Oh, the drama…it would seem the wind and rain and snow to the north are ushering in Winterfest 2016. With a double portion of tragedy/comedy in Shakespeare’s Othello and Comedy of Errors, we are serving up two very different studies in dark and light to feed the addiction of our audiences for classical theater. Enhanced by an all-day, in-depth seminar, dates for these performances will intertwine throughout January.
Othello was written on or before 1604; Comedy of Errors even earlier “in the latter part of 1594”, according to Whitworth (2003), but it was not until 1622 and 1623 respectively that Othello and Comedy of Errors appeared in print.
“By the King’s Majesty’s Players. Hallowmas Day, being the first of November, a play in the banqueting house at Whitehall called The Moor of Venice” is an entry from a 1642 publication titled the Master of the Revels, a man feared by actors and playwrights alike since he commanded every aspect of the Revels Office in Elizabethan England by overseeing theatrical entertainment at court.
London publisher and bookseller, Thomas Walkley considered his most important volume to be the 1622 first quarto of Othello produced for him by noted English Renaissance printer, Nicholas Okes…it provided good text, he said, and was the only early Shakespearean quarto dividing the play into five Acts. He tells us that by the 1620’s Othello “had beene diverse times acted at the Globe, and at the Blackfriars by his Majesties Servants”. In contemporary literature dating from 1594 until 1700, Hamlet was referenced at least 95 times with Othello ranking fifth at 56 references, according to Tucker Brooke (1947). It enjoyed great popularity into the early 20th Century.
Unlike Othello, Comedy of Errors was not a favorite perhaps due to 18th Century standards in judging the quality of a play…they were different, more artificial. Though his shortest play, Shakespeare however cleverly offers us a generous helping of pun and farce, mistaken identities, twins (yes, twins) and a grand play on words and certainly a delight to many. It has had its share of adaptations through the years in theater and opera and then there is the musical The Boys from Syracuse with a score by Rodgers and Hart. HBO’s Comedy Festival even gave first prize to a hip-hop version, Bomb-itty of Error.
The first Othello was famed Renaissance actor Richard Burbage; it was said later that only one other was able to live up to his talent on stage and this, in the person of Thomas Betterton, described by playwright/actor/poet laureate, Colley Cibber, as “an actor as Shakespeare was an author, both without competitors, formed for the mutual assistance and illustrations of each other’s genius.” There were others like Edmund Kean who from his Richard III to Hamlet won him acclaim, according to Gabriel Harrison (1889); he commented on his loudness, his “wonderful rapidity of enunciation of syllables and words. In his rage of jealousy, fire streamed from his eyes, and the emotions of his body were so great that he shook the spangles from off his silk tunic.” In A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature (1910), Samuel Taylor Coleridge said “seeing Kean act was like reading Shakespeare by lightning-flashes, so brilliant and so startling were the sudden illuminations, and so murky the dull intervals” (55).
Junius Brutus Booth, the father of presidential assassin, John Wilkes Booth, brought Othello to the States. Laurence Olivier should be noted but even more memorable for was the award-winning performance by civil rights advocate, Paul Robeson, followed by none other than James Earl Jones and Laurence Fishburne. But here and now and in circa 2016, we have California actor/director Hope Brown about whom much will be said in perhaps one of his finest roles as Othello. Schooled in theater on Irish soil with the highly sought after and late Deirdre O’Connell, he brings a strong presence to the stage of Virginia G. Piper Repertory Theater at the Mesa Arts Center.
Paterson, Morton. The Stagecraft of the Revels Office during the Reign of Elizabeth. In Studies in the Elizabethan Theatre. Ed. Charles T. Prouty. Cambridge: Shoe String Press, 1961.
Mabillard, Amanda. The History of Othello Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2008. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/othello/othellohistory.html >.