For someone who can be so fierce in her fiction, Toni Morrison is remarkably easy to talk to. A conversation on the phone with her, at the house on the Hudson River where she’s lived for years, is warm, fun even—if you’re allowed to say that about a Nobel Prize-winning author. She tells stories. She heaps praise on her collaborators, theater director Peter Sellars and singer Rokia Traoré. And when you apologize for asking about a play that premiered two years ago, she tells you she never gets tired of talking about “Desdemona.”
“It’s one of the few things I’ve done for the stage that I regard as really powerful,” she continues. It’s easy to see why she feels so strongly. In some ways, the musical theater piece is for her a risky departure: an experiment with music theater; a collaborative work; a rare encounter with Africa for a writer whose gaze has been firmly focused on America. Yet it’s also a crowning achievement: through Shakespeare, Morrison seems to have arrived at a summing up of the themes that have characterized her own literary career.
“Desdemona” began as a challenge from Sellars. In a conversation with Morrison about Shakespeare’s tragedy “Othello,” he dismissed the play as “thin,” one of the Bard’s lesser works. Morrison disagreed. “Most of the performances I have seen were predictable: big black guy strangles little white girl, some version of that. But I thought the thinness that Peter was talking about was in the performances, not the play itself.”
Sellars urged Morrison to write her own version of the story. He also, she says, handed her the key. “Peter was interested in what he thinks was Shakespeare’s tentative relationship with Africa. He thought that there was a very strong African theme in ‘Othello,’ but one that was hidden.”
Hidden history happens to be one of Morrison’s own central preoccupations. Throughout her career, she has dedicated herself to exploring the untold lives of women and black Americans, including the deep traumas of slavery and racism. She took up Sellars’s challenge. The result is a performance with text by Morrison and music and lyrics by Traoré. “Desdemona” carries traces of the bitterness and violence that characterize both Shakespeare’s play and much of Morrison’s own work. Yet its tone is mainly one of acceptance, perhaps even reconciliation.
In Shakespeare’s play, Othello is a Moor, a North African, who works his way up to become a general in the army of Venice. After he wins the love of the senator’s daughter Desdemona, she marries him against the wishes of her powerful family. Then one of Othello’s junior officers, Iago, who has been passed up for promotion, decides to bring the general down. He tricks Othello into believing that Desdemona has been having an affair. Othello first murders Desdemona and, when he realizes the truth, kills himself.
When she began writing “Desdemona,” Morrison says, “I had one requirement immediately, which was to get rid of Iago. Because he talks too much, he’s everywhere; I mean, I can’t even think why Shakespeare called it “Othello,” because it’s all about Iago.”
Then Morrison explored Othello’s past, imagining that he once served as a child soldier in an African civil war. “You know, I was always wondering, why does Desdemona fall in love with Othello in the first place? She says that she listened to all his stories. Shakespeare mentions one, but I invent the others.”
She added a new character, too, one who is mentioned only in passing in Shakespeare’s text. The evening of her murder, Desdemona sings a sad song she learned from her mother’s maid just before she died of a broken heart. The singer was called “Barbary”: an old name for North Africa. Sellars suggested that she might have come from Africa, and that she might have raised Desdemona.
All these changes gave Morrison a feeling of artistic liberty. “I thought, I don’t have to even try to be an echo of Shakespeare, but simply take it into a new place.” The new place is the afterlife, where the characters meet as equals on a bare stage. “They don’t have to be careful of what they say because Iago might think this or somebody else might think that. They can say what they believe is true, and even learn about each other, because they have timelessness, they have eternity.”
A recurring motif in “Othello,” and in Morrison’s fiction, is the outsider’s need to be seen, to be known. Othello’s own dying words, “Speak of me as I am,” could serve as an epigraph to Morrison’s work. So, in the afterlife, Desdemona greets her beloved nurse (played by Traoré). “And Rokia says, ‘Wait a minute. You don’t even know my name.’
“[Barbary says] ‘I’m black, you’re white, you can’t understand me.’ [Desdemona answers] “‘What do you mean? I married a black man.’ Yes, but, yes but.
“Then the big question: Desdemona says, ‘Did I ever hurt you?’ And [Barbary] says, ‘No.’
“And there’s the space, the sort of racial space, and class space, and geographic space, where all the things that keep people disliking one another, or resenting one another, or assuming things about one another disappear. And she can touch her face, as she does, and realize that they’re two people in difficulty, or who have had some difficulties.
“In that dialogue, in that exchange, is everything you know or sense about religious or racial conflict, or male and female conflict. All of this is about making other people strangers, or putting yourself in a position of authority. You see a person, you look at them, and you think you know all about them, because of the way they dress, the way they speak, and certainly color.” But in eternity, there might be time enough to understand.
Nor is understanding everything. Desdemona can’t get over what Othello did, Morrison explains. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love him. “Desdemona says, ‘Love is not a banquet, where you pick this little gesture and love it and throw this one away. You either love somebody or you don’t.’”
A conversation with Morrison ranges widely. She talks about how little she knew of African music: before she met Traoré, she never knew there was more to it than drumming. “Here in the West, where you’re really limited anyway, that’s what you think of. You know, drums and dance.”
She speaks of the pleasures of collaboration. “I like that kind of work. Equality among equals. Nobody’s trying to outdo anybody else.”
There’s one subject, however, that makes Morrison wary. The question touches on another theme that runs strongly through “Desdemona,” the problem of cynicism versus forgiveness. Morrison has not seen it as her business to portray reconciliation between black and white—or otherwise let anyone off the hook. White readers, feeling guilty about the privileges their race confers, tend to look in Morrison’s work for gestures of absolution. So far they’ve searched in vain.
In “Desdemona,” there’s space and time enough for understanding to win out over mistrust. But the mention of the word “forgiveness” puts the writer on her guard. Coolly, she says, “Well, the better track of course is a little combination. There’s nothing wrong with forgiveness if it moves one to another place. It’s not, ‘Oh, O.K., let’s forget about it.’ It’s, ‘That’s an important thing you’ve said and done. Let’s find out what it means.’”
Praise, criticism for “Desdemona”
The musical theater piece “Desdemona” is a collaboration between writer Toni Morrison, director Peter Sellars, and Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. It is performed by actress Tina Benko (who takes most of the speaking parts) and Traoré, backed up by four musicians. Reviews for the play, which premiered in Vienna in 2011, have been mostly positive. The New York Times praised Traoré’s “lovely, intimate” music, but called Morrison’s text “an elegant lecture.” Libération noted Morrison’s “sins of didacticism.” But the Guardian’s reviewer judged the piece “bravely original,” while the Los Angeles Times called it “great, challenging, haunting and lasting.”
Trouw, June 11, 2013.