Assistant Professor of Theatre Art, Dibrugarh University
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) has been fascinating for the theatre goers, practitioners and critics across the globe for the last four hundred years. He has always remained contemporary and relevant. The relevance of his plays lies in the fact that they have the quality of multiple interpretations, which are never affected by the boundaries of space, time, language and culture. One can always explore some new ideas or perspectives within the same text or in the same character. This feature of Shakespeare has been illustrated by the famous theatre activist Peter Brook, for whom the plays are ceaselessly real for their quality of multiple and ever-fit interpretations. Secondly, his texts reach us not as messagesbut as a series of impulses. Message leads to an assertion of authorship– one can find an author’s personal life or ideas in his creation. On the other hand, impulses resist the assertion of authorship and thereby the personal ideas of the author. Rather, it leads to multiple interpretations. -The present paper examines these points raised by Brook from the practical point of view by considering what Adil Hussain, an eminent theatre and film actor of the present time, did at the time of performing the role of Othello in Othello: A Play in Black and White (directed by Roysten Abel in New Delhi in 1999), an internationally acclaimed adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello (1604). While doing so, the analytical method has been basically employed, with occasional use of the comparative method when necessary and insights from the present writer’s interviews with Hussain have been frequently helpful.
Keywords: Reality, Truthful Acting, Emotional Meaning, Impulse, Interpretation.
William Shakespeare (1554-1616), the British national poet and playwright, is the most prominent and influential figure in the history of dramatic literature. He is a man of all ages1, and his immortal creations are read all over the globe. Till date, staging of his plays in any place, irrespective of the socio-cultural background and linguistic differences, indicates its relevance there and correlateshis dramatic appeal, deep insight and philosophical aspects about human life to the people around. Theatre critics as well as the practitioners always explore some new truths, assume new angles of interpretation, and havea new perception in the context of present-dayexperience, and thereforefind Shakespeare to becontinually contemporary. But in this context, no one is able to speak the last word. Peter Brook, one of the prominent theatre practitioners of the contemporary theatre world, cites two distinct features of Shakespeare in this regard. First, he is not like any other playwrights. He is a playwright of a different kind. This distinction surfaces due to his superb objectivity, i.e., the absence of his personal life or ideology in his creations. This very feature also makes his plays real (Brook, The Shifting Point76). Secondly,Shakespearedoes not reach us as a message; rather he reached us as a series of impulses. That’s why multiple interpretations of his plays are possible(76). In this paper, these vital points put forward by Brook are sought to be understood in the light of the experience of AdilHussain, an internationally famous theatre and film actor from Assam, in the play Othello: A Play in Black and White (directed by Roysten Abel in New Delhi in 1999).
Great classics have a unique quality ofpossibilities for multiple interpretations. People can always explore new perspectives or put forward views on such texts. Peter Brook mentions that great classics are always real, because only real incidents are subject to multiple interpretations. In this sense, Shakespeare is always real.In case of Art, naturalism, realism, absurdism, expressionism etc., are specific ways of interpretation of reality obtained by artists. In that sense the plays of Ibsen, Shaw or Brecht are the reflection of their own views or ideology or their own interpretation of reality as they observed it in their contemporary surrounding.Yet, Shakespeare is different from the other playwrights in this regard. He is totally objective and therefore his personal views or ideologies have found no place in his creations. In other words, what he created is not his personal interpretation, rather it is like the real thing itself(76).This makes Shakespeare universally real. He is not confined to any view or ideology.
If these realities in the Shakespearean plays are viewed from an actor’s point of view in the present time, then a totally different picture emerges. Superficially, an actor gets an artificial structure of Shakespeare’s plays, a structure with a pattern of dialogues in verse form that maintains a particular meter and rhythm. Most of the words he has used are lyrical and rhetorical, and therefore unfamiliar and non-contextual for today’s actors. The words in no way match and reflect today’s reality, which we experience in different walks of life.
The biggest challenge for an actor of the present time is how he will handle the text of Shakespeare, written in the form of incomprehensible verse. There lies another problem for him. It is this that he does not find resemblance of characters of kings and queensof a faraway past with his immediate reality. The royal ways of gesture, posture, and ways of talking are not to be found in the present society. So how will he conceive such characters? The way left to him is taking help of imagination or of imitation previously done by his earlier senior actors. However, this leads him to a cliché of a pattern or of the set ways of delivering speeches. The truthfulness and the uniqueness of the actor gets underminedin this process and leads him to a “deadly theatre” (Brook, Empty Space14-15)2. The formalities of the words and the rhythm of the verses in the Shakespearean plays will restrict him, even if he approaches in a more realistic way and tries to speak in a colloquial pattern adopted from his immediate reality. In the words of Peter Brook:
The problem for the actor is to find a way of dealing with verse. If he approaches it too emotionally, he can end up in empty bombast; if he approaches it too intellectually, he can lose the ever present humanity; if he is too literal, he gains the common place and loses the true meaning. Here are great problems, related to technique, imagination and living experience that have to be solved. (Brook, The Shifting Point85)
Here arises another problem. Why did Shakespeare adopt a structure of verse to compose his plays? Why didn’t he use a more realistic pattern? These questionsare valid insofar asthe depiction of reality in his works is concerned. The answers to these questions have been provided by Peter Brook. He looks at the whole phenomenon from a different perspective. He has posed a question– how much can one be successful indepicting reality (through dialogues, acting or design elements)? The answer provided by him is that it is not possible to depict realityfully or with absolute accuracy3. Therefore,to try to depict reality in a photographic way isoftentimes impossible. Such an attempt always fails to portray all truths of reality, rather it itself becomes a white lie. Shakespeare perhaps knew it. He knew that man lived his everyday life and at the same time was living intensely in the invisible world of his thoughts and feelings. Therefore, he (Shakespeare) developed a method of using verse to portray the inner, mysterious, and invisible world of thoughts and feelings. According to Peter Brook:
Shakespeare’s verse gives density to the portrait. This is the purpose of striking metaphor, the purple passage, the ringing phrase. It can no longer be held for one second that such plays are “stylized”, “formalized” or “romantic” as opposed to “realistic.” (Brook, The Shifting Point85)
Brook compares this with the art of Pablo Picasso. Picasso, the Cubist painter, did not draw his paintings in a way that looks realistic to us. Rather, he painted a profile or a full face with several noses and eyes. He did so as he felt that people and objects had and were perceived as having multiple personalities and identities, and that was precisely their actual reality. A face with a single nose and two eyes were unreal in his perception of people. This perception led him to discover the technique of Cubism, with which he attempted to capture a larger slice of truth.
Therefore, to overcome the problem of handling the verse of Shakespeare, the actor should know Shakespeare’s remarkable use of free verse and prose, which was in one sense a kind of ‘cubism of theatre’. Therefore, he should gradually try to understand the deeper meanings of the text and explore the projected reality in the light of this remarkable ‘use’. Peter Brook can be quoted in this regard:
We must wean the actor away from a false belief: that there is a heightened playing for the classics, a more real playing for the works of today. We must get him to see that the challenge of the verse play is that he must bring to it an even deeper search for truth, for truth of emotion, truth of ideas and truth of character—all quite separate and yet all interwoven—and then as an artist find, with objectivity, the form that gives these meanings life……. Outer splendor can be exciting but has little relation with modern life: on the inside lie themes and issues, rituals and conflicts which are as valid as ever. Any time the Shakespearean meaning is caught, it is ‘real’ and so contemporary. (Brook, The Shifting Point85).
Now, it can be seen how Adil Hussain dealt with this problem practically while playing the role of Othello in Othello: A Play in Black and White. For him,the text was, and still is, a primary source of inspiration for the actor. The actor gives life to the words of the playwright and makes the words his own. He does not have any right or freedom to change the words of the playwright, especially when he acts in a classic play like Shakespeare’s Othello(1604), that too whenit is performed in its original English version. His challenge is to how he delivered the words of the playwright by making it in his own. For this the actor at first must have to understand the meaning of the words. But it is not the literal meaning or an intellectual understanding of the words. He must understand the emotions behind the word. For example, if he is to say a line from Othello, then he will at first have to find out how he would have given vent to that particular emotion or feeling involved in that line in his own colloquial language, or in other words, how he would speak that very line in that particular language. Hussain hails from the small village of Nayapara in Goalpara district of Assam, and being a speaker of the Goalpariya dialect of the Assamese language, he tried at first to find a sentence in that very dialect which would be equivalent to the line from Othello. In other words, he tried to find how he would express the emotion involved in that Shakespearean line in his own Goalparia dialect. When he was able to fix the right emotion of that line in that Goalpariya sentence, then and then only he translated that emotion into the pronouncement of the related Shakespearean words4.
This suggests that it is not proper on the part of an actor to try to play Shakespeare superficially. The actor should try to find the truth behind the line. He should consider why he would say it, to whom he would pronounce it, and finally how he would utter it in his real life? He has to decide which emotion will be evoked if he truly speaks the same thing in his real life by using his own language. If he is able to understand this point, then he can go forward andsay any line from any Shakespearean text. The pronounced lines would be the actor’s own, because their pronouncement will be inspired by his own emotion. It emerges from his gut feelings.And this is the actor’s actual language. Therefore, it may be observed that an actor’s language is not the words; his language is what is there behind the words.
In this context, Hussain mentioned that words are windows to enter the soul and emotions of the character.Those emotionsare the flesh and blood of the role. According to him, Shakespeare did not write his plays as to create great literature. He wrote them for commercial purpose, in which communication to and entertainments for the common people were the main objectives. This purpose could beachieved with his calculative handling of his plays for the actors. Shakespeare did not try to appeal to their intellect. He appealed only to their heart, to their emotions and feelings. If any intellectual understanding of Shakespeare shouldbe possible, that has to be the actor’s intellectual understanding of the play after his emotional experience of it. What he experiencesby situating the play in his own linguistic and emotional contexts is a truth of his own, and not of anyone else, not even of Shakespeare himself.
Shakespeare wrote his plays in blank verse, where it is customary to use run-on lines written with iambic pentameter. The blank verse provides a special structure and rhythm to Shakespeare’s texts. According to Hussain, Shakespeare followed this structure probably for the help of the actors so that, by knowing exactly where to emphasis onspecific words, they could propagate the meaning of the words clearly and easily. He took this step because most of the actors of his time were untrained and illiterate about acting. However, Hussain could not follow this pattern of pentameter. He broke the pentameter pattern, because being a well-trained actor and with the understanding of the emotional meaning of the words through his intuitive feelings, he did not require the pattern asthe very purpose of creation of pentameter for projection of reality is no longer valid. It might be such that Shakespeare was writing with that exact meaning or essence, and Hussain carried it out through his character, and people understood it without any difficulty. In an interview given to the present writer, Hussain used the expression-“may be” here, because what he exploredwas his interpretation, and he was not sure– none could be sure– if it was also Shakespeare’s. It is also another reason of Shakespeare’s universality. Any trained actor from across the globe can perform the roles of the Shakespearean plays according to their own emotions, and thus they are able to explore the playwright forever newly.
Another important feature of the Shakespearean vocabulary is that the sounds of the words in his plays carry their meanings. Hussain maintains that if an actor pronounces each vowel and consonant of a Shakespearean play properly,he will develop proper feelings, and those feelings will arousethe proper emotions. Shakespeare chose and picked up each wordand arranged them in a certain way in which the words along with the other words retain the power to arouse emotions when spoken by the actor with proper pronunciation. Therefore, Hussain prepared for the role of Othello in that very way, and not by understanding–nor by trying to understand– the intellectual meaning of the text. Here again, the wordswere windows to the emotional meanings of the words, which he had experienced as an actor and then vocalized.
According to the Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski, theatre is an “encounter” (Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre55). This “encounter”occurs between the truths of our present generation and the truths of life experience of our forefathers. He has termed this “encounter” as “Collision with the roots” (22-23). Our forefathers’ truths have come down to us through myths, epics and the great classics. Thus, classic plays act like a message from our past. This “collision” always reveals some new truths which help the society and lead the society towards growth and better civilization. Othello: A Play in Black and White is also a similar type of experimentations of “collision” of the roots. In this case, “collision” occurs between Shakespearean truths with the truthsfor the present-day actors.
The plot of Othello: A Play in Black and White, an adapted version of Shakespeare’s Othello,is taken asa Delhi based Theatre Company, which produces English plays. This time the company invited a guest director to direct the play ‘Othello’. The senior and junior actors of the group were offended whenthe guest director gave the main role of Othello to Hussain, a Kathakali trainer of the group. Hussain was from rural India(from the Goalpara district of Assam) and had low social and economic status. Moreover, he did not have a good command over the English language. Therefore, he was considered as an outsider by most of the members of the group. Berry Jone, the senior-most actor of the group had the aspiration for taking the lead role of Othello, but the director cast him as Iago, a supporting character in opposition to the protagonist. When the rehearsals were in progress, Hussain really fell in love with Kristen, who was playing the role of Desdemona, Othello’s wife. On the other hand, Berry, due to his disappointment at not being cast as Othello but as the villainous Iago, played an Iago-like-role in real life. He brought it to the notice of Hussain that Kristen was exhibiting some ambiguous behavior towards Dilipthe actor who was playing the role of Casio. This made the situation of the characters of the play become real life situation for the major actors. Gradually, the lives of the actors and the characters became blurred, the reality became rehearsal, and rehearsal became reality. The situation became such that it turned out to be difficult to say whether Othello was going to kill Desdemona or Hussain the actor was going to kill Kristen (http://www.roystenabel.com/othello.html).
From this discussion, it has become clear that Othello: A Play in Black and White created a situation of what Grotowski called “collision with the roots”. However, the truths of the Elizabethan period in which Shakespeare wrote, have not reached us as a series of messages. They have come down as a series of impulse, as Peter Brook has opined about Shakespeare. Message represents an authorship, i.e., it reflects the views of or interpretations by the author on a subject of his creation. The influence of the personal life of the author gets reflected in his creation. However, a series of impulse represents multiple possibilities of interpretation of a single subject of creation. It does not reflect the personal views or interpretations by the author. Further, this series of impulse as experienced emotionally by an individual actor regulates his own interpretations or creation of a character, which may be totally detached from the original playwright. For example, we can consider here Hussain’s decision to not murder Desdemona in the last scene of Othello: A Play in Black and White.
In the last scene, going against the original text of Shakespeare, Othello (acted by Hussain) did not kill Desdemona (acted by Kirsten). From the literary prospect, it is a violation or disrespect towards Shakespeare. However, according to Hussain, it was not so in Othello: A Play in Black and White. He did not feel any impulse to kill Desdemona. It may be so that Shakespeare’s Othello killed heron suspicion of extramarital affairs with Casioas his social and mental make-up was medieval in character. This derogatory portrayal of Othello was intended to be so by the writer. In present time and the socio-economic milieu, Adil Hussain felt like being unable to kill her, for he was with modern values and norms, and not with any murderous intent. The lack of a murderous intent was the reason for not getting any impulse for murder, and without getting proper impulse of feelings he did not agree to act like a murderer mechanically. At the maximum level, he could think about separating himself from Kristen (in disguise of Desdemona), and this he precisely did as Othello with Desdemona.
Hussain strongly believes that a role which someone is going to performshould have to be based on his own truth, and not on the writer’s (Shakespeare’s, in the present case) truth. When he plays a role, he must be present in that role. Otherwise, it would be very wrong to say that he has become a character. However, some points need to be discussed here. One can tilt himself towards the character little bit. The character should be inside his sub-personality, a particular temperament achievable slowly and steadily, and he should not stay outside of it (the character). No one can find the character inside his sub-personality on the very first day of rehearsal. Rather, it is sometimes possible to feel it there after completion of a performance. The actor does not know Shakespeare and his intention behind creating the role. He can only guess the intention by observing the various clues in the text. Consequently,the actor needs to proceed to create his role based on his own truth, on what he really feels strongly. The feeling should be strong and is achievable may be after reading the text for a hundred or for even more times. The feelingof not to killing Desdemona in the last scene came to Hussain’s mind after completion of five or six shows of the play.
According to Hussain, an actor should always to see whether all his actions come spontaneously and effortlessly or he has to push it with some extra mechanical effort. If he has to push it, then there is something wrong in his exploration. Hussain had this problem sometimes, and he discussed this with his director Roysten Abel. As a sharp, very creative and open-minded director, Abel recognized Hussain’s ingeniousness and give him freedom to do what he feels on the stage. So, in the last scene of the play in its fifth or sixth performance on the stage, Othello (Hussain) went to kill Desdemona (Kirsten), but does not do so, comes back and finally goes to hug, cry and forgive each other. During that moment lots of things happened and hundreds of emotions arose. Hussain maintains that this manipulated ending was not a violation of Shakespeare. They were only surpassing Shakespeare, transcending Shakespeare, and making Shakespeare more realistic to the present-day audience. For Hussain, this Othello has still remained a full human being for not killing Desdemona, and for this reason, he would have been loved by Shakespeare if the latter were still living.
From an actor’s point of view, the relevance of Shakespeare’s plays lies in the facts that the plays give opportunity to the actor to live the life of the characters, and that the actor can experience tremendous emotions on behalf of the character, emotions that he would have never been able to experience in his real life. This is what Hussain realized after living the life of the character of Othello. He got the opportunity to experience a plethora of emotions, such as tremendous anger, jealousy, rue and others, while being living thesituation of the character.
Hussain’s interpretations of the incidents of the last scene of the playremind one of what Brook has said– Shakespeare reachesus as a series of impulses not as a series of messages. In Othello: A Play in Black and White, the impulseswere experienced and explored by the particular actor named Adil Hussain, and therefore, the Othello in this play was Hussain’s Othello, and not Lorenge Oliver’s or somebody else’s. Secondly, Hussain’s decision for not killing Desdemona was not an intellectual decision. It was an impulsive decision. This proves that Shakespeare has more appeal to the heart, and less to the brain. Thirdly, Hussain slowly proceeded towards “holly acting”5from the middle of the play, where he started to suspect Desdemona’s fidelity. The most important characteristic of “holly acting” is to sacrifice thepersonal life by the actor, and to allow himself to see into his inner truths. These may not be the truths of the character, or what, according to the playwright, the character should do in a particular situation. As Grotowski mentions, a character is just a tool for the holly actors– for example, a scalpel used by the doctor in the operation theatre– to dissect what really happens secretly inside his soul (Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre37). In the play under discussion, Hussain too sacrificed himself, tried to find out what really lay hidden inside him, and finally producedthe beautiful last scene of forgiveness.
- To Ben Jonson, “Shakespeare was not of an age, but for all time” (Mahanta 84).
- Deadly theatre is a categorization of theatre, done by Peter Brook in his book Empty Space. According to him, there are four types theatre in our society, viz,—Deadly theatre, Holly theatre, Rough theatre and Immediate theatre.
- “He will sense that the so called real dialogue and the so called real acting do not actually capture that reality of information, visible and invisible, that corresponds to what he instinctively knows as reality” (Brook, The Shifting Point 84).
- This and the other information about AdilHussain and the play Othello: A Play in Black and White have been taken from the present writer’s interviews with AdilHussain, if not stated otherwise.
- The term has been used by Jerzy Grotowski to distinguish his actors of PoorTheatre. The term was later used by Peter Brook in Empty Space.
Brook, Peter. The Shifting Point— 40 Years of Theatrical Exploration 1946-1987. London:Methuen Drama, A&C Black Publishers Ltd., 1989.
Brook ,Peter.The Empty Space London:Penguin Books, 1990.
Grotowski, Jerzy. Towards a Poor Theatre. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.
Mahanta, Pona. Western Influence on Modern Assamese Drama. Delhi: Mittal Publications, 1985.
Personal Interviews with AdilHussain, taken on4 0ctober 2015 and 27 January 2019.