Abraham Lincoln, Charles Kean, Edmund Kean, Erin Blake, First Folio, Gail Kern Paster Reading Room, Heather Wolfe, James Henry Hackett, James Lewis, John Wilkes Booth, Macbeth, Othello, Roderigo, Vault
“When I was young and first read ‘OTHELLO,’ I thought the character of RODERIGO of little importance; it seemed introduced merely to fill up those vacancies of action which might otherwise have remained unemployed.”
No, the above is not a pull quote from a review of our production of Othello. Rather, it is a quote from a description accompanying an engraving of my character by the artist Charles Taylor, after Henry Singleton, in a collection called “The Shakespeare Gallery,” published in London in 1792. And I got to see it in person.
Last week, I had the amazing good fortune to be taken on a tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s vault. Erin Blake, curator of art and special collections, and Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts, dug deep into the collection and pulled out a couple of noteworthy things that were “tagged” with the character of Roderigo. As the quote above might imply, things tagged Roderigo were few and far between. Still, what Erin and Heather did find were absolute treasures, totally magical, and the whole thing got my mind racing.
I won’t presume anyone’s knowledge of the amazing institution that is the Folger Shakespeare Library. Just for due diligence, though, you should know that it is home to the world’s largest and finest collection of Shakespeare materials and to major collections of other rare Renaissance books, manuscripts, and works of art. The Folger serves a wide audience of scholars, visitors, teachers, students, families, and theater- and concert-goers. You can learn more about the Folger by visiting www.folger.edu.
Essentially, the collection is the most amazing assembly of all things Shakespeare you’ll find anywhere on the planet.
Erin met me at the security desk and walked me through the Gail Kern Paster Reading Room. This is sort of the “nerve center” of the Library—on any given day one can find scholars from around the world working on a staggering variety of projects, culling and interpreting valuable information from the Library’s collection. The room is huge, with a vaulted ceiling, ornate fireplace, walls packed with reference books, and an amazing stained glass window featuring the “seven ages of man” from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Probably the best way to describe it is “Hogwarts-esque,” if you are a Harry Potter fan.
Next, we went down several levels into a viewing room. This is where one goes to look at some of the older and more fragile things when they are pulled from the vault. Here’s a sampling of manuscripts that Heather pulled from the collection:
Prompt book (small, hand-held script that the actors worked from) from an 1838 production of Othello at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. This script was used by actor Charles Kean, son of the famous Edmund Kean, when he played in Othello. It gave me a real chill to see the handwritten notes in this script. There were blocking notes, and staging notes, and a little chart laying out the stage picture.
Rehearsal copy (script used by actors in a rehearsal) from 1846 production of Othello at the Park Theatre, New York. This script was used by James Lewis, a renowned comic actor with “an excellent reputation as a comedian,” as The New York Times wrote in his obituary on September 11, 1896. Here, I felt satisfied that, even in 1846, there was a thought of putting a comic actor in the role of Roderigo.
Rehearsal copy from 1827 production of Othello at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. This script belonged to James Henry Hackett, a famous American actor, who later found success in London. It is to Hackett that Abraham Lincoln famously wrote to say that his favorite play was Macbeth. It is even more chilling to think that Macbeth has one of the earliest uses of the word “assassination,” and that Lincoln himself was shot by a well-known Shakespearean actor, John Wilkes Booth.
It will sound silly to say, but looking at these items was a bit like having a kind hand reach across time to pat me on the head. I felt humbled to sit on the same continuum with these great men of the theater, but also, I felt as if I was receiving encouragement from the past. These men had tread the boards before me and, being in their “presence,” I felt somehow less alone. Working in the theater can feel somewhat idiotic at times, and this evidence that working on Shakespeare’s plays has long been serious and celebrated was a nice jolt of artistic electricity.
Additionally, and I won’t get into it too deeply here, but the version of Othello we are performing is an edit of the complete text. In other words, in the interest of time and aesthetic, we have made some cuts to the complete version of the text. Sometimes, in running a show, one forgets some of the lines that have been cut. In this case, I’d forgotten that, in the full text, poor Roderigo gets a lovely “O! O! O!” before he dies at Iago’s hands. While we have retained the “O, damned Iago! O inhuman dog!” line, we have cut the O’s. I will stand up and tell you now…I miss them!!! It was nice to see that the men of the past retained them, and I hope they aren’t upset with us for cutting them.
Here are the works of art that Erin pulled out. Click on the images to enlarge the images:
Roderigo: Sir your daughter hath made a gross revolt, [Othello, act I, scene 1]. Engraving by Charles Taylor after Henry Singleton from 1792, a book illustration from “The Shakspeare Gallery; Containing a Select Series of Scenes and Characters, (accompanied by Criticisms and Remarks) adapted to the works of that admired author: on fifty [but actually 40] plates. Calculated to form separate Volumes; or to be bound up in Editions of Shakspeare’s Works. … London : printed for C Taylor, 1792-1794
Again, I won’t get into it too deeply here, but I will say that what gave me a chill about these is the fact that, without having consulted them in design meetings or rehearsals, we nevertheless came very, very close to the spirit of these pieces in our version. It does make me wonder if, in some metaphysical way, there aren’t certain things that the play itself “requires.” Or, to put it another way, I wonder if there is a kind of narrative and aesthetic inevitability to putting on this play. Seeing these images that date back a couple of hundred years in some cases, and then considering that the play itself was written in approximately 1603, and then considering that we’ve made something that has a fundamental “resemblance,” well, all I can say is that it gives me pause and humbles me.
The full company of Othello, as do the companies of every show that plays at Folger Theatre, will be getting a vault tour featuring many more Othello-related goodies. I will absolutely write you on that topic, once we’ve done it. Having taken the tour in the past, I know that we will probably get to view a First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. Being in the presence of a First Folio takes your breath away.
What was so special to me about this particular tour, though, was the fact that it was specific to Roderigo.
The quote at the start of this entry continues on to say:
“Further study of Shakespeare convinced me that scarce one of his characters is redundant, or trifling, but that, especially in OTHELLO, every person represented contributes essentially, directly or indirectly, to forward the business in hand, and to produce the completion of the piece correspondent to the author’s design.”
Cold comfort, I suppose, but there it is. I am honored to join the many actors who have played the part before me, and I only hope that, hundreds of years from now, I will be able to reach a hand to the future, and pat some future Roderigo on the head. Break a leg, whoever you are!