Othello: A Brief Production History

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Othello's first known performance was on November 1, 1604, at Whitehall Palace in London, when "the Kings Maiesties plaiers" performed "A Play in the Banketinge house at Whit Hall Called The Moor of Venis" attributed to "Shaxberd". It was staged on 2/ 30/1610 at the Globe Theatre, and at Oxford in 9/1610. On 11/22/1629, and on 5/ 6/1635, it played at the Blackfriars Theatre. The King's Men performed Othello in winter 1612 for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick V, Elector Palatine. At this time, the Arabic identity of Moors was known to Londoners through an embassy.

At the Restoration, on 10/11/1660, Samuel Pepys saw the play at the Cockpit Theatre. Nicholas Burt played the lead, with Charles Hart as Cassio; Walter Clun won fame for his Iago. On 12/8/1660, Thomas Killigrew's new King's Company acted the play at their Vere Street theatre, with Margaret Hughes as Desdemona, probably the first time a professional actress appeared on a public stage in England. Unusually Othello was never modified during the Restoration and the 18th c. but it was severely attacked by Thomas Rymer over the "blackamore" character of its hero. Othellos in the 19th c. included Edmund Kean, Edwin Forrest, Ira Aldridge, and Tommaso Salvini, and noted Iagos were Edwin Booth and Henry Irving. Actors alternated the roles of Iago and Othello since the 19th c. as with William Charles Macready and Samuel Phelps at Drury Lane (1837) and Richard Burton and John Neville at the Old Vic Theatre (1955). On Edwin Booth's tour of England in 1880, Henry Irving invited Booth to alternate the roles of Othello and Iago with him in London. James O'Neill also alternated the roles of Othello and Iago with Booth.

In the USA Margaret Webster's of 1943 starred Paul Robeson as Othello and Jose Ferrer as Iago, the first in America with a black actor as Othello with an all-white cast. Another black American actor, William Marshall (1924-2003), performed the title role in at least six productions. Harold Hobson of the London Sunday Times called it "the best Othello of our time," continuing: "...nobler than Tearle, more martial than Gielgud, more poetic than Valk. From his first entry, slender and magnificently tall, framed in a high Byzantine arch, clad in white samite, mystic, wonderful, a figure of Arabian romance and grace, to his last plunging of the knife into his stomach, Mr Marshall rode without faltering the play's enormous rhetoric, and at the end the house rose to him." His Othello was recorded in 1964 with Jay Robinson as Iago and on video in 1981 with Ron Moody as Iago. The 1982 Broadway staging starred James Earl Jones as Othello and Christopher Plummer as Iago.

When Laurence Olivier gave his acclaimed, intensely "African" performance of Othello at the Royal National Theatre in 1964, Frank Finlay played Iago. It was recorded on LP, and filmed in 1965 with Maggie Smith as Desdemona and Joyce Redman as Emilia, but this recorded performance has lately been severely censured as racist. However, the role was still played by Paul Scofield at the Royal National Theatre in 1980, Anthony Hopkins in the BBC Shakespeare television production (1981), and Alan Ayckbourn directed Michael Gambon on stage at Scarborough in 1990: the last British blacking-up permitted for Othello. The Royal Shakespeare Company ran Othello on the main Stratford stage in 1999, with Ray Fearon as hero. In 1997, Patrick Stewart played Othello with the Shakespeare Theatre Company (Washington, D.C.) in a "photo negative" production of a white Othello with an otherwise all-black cast. Such provocative recastings of the role are now acceptable, with theatre companies casting Othello as a woman or inverting the gender of the whole cast.

[Data courtesy of the Yorck Project, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share- Alike License (Wikipedia)]

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond