More Moor, Less Venice: Africa Talks Back to Othello in Not Now, Sweet Desdemona and Iago

Par Marguerite Rippy
Publication en ligne le 20 décembre 2017


The two Othello spinoffs studied here, Not Now, Sweet Desdemona (1968) and Iago (1979), depict Othello relative to 1960s and 70s movements such as Pan Africanism, Black Power, Négritude, and U.S. Civil Rights.  In this political context, the staging of Othello provides the opportunity to redefine a pivotal play of Western Europe by adding an African perspective – to put the “Moor” back in “Moor of Venice.” With its focus on issues of interracial sex, love, marriage, deceit and murder, Othello intrigues contemporary theatre audiences and directors alike. These two productions push the boundaries of adaptation, and both share specific connections in their approach to reinventing Othello: a resistance to notions of uniform “nation” or “culture,” a desire to experiment with Shakespeare as a tool for engaging audiences in contemporary political dialogue, and a rejection of the trend of the 1960s and 70s toward a black separatist aesthetic, choosing instead to incorporate postcolonial iterations of feminism, womanism and transindigenous performance practice. These two plays use Shakespeare broadly and Othello specifically as a touchstone for Western imperialism and oppression, but a touchstone that invites interrogation.  
These adaptations resist textual imperialism and the iconicity of Shakespeare specifically and Western literature more broadly, and they assert personal truths in favor of historical assertions of Truth.  In this way these are productions in the act of spinning off from the original text – they reveal that adaptation is dynamic rather than a state of fixed, derivative existence. They spin erratically, even at times a bit out of control, but they kick Shakespeare’s text into cultural action via the voices of African diaspora. The performances challenge the very concepts of original and derivative texts and invite the audience to see adaptation as a process of spectacular collision that creates new matter, which in turn spins into new systems of meaning.


Texte intégral

The facts are so twisted and bent out of shape that the truth looks on open mouthed, astonished by the audacity of the shameless lie […] I will try to set the story right.1

1In “A White Folks Guide to 200 Years of Black and White Drama,” James Hatch contends that African American and white European theater have informed each others’ traditions not only throughout American history but also at any and all points where black and white cultures intersect. The ongoing exchange between European and African diasporic literatures has not been an equitable conversation, however. The voices of Africans have too often been ignored, misrepresented or subordinated in white European drama, and the challenge for African writers and African American writers has been to write the truth of black life in order to refute stereotypes articulated by white theatrical traditions. The pursuit of a truthful dramatic representation of black life calls for the recognition of a black aesthetic that talks back to or redefines European drama. As perhaps the most recognizable icon of Western theater, Shakespeare plays a key role in this renegotiation. His works act as a field for reinterpretation, and many cultures reinterpret Shakespeare via their own artistic and cultural traditions. These transcultural performances land “somewhere between performing a new theatrical text and re-staging an old text as the theatre of cultural difference.”2

2Within this struggle to re-stage Shakespeare with an eye to cultural difference, Othello is a vexed text: stranded between Africa and Venice, Othello acts as a promising landscape filled with fascinating questions and potential landmines for contemporary theater. It offers the chance to explore the impact of colonialism and assimilation, of power struggles between genders and races, and of ignorance within and among religions. As critics have pointed out, of Shakespeare’s works, The Tempest and Othello most seem to invite postcolonial reinterpretation,3 and yet they also pose hazards in terms of re-establishing the imperial gaze via one category of social or cultural power even as it is challenged in another. The two Othello spinoffs studied here, Murray Carlin’s Not Now, Sweet Desdemona (1968) and C. Bernard Jackson’s Iago (1979), depict Othello relative to 1960s and 70s movements such as Pan Africanism, Black Power, Négritude, and U.S. Civil Rights. In this political context, the staging of Othello poses a tantalizing opportunity to redefine a pivotal play of Western Europe by adding an African perspective – to put the “Moor” back in “Moor of Venice.” These two plays use Shakespeare broadly and Othello specifically as a touchstone for Western imperialism and oppression, but a touchstone in need of interrogation. In addition, both plays reject the trend of the 1960s and 70s toward a black separatist aesthetic, choosing instead to incorporate multicultural elements from postcolonial iterations of feminism, womanism and magical realism.

3These productions share certain hallmarks in their adaptation of Shakespeare. Namely that they 1) insist upon improvisation over textual fidelity to Shakespeare, using the Early Modern text as a lens through which they can interrogate, study, and debate contemporary cultural values, 2) privilege contemporary relationships and language over that of Shakespeare, 3) use Othello and Desdemona as metonyms for diasporic African and colonial European culture. These three features reflect the political contexts that surround these artistic projects. But Not Now and Iago also seek to shape their political and aesthetic contexts. They resist textual imperialism, specifically the iconicity of Shakespeare; they reject historical assertions of Truth, and they interrogate cultures as products of dynamic personal exchange. In this way these are productions in the act of spinning – not finite and complete “spinoffs,” in a state of fixed and often derivative existence. They may spin erratically, or even at times spin a bit out of control, but they kick Shakespeare’s text into cultural action, starting a process through which the very notions of original and derivative texts fall by the wayside in favor of more spectacular collisions that create new matter, which in turn spin into new systems of meaning.

4First performed at the National Theatre in Kampala, Uganda in 1968, Not Now, Sweet Desdemona explores Othello in the context of apartheid policies and British post-colonial immigration. Ugandan author Murray Carlin injects African diasporic perspectives into Othello through his two protagonists, known only as “Desdemona” and “Othello,” described as present-day actors who are both dating each other and preparing to play the leading roles in Shakespeare’s tragedy.4 Desdemona is a South African actress; Othello is a West Indian actor. They argue over the racism of the original text – and the very notion of an original text – as they debate how best to perform their roles. In his introduction to the play, Carlin describes it as “a play about the race conflict in the twentieth century,” and indeed the play explicitly addresses topics as political as apartheid policy and as psychological as internalized racism and desire within the characters themselves.5

5The second play discussed here, C. Bernard Jackson’s Iago, premiered in the 1978/79 season of the Inner City Cultural Center (ICCC) in Los Angeles. It reflects the multicultural aspirations of the ICCC and the city it serves.6 Jackson’s play rejects the masculinist imagery of the Black Power movement and moves toward a more transcultural model of performance, taking Brechtian strategies for alienation and mingling them with expressionist uses of masks, lighting and sound. Jackson rearticulates a Moorish counter-history of Othello that subverts the European perspective as articulated by Cinthio and Shakespeare, using archetypal character names such as Author and Woman. Iago introduces to the play a central, powerful image of black femininity, the African character Woman, to tell the story of Othello from Iago’s perspective. Iago’s widow, Woman, embodies a Pan-African aesthetic, acting as both interlocutor and griot. In her version of the story Iago was himself a Moorish soldier in Othello’s army,7 and Desdemona and Cassio are traitors who betray them all. Woman reveals at the outset that she is the only surviving member of the Venetian delegation to Cyprus and that her goal is to reclaim Iago’s name, which she calls “fictitious […] The lie begins with a highly improper proper noun.”8 Asked by the character Author what her husband’s name was, she replies, “Courage. Wisdom. Devotion.”9 Her version of the play challenges not only the Western European tales enshrined by earlier authors, but authorship itself. Her rejection of proper names highlights the tradition of the griot, a communal storyteller and keeper of history, and her voice represents Africa’s counter-history of Othello.

6Iago shares a goal of earlier African-American theatre movements in the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts era – to establish black plays for and about black experience – and it does this in a way that engages multiracial and multicultural audiences. Through the ICCC as a creative home, Jackson established a relationship with a multicultural community over the decade between the theatre’s inception during the Black Arts movement and the play’s performance in the aftermath of movements like feminism and womanism. During that decade, the black aesthetic incorporated elements from communal oral history, magical realism and psychoanalytic postcolonial exploration that is reflected in the work of novelists like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Ishmael Reed, as well as dramatists like Ntozake Shange and August Wilson. Jackson’s play invokes African-American theatrical tradition by referencing elements of past traditions like minstrelsy and Négritude, but it also evokes post-national political and aesthetic movements like womanism and magical realism. This movement away from political identification into identity formation based on exchange evokes what theorist Ric Knowles refers to as a transindigenous mode of identity.10 Such a mode rejects notions of either/or, and instead focuses on incorporation, exchange, and transformation. Identity and culture become acts of creation, of storytelling, rather than of discovery and alliance.

7The introduction of elements of feminism and womanism to Othello necessitates major changes in the roles of women. Both plays studied here create powerful central female characters and enact a verbal struggle between its central male/female characters over race, gender and power. Although both productions allude to friendship between Othello and Iago, they also present his interracial marriage as problematic to black brotherhood: he is at odds with his African brothers due to his interracial marriage with Desdemona. Brotherhood in Not Now is embodied by political and gender alliances generally alluded to by the protagonist through his connection to leftist politics and rapport with the off-stage electrician, Harry. In Iago,Othello’s brotherhood is generated by a shift in Iago’s origins, making them fellow Africans. In both plays, male friendships or bonds come at the expense of Desdemona, and each play openly interrogates her position of white privilege, uses her as a symbol of white oppression more generally, and celebrates the violence enacted on her body.

8Both plays position strong women as voices of Africa, and use African female voices to counter that of the male protagonists. Not Now features a white African actress referred to as “Desdemona,” whereas Iago features Woman, the black African storyteller. Both of these characters are archetypal in their dimensions. Their names do not correspond with a unique identity, but rather with a “type,” which highlights Shakespeare’s own use of character types and undermines the suggestion that a dramatic work can be universally human. Female bodies play a pivotal role in these plays, either through their cautionary role in the powerful taboo of miscegenation or through the challenge their voices pose to the original text. In Not Now, Desdemona challenges Othello, whereas in Iago Woman challenges Shakespeare himself. These female characters reject the traditional passivity of Desdemona and open the play to a discussion of women’s role in the construction of (or resistance to) racist hierarchy. Racial politics in both plays emerge as a game of strategy between a black protagonist and a white counterpart, a chess game in which the rise or fall of the queen predicts check-mate.

9More narrowly, these plays spin Shakespeare to engage in the long-running debate over the role of black theater: art or propaganda? Henry D. Miller argues that black theater is defined even in the post-reconstruction era by a tension between the need to establish authentic black folk art on stage versus the need to insert black perspectives into traditionally Western European theatrical forms.11 On the one hand, black art seeks to re-engage and redefine white European texts like Othello. On the other hand, folk art seeks to represent “authentic” black culture by capturing regional inflections of speech, custom, and daily ritual, and by invoking images and forms of African storytelling and performance. These two forms of black theater wrestle with each other throughout the twentieth-century, nowhere more clearly than in the divergent definitions of a black aesthetic by W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke.12 By meditating on what it means for a black man to play Othello as well as the relevance of the story itself in the context of the 1960s and 1970s, both of these plays invoke elements of African diasporic folk culture to challenge the Bard.

I. Metatheater as a Tool of Interrogation

10Not Now and Iago strategically employ Brechtian metatheatre and audience engagement to invoke and challenge Shakespeare’s original tale and to interrogate the politics of staging Othello. A hallmark of both plays is their ability to move back and forth between the 16th and the 20th centuries. Both productions depict Shakespeare’s Othello through the lens of an African encounter with Europe in which black/white, male/female power struggles take center stage, often in a contemporary political context. Metatheater emerges as the primary tool of cultural interrogation through its ability to produce a sense of audience alienation, which in the tradition of Brecht incites the audience’s awareness of the political act of watching drama. That is to say, in both these plays, the audience is never allowed to lose sight of the fact that they are watching a play about staging Othello, not watching Othello itself. In this way they are also aware that they are watching a play about contemporary racial politics in the context of hundreds of years of European colonization of African cultures, and that playing Othello can be seen as an act of colonization for black actors and actresses.

11Carlin and Jackson create African protagonists in the forms of Othello, Woman, and even in Desdemona as played by a South-African actress born in Johannesburg. Each of these characters questions the act of playing Othello and addresses the potential of theater to act as an agent of colonization. Woman openly rants against the authorial power of Cinthio and Shakespeare to distort the story of Iago, and Othello and Desdemona debate contemporary African politics in the context of what it means for a black actor to play Othello. As Margaret Jane Kidnie argues, self-consciousness of the history of production is one of the primary tools of revisionist appropriation in drama. Kidnie argues that a great power of theater is the ability to self-consciously interrogate its own role in the construction of history: it “suggests how the pasts we construct are shot through with the present, and [...] how fragments from those pasts can seem to intrude anachronistically into a later moment”.13 Thus Othello in Carlin’s Not Now moves smoothly from contemplating how Desdemona’s birth in Johannesburg and his own in Trinidad may influence their worldviews, to conducting an historical explication of the role of Fort Jesus in Mombasa as a primary slave port for the Portuguese, built 10 years before Shakespeare wrote Othello.14 Their personal histories are political, and political history shapes their perspectives and in turn their embodiments of Othello and Desdemona.

12The metatheatrical focus of Carlin’s Not Now, Sweet Desdemona is suggested by its subtitle: “a duologue for black and white within the realm of Shakespeare’s Othello.” Carlin focuses on a rhetorical and physical struggle between actors playing Othello and Desdemona over textual interpretation, and he eliminates all other Shakespearean characters from his play in order to directly interrogate specific sections of Shakespeare’s text. Perhaps most significantly, Carlin elides Iago from his text and instead creates a figure of brotherhood for Othello who never appears onstage, but who drives the performance itself – the character of Harry, the electrician. Although Iago is absent from the character list, he is manifest in the off-stage Harry, who plays with the lights throughout the two protagonists’ rehearsal for their performance of Othello.15 Carlin hides his Iago figure from the audience, but retains in Harry a Iagoesque feeling of delightful duplicity, particularly when undermining Desdemona’s power. The presence of Harry realigns the play as an interrogation of theatrical practice, of the choices involved in staging Othello.

13Harry mediates between audience and actor (as does Iago with his famous rhetorical questioning of the audience), but Harry engages the audience through lighting rather than speech. One cannot think of Harry without thinking of Othello’s speech over Desdemona, “Put out the light, and then put out the light […]” (V.2.1-7).16 Harry’s dimming and raising of house and stage lights – often counter to Desdemona’s requests – establish a sense of critical distance for the audience and interfere with suspension of disbelief. Harry visually interrupts Desdemona’s vocal requests and makes her visible or invisible to the audience at will. He allies himself with Othello, consistently aiding Othello’s acting while undercutting Desdemona’s. The stage directions open the play with Harry’s version of speaking lines: “The house lights go down, and immediately come up again. Then they go down again. Then they come up again. Somebody is testing the house lights.”17 When Desdemona enters, her first line is “Harry… can we have the house lights down please?” followed by the stage direction “No response from Harry.”18 When Othello enters, Desdemona complains that Harry won’t raise the stage lights, but in response to Othello’s request: “More lights on the stage, Harry,”19 the lights come up and stay.

14Harry is Othello’s companion in theatre, a type of fellow soldier, and he shares a love of improvisational performance with Shakespeare’s Iago. Iago does not play “by the book,” and one way that he foils other characters in the play is to violate the proscribed social roles assigned to him. He effectively stages a narrative of deceit and adultery for Othello, whispering in his ear, casting Cassio as a traitor before Othello’s eyes, and using his powers of performance to reinforce the imaginative force of his tale. Critics note Iago’s skill at improvisational fiction – lying and manipulation as a form of truth-construction. Sam Wood argues that Iago’s rhetorical skills make ideological institutions like marriage and authority “fictions that can be manipulated.” Likewise, Harry’s abuse of Desdemona via lighting often obscures the text that actors try to consult to steer their performance. He lowers the stage lights when she tries to reference the text: “she takes up her book: stage lights go very dim.”20 She complains repeatedly that Harry comes between her and the text, crying, “Harry, I can’t see anything at all!”21 By lowering the lights, Harry literally renders Desdemona’s script unreadable and forces her to improvise.

15Harry favors Othello’s free interpretation of the text, and when Othello asks for stage lights up, they come up and hold.22 Othello’s request for the lights up is a request to highlight himself and his interpretation of the play, not to refer to the text itself. Still, it is Desdemona who dismisses Harry at the end of the play, reminding both Othello and the audience that the play itself is at an end: “Harry wants to go now,” she says after a pause.23 She closes the book on Harry, so to speak, at the conclusion of a very personal discussion of Desdemona and Othello’s own interracial and cross-class relationship as it relates to the text of Othello. At this point, the audience may have forgotten Harry’s presence, and her reference to him is a non sequitur that shocks the audience back into critical reflection on their complicity in the act of theater as a performative event.

16Both Othello and Desdemona see their casting as an interracial couple who will also play the leads as a producer’s “gimmick,” a problem Othello wants to solve by adapting the text freely and by claiming that his adaptation is more “real” than any other.24 But the central gimmick of Carlin’s play is metatheatrical meditation: an extended exploration of how interracial couples in a post-colonial world can ally themselves politically with liberation when confronted as individuals by the stereotypes of themselves and their lovers. The political inquiry of Not Now is not subtle, and the play builds from an interrogation of the difficulties of a black actor playing Othello to an interrogation of the difficulties of an interracial relationship in contemporary life. Othello initially struggles with the implications of his role as it relates to the legacy of racism and blackface tradition. He envisions himself in whiteface25 and complains the role makes him “feel dead. I feel like nothing.”26 Harry highlights Othello’s struggle by shifting the onstage lights up and darkening the house lights.27 Othello thus becomes a tool for self-divination, and Desdemona’s repeated attempts to return to the original text are thwarted by Harry and Othello because the text of Othello is not, in fact, the point of Not Now.

17Not Now spins Shakespeare’s text fast enough that the center will not hold, and the text itself unravels in the power struggle between Desdemona and Othello. For Othello’s vision of the play to work, he needs Desdemona to comply with his theories of textual adaptation: his “real” play depends on accessing his vision of the “real Desdemona.”28 Despite his improvisational yearnings, Carlin’s Othello is conservative in his views toward adaptation in that he believes in a “true” text and author at the heart of performance. He complains, “There’s only one Shakespeare – and look what they do to him.”29 Desdemona rejects this concept arguing, “There’s no real play […] Every production – every performance – is what the producer and the actors make of it. They’re all different […] Your Desdemona isn’t mine. And I’m not going to play her that way. That’s all.”30 Their contemplation of what it means to “play” to “act” and to access the “real” via theater is at the heart of Carlin’s spinning text, and as the text itself unfurls, these questions move closer to the surface. Eventually, Desdemona enacts Othello’s vision of her, with a result lesser in degree but similar in trajectory to that of Shakespeare’s play: she gets a violent slap that launches the actors into an interrogation of the contemporary politics of miscegenation.

18Part of Othello’s problem with acting his part is that Othello is mired in the racist political history of performance, and particularly in blackface and minstrel traditions. These popular modes of lying about black life on stage were essential to perpetuate the myth of the “happy darky,” which Carlin’s Othello attempts to upend. Othello refers to Desdemona as a “Black man’s girlfriend, Desdymony.”31 This corruption of her name invokes popular 19th century blackface productions like “Dars-de-Money, a Travesty of Othello” and “Bones Plays O’Fellar.”32 Othello then suggests that he invert this tradition and play Othello in whiteface, arguing, “White actors have always played Othello in blackface. Why shouldn’t a black actor play him in whiteface?”33 Inversions are part of performance tradition, experiments with casting that highlight the effects of spinning Shakespeare’s text to test the boundaries of contemporary cultural values, particularly as they focus on skin color. Such adaptations may find themselves at odds with the language and imagery of the text, and yet resonate with contemporary political contexts.34 The interrogation of blackface Othellos in the context of the cultural politics of the 1960s reminds the audience that theatrical adaptation is itself political. The audience is thus reeled into the political debate over adaptation and its implications.

19Like Not Now, Jackson’s Iago uses a metatheatrical structure to interrogate Shakespeare’s Othello, situating the audience as part of an academic interrogation of the text. This framework starts in the lobby as the audience filters in. A character named “Teaching Assistant” offers to sell either a synopsis or copy of the play and suggests the audience should be familiar with the play “because, as you well know, the Professor does ask questions.”35 In this way, the play prepares the audience for a “study” of Othello, and by using multiple actors to play single characters indicated by masks, the play highlights performance as an act of inquiry.

20Just as in Not Now, an African voice poses a challenge to William Shakespeare’s tale. Despite the Teaching Assistant’s promise of a strong guiding presence embodied in a male “Professor,” our spiritual and physical guide to the play is female and African. The character Woman in Iago moves the character William, a teacher of literature and our purported guide, through the episodic presentation of Othello. This interlocutor figure is taken from the minstrel tradition and marked as archetypal, named only “Woman.” Woman sets up a series of conflicts between black and white in separate scenes, and facilitates the play itself as a reflection on playing Othello. Each scene is presented by the company of actors wearing various character masks. The roles shift among the actors who are variously named “Author” (William, a teacher of English literature), “Woman,” and Entertainers 1-4. Shakespeare’s namesake, William (“Author”), is quickly disempowered by Woman and relegated to a character in her tale. Like Othello and Desdemona in Carlin’s Not Now, William and Woman act as metonyms for European and African cultures locked in struggle.

21If in Not Now Harry embodies Iago’s attitudes toward fact and fiction, in Iago Woman embodies Emilia not only in terms of her role as Iago’s widow but also in her storytelling style. She sees words as power, and the retelling of Shakespeare’s tale from a Moorish perspective is key to re-establishing African authority. Even for Desdemona, “men are not gods” (III.4.149); for Woman, Shakespeare, Cinthio, and Author are treated with disdain. She casts Author as Cassio, a role in which he is stabbed,36 as Desdemona, a role in which he is nearly suffocated, then also stabbed,37 and finally as Othello, a role in which “She forces him to stab himself.”38 To his repeated complaints and pleas that he is wounded or suffering, she accuses him of being a bad sport in the “game” of performance.39 We are promised a patriarchal professor in the lobby, but we get a castrating goddess in the theatre.

22Woman’s mission to reclaim her husband’s name is clearly stated at the outset of the play, and she engages the audience as a means of challenging what she argues are the lies of Shakespeare’s text regarding Iago and Moorish culture. Immediately after asserting Iago’s name as “Courage. Wisdom. Devotion,” she turns to the audience and engages them in a call and response performance. Again, the fourth wall is broken and the audience is forced into active contemplation of their role in the drama. She complains that they are less than enthusiastic participants, to which Author replies, “They are students on a special study tour. Shall I ask them to leave?”40 Positioning the audience as students who may be asked to leave at any moment engages the audience as critics even as it disempowers them as observers. Woman identifies with the student-status of the audience, however, saying, “My husband and I met at the Islamic University at Cordoba […] [before] The Christian barbarians destroyed everything.”41 Like Othello in Carlin’s text, Woman invokes alternative versions of history to establish a context for understanding Othello. Hers is a post-Inquisition interpretation, not unlike Othello’s invocation of Fort Jesus and its role in Portuguese Imperialism establishes Carlin’s text as a post-slavery narrative. Woman aims her criticism at the Christian / Islamic cultural clash, whereas Carlin’s Othello aims his critique at the history of slavery in its Western capitalist incarnation.

23Woman’s distrust of her audience is equaled only by her desire to play – and win – the “game” of rhetorical and cultural dominance through authorship. Speaking to Author, she describes the terms of their duel:

[…] Cinthio was the first to set the story down. The Englishman is in debt to him and he, by his own admission, to me. But the Italian chose to rewrite my story to suit the tastes of his readers. The Englishman did the same and you and they (Indicating Audience) will do likewise. The facts are so twisted and bent out of shape that the truth looks on open mouthed, astonished by the audacity of the shameless lie […] I will try to set the story right, but, before I try to explain any further. I must know whether or not you are willing to play the ‘game.’42

24For Woman, the game of storytelling represents a cultural competition over history, as well as a personal attempt to recover Iago’s reputation through narrative dominance. Hence Iago centers on Iago’s famous speech on reputation, a speech that concludes Jackson’s play:

Good name in man and woman is the immediate jewel of our souls:
‘Who steals my purse steals trash;
‘tis something, nothing; […]
But he that filches
from me my good name robs me of
that which not enriches him and
makes me poor indeed43

25Although the quote is not precisely reproduced from Shakespeare’s text, it evokes the wrong that Woman tries to right by reinterpreting Iago. In Shakespeare’s play, Iago uses this speech to initiate Othello’s sense of betrayal, to trick him. But in Iago the speech becomes an assertion of justice, of Woman’s need to recover Iago’s own reputation in the narrative of history.

26Woman’s worldview comes from her position as both Iago’s widow and as a Moor. She reveals that she is Emelia, but not the Emilia of Shakespeare’s text. Instead, she is the voice of Moorish Africa, resisting its oppression by Europe. After her husband’s incarceration, torture and death, she betrays the state of Venice to the Turks. She again speaks directly to the audience, both as a griot and an interlocutor:

 I… am Emelia. Yes. Emelia. Wife of Iago. I am a Moorish woman who fled from Spain by the side of a noble warrior […] And it is I, who sen[t] the message to the Turks that the General is dead and that Africans no longer fight on the side of Europe […] The Turks are in the city and the city is in ruins. And all are dead, save me.44

27She now seeks to unseat European power by getting out her “message,” spinning her version of the text and competing with Shakespeare for rhetorical dominance.

28Both Not Now and Iago use performance to engage the audience directly in contemplation of the politics of theatrical tradition. In particular, both plays challenge the role of Shakespeare and Western European art in the construction of a vision of African experience that is based on fantasy rather than fact. Shakespeare’s vision of a Moor in Venice is not based on the recording of authentic African voices, but rather on an image of Africa projected by the European imagination. The voice of African women, absent from Shakespeare’s text, is asserted in both these plays through female characters – through a South African actress playing Desdemona and through Woman. However, the roles of Desdemona-the-character in both plays (as distinguished from the African women who play her or stage her) retain the celebration of violence to the white female body from Shakespeare’s text.

II. Desdemona and Violence: The Culture / Gender Bind

29While these plays challenge the depiction of suffering Africa, they reinforce the tradition of punishing Desdemona, using her body as the site of European sin. She continues to embody a fixed spectacle of suffering, but her iconography changes from slandered good wife figure to the site of promiscuous Western culture. Desdemona’s white female body is slapped, suffocated, and stabbed, suggesting that Edgar Allen Poe’s famous praise for the suffering woman as the most powerful poetic image still holds true.45 In these plays, Desdemona is truly “the cunning whore of Venice” (IV.2.91), who betrays Africa through her alliance with Europe.

30Carlin’s Not Now embodies African liberation in Othello and European oppression in Desdemona, despite the fact that both characters are situated as African in this version. Eventually their political struggle over textual interpretation devolves into a physical struggle between the actors themselves with the result that the overthrow of white power must also be an overthrow of Desdemona. Carlin’s Othello situates his version of the “true” play in Act 3, Scene 3, the scene that gives the play its title. In this scene Desdemona pleads on Cassio’s behalf to Othello, and he rebuffs her, saying, “Not now, sweet Desdemona” (III.3.56). Desdemona then presses the issue, which gives Iago material to inflame Othello’s suspicions of her relationship with Cassio. It is perhaps the key scene of the play in that Othello openly states his affection for Desdemona at the beginning of the scene: “Perdition catch my soul, /But I do love thee! and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (III.3.91-93); but by the close of the scene, Iago has seduced Othello into killing her (III.3.484-485). Indeed, chaos comes again.

31Carlin’s Othello wants Desdemona played as “the first of the White Liberals […] She wants power, through love […] [white liberals] tell themselves they’re on the side of the black man […] but what they really want is to tell him what to do.”46 The enactment of this politically-inflected Desdemona leads to violence that moves out of Shakespeare’s text and into Carlin’s. As the actress playing Desdemona pleads for Cassio with “suffocating loving gestures,” Othello strikes her “with explosive vigour, and startling effect; she staggers back and falls down; remains half sitting, with her hand to her cheek. Was this a mime, or a real blow? Or a little of both? And what is real?”47 These stage directions highlight an extra-textual meditation on violence in interracial relationships, between men and women, and in performance itself. Desdemona’s response is to remove the ring she wears as a symbol of her off-stage relationship to “make the hotel keepers think we were married” and throw it on the stage between them; he then kicks it off-stage.48 At this moment, the characters and actors merge, and Shakespeare’s Desdemona and Othello collide with Carlin’s counterparts.

32This gesture launches the actors into contemplation of their own relationship in terms of politics, race, and class status: her father’s wealth from Johannesburg mines; Othello’s status as “The Moor! With all his tantrums and agonizings, and postures, and melodrama […] a black liberal.”49 They play with the idea of inverting the gender violence of the play, ending with Desdemona stifling her husband in bed with a pillow.50 But this gender inversion, unlike the inversion of power between Africa and Europe, is purely comical and non-threatening: “They both explode” with laughter.51 It is also an erotic fantasy: “They tussle, panting and laughing with her still on top. Then they are quiet for a moment” before she recalls the speech Othello delivers over Desdemona before he kills her, but in an erotic and playful context: “Put out the lights, Harry!”52 When the lights come up (at Othello’s instruction), he stands over her, “stripped to the waist and with a curved knife in his hand […] She screams with terror and delight. He grabs her by the hair and draws the knife across her throat. They tussle and horseplay a little more.”53 The “horseplay” and “laughter” in their sexual play sharply contrast the violent slap precipitated by Shakespeare’s Desdemona as she defends Cassio. The contemporary actor-personas explore the impact of cultural power in their own interracial relationship through “play” violence that contrasts the violence of Shakespeare’s text. However, the body of the actress playing Desdemona does get slapped, andNot Now eroticizes violence to the white female body, even as it challenges the history of erotic violence to Othello’s black body.

33In Not Now, racism within Shakespeare’s play is very differently interpreted by the West- Indian man and by the South-African woman. Their politics guide their textual interpretations, and explain why Othello prefers a free interpretation while Desdemona sticks closer to Shakespeare’s text. Desdemona is shown as much more textually preoccupied; in fact she is introduced as she struggles to read Shakespeare’s text in Harry’s dim lighting, and she tries to refer to the physical script throughout the performance. In an argument over who calls Othello “thicklips,” the textual accuracy of who throws this insult matters to Desdemona but not to Othello. For him, the racist slur is cultural and pervasive, disembodied and easily reassigned to Desdemona as a white agent. She is enraged by his cultural sensitivity and his misreading of the text at the expense of Desdemona’s character.

Othello: […] why does she always call him ‘the thicklips’?
Desdemona: (throwing off her wig) She doesn’t!
Othello: She does. Two or three times.
Desdemona: She does not! That’s some other character – […]
Othello: well, then, somebody calls him that – that’s the point. Isn’t it?54

34For Othello, the source of the slur is irrelevant since it comes from white culture more generally. But for Desdemona specifics matter; she is less interested in her role as a cultural icon than in her character’s individual feelings and motives. In this way, Not Now stages a debate over how to adapt Shakespeare into a contemporary political context. Seduction and betrayal are still key themes, but Othello is seduced and betrayed by white culture and its inherent racism. The villain of the play, therefore, is the dominance of European culture and to the extent that she represents this culture, Desdemona. Nevertheless, the white female body resists being scapegoated for the culture as a whole. In Desdemona’s futile resistance, Carlin’s spinoff mimics Shakespeare’s text.

35The moment of crisis in their relationship is provoked when Othello convinces Desdemona to stage his interpretation of the play, which is about race in the “Age of Imperialism” and specifically about mixed marriage.55 The actor’s interest in playing Othello within this context obviously frustrates and frightens Desdemona. When the mantle of villainy is lifted from Iago and placed on Desdemona, her punishment becomes an act of liberation for Othello rather than a crime. Explaining his vision of the play, Othello exclaims, “Iago was a man! He loved Othello […] Iago knew. He wanted to save him, Othello, from her! From Desdemona – and Cassio – and all her crew.”56 This interpretation of Desdemona as allied with Cassio and a “crew” of oppressive white Venetians is an image common to both plays discussed here, and reflects the emphasis on Desdemona as an icon of whiteness that remains constant from Shakespeare into these adaptations.

36In Iago Desdemona is similarly situated as a national traitor through her relationship with Cassio. However, her body functions as a symbol of non-gender specific Western culture, since at the time that she is killed, she is being played by the character Author/William. It is Shakespeare, the European Bard, who is being destroyed on stage, while Othello’s bride is murdered only within Shakespeare’s text. Iago and Woman – and by extension African culture – are depicted as committed, honorable, and devoted. Cassio and Desdemona, on the other hand, are drunken amoral Venetians, sites of European sin. Carlin’s drinking scene with Cassio and Iago inverts Shakespeare’s corollary scene, making Cassio tempt Iago with wine rather than vice versa. Iago replies to Cassio’s temptation, “Moors value clear fresh water above all other forms of liquid refreshment.”57 The text merges Cassio’s lines from Shakespeare’s Act 2, Scene 3, for the purpose of interrogating Shakespeare’s scene. Cassio denies his drunkenness with racial insults added by Jackson – lines in which Cassio dares Iago to fight him, calling him a “little baboon.”58 Jackson alludes to the racism imbedded within the very term of “Moor,” a term broadly applied by Europeans to many cultures associated with Islam and Africa, without necessarily possessing any knowledge of the diversity of cultures and peoples associated with the term.

37In Jackson’s Iago the handkerchief recedes in terms of its importance as an image of betrayal and is replaced with a letter that Desdemona writes to her father in Venice (Brabantio is alive and well in Jackson’s version), asking him to intercede on Cassio’s behalf. Woman says, “[…] tho’ the handkerchief caused Othello considerable vexation, in the end, it was the letter which shattered whatever affection existed between the General and the fair Desdemona. For reasons of their own, the Italian [Cinthio] and the Englishman [Shakespeare] omitted mention of the letter entirely.”59 Desdemona’s letter symbolizes her betrayal not just of Othello, but of the Moorish people, and also alludes to the script itself, both as imagined and experienced by the audience. Iago and Cassio argue not over the handkerchief but over the superiority of Venetian or Moorish culture and their practice. Iago draws his sword and sarcastically begs Cassio (played by Author in a mask):

[…] thou art a proper Venetian noble and I but a rude Moorish soldier in sore need of proper instruction. In fact, when we last spoke, you promised to teach me the use of sword and dagger proclaiming we Moors to be quite backward in our fighting methods […] I would learn this new art […] Teach me Cassio. I long to be taught […] Am I getting it right, Cassio? Am I? Am I an apt pupil? I like your teaching, but the lesson is beginning to bore me. Let us bring it to an end (He stabs Cassio).60

38As Iago triumphs over Cassio, Moorish culture triumphs over Venetian culture, Woman (via Iago) triumphs over Author, and body triumphs over text. The repeated punishment of Author as he is stabbed twice, suffocated, and finally forced to stab himself yet a third time evokes contemporary political struggles between European and African powers, but also illustrates that all the bodies of Othello derive from white imagination. Thus the decidedly un-Shakespearean Woman gets the last word in Jackson’s play, vowing,

[…] to squat, wait here in this house which I had built over my husband’s grave and will not leave nor let my spirit rest until what truly happened here is known and the story is set right, for I would clear his good name […] Iago was an honest man. I speak his name with pride. IAGO. IAGO.61

39Ultimately, these plays present two African diasporic counter-narratives that use the perspective of the Moor to counter that of Europe in the form of Shakespeare. They de-authorize Othello. Both plays explore the implications of aligning Desdemona with white European culture and Othello with black Moorish culture; both provoke contemporary political self-reflection and question the impact of portraying Othello in a racist culture. They pose the question: What are the implications of staging Othello during the era of Civil Rights and Négritude?

40This type of experimentation with how to “talk back” to European tradition also informs the drama of playwrights who were contemporaries of Carlin and Jackson: Athol Fugard’s collaboration with Winston Ntshona and John Kani, and the work of Adrienne Kennedy, Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, and Amiri Baraka all experiments with ways to reassert African voices in drama and to redefine European traditions through underrepresented voices. What connects these two plays in a unique relationship, however, is their creation of powerful African women at the center of the play who help to trouble the already-vexed Othello by posing contemporary political questions that are critical to her perspective – questions of African apartheid policies, the absent black female body in Western literature, and the implications of violence within gendered relationships. Desdemona proposes a toast at the end of Not Now that evokes the pleasures and perils of both plays:

Desdemona: Then here’s to the Moor! May he never grow old!
Othello: And the Theatre too…
Desdemona: But without any ghosts!62

41Toast the Moor and deny his ghost? Theatre without ghosts is no theatre at all, and the shadow of Shakespeare’s Othello looms large over both these plays, to good effect. Othello’s ghost prompts later generations to speak back, to reinvent his story and to enlarge it into our own stories. We might better learn from Hamlet’s response to the ghosts of Shakespeare: “Speak. We are bound to hear.”


BROWNE, Ray, “Shakespeare in American Vaudeville and Negro Minstrelsy”, American Quarterly, 12 (1990), p. 374-391.

CARLIN, Murray, Not Now, Sweet Desdemona: A Duologue for Black and White Within the Realm of Shakespeare’s Othello, Oxford, OUP, 1969.

DICKINSON, Peter, “Duets, Duologues, and Black Diasporic Theatre: Djanet Sears, William Shakespeare, and Others”, Modern Drama 45.2 (Summer 2002), p. 188-208.

HATCH, James V, “A White Folks Guide to 200 Years of Black and White Theatre”, The Drama Review: TDR, 16:4 (Dec 1972), p. 5-24.

JACKSON, C. Bernard, Iago, in Woodie King, Jr. (ed.), The National Black Drama Anthology: Eleven Plays from America’s Leading African American Theaters, New York, Applause Theatre Books, 1995, p. 47-98.

JONES, Nicholas, “A Bogus Hero: Welles’s Othello and the Construction of Race”, Shakespeare Bulletin: A Journal of Performance Criticism and Scholarship 23.1 (Spring 2005), p. 9-28, MLA International Bibliography, Gale Cengage Literature Resource Center.

KIDNIE, Margaret Jane, Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation, New York, Routledge, 2009.

KING, Woodie Jr. (ed.), The National Black Drama Anthology: Eleven Plays from America’s Leading African American Theaters, New York, Applause Theatre Books, 1995.

KNOWLES, Ric, “Editorial Comment: TransIndigenous Performance”, Theatre Journal 67, n° 3 (October 2015), p. ix-xv.

MILLER, Henry D, Theorizing Black Theatre: Art Versus Protest in Critical Writings, London, McFarland, 2011, p. 1898-1965.

NEILL, Michael, “‘His Master’s Ass’: Slavery, Service and Subordination in Othello”, in Tom Clayton, Susan Brock, Vincente Forès, and Jill Levenson (eds.), Shakespeare and the Mediterranean: The Selected Proceedings of the International Shakespeare Studies Association, Newark (DE), University of Delaware Press, 2004, p. 15-29.

POE, Edgar Allan, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Graham’s Magazine, vol. 28, n° 4, (April 1846), p.163-167, Rpt. Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 2011, Web.

RIPPY, Marguerite, “All Our Othellos: Black Monsters and White Masks on the American Screen”, in Courtney Lehmann and Lisa Starks (eds.), Spectacular Shakespeare: Critical Theory and Popular Cinema, Cranberry (NJ), Associated UP, p. 25-46.

SHAKESPEARE, William, Othello, M.R. Ridley (ed.), New York, Methuen, 1986.

WOOD, Sam, “Where Iago Lies: Home, Honesty and the Turk in Othello”, Early Modern Literary Studies, 14.3 (Jan 2009), p. 21-27, Web.

YAN, Long Li, “Ong Keng Sen’s ‘Desdemona,’ Ugliness and the Intercultural Performative”, Theatre Journal, 56:2 (May 2004), p. 251-273.


1  C. Bernard Jackson, Iago, in Woodie King Jr. (ed), The National Black Drama Anthology: Eleven Plays from America’s Leading African American Theaters, New York, Applause Theatre Books, 1995, p. 57.

2  Long Li Yan, “Ong Keng Sen’s ‘Desdemona,’ Ugliness and the Intercultural Performative”, Theatre Journal, 56:2 (May 2004), p. 263.

3  Michael Neill, Sam Wood, Ong Keng Sen, Nicholas Jones, Michael Bristol and Peter Dickinson have all discussed the rise of critical and theatrical interest in Othello as challenge to or a relic of postcolonialism (depending on the interpretation). Dickinson calls it “a Manichean allegory of colonial, cultural, race and gender relations within a First World” setting. Bristol argues that “Othello is a Moor, but only in quotation marks, and his blackness is not even skin-deep but rather a transitory and superficial theatrical integument” (qtd. in Jones). Peter Dickinson, “Duets, Duologues, and Black Diasporic Theatre: Djanet Sears, William Shakespeare, and Others”, Modern Drama, 45.2 (Summer 2002), p. 195; Nicholas Jones, “A Bogus Hero: Welles’s Othello and the Construction of Race”, Shakespeare Bulletin: A Journal of Performance Criticism and Scholarship, 23.1 (Spring 2005), p. 9-28, quote p. 14.

4 There is a rich history of exploring the offstage relationships between actors who play Othello and Desdemona. For more on this, see Marguerite Rippy, “All Our Othellos: Black Monsters and White Masks on the American Screen”, in Courtney Lehmann and Lisa Starks (eds.), Spectacular Shakespeare: Critical Theory and Popular Cinema,Cranberry (NJ), Associated UP, p. 25-46.

5  Murray Carlin, Not Now, Sweet Desdemona: A Duologue for Black and White Within the Realm of Shakespeare’s Othello, Oxford, OUP, 1969, p. 5.

6 The ICCC was founded in 1965 specifically to foster communication among the diverse communities of Los Angeles, and Jackson himself was the founding Director of the ICCC (Woodie King, Jr., op. cit., p. 49).

7 This is ironic given the fact that, as Sam Wood and Eric Griffen point out, Iago is a Spanish name. He is more likely to allude in the original text to the conflict between the Moors and Spain than to be a Moor fighting against the Spanish forces. Sam Wood, “Where Iago Lies: Home, Honesty and the Turk in Othello”, Early Modern Literary Studies 14.3 (Jan 2009), p. 21-27.

8  C. Bernard Jackson, Iago, in op. cit., p. 53.

9  Id.

10  Ric Knowles, “Editorial Comment: TransIndigenous Performance”, Theatre Journal 67, n° 3 (October 2015), p. ix-xv.

11 Henry D. Miller, Theorizing Black Theatre: Art Versus Protest in Critical Writings, 1898-1965, London, McFarland, 2011.

12  Miller defines “two great truisms of black life […] Du Bois’ century-old notion of Negro double consciousness, and Locke’s 1929 identification of the debilitating ills that propaganda imposes on the art of a black culture that needs all its energies to survive and replicate itself in a world dominated by a mainstream, primarily materialist, culture” (ibid., p. 222).

13  Margaret Jane Kidnie, Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation, New York, Routledge, 2009, p. 70.

14  Murray Carlin, Not Now, Sweet Desdemona: A Duologue for Black and White Within the Realm of Shakespeare’s Othello, op. cit., p. 31-32.

15  Eliding Iago from the text is not altogether uncommon and in metatheatrical interpretations. For a further discussion of the implications of erasing Iago in American performances, see Marguerite Rippy, “All Our Othellos,” op. cit.

16  William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. E.A.J. Honigmann, The Arden Shakespeare, Walton-on-Thames Surrey, Thomas Nelson & Sons, (1997) 1998. All quotations taken from this edition.

17  Murray Carlin, Not Now, Sweet Desdemona, op. cit., p. 7.

18  Ibid., p. 8.

19  Ibid., p. 13.

20  Ibid., p. 15.

21  Ibid., p. 10.

22  Ibid., p. 15.

23  Ibid., p. 62.

24  Ibid., p. 14, 28.

25  Ibid., p. 15.

26  Ibid., p. 23.

27  Id.

28  Ibid., p. 26.

29  Ibid., p. 16.

30  Ibid., p. 27.

31  Ibid., p. 14.

32  See Ray Browne, “Shakespeare in American Vaudeville and Negro Minstrelsy”, American Quarterly, 12 (1990), p. 374-391.

33  Murray Carlin, Not Now, Sweet Desdemona, op. cit., p. 15.

34  For example, Patrick Stewart played a white Othello to Patrice Johnson’s black Desdemona in the Washington, D.C. Shakespeare Theatre’s 1997 “photo negative” Othello.

35  Bernard C. Jackson, Iago, in Woodie King Jr. (ed.), The National Black Drama Anthology: Eleven Plays from America’s Leading African American Theaters, op. cit., p. 47-98. Here p. 51.

36  Ibid., p. 89.

37  Ibid., p. 96.

38  Ibid., p. 97.

39  Ibid., p. 96.

40  Ibid., p. 54.

41  Id.

42  Ibid., p. 57.

43  Ibid., p. 98.

44  Ibid., p. 97.

45  Poe’s exact statement in his 1846 essay, “The Philosophy of Composition” is, “The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world […] ”, Graham’s Magazine, vol. 28, n° 4, (April 1846), p. 163-167, Rpt. Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 2011, Web.

46  Murray Carlin, Not Now, Sweet Desdemona, op. cit., p. 37.

47  Ibid., p. 40-41. In this contemplation of dramatic versus social reality, Carlin owes much to Luigi Pirandello, in particular his 6 Characters in Search of an Author, which echoes in Jackson’s text as well.

48  Id.

49  Ibid., p. 44.

50  Ibid., p. 45.

51  Id.

52  Id.

53  Ibid., p. 46.

54  Ibid., p. 34.

55  Ibid., p. 32-33.

56  Ibid., p. 36.

57  Bernard C. Jackson, Iago, in op. cit., p. 76.

58  Ibid., p. 71.

59  Ibid., p. 77.

60  Ibid., p. 89.

61  Ibid., p. 97-98.

62  Murray Carlin, Not Now, Sweet Desdemona, op. cit., p. 62.

Pour citer ce document

Par Marguerite Rippy, «More Moor, Less Venice: Africa Talks Back to Othello in Not Now, Sweet Desdemona and Iago», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], N°12 - 2017, Shakespeare en devenir, mis à jour le : 28/12/2019, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Marguerite Rippy

Marguerite Rippy is Professor and former chair of the Department of Literature and Languages at Marymount University, where she specializes in race and identity in American performance, adaptation theory, and contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare.  She has published numerous essays and articles on adaptation and performance, and is the author of Orson Welles and the Unfinished RKO Projects: A Postmodern Perspective (Southern Illinois UP, 2009) and co-author of Welles, Kurosawa, Kozintsev, Zeff ...