If you’re the type who likes to take a deep dive into the story behind the story, take a minute to read this thoughtful and comprehensive essay from Desdemona director Peter Sellars, written for the program notes.
photo by Peter DaSilva
Desdemona Director’s Note
This project is a literary and musical collaboration between Toni Morrison and Rokia Traoré, moving across continents, shared and divergent histories, imagined “other worlds,” and the darkly resonant, open-ended poetry of William Shakespeare’s Othello.
Writing from Bamako, in Mali, Rokia Traoré is one of a new generation of African women, a clear and courageous citizen of the world stepping forward into leadership, musical heir to the griot traditions of the Mandean royal courts and the particular alchemy of Malian music that gave birth to the blues in North America. Her music is a rich blend of cross-Atlantic traditions in a distinctly feminine voice.
Toni Morrison has created fiction that imagines, evokes and honors the missing histories of generations whose courage, struggles, achievements, loves, tragedies, fulfillments and disappointments have gone unrecorded, but are still very much with us.
Shakespeare’s Othello is a permanent provocation. For four centuries it has been the most visible portrayal of a black man in Western art. It is a play seething with innuendo, misinformation, secrets, lies, self-deception, cruelty, and strangely luminous redemption. It has been read by generations as a coded, indirect reference to the coded, indirect layers of justice and injustice that move across racial lines in Western societies. Because the play is so intricate and ultimately disturbing, much of its performance history has reduced it to a kind of puppet show of a brilliant but dangerously mad black man framed by a devil on his left (Iago) and an angel on his right (Desdemona).
What was the reality of Africa for Shakespeare?
Did he know any Africans? Clearly the man who called his theater The Globe was interested in Africa, and his two multicultural plays set in Venice, Othello and The Merchant of Venice, are filled with references to Africa.
This project grew out of an astonishing line which appears late in Act IV of Othello. Othello has just visited Desdemona in her bedroom and threatened her with terrifying and pointed menace. He leaves, and Desdemona, deeply shaken, asks her companion, Emilia, to help her get ready for bed.
Entering an eerily emotional twilight that will lead to her violent death, she tells Emilia that she can’t get a certain song out of her head. She learned this song, she tells Emilia, from her mother’s maid, Barbary, who died while singing it, of a broken heart.
In one line, Shakespeare has suddenly given us a series of startling images. The appearance of the word mother tips us off—Shakespeare’s plays are filled with mysterious, missing women and this is only the second reference to Desdemona’s mother in the entire play. But it is the word Barbary which triggers surprising associations. In 17th century London, Barbary meant Africa. The Barbary pirates were hijacking British vessels off the coast of Africa, enslaving their white, British crews.
In 1600, a delegation of ambassadors from the Barbary court, Africans of high degree, splendidly dressed, arrived in London to negotiate with Queen Elizabeth. That advent stirred much discussion in London. That Shakespeare, writing Othello in 1603, uses the name Barbary implies that there is another African character in his play.
Shakespeare has already been at pains to demonstrate in Act I that Desdemona’s parents don’t know their own daughter, and now as she sings her famous “Willow Song,” the quiet, dark, emotional still-point of the night, we are left to reflect that Desdemona—this tender, brilliant, courageous, generous young woman—was raised by an African maid with African stories and African songs. Barbary is one of Shakespeare’s powerful and enigmatic missing women—he did not write for her, but he imagined her. In Toni Morrison and Rokia Traoré’s Desdemona, we meet her at last, and Desdemona meets her again.
As a young woman, Desdemona rejected the usual suitors from the Venetian court—it was a black woman who taught Desdemona how to love and now, Desdemona chooses to offer her love to a black man. In Act I of Othello, Shakespeare has Othello tell the Venetian Senate that he and Desdemona fell in love as he told her stories—stories of his youth as a child soldier, stories of suffering, reversal, privation, salvation, transformation, and unexpected human generosity. Stories of other worlds. And with the image of Barbary lingering in our minds, we can now imagine that Desdemona could have grown up hearing some of those stories.
And of course Toni Morrison wanted to write those stories.
In Desdemona, Toni Morrison has created a safe space in which the dead can finally speak those things that could not be spoken when they were alive. And finally, the women inside Shakespeare’s play and those in the shadows, just outside of it, find their voices: Othello’s mother and Desdemona’s mother meet, and hidden histories are shared and begin to flow.
Desdemona was Shakespeare’s ideal creation —like Dante’s Beatrice, a vision of perfection, a woman offering love and forgiveness in the face of hatred, mistrust, and murderous lies. In Shakespeare’s late tragedies, the ideal woman— Desdemona, Virgilia, Cordelia—was mostly silent.
For Toni Morrison, the ideal woman is not silent. Finally, she speaks. And as she speaks, she reveals secrets, hopes, dreams, but also her own imperfections. Shakespeare’s Desdemona is divine perfection, but Toni Morrison allows her to be human, to make mistakes, and finally, with eternity stretching before her, to learn, and then to understand. Shakespeare’s play spans two days. Desdemona and Othello elope Monday night at 2 a.m., are thrust into a wild media-centric marriage as they travel in the public eye into a theater of war, and he has murdered her by Wednesday night. The play strangely offers no one much room for reflection.
It is pointedly odd that the author of Hamlet affords the title character in Othello only a single 12-line soliloquy. For the rest of the play, this black man is performing in front of white people and we have very few clues about his inner life. Desdemona is an astonishing teenager but is suffocated before she or we have a chance to learn her thoughts or feelings. In Toni Morrison’s creation, Desdemona is no longer a teenager but a mature woman with perspective and the opportunity to gradually recognize and let go of her own illusions.
And so in Desdemona, we begin to glimpse some of the mysteries of Shakespeare’s Othello with new insight in the light of deepened histories. What was the dark secret that held Othello and Iago in a bond of mutual dependency and hatred? What were the moments of happiness and promise and fulfillment in the great love between Desdemona and Othello before it was tainted by the world?
One other silent woman in Shakespeare’s play enters into a new dimensionality: Emilia, Iago’s terrified wife (“I nothing, but to please his fantasy.”). She appears in nearly every scene of Shakespeare’s play and she almost never speaks.
She is the one person who knows the truth of the lie of the handkerchief—at any moment she could speak up and prevent the injustice and bloodbath that overwhelm the play. Shakespeare creates a portrait of silence that is complicit with mass murder, that hopes by not uttering the truth to save its own skin, but that will in fact become the next victim when the lie follows its inexorable course.
Shakespeare’s foil for Othello, the gifted, inspiring black leader, is Cassio, an ambitious, glib, weak career politician with a crippling addiction to alcohol and sex. Othello’s first act as Governor of Cypress is to fire him, with cause. Desdemona, whose openness of spirit urges rehabilitation, redemption, and forgiveness, challenges her husband to reinstate Cassio, privately, and then in public. Shakespeare’s mature tragedies strike a bitter note on their last page—the future will be even more bleak—after the flawed greatness of Hamlet we get Fortinbras. After Othello’s death the terrible irony is that he is replaced as Governor by the mediocrity and venality of Cassio. Was Desdemona wrong to support Cassio at the cost of her own life?
Toni Morrison responded to lacunae and poetic ambiguities in Shakespeare and to her own sense of unspoken truths. In communication with Toni by email, Rokia Traoré responded to Toni’s unfolding story with songs that answered or deepened the human questions and the metaphysical aspects in an African context. Her work references African tropes and traditions. Dongori for example, refers to a woven cloth of thorns, a lament and an image that evokes a bitter African proverb for young women: your bridal veil will be your funeral shroud.
In Rokia Traoré’s new version, young women rewrite that proverb and defiantly, tenderly and respectfully claim a different future. The dah and kaicedrat in the overwhelming refrain of Dianfa are fruits with a pungent, acrid taste. The song “Kemeh Bourama” offers a brief sample of the centuries-old griot tradition. This is the way that the exploits of great warriors were recorded, sung and celebrated in the courts of Segou and Timbuktu, and we begin to hear the epic mode in which Othello’s story would have been told in Africa in Shakespeare’s lifetime.
In performance, dialogues spoken by the actress playing Desdemona are in dialogue with songs sung by Rokia Traoré as Barbary. The only song lyrics not written by Rokia Traoré are Shakespeare’s “Willow Song” and the pendant which Toni Morrison wrote in counterpoint to Shakespeare’s “Willow Song,” “Someone Leans Near.”
Four hundred years later, Toni Morrison and Rokia Traoré respond to Shakespeare’s Othello, offering some missing pieces and wider perspectives.
Women now have the scope to speak their minds and their hearts, and Africa is real, not just imagined. The women speak to us from the other side of the grave, older now, no longer teenagers.
In African traditions, the dead are quite undead and very present, and for them, as Toni Morrison says, the past and the future are the same.
Desdemona and Othello meet again in the afterlife.
With difficulty, humility and remorse, a space of reconciliation is created. The apologies that we have waited four hundred years to hear are finally spoken. We are not simply left with tragedy. In a time outside of time that illuminates and infuses the present, Desdemona confronts her demons, reconciling the past, and now, no longer alone, prepares a future.
–Peter Sellars, June 2012