackadaisical behavior of Zero Mostel. He sang a song that sounded like gibberish to them, which he interspersed with obscene gestures directed at director Jerome Robbins, who he despised. Harry and Frank pleaded with Joe Stein to cut that terrible song, called "If I Were a Rich Man."

After the rehearsal, Harry was especially upset. "I can't believe it," he said. "I can't believe my father has another bomb."

But despite their trepidations, when they saw the first performance they were entranced from the opening number, "Tradition." " soon as the orchestra played its last note, I looked at Harry," Frank writes. "His face was plastered with a smile, and I saw him share it with his father..." The audience loved the show.

It turned out that they had seen not a dress rehearsal but a technical rehearsal, which is all about getting light cues correct and so on. The actors were just walking through parts of scenes. And of course, "If I Were A Rich Man" is probably the best remembered song from the show.

During its Washington run, Fiddler was Frank Rich's first theatrical adventure as a kind of insider. He and Harry went to every show, made some friends, had a crush on one of the actresses. This is one of the fun parts of the book, which is definitely worth finding and reading, even if it doesn't present itself to you in a free box.

Fiddler Delights

Ariel Graham as Golde and Brad Curtis
as Tevye in the current North Coast Rep
production of Fiddler on the Roof.
Posted by Picasa

Fiddler Delights at NCRT

Now to Fiddler on the Roof. First a review of the current production at North Coast Rep, and then some additional dialogue.
It seems like a long time ago now. Not only the late 19th century when the tales about Jews in Czarist Russia written by Sholem Aleichem took place, or even 1905, when Fiddler on the Roof (based on those stories) is set. But also the early 1960s when this musical was created: when several generations of European immigrant families were leaving their ethnic enclaves in cities and towns, and moving into mainstream suburbia. In a way, this voluntary exodus echoed the forced relocations—such as the one haunting this play--that brought many immigrants to America. All kinds of traditions and mores were changing and under attack from prosperity and the beginnings of 60s rebellion, and the infamous Generation Gap. This play’s story was as much about the time and place of its first audiences as it was about 1905.

It wasn’t too late either for ethnic-based entertainment, so pervasive in the 1950s, to have a last big moment. So Fiddler on the Roof premiered at just the right time—and of course it didn’t hurt that it was produced by Hal Prince, directed by Jerome Robbins, with songs by veterans Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, and script by Joseph Stein.

So can it play in 21st century Humboldt County? By now it’s a classic, with well-known and singable songs, and many of the other virtues of the golden age of musicals (some say it was the last of that era.) Generational issues at the heart of the story have become perennial, and a local audience can respond to the decidedly non-glitzy, rural town characters. As evidenced by the current production at North Coast Rep, the opening number, with the large cast shouting out “Tradition!” gets the audience to immediately identify with the events on stage. It’s a match.

The central character of Tevye, the milkman, was written for the supreme comic skills of Zero Mostel. Perhaps because we usually see Brad Curtis in leading man roles, funny lines at the beginning of the show didn’t connect the night I saw it. But his initial stiffness made his singing and movement in the classic “If I Were A Rich Man” song all the more appealing—it’s one of the most memorable moments in the show. Curtis’ rich, warm voice is superior, both singing and speaking, so as he relaxes into the role, he takes the audience with him.

As his wife Golde, Ariel Graham hits all the right notes, both comic and domestic (Joe Stein, who authored the play, started out writing for the Sid Caesar TV show, and its easy to see Caesar’s favorite partner, Imogene Coca, in this performance.) The Curtis-Graham second act duet, “Do You Love Me?” is another highlight.

Adina Lawson also excels at comedic acting as Yente, the Matchmaker. Denise Blase (with an especially fetching voice), Shaelan Salas, Nanette Vos (also the admirable Music Director) and Mara Fuller all shine as the daughters of Tevye and Golde, whose marriages form the central action of the story. In fact the whole cast of 38 performs well, under the delightful direction of Dianne Zuleger. Together with Rebecca Rubenstein’s choreography, the staging invisibly supports the action—and the “dream” sequence is a special treat.

The backing band (Laura Welch, Bethany Wells, Heather Benson, Jill Petricca, Julie Froblom, Elizabeth Halvorsen and Adam Bruce) also did well, even being as far back (and invisible) as it was.

The fast-moving first act was so involving that when guests at a wedding onstage applauded, so did some of the audience. The second act is more somber and seems less finished, but overall this Fiddler is a resonating success.

Monday, December 3, 2007

North Coast Auditions

As yet another possible service to North Coast stages, I'll see if I can keep up with audition information. So yon theatres, send it to me and I'll post it.

For instance, Ferndale Rep: a call for actors and actresses of color, ages 18-30, for a production of the rock musical "Hair" opening April 3 for a five-week run. All ethnic groups are encouraged to audition. Directed by Vikki Young, musical direction by Tom Phillips, choreography by Linda Maxwell. Please call the Rep at 786-5483 or email to schedule an appointment.

Also from the Rep: auditions for its 15th Annual All Teen Production, Bang, Bang, You’re Dead, by William Mastrosimone, on MONDAY, DECEMBER 17, and TUESDAY, DECEMBER 18th from 5:30PM to 7:30PM at the Carson Block Building, the third floor, 517 Third Street, Old Town, Eureka. Director Nanette Voss is seeking interested teens, ages 13-21 years, for as many as 20 roles for this drama on school violence. This production will be taken on the road to county high schools.

PRODUCTION DATES are March 6 – 28, 2008. During the four weeks in March, performances will take place not only at the Rep but also at three area high schools. These school performances will be held in assemblies in the mornings and afternoons on specific week day dates. There will be a Q&A with actors after each show.

Actors - Be prepared to read cold from the script and to discuss school violence. Scripts are available on line. Type in and search “Bang, Bang, You’re Dead” and the script can be downloaded onto your computer. For more information, please call the Ferndale Rep at (707) 786-5483 and ask for Marilyn or call Nan Voss at (707) 407-6234.

Paul Robeson as Othello, with
Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona
Posted by Picasa

Othello: The Pharma Interpretation

I'm way behind here. Let's see if I can catch up in the next couple of days.

First, the last bit about Othello. I ran across an intriguing theory about something that Shakespeare may have intended, and may have made sense to his first audience. We know that in addition to using old texts, Shakespeare was inspired by the latest news--the first forays of ships to America, for instance, and the science of his day. Which leads to something like a pharmacological component to Othello.

It depends in part on what kind of a Moor Othello is supposed to be. I tend to believe he's a northern African--I put more weight on the various mentions of Berbers and Barbary (real peoples and place) rather than the references to Othello being black--a relative term, since anybody not as white as a bleached Briton would be comparatively black, and the term is used metaphorically at times as well. (I even count as evidence Desdemona referring to her mother's maid "called Barbary" who sang the 'Willow' lament even as she died, which Desdemona then sings, and as Emilia does as she dies.)

The intriguing thesis is unfortunately buried in a dense feminist deconstructionist argument, but here's the gist: Othello's epilepsy may have been hereditary, and related to the fits of seers and prophets. A treatment for epilepsy was an Egyptian medicine, the kind derived from the gums of certain trees that Othello refers to in the play. And the special handkerchief that Othello reveres, as passed down to him by his father, was saturated with that medicine. Which is partly why it was so important to him.

This sense of Othello also relates to the "spells" which which Desdemona's father believed Othello charmed her. In any case, the themes of illness have fascinated a lot of scholars, who write about not only Othello but Iago, Casio and Desdemona. What interests me is what Shakespeare knew or believed, and what he knew his audience believed.

By the way, there's another production of Othello coming up this summer--starting June 3 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.