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When Woody Guthrie was admitted to the hospital where he would begin his final battle with the disease that would eventually kill him, the admitting nurse asked Woodie what his religion was.

“All,” replied Woody.

“You have to pick one,” said the nurse.

“Then write down none.”

“Mr. Guthrie,” said the nurse. “Be serious…”

“I am serious,” said Woodie. “All or none.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about these words lately as the bubble world, that I seem stuck in, seems to be occupied with the appropriation of traditions, what is diversity and what is in or out of the canon, is using up a lot of my bandwidth (as the current expression goes) and is not leaving room for much else – like the actual making of art. The great designer Pamela Howard had a sign on her office door: Did you write a poem today or just Email? Right now, I feel a bit stuck between these two worlds, and obsessive thoughts about many topics keeps are jumping into the void. All or none.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Othello these past few days. And that is driving what is emerging in starts and fits as what is on my mind today. I have a pile of Othello DVDs on the table next to me. The oldest is Orson Welles’ from 1952 and the most recent is Adrian Lester’s (with Rory Kinnear as Iago from 2013. What a production that was. I don’t actually have a copy of this one, but I saw it live twice and the National Theatre film version two more times, so it is firmly embedded in my memory.) I also have Olivier from 1965 -very dated, as well as Anthony Hopkins from 1981, John Kani from 1988 and Willard White from 1990. I wish I had a copy of the Olivier (this time as Iago) Ralph Richardson version from the 1930’s which was directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Guthrie built the entire production around the, for the times, novel conception that Iago was homosexual (his word). In fact, that he was in love with Othello.

Both Olivier and Guthrie agreed not to say a word to the conservative Richardson about the matter during rehearsals. They also agreed that at one moment toward the end of the play Iago should embrace Othello and kiss him. But obviously it would be best to hold off with this piece of business until the last minute. At the dress rehearsal, time had run out. At the proper moment, Olivier embraced Ralph and kissed him, full make up and all. Richardson did not say his next line. He just disentangled himself from his friend’s arms and stepped down to the foot lights. Tony! He called, “what was the meaning of that.” “Well we didn’t want to tell you sooner but well Ralph, Larry and I talked it over and Ralph ,well Ralph he’s a Poof. That’s all there is to it. There’s no other explanation. Iago is a poof.” Richardson said nothing but turned to Olivier. “He’s a poof, Ralph,” Olivier said. “He Has to be.” Richardson headed for the wings. “Where are you going?” both men cried. “I’m going home,” Richardson replied, “until both of you lads have come to your senses.” He didn’t come back for two days. But this time, at least, he did go on for the opening. He even allowed the kiss, even though he preferred that Olivier not do this. After all it was in the service of art.

Three of these Othello’s have a white actor in the title role, three a black one. All are most interesting to watch. All are art.

There are no “shoulds” in art. No way that you’re supposed to make it, or teach it, no meaningful rules as to what it should say or how it should be said. Art from another time may seem racist, or oppressive, or misogynistic to us today, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist, or that it should be stored away out of sight or be defanged with carefully worded statements of contextualization. We can say we don’t like it or even that we find it repulsive, but if the artist has the imagination to think it up and execute his or her idea, it’s ultimately a matter of preference not a moral imperative, Art is what the artist prefers to do.

I can drop my pants and thumb my nose at the world and let out everything you’re supposed to keep tucked away inside. Art can be dangerous, it can be unpredictable, it can be filthy dirty, or inspiring – sometimes both in the same play or by the same performer. (Just think Lars Eidenger.)

Art is not nice. It doesn’t offer societal change (except when it does), and then it is usually doing so by playing a most indirect long-term game. We can watch enthralled, or we can say as Bartleby once did, “I would prefer not to” to watch, to listen, to participate in any way, because it doesn’t suit my individual preference. Preference. What a great word. And that’s what is on my mind – but may or may not be on yours – today.


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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