Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How do you solve a problem like Iago? (Part I)

Envy (Graham Abbey) meets jealousy (Dion Johnstone) in the Stratford Festival's Othello.

Shakespeare's tragedies often set Aristotle on his ear, one way or another.  Taken together, they amount to a conscious attempt to match and then out-match the classical tradition; but in the process of  extending the idea of classic "tragedy," the Bard often undermines or subverts its classic precepts. Not that our professors have paid much attention to that; somehow humanities students still are taught the Poetics, and then taught Shakespeare's tragedies, without ever grappling systematically with the ways in which they contradict each other.

Take Othello - its central gambit offers a strange twist on Aristotle's concept of hamartia (in ancient Greek, ἁμαρτία, literally "error," but widely translated as "flaw" - hence "tragic flaw"). Certainly the eponymous Othello makes a tragic error, and we can all point to the character flaw that causes it - his hidden propensity to intense jealousy (indeed, this is the rare Shakespearean tragedy that states the hero's flaw aloud - and to his face).

But the Bard complicates this picture by conjuring Iago, a villain who understands Othello's personality better than he does himself, and who consequently plays on his insecurities like a puppetmaster. What's more, Iago deceives his victim  - so immediately we're confronted with a curious question: is Othello's tragic flaw that he is inherently jealous, or is it instead that he's too trusting, duped by his "constant, loving noble nature" (Iago's words)?  Or are these perhaps just the flip-sides of the same psychological issue?

But this problem is in turn complicated by the fact that almost everyone else in the play is fooled by Iago, too. Iago is seemingly able to be all things to all people  - and although he states bluntly "I am not what I am," still every major character in the play praises his honesty (only his wife sees through that pose, but even she never guesses the depths of his villainy).

All this raises a curious dramaturgical question - can a character so protean even be described as "a character"?  If we can easily parse Othello's nature, what we are to make of his antagonist's?  It's worth noting here that any clues to Iago's actual "character" must come from the man himself, as he successfully deceives everyone around him.  And conveniently, he's at the ready with motives for his behavior in several soliloquies and asides.  

But perceptive members of the audience may slowly realize that we, too, are being deceived by this master manipulator, for Shakespeare steadily kicks away the foundations of of all his self-justifications. Iago first announces that his vengeance stems from being passed over for promotion - but he does eventually win the longed-for post of lieutenant, which does nothing to stop his murderous plot.  And his other excuses -  jealousy over a possible affair between his wife and Othello, for instance - eventually appear ridiculous, given the action of the play. 

Edwin Booth as Iago
But then what psychological motive could possibly serve to explain his actions?  For what many forget is that Iago's murderous quest is also (in all probability) a suicide mission. His schemes are thin - as they're often concocted on the fly - and his deceptions transparent; they are only momentarily convincing, and depend entirely on trust in his own veracity; if Othello only paused, he himself would see right through them.  

What's more, Iago leaves himself no exit strategy - indeed, his only chance of survival after Desdemona's murder depends on his silencing (read: killing) his wife Emilia, as she has been an innocent party to his plot. But wouldn't such a double calamity only bring suspicion down upon his own head? Iago never mentions this outcome to the audience, of course, but surely he's smart enough to be aware he is unlikely to outlive his own machinations.  So what kind of motive could be driving his breathless race over the cliff?

We are left with only his penultimate line, "You know what you know" as the sole explanation for his actions, but this of course gives us nothing. "I am not what I am," he told us in the very first scene, and it may be the only true thing Iago ever says about himself; but the phrase amounts to a paradox; what does it mean to "not be what you are"?  We imagined upon first hearing this that Iago meant his identity was simply concealed - that he was not what he appeared, but that his true nature did, in fact, "exist."

But what if that isn't true?  

What if Iago means his most famous line literally?

What if, at his core, he's a kind of malignant vacuum?

It's by now common knowledge that Shakespeare's tragedies tend to revolve around paradoxical questions (see "Why is Hamlet feigning madness?").  What's unusual about Othello is that the paradox is embedded in the antagonist rather than the hero.  Which may be one reason why productions  tend to operate almost as showcases for Iago (some wags have even suggested his name should constitute the title). In fact, I've never seen a production of Othello that was dominated by Othello; he almost always feels like a supporting player in his own tragedy.

But as I've said, there's a strange dramaturgical contradiction in all this: what I'm arguing is that the leading character in Othello has no real character at all. That doesn't mean, however, that he lacks power as a theatrical construct; indeed, far from it: Iago as a kind of demonic force, freed from the reins of naturalism entirely, has been a distinguishing feature of many recent productions.  What is required for this strategy to work, of course, is a technical tour de force from the actor playing Iago, who must pitch his performance in a kind of meta-theatrical space somewhere between the perspectives of the audience and the other characters (this is how Christopher Plummer stole every scene from James Earl Jones in the Broadway version of the 80's).  This scenario essentially posits Iago as the most abstracted of a long line of envious Shakespearean villains - beginning with Richard III and Aaron of Titus Andronicus, running through Don John of Much Ado and Edmund of King Lear, and concluding with Antonio of The Tempest - this time rendered almost as a theatrical mechanism rather than a person.

But the current production at the Stratford Festival - directed by Chris Abraham, and featuring Dion Johnstone as Othello and Graham Abbey as Iago (at top) - does something radical in this regard. (Indeed, it may be the most radical re-imagining of this play I've ever seen.)  It attempts to posit Iago as a character - an old-fashioned character - indeed, as a damaged, perhaps disturbed young man (surprise! Iago is only 28) who is tormented by an obsessive, all-encompassing envy that actually mirrors Othello's jealousy. What's more, in Abbey's nuanced performance, Iago isn't even all that bright; unlike the agile machiavels of almost every other production I've ever seen, Abbey's Iago stumbles and lumbers toward his goal. The strategy is remarkable in its originality, but perhaps yields only intermittently gripping results: but we'll consider the production more fully in the second part of this series.

(To be continued.)

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