Since its premiere on the Elizabethan Stage in 1604, Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Othello” has solidified itself as one of the most controversial plays in the theatrical canon. It is one of the first and only plays in the Elizabethan theatrical tradition to depict a Black man as a play’s titular tragic hero. The show questioned popular beliefs towards race, gender, and the universality of the human condition.
“Othello” has become a theatrical staple due to its poignant commentary on the insidious nature of intolerance. Shakespeare, a known champion of the outcast, was one of the first playwrights of his time to position a Black man as a protagonist. The play details the heartbreaking plight of Othello, a general in sixteenth-century Venice. Despite being well-respected within Venetian society, Othello sparks a great deal of controversy when he marries a white woman, Desdemona. Meanwhile, Othello’s jealous subordinate, Iago, is furious about being overlooked for a military promotion and plots to take revenge against him. In an act of jealousy and bigotry-fueled hatred, Iago then proceeds to manipulate Othello into believing that Desdemona is unfaithful, stirring Othello’s jealousy. Iago’s calculated deception drives Othello to the point of self-destruction; leading him to kill Desdemona, and eventually himself.
It’s a heartbreaking tale rife with characters that jump off the page and into the very soul of the audience. It has gained particular relevance in the wake of movements such as BLM, as Othello’s undoing is reminiscent of many a senseless killing at the hands of a society entrenched in white supremacy. Nevertheless, modern directors, actors and audiences face a unique quandary when considering the history of the production. Because, despite its potential for antiracist interpretation, “Othello” has historically been associated with racist theatre practices.
Early productions of “Othello” developed concurrently with the practice of blackface, a form of theatrical makeup used predominantly by performers of non-African descent to portray a caricatured dark-skinned person of African descent. Blackface is often associated with minstrel shows in the early 19th century, which exemplified racial stereotypes in a hackneyed and often vulgar manner. The role of Othello was taken on by white actors in blackface in theatre and film through the better half of the 20th century.
Ira Aldridge became the first Black actor to play Othello in 1825, and it would appear that the use of Blackface in the theater was going the way of the dodo. A few decades later, actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson took on the role of the first black man to play Othello in the U.S. For a moment in time, black actors were able to reclaim the role in a way that honored the dignity and complexity of the tragic hero.
Yet old habits die hard, and no production serves as greater evidence for this than Lawrence Oliviers 1965 portrayal of Othello. Olivier had garnered eight Academy Award nominations prior to his stint as Othello, including Best Actor for his portrayal of Hamlet. He is widely considered to be one of the best Shakespearean actors of all time, and the Olivier awards, recognizing excellence in London Theatre, are named in his honor. In theory, he should have hit Othello out of the park. There was simply one problem: Lawrence Olivier was white.
Olivier’s performance in the 1965 film was entirely in blackface, and it marked the beginning of the end for the unjust practice in high drama. His physicality, vocal expression, and emotional trajectory were disproportionately informed by minstrelsy and stereotype, culminating in a spectacle that is closer to caricature than tragic hero. Given Olivier’s impressive career as a Shakespearean actor, his portrayal of Othello rings shockingly dissonant.
The legacy of the film and the play itself has been fraught with controversy since its very inception. Upon its arrival to U.S. theaters, the film was met with distaste on the part of American critics, who viewed Olivier’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s tragic hero as a stale performance marked by an overreliance on antiquated stereotypes. A review of the film in The New York Times compared the film to minstrel shows; in short, the very antithesis of tragic masterpieces like “Othello”. The film was released at the height of the American civil rights movement, and audience responses ranged from indifference to discomfort and outrage. The film was shown in 51 movie theaters across the country, but screenings ceased after only two days in the theater.
In his autobiography, Olivier goes into excruciating detail about the specificities of embodying the role, most of which involved copious amounts of makeup. Unfortunately, the makeup is hardly Olivier’s worst offense. Olivier’s mannerisms seem to be informed solely by his own racist preconceptions: His lumbering gait, thundering voice and all too frequent eye-rolling work in tandem to create an Othello who is farcical at best, and downright offensive at worst. To theatrical neophytes, it’s a confusing and grotesque spectacle. To thespians, it’s a source of humiliation and disgust.
And yet, the film remains a staple in theatre classrooms everywhere.
This extends to the University of Michigan: Professor Bright Sheng was recently removed from his music composition class for showing a clip from the 1965 film, featuring Olivier as Othello. After screening the movie, Sheng faced scrutiny for showing the film with no prior content warnings. The professor later issued an apology, stating Olivier’s depiction of Othello was “racially insensitive and outdated.”
Even when taking into consideration the backlash, I wish I could say that the incident in Bright Sheng’s class was an isolated one. Like that of most of Shakespeare’s works, the legacy of “Othello” has grown outside of the text itself, situating it as not merely a play, but a staple of western culture. In my time as a student of drama, I’ve watched countless productions, adaptations and, I daresay, bastardizations of the work. My freshman year I was shown the same film under similar circumstances, without content warnings or contextualizations provided prior to the screening. Instead, the film was positioned as an example of great performance, and expert stagecraft; there was an absence of discussion regarding the casting choice or the error therein.
Notwithstanding, the recent national discourse surrounding police brutality and systematic racism in the U.S. served as the impetus for a harsh reckoning within the theatrical community. Many Black actors shared their experiences of discrimination and microaggressions within the performing arts industry. Their stories prompted white actors and theatergoers to take a long look in the mirror and ask, Am I the problem?
In an effort to put theatre’s ugly past behind them, many theatre companies have made a concerted effort to reform their practices in regard to racial inclusivity in the past year. Movements such as “We See You White American Theatre” have made considerable strides in ensuring that companies more accurately reflect the diversity in the world around us. This season’s Broadway lineup boasts seven works by Black writers, a number which is completely unprecedented. Actress Lucy St. Louis recently made history as the first Black woman to play Christine in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ in a performance on the West End. On paper, theatre’s darkest days are behind us, allowing for a multiplicity of voices to take the stage at last.
Theatre has often been described as a mirror held to society. It has always been a medium of ideas; the platform rarely shies away from societal critique. Through theatre, we may see our true selves in all our ugliness and glory. The reflection is often sobering, to say the least. It reveals that the industry caters to one demographic, and one demographic only: the rich, white and educated. This centuries-old industry has become a self-sufficient machine, only daring to amplify the narratives it has deemed most profitable. Needless to say, it’s left the rest of the world on the outside looking in.
To say that theatre is intrinsically racist is a lie. To say that the systems and individuals who currently control it are racist is accurate. There is no lack of qualified BIPOC actors, writers and directors; yet the casts and production teams of most professional theaters do little to reflect this. A recent study by the Asian American Performers Coalition found that white actors appeared in 58.6% of roles during Broadway’s 2018-2019 season, despite making up only 32% of New York City’s population. White actors have dominated the casts and creative teams of festivals and repertory companies for centuries. The eradication of blackface in theatre is the bare minimum, and as Sheng’s situation goes to show, even that has yet to be fully realized.
Skeptics will chalk Sheng’s incident up to the prevalence of cancel culture and the fickle nature of woke college students. Hell, they already have. At the end of the day, quibbling over the specifics of the incident is a colossal waste of time. Turning Sheng’s story into a lightning rod for discourse on free speech conveniently ignores the core issue. It is not a question of whether Olivier’s “Othello” has a place in the classroom. It is rather a question of why we, as a community, continue to lionize offensive pieces of art when there is no need to do so.
That being said, to erase 1965 “Othello” from the annals of history entirely would be unwise. As much as we would like to forget the uglier aspects of “Othello’s” history, to do so would be to miss the point of the play. The tragedy cannot be reduced to “a product of its time” because if it were, why is the age-old story of betrayal told in perpetuity, on the stage, on the news, on the street? Theatre practitioners must learn to acknowledge the past without repeating it and make room for art that uplifts black voices. When they do, “Othello” is able to achieve its true theatrical potential — the potential The Bard endowed it with, the potential for revolution.
For “Othello,” in its purest form, is revolutionary. Othello’s undoing is evidence of one of the first times that a playwright dared to ask the question “what if my humanity and yours are not so different?” Othello is a character scarred by a society that deems him to be unworthy of love or honor. To portray Othello in blackface is to strip him of the nuance his character deserves. Shakespeare created him not to be a stereotype or caricature, but a man. It is this central humanity, which is intrinsic to the very fiber of the play, that makes Olivier’s interpretation such a travesty. It further isolates an audience from Othello’s perspective, making it impossible for them to understand him.
Hence we cannot regard such adaptations as artistic successes. Performance that alienates and harms has no place on the stage or screen. If modern theatre practitioners truly wish to foster an environment in which all students can safely and effectively appreciate the arts, films such as 1965’s “Othello” serve as little more than cautionary tales. That is not to say that we should forget them, or actively erase them. They should be remembered for their depiction and their mistakes, but never glorified, and certainly not repeated. The onus is on us to acknowledge the racist history of theatre and to seek to dismantle it from within our theaters, our casts, our audiences and, most importantly, ourselves. To quote the play itself: “It is within ourselves that we are thus or thus.”
And we have work to do.
Statement Columnist Darby Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.