Novelli as the Moor of Venice

Theatre Magazine

April 1907, Vol. VII No. 74, p. 96, vi

Ermete Novelli as Othello

Ermete Novelli as Othello

THE optimism and “good cheer” of professional, religious and ethical cant, the smug idealism that declares this to be the “best of all possible worlds”—what does it say before Othello? If “King Lear” is the tragedy of paternal love, “Othello” is the tragedy of friendship and love founded on temperament. Whether a man trusts or hates, gives his all or gives nothing, the earthly fate that awaits him is written on the eternal parchments without any attention being paid to his actions. Othello and Moor is a mote in a web of passion, a pawn in the fingers of indifferent gods, a thing hustled hither and thither over a field where the manœuvres of the Eternal are going on. Othello is mankind, each one of us. Iago is the incarnation of the malign laws that play upon us.

Othello is an optimist. Here believes in human nature. And see how Shakespeare sends him to his damnation! With what subtle, silent motions do the Destinies, using Iago as a catspaw, weave their filaments of adamant around around this trustful nature!—this nature damned by a fine virtue, discovered, routed, bludgeoned to the earth by an ingrained optimistic faith in the goodness of mankind; played upon like a child, all his stops and vents discovered by his ancient Iago—Iago who is Shakespeare’s most perfect creation, from the standpoint of pure artistry.

Iago is the fiend par excellence of dramatic literature. He is the quiet, grim underminder of two lives, a thin-lipped cynic mouthing upon the Rialto a wisdom as ancient as the serpent’s. His sense of touch is exquisite. He knows the weakness of every man and woman, and can smile while he rubs a raw wound.

Iago is Evil triumphant, Evil unrepentant, Evil that marauds because life bores, Evil that bites and tears and rends because, like Hedda Gabler, it was afflicted with a stupendous ennui. The trivial motive with which Shakespeare sets the actions of Iago in motion—his lack of preferment—explains the drama, but does not explain Iago. The infamy of Iago would have wreaked itself wherever it could. Othello was an incident.

There is no penalty in this play for evildoing. Othello is, technically, an immoral play.

It is Othello who goes out in utter spiritual darkness; and, though Iago is gyved, he stands triumphant, even majestic. His last words are Sphinx-like: “Demand me nothing; what you know, you know; from this time forth I never will speak a word.” Othello and Desdemona cold in death. Iago scorning Death and the Law like a god! Anarchy and immortality thou wert born of William Shakespeare!

Signor Novelli’s Othello is not up to the standard that he has set as Lear and Shylock. But with all its failings it is still a noteworthy embodiment. There is something too keen, too knowing, too froward in the Italian actor’s conception of the Moor.

In his eye there is the passion, in his step the dignity and in his voice the ring of authority; but the characterization as a whole lacks what might be called “atmosphere.” There are moments, as in the last act, in the chamber of Desdemona, that Novelli touches the supreme in his art. Here is a soul burst asunder, a great heart split, the shrieking of the Eumenides as they draw taut the last shred in that web from which there is no going forth this side of the tomb. Signor Novelli here has conceived the Tragic Spirit and wrings it, naked and aghast, in our faces.

But, after all, if “King Lear” was the excuse for Cordelia, “Othello” was the excuse for Iago.

In “Œdipus Rex” Novelli is not seen at his best. “The greatest tragedy ever written”—the phrase comes easy to the tongue, and we may use it of at least a dozen famous masterpieces. But if there is a scale of values in the use of adjectives, then we unhesitatingly affirm that that scale must be forever set in the use of the phrase “the greatest tragedy of all time” by the “Œdipus Rex.”

It is the greatest tragedy of all time because, better than any tragedy ever conceived, it shows us in one majestic sweep of the pen the inexorability of Law, the complexity of the relations of man to man, the hideous possibilities that lie ambushed in this infinite combination and recombination of matter and motion which we call life, and because it sweeps forever from its throne the beneficent providence which the fear and cunning optimism of man have shaped-deep within the heart of his imaginings.

Only Job and “Faust” compare in loftiness of theme with this most terrible and forbidding of all tragedies, and in technique Job and “Faust” are bungled when one compares to them the swift action of “Œdipus Rex,” the marvelous joinery of event to event, the rigid precision with which the monstrous jaws of a predestined Doom are made to open and swallow with a mathematical gulp those two pitiful motes. Œdipus and Jocasta.

[vi] In the Novelli version the play is telescoped into three acts. The entire action takes place in Thebes before the palace of Œdipus. In the opening scene the populace, headed by the High Priest of Jupiter, crowds before the altars seeking to propitiate the gods who have visited pestilence and famine on the land because of the murder of Laius, the predecessor of Œdipus. Laius was the husband of Jocasta, present wife (and, unknown to both, mother) of Œdipus. Tiresias, the renowned seer, is sent for to declare the reasons for this overwhelming series of disasters.

Œdipus was the child of Laius and Jocasta; but at his birth a prophecy had gone forth that he should murder his father and marry his mother. To escape this hideous possibility, Jocasta had his feet spiked and ordered the babe to be taken to the mountains by a shepherd and left there to die. The shepherd’s heart was soft and he gave the child to a shepherd of the King of Corinth, Polybus. Œdipus was brought up in the court as a child. One day at a feast he heard a drunken reveller announce that he (Œdipus) was not the child of Polybus and the Queen of Corinth, and that a doom hung over hs head that he should kill his father and commit incest with his mother. To escape this, he flees from the court, with a few followers, and, meeting a band of supposed robbers on the way, slaughters all but one. The chief of that little band was his father, Laius, King of Thebes. He was on his way to consult an oracle. Œdipus appears in Thebes, woos and weds his mother, Jocasta. The truth unravels itself through the two old shepherds and Œdipus’ revelation to Jocasta of his adventure with the unknown band of “thieves.” Jocasta hangs herself and Œdipus, bidding farewell to the sun—puts out his eyes, takes a shepherd’s crook and becomes a wanderer.

Signor Novelli’s portrayal of the marked king is weak in psychological detail, but strong in external delineation. He turns to us the slowly disintegrating pretensions of kingly power rather than the prostration of a man in the dust of humility. It is like watching a shadow creep over the surface of a glittering disk. Despair and hope travel alternately over his face as he picks up this thread or drops that thread of the web being woven around him; but each smile grows sicklier and each shadow deepens as the waves of suspicion rise higher and higher in his mind. It is all wonderful surface-play and culminates when, each link in the chain being forged, he exiles himself from the sun, and in an outburst of insane fury, proscribes and excommunicates himself.

Benjamin De Casseres.