Friday, October 12, 2007

In black and white: A question of Othello?

I’ve been looking at Othello – or rather, I’ve been looking at the skin of Othello. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve watched several versions of the play on DVD and, as a result of a point raised by in a comment (by Ian Thal), I have been not so concerned about the issues raised by the play’s text as about whether a white actor can still ‘black up’ and play the lead.

The answer is obvious – of course they ‘can’ - but then a more troubling word SHOULD replaces the can.

The more I thought about the question, the greater the tangle of ideas became, spreading out wider and wider through many aspects of both theatre and modern life. Three key questions did emerge however:

1. What effect does the social environment an audience lives in have?
2. Is this a question of Politics or Theatre?
3. Is this about typecasting?

I’ll try to tackle each of these issues in turn over my next three posts.

1. What effect does the social environment an audience lives in have?

There is no doubt in my mind that the social context is important to all performances of all plays – that performing Othello, for example in Northern Cyprus will have a considerably different impact from performing it in Moscow; a performance in a Burnley High School for a bunch of very mixed-race-and-religion teenagers, will not carry the same meaning as exactly the same production performed in a pub in Buxton.

All four of the locations chosen above are known to me – I’ve lived and/or worked in each of them. A white actor blacked up would have a varying significance to each member of the audience in each of those locations – but a more generalised reaction is likely to occur.

I suspect few in Moscow would even be aware of an issue existing – it would be considered ‘OK’. There is a frequently-aired-on-TV classic film about Pushkin where the main role is played by a famous Russian stage actor, blacked-up. I find it strange that, in a deeply racist modern Russia, the National Poet is not only thought to have been dark skinned, but to have had slave ancestry: A white actor playing him is ‘normal’ – and his mixed race origin almost a source of pride. Shakespeare’s plays are considered classics and what matters is the quality of the actor – and the idea of quality acting in Russia is something I will return to in a latter post.

Northern Cyprus is somewhat different: Essentially a Muslim country, the location of the setting of the second half of Othello and very ‘British’ in many respects. Again, I have a sneaking suspicion that there would be little impact in the white actor Othello – as long as he ‘Blacked-up’ and didn’t go for the last-year’s-trend of lighter skinned muslim-ish Othello (after the Ottoman envoy picture). I can even imagine Turkish actors happily blacking up to play the part themselves (the ‘uncircumcised dog’ line would have to be cut though)!

What both of these societies have, which they would bring to the performance, is a different focus from modern American and British society with regards to social issues and colour. The word black does not carry the same resonance – in Russia a ‘black’ is anyone who is not essentially fair-skinned: Georgians are blacks to the Muscovite, as are Chechens, and people from Dagestan.

On Cyprus, Greekness and Turkishness are far more relevant than skin colour – Religion, language and culture are so much ‘at issue’ that Othello’s skin could be viewed almost as a tone rather than a colour: In Gazimagusa (former Venetian stronghold on the island) he would be a representative of a defeated European Christian colonial power, and his otherness just an aspect of a greater weakness and disunity which soon resulted in the Ottoman takeover.

The two locations in England bring up a whole set of different attitudes and there is a greater blur between the political and social concerns people will bring to a performance.

Colour and religion are connected in the UK – and the issue of Othello’s ethnicity carries a greater weight, with a different distribution, than in many other societies (including, I suspect, ‘Christian’ USA). Othello has to be ‘surface other’ – he can be other ‘olive’ he can be other ’black’ – but other is essential. But Othello must also be ‘us’ – homo – in both the sense of humankind and oneness: He is ‘yin and yang’ – he is innocence and experience: Angel and devil.

He is homo-genius and homo-simpleton!

In the contemporary mixed race, mixed religion, mixed-gender school, Othello becomes an internet of issues and concerns – a white male actor assuming skin colour is not a ‘nigger minstrel’ – and is; he is both a unity of Britishness and a relic of Elizabethan Englishness and ‘Blackamoor’ attitude.

A ‘black’ male actor – let us say with Caribbean antecedents – looses some of that friction but replaces it with others – race and mixed marriage is strangely brought more to the fore – a white actor, albeit with a black face, is still a white actor – a real black actor is black! In cosmopolitan London this might not signify – in working-class, mixed race Burnley, with its strong far-right nationalisms, it does.

And modern DNA analysis is digging up all sorts of skeletons – African genes brought into Britain with the Romans – and happily bouncing around in the gene pool of the whole of the British Isles ever since. Not to mention the realisation that a sizeable proportion of the 50’s immigrants from Jamaica and the other colonies were carrying not only the slave bloodline but that of the white slave masters mixed forcibly together.

Popular television programmes and national educational requirements mean that some of the audience in this school would know these things – and, hopefully, apply them to the questions raised by the play and its casting.

But what if the actor is neither ‘white’ male nor ‘black’ male – but Pakistani male? Or Jewish? Or Chinese? Each and every one represented in that school audience.

Surely all have a right to an Othello?

A couple of hours car drive away and you could be sitting the pub in front of the Opera House in Buxton during the summer festival – watching a performance of Shakespeare’s Othello (the Opera House would have Verdi’s take – where the question of painted singers doesn’t even raise a butterfly’s wind beat of doubt). Here you are much more likely to have a middleclass, ‘educated’ audience – used to theatre conventions and aware of the ‘classic’ issues – with a degree of respect for the traditions and an eagerness for novelty.

Would race feature in their thoughts more than gender? Is this a question of prejudice or of class? Good and evil in battle for the soul or greed and materialism as a source of the contemporary decline in culture and standards?

Yes, there would be a nod in the direction of should they/shouldn’t they black-up – but after all, this is the theatre – suspension of disbelief and all that – not to mention our own sophistication and the real issues of the play.

I know I am oversimplifying all four potential audiences - but there is a degree of truth (at least as I have witnessed) in all four representations.

As for answering the question, “Should a white actor black up to play Othello?” Well, I think I’ve got as far as yes – and no.

More intriguing a question is, “Could a black actor play Iago?”

(To be continued.)


Tom Basili said...

Othello was a Moore. This is what the Arabs were called who invaded Sicily and Spain during the middle ages. They are not black in the sense that an African American actor is needed. The question is still the same.. why are not Middle Eastern men given this role??? Surely African Americans can identify with the racism Othello receives so it is understandable to our culture for Othello to be played by black actors. However, there was and is still racism towards Arabs for their skin color as well as other reasons. So shouldn't we really ask.. is a Middle Eastern man needed for this role or can a white man "arab up"?? Can a black American "Arab up"??

Alan K.Farrar said...

Thank you for the comment - but the word Moor was a shortened version of the word Blackamoor meaning people with black skin - and certainly included Arab as well as sub-Saharan African. Queen Elizabeth complained about the number of black people in England (scotching the idea that Shakespeare had never seen a black person). There is an image from the time of an actor dressed like a 'Negro' (most likely in a black woolen costume and with face blacked) thought to be from another Shakespeare play.
This certainly doesn't negate your comment on the modern interpretation and 'blacking up'!

Tom Basili said...

I agree with you that moor came to include Arabs and Berbers as well as sub-Saharan Africans, but at the time it was the Arabs and Berbers that the name referred to. The term blackamoor was an adaptation of the word "Moor" which itself is from the original Greek and Latin words mauros and mauri respectively, meaning dark or tanned.
Below is a dictionary definition:
Moor - noun
Middle English More, from Anglo-French, from Latin Maurus inhabitant of Mauretania
Date: 14th century

1 : one of the Arab and Berber conquerors of Spain.

Perhaps Shakespeare himself can show us that "blacks" were distinguished as being different from Moors. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is described as being like a jewel hanging from an "Ethiop's ear" referring to the black skin of an Ethiopian contrasted against a bright jewel. Would Shakespeare not have said from a Moor's ear if moors were black? The contrast between a moor's arab colored skin is not as bold as it is against the skin of what we would identify as "black". Therefore these are two separate groups of people of recognizably different skin tones.

Alan K.Farrar said...

But that does not deal with the point in Elizabethan England the word meant a much wider group - and internal references within the play make it clear that Othello was a 'slave' and 'BLACK ram'.
The idea of Othello as Middle Eastern was partly a product of the racism of earlier Shakespearean scholars who couldn't accept a black, intelligent, dignified Negro; partly a product of the mistaken view that Shakespeare had no contact with real black people. In fact, there was an active, thriving black community in London at the time.
There is also the issue of the English links with the Turkish court and visits by Ottoman ambassadors - mistakenly taking the 'Turk' as 'Arab' - the Stanislavki 'black-up' picture at the head of the article reveals more about Bad History and late 19th Century attitudes than Shakespeare's original Moor.

Alan K.Farrar said...

This extract might be of interest to people following both this exchange and the Othello Posts: