Monday, September 26, 2011

Othello Falling: Hope Among the Facets of Abuse

September 26, 2011

“Othello Falling” has now reached Act Three, and here is where the decisions about structuring the classic play in a different way are being keenly felt.

Because this is a two-person performance, made up entirely of dialogue and internal thought that moves between Othello and Desdemona, there was no place for one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, Iago. In the play, the venomous Iago puts into motion all of the elements that destroy the tragic lovers. He insinuates constantly to Othello that Desdemona has not been faithful; he makes sure the damning evidence of the lost handkerchief is placed in the possession of Cassio (Othello’s perceived rival); and as Iago proclaims piety, loyalty and honesty, he lies to and manipulates all involved, in order to fan high the flames of jealousy and violence.

But in real-life abusive relationships, there are no Iagos, or at the very least they are clothed in the colors of troubled life, not the pure black of villainy.  The descent into cruelty and tragic violence is precipitated by many of the factors that have been introduced already in this play-in-poetry: flawed and unrealistic preconceptions between partners; generational and cultural histories of abusive behavior; objectifying of individuals and lack of communication; an environment where home feels unstable, isolated and untrustworthy.

The events of Scene Three provide many challenges to me as a writer, and to Jaeda and myself as performers. Desdemona, after a traumatic episode in which she had every reason to believe her new husband dead, is reunited with him, but during an intimate moment she is gripped by flashbacks of an abusive childhood event which does much to explain her alienation and disdain earlier displayed toward her father. Feeling helpless and ashamed, she cannot bring herself to confide these feelings to Othello. This is a pervasive, sad (and unwarranted) syndrome among battered women: many consider themselves “damaged”, or in some way responsible for the abuse done to them. This is no more their fault than the abuse itself—abusers will often emotionally manipulate their victims into a state of fear that should they tell anyone, they will be not be believed, and subsequently loathed and ostracized. In addition, they are burdened with further fear that even if they are believed, no one could possibly love a “spoiled” or “stained” partner. The cruelty of this kind of conditioning from abusers is vicious indeed.

Making matters worse both in real life and in “Othello Falling” is the sad fact that confiding these feelings and experiences to one’s lover hardly insures a compassionate and supportive response. Many men, to their discredit, would respond exactly as the woman has been conditioned to fear: with anger, expressions of betrayal, and the inflicting of further hurt. Othello is not Iago; he is not an evil man, bent on destruction. But neither is he an enlightened man in the arena of love and complex relationships. He lives in what he perceives to be an uncompromising world, filled with absolutes. Often used by the powers that he serves, he has been conditioned to expect that kind of interaction between people, and trust has become an elusive concept for him. He has many self-doubts and repressed angers. He states that “honesty is more important than life” – a noble ideal, except for the fact that what constitutes honesty for him are simplistic and unrealistic concepts of perfect mental and physical loyalty and openness.

So Desdemona displays a brief interlude of troubled distance from her lover, and not comprehending, Othello interprets this as evidence that her love for him has faded already. He begins to poison his own thoughts with jealous fantasies and feelings of being tricked and wronged.

Would the results have been any different had the lovers attempted hard but clear communication of their feelings? In this play, with these characters, probably not. And that is part of the ongoing tragedy of this type of interaction in real life, too. But in real life things are not always so absolute as they are in a play. There are ways to break free from a relationship filled with hurt and a dead end of violence and pain. That’s why this benefit is happening, and why (even if there is no hope for Othello and Desdemona), there is hope for the rest of us.



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