Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Otello/Othello: An opera/play about middle age

"Dangerous conceits are in themselves a poison," Othello says. As I watched the Pittsburgh opera company's production of Verdi's Otello SundayI saw behind the triggering events a lifetime's well of slow poison. Both play and opera are preoccupied with the fears and insecurities of middle-age, with the way distrust and cynicism accumulate over time. 

Otello and Desdemona in the Pittsburgh Opera's recent staging of Otello. As with La Boheme last season, the opera was staged in a somber, even dismal, palette of grays and dark tones, a choice I question. However, Carl Tanner and Danielle Paston as Otello and Desdemona sang and acted beautifully. 

Coleridge famously assigns to Iago, Otello/Othello's evil nemesis, a "motiveless malignity." In this reading, Iago perpetrates evil for its own sake, his motives pretexts for spreading pain. He'd always manufacture an excuse to hurt people, because his goal is to hurt for hurting's sake. His age doesn't matter. He was born evil and will remain so, timelessly. 

Iago (Anthony Michaels Moore) in the Pittsburgh Opera production, declaring that God is evil.

But perhaps Iago does have motive. Perhaps, as I will argue, the play/opera is an exploration not of evil incarnate, but of the way the wounds of middle age manifest, especially in ambitious men, who have the skills and power to damage others. 

As the opera/play opens Iago feels wounded and unfairly used, his trust betrayed: Othello has passed him over for a promotion and given it to Cassio. Iago describes Cassio as one who "never set a squadron in the field/ Nor the division of a battle knows ... Mere prattle without practice/Is all his soldiership." In other words, in Iago's mind the young and handsome Cassio has politicked his way up the career ladder. Iago, on the other hand, has fought in Rhodes and Cyprus and "on other grounds Christian and heathen." 

What better way for Iago to get revenge on Cassio (Daniel Curran) than to pretend to be helping him? Here we see Cassio a in his virile prime, Iago as the fading soldier.

 As a mid-career, middle-aged soldier Iago could be forgiven for perceiving losing this promotion as the blow from which he can't recover. Time is not on his side. He will now have to answer to a younger man, a special humiliation for a person of Iago's temperament. We see him from the beginning of the play Iago drawing his strength and meaning from his ambition and machinations, well aware of his force of personality and his ability both to strategize and to manipulate others--arguably not wholly undesirable traits in a military leader. 

But rather than rewarded for his talents, Iago has been demoted to Othello's ancient or standard bearer. As his friend Roderigo says, "I would rather have been his hangman" (the one to hang Othello) than his "ancient," the term  "ancient," clearly punning on Iago's age. Iago states he has no forum for appealing Othello's decision or discussing the issue: "There is no remedy." The will of the commander is absolute. Iago notes that  his seniority carries no weight: "preferment goes by letter and affection." He may be self-serving and inaccurate in his understanding of what has blocked his promotion, but clearly he feels the pain. But he does not feel sorry for himself: this ambitious man acts.

The lion represents Venice and male power. 

Did the mercurial Othello make a blunder in overlooking Iago, a person he says he trusts? Perhaps he did not mean to humiliate his friend, but a more skillful and sensitive leader might have saved Iago's face and feelings. Could not Othello have found a position other than standard bearer for a man of Iago's ambitions and energies? Surely we can understand the anger and distress Iago feels--and understand, given his personality, that he would try to retaliate in a way that would humiliate Othello--to strike Othello back in his most sensitive area as Othello has struck him in his. 

If Iago chiefly fears falling down the career ladder and becoming unimportant, Othello's middle aged insecurity lies in the domestic realm: does his young wife truly love him? Can such a love really be?  Othello openly shows an awareness of his vulnerabilities including age: "I am black/ And have not those soft parts of conversation/ That chamberers have ... I am declined/ Into the vale of years."

Like Iago, Othello understands people's capacity for treachery. He doesn't trust Iago naively. His seemingly wild vacillations in his evaluation of Iago's false news that Desdemona and Claudio are having an affair show that he understands betrayal's potential all too well. At first he enters into Iago's story in the context of knowing that "a false disloyal knave" would feign Iago's hesitations and shrinking reluctance to talk (in other words, he knows people put on acts)  "but in a man that’s just [Iago]/They are close dilations, working from the heart." Not long afterwards, however, he begins to suspect Iago, lashing out and threatening him: " If thou dost slander her and torture me, Never pray more. Abandon all remorse. On horror’s head horrors accumulate." Othello demands empirical proof of adultery.Without it, Othello's revenge will be ruthless and unrelenting. Although Iago has already shown himself Machiavellian and unsavory, one might understand that at this moment he has gotten in over his head, backed into a corner in which he must betray Cassio and Desdemona or die himself. The two men, each facing his own "now or never" middle life crisis, face off.

Iago triumphs over Otello, reducing him to an abject emotional rag by playing on his fears that Desdemona loves another.

Othello's vacillating distrust extends quickly to Desdemona. He says "I think my wife be honest and think she is not," before moving back to Iago: "I think that thou art just and think thou art not. I’ll have some proof. Her name, that was as fresh/ As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face." Not only Iago  fuels this uncertainty. Desdemona's middle-aged father also knows a thing or two about betrayal: "Keep an eye on her, Moor. She lied to me, and she may lie to you."

Humiliated, Otello must humiliate. He flings Desdemona to the ground in public. This meme of ritual humiliation of the woman has descended to modern films. Today, however, the humiliated woman is usually redeemed, having accepted her rightful place. Is this an improvement?

Othello has in the past been betrayed and hurt. His deep longing for domestic happiness--"But I do love thee!" militates against his fear of what has been and can be again: "And when I love thee not Chaos is come again." Love is as fragile and elusive as it is precious. Othello knows that without it life descends into a place of undifferentiated fear and uncertainty. Yet can he trust love?

In Verdi, unlike Shakespeare, Desdemona sings the Hail Mary and a long prayer as she awaits Otello. In the Shakespeare play, Othello asks Desdemona if she has said her prayers, not wanting to kill her if her sins are not cleared. This is a marked contrast to Hamlet's desire to kill Claudius in an unredeemed state. 

 The tragedy of the play is the tragedy of middle age: the years of living by his wits and alert to people's treachery, all no doubt valuable in making him a general, are now Othello's undoing: He cannot trust the trustworthy one. Life has been too hard for him. His fears overtake him. Othello is a mirror of Iago. Othello destroys love that is real because he can no longer, any more than Iago, believe it possible. 

Having killed Desdemona and realized he made a mistake, Otello kills himself.