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"Othello/me": Racial Drag and the Pleasures of Boundary-Crossing with Othello Elise Marks In Othello, the boundary between Self and Other is famously, and perilously, permeable. Othello's assimilationist efforts to claim a selfhood within the Venetian community leads, for him, to a fatal hybridity : he ends, as Ania Loomba and others have discussed, as the Venetian instrument for slaying the foreign infidel within himself.1 What I want to examine here is how, in Othello's performance history, the self/ other boundaryhas longbeen felt to bepermeable in the other direction as weU. For centuries, firsthand reports from both actors and audiences have centered on a common theme: the profound emotional intensity of watching or performing the role ofOtheUo, an intensity very frequently (and perhaps surprisingly, given OtheUo's status as an "extravagant . . . stranger") attributed to a profound identification with the character's emotional experience. From its earliest stage history, Othello seems to have aroused strong audience responses: a 1610 letter describing an Oxford performance mentions that the actors "drew tears not only by their speech, but also by their action."2 The particular strain of response I am interested in here, however, is one reported again and again bywhite audience members andbywhite (orpart-white) actors: the experience,both unnerving and deeply pleasurable, of the loss of ego boundaries, as Othello's tremendous passion overtakes and even overwhelms the actor who plays him, and "sweUs" or "surges" out into the bodies of those who watch him perform. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Spranger Barry's immenselypopular OtheUo—known forits slow-buüding crescendo from 101 102Comparative Drama from "dignified and manly forbearance oftemper" to "wildness ofrage" and "extravagance ofpassion" 3—seems to have given pleasure because it allowed audiences to experience the crescendo ofemotion along with him.4 According to one satisfied reviewer, "[t]he very frame and substance of our hearts was shaken, as if ... we swelled and trembled as he did."5 Another member of the audience enthused that at the climax of the "volcanic" performance [y]ou could observe the muscles stiffening, the veins distending, and the red blood boiling through his dark skin—a mighty flood of passion accumulating for several minutes—and at length, bearing down its barriers and sweeping onward in thunder, love, reason, mercy all before it. The females, at this point, used invariably to shriek whilst those with stouter nerves grew uproarious in admiration; for my own part, I remember that the thriU it gave me took my sleep the entire night.6 In the early nineteenth century, Edmund Kean's acclaimed performance of the role was praised for being, in the words of Blackwood's magazine, the "most terrific exhibition ofhuman passion that has been witnessed on the modem stage." Like Barry's, Kean's Othello generated language of surging and swelling, ofpressure exerted against barriers that might not hold: he was like "the heaving ofthe sea in a storm," his inner torment "threatening] ... to burstoutinto a volcano." Watching Kean opposite William Charles Macready's lago, George Henry Lewes remarked "how puny he appeared beside Macready, until the third act, when, roused by Iago's taunts and insinuations ... he seemed to swell into a stature which made Macready appear small." The emotional effect on the audience was as powerful as that of Barry's. His voice, wrote Hazlitt, "struck on the heart like the swelling notes ofsome divine music, . . . [laying] open the very tumult and agony ofthe soul." At the conclusion of Kean's performance, Lewes reported, "old men leaned their heads upon their arms and fairly sobbed." Byron wept. For at least one audience member, the emotional intensity crossed the line from exciting to just plain terrifying, haunting him even after he left the theater: "I was frightened, alarmed; I cannot account for what I felt. I wished to be away, and saw those eyes all night ... it was too horrible."7 From the actor's perspective, the role can be just as emotionaUy transporting. In the nineteenth century, the actor John Coleman played Elise Marks103 OtheUo opposite Macready's acclaimed portrayal oflago. Coleman was terribly nervous about sharing the stage with the famous actor, but by the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 101-123
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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