Passion, Romance, and Intrigue in "Othello"

Themes of jealousy, passion, and betrayal in Shakespeare's "Othello" are as gripping today as they were in the 18th century, says Performing Arts Manager Todd Norris. March 12, 2007


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Todd Norris, and in Colonial Williamsburg, he’s manager of performing arts. I wanted to ask you about something specific, that is the Williamsburg Playhouse of 1760, which you a couple of years ago, found and now are taking advantage of. What do you do with that, what do you do with the information and the knowledge?

Todd Norris: Well, I think in this case, we’ve used that information as a catalyst to look for more information with an ultimate goal of providing a lot more detailed, accurate scholarship about the nature of not only that specific playhouse, but colonial playhouses throughout the colonies of the period. I think ultimately, we would love to see this structure rebuilt. That’s certainly a long-term goal and a long-term project. In the short term, we can use the scholarship that we’ve discovered to give us a better idea of how theaters were built, how they were used, how they were maintained, how the businesses were operated, because really, until the Revolutionary War, theater is a very, very popular pastime for the gentry, and even some of the better-off middling sorts, because it does play such a major role in life, it’s something that we want to get a much fuller, richer portrait of.

Lloyd:  If I remember what you told me once before, you said that 1750s, if I am remembering correctly, theater was very, very popular.
Todd: Very popular. It’s very common, particularly in Virginia. Some of the Northern colonies were much less supportive of the arts in general. The theater was sometimes thought of as a frivolous pastime, a waste of money, and could possibly lead you down the garden path to hell. (Laughs.)

Lloyd: That sounds like New England to me.

Todd: In Virginia, we take a much less critical view of the theater and such pastimes. It’s very popular mid-century, and like I said, right up to the Revolutionary War, we have documentation that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson were very avid theatergoers, and would go oftentimes 15, 20 evenings in a month to the theater.

Lloyd: Let’s do the business end of it. I know how theaters operate now. Did they operate the same in the 18th century?

Todd:  Well, there are some similarities. What we find a lot of reference to is the theater managers, the managers of the company, who oftentimes could also be the lead actor, they don’t have directors per se by that title, but managers, manager-actors are oftentimes putting ads in newspapers offering subscriptions to plays, offering series, or offering benefit performances, and that’s something you don’t see as often today. They might advertise a benefit for a particular actor. The majority of the take for that night’s performance would go to supplement that one particular actor’s income.

Lloyd: You’ve got a weekend coming up, “The Williamsburg Playhouse of 1760 and the World of 18th-Century Theater,” as part of which, you’re going to present a performance of “Othello,” which strikes me as a curious pick for a weekends’ entertainment. I was reading some ads that said it made grown men cry, and ladies faint, or swoon, I think was the word they used. I guess it’s as good a pick as any other, it’s been around since 1604, ’05. Was it the first Shakespeare performed in the colonies, or only one of them?

Todd:  It was one of them. We believe that the first Shakespeare presented was “The Merchant of Venice,” but “Othello” holds a very, very prominent place in colonial American Shakespeare performances. It was performed many, many times. It was performed in Williamsburg in 1752, and performed all over the colonies on a regular basis. It was very, very popular.

In fact, it holds a special place in our Colonial Williamsburg memory, because in 1752, Governor Dinwiddie invited a delegation of the Cherokee Indians, including the Cherokee empress to town, and as part of the hospitality they were offered, they got to attend an evening of theater that featured “Othello.” During the production, during one of the swordfights, the empress became so distressed that someone was going to be killed, she sent her warriors on stage to stop the fighting. So, we have a special affinity for “Othello” for that reason, because it provides us such a great story, but also just because it’s such a strong piece of theater.

Lloyd: I went back to be sure that I knew “Othello” as completely as I thought maybe I did, and in fact, my memory was quite good. It’s a depressing play.

Todd: (Laughs.) Well, I think that’s a question of perspective. When you look at a lot of popular entertainment today, and compare it to “Othello,” it has a lot of the same ingredients: revenge, betrayal, murder, passion. This is the stuff of prime-time television, and modern Hollywood blockbusters, so I don’t see that big of a difference.

Lloyd: I suppose you’re right in that sense. Nothing that’s in “Othello” is not currently in production somewhere. Different costumes, I suppose. With the Cherokee empress stopping the play, that’s worth the price of admission right there. How many people come to these things, when you put on these theater events?

Todd: Well, the 18th-century play series has been going on for several years, and up until this year, they usually are shorter, light comedies – what would have been called often “afterpieces.” In the 1700s, an evening of theater could last many hours, and have several different components, so usually what we do is represent a small slice of that, with the last component, which would be a light afterpiece, which lasts about an hour. 

We can get, during our peak seasons, we can get several hundred people to come to an evening of theater. We’re trying something a little bit different with “Othello,” we’re expanding our repertoire a little bit to really showcase the diversity of theater that was performed here in Williamsburg. We’re hoping that the strength of the performance, the novelty factor, 18th-century Shakespeare, will bring in, again, several hundred people a week.

Lloyd:  With the lighter afterpieces that you normally would do, or have done in the past, do you think – and this is a thoroughly unfair question, but I don’t mind – do you think you’ll have more success with a tragedy that’s quite moving, or would you attract more people with a light comedy, maybe a little farce or something?

Todd: I think it’s a very fair question. I think that a lot of our guests will come to the lighter comedies – which we are continuing to do also, we offer more than one play a season – and they come to these lighter comedies to look for a nice, light, humorous way to wrap up a day of sometimes very, very serious history.

At the same time though, we are approaching our production of “Othello” much the way they would have in the 18th century. We are stressing very dynamic elements. This is going to be a very fast-moving play, there’s a lot of intrigue, a lot of backstabbing, a lot of suspense, and some of the most passionate and villainous characters in all of theater. Again, as people are drawn today to thrillers, and they’re drawn to suspense films, we hope that people will be willing to allow themselves to get into the period a bit and enjoy what we have structured to be a very fast-moving, suspenseful thrill ride.

Lloyd:  I was thinking recently, one of the films I will always remember was “Shane.” And I will always remember Jack Palance going into the bar. He was a wonderful, evil, man. And I thought the director was brilliant in having this cur of a dog sneak out when Palance came in. And Iago, in his own way, is like that.
Todd: He is, I think, the most villainous character Shakespeare ever wrote, and one of the top villains in all of theater.

Lloyd:  Do people still appreciate a good villain?

Todd: Oh, I think so. Oftentimes, when you hear or watch interviews with modern actors, they talk about how much they enjoy the opportunity to play a really evil character, because it’s almost like being given permission to express all those parts of our own personalities that we’re not supposed to acknowledge exist. In rehearsal last night, I was speaking to our actor who’s playing Iago, and he said, “This is going to make me come in contact with parts of myself I haven’t needed to use in a role in many, many years, and that’s exciting and a little scary.” I think that’s part of the thrill.

Lloyd: I think Palance liked his role in “Shane” because he could be as evil as a man could possibly be, and it was OK because of the part – it didn’t count. I think that made him.

Todd: I think so, and interestingly enough, the actor we have playing Iago is one of the nicest people you could ever want to meet.

Lloyd: I am told that Palance was, as well.

Todd: That’s the excitement.

Lloyd:  Give me another Shakespeare play that was popular in the 18th century.

Todd: Oh, there were several. “Hamlet,” certainly.

Lloyd: Really?

Todd: Oh, certainly.

Lloyd:  Now that’s kind of depressing, too.

Todd: It is. The 18th century had an appreciation for Shakespeare, but they didn’t quite put him on the pedestal, as later centuries were more inclined to do. So they had no problem with rewriting his work to suit their sensibilities and their tastes. Certainly in “Hamlet,” and especially in “King Lear,” and in some of the other tragedies, we see major rewrites that might include song and dance, and it might include – in the case of King Lear – rewriting the play so that it has a happy ending, as opposed to the tragic ending that Shakespeare wrote.

 “Othello” is a little unique in that they trimmed a lot of the less necessary elements, but they didn’t do any major rewriting, which I think is a testament to the strength of the play itself. They took a lot of their tragedies, and had no problems about adding characters, deleting characters, and adding things to make it more of what they wanted to see.

Lloyd: I think there would be some difficulty in rewriting “Othello” to any degree because it’s all of a piece. You can’t much take in or …

Todd:  As we looked at creating our text that we’re using, we did use two different 18th-century scripts, and we’ve combined them into one to choose the best elements of both. Many of the same elements were either present, or missing in both of the 18th-century scripts that we used. Everything that they cut is – I shouldn’t say everything – most of what they cut really are things that one can live without.

Unfortunately, and this is a testament to the 18th-century mindset, one of the more unfortunate cuts is, one of the three female roles is gone completely. She’s a courtesan, and that didn’t set very well with some of the 18th-century sensibilities. Unfortunately, the other two female roles are somewhat reduced as well, which I think, shows the emphasis that the 18th-century mindset placed on the major male roles: the title role, and the villain Iago.

Lloyd:  So that’s the “Williamsburg Playhouse of 1760 and the World of 18th-Century Theater.” It’ll be March 15-17, 2007. You might just as well go see what they have done with “Othello.”
Todd:  We hope that people will.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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