Othello Falling Benefit Return to the Benefit Directory
A diary on the creation of Othello Falling, by R. Paul Sardanas
August 13, 2011
Today the curtain is going up, after a busy week pulling together all the threads of this production. Of course at
the same time I've been working at my full time day job, and taking care of home, but I've felt a tremendous thread
of excitement growing as the opening day has come closer and closer. For a long time, while pondering a second
benefit to support Community Action Stops Abuse (and the fifth anniversary of the Poets Against Abuse
movement), I deliberated on how best to meld entertainment and enlightenment in a form that people could enjoy
for its own sake, and come away from with a determination to do whatever they can to oppose cruelty and abuse --
whether that might be to donate to CASA (the beneficiary of this benefit, a safe haven organization for women and
children trying to free themselves from domestic and other abuse), or simply to try and be more conscious in their
own lives...to choose, as often as possible, thoughtfulness, consideration, and kindness when dealing with the
hard issues within relationships. Instead of anger...instead of hurt.
I chose Othello as the vehicle for the benefit early on. I've always been entranced by the story, and of course the
characters would give me as a writer the strong centers of thought and emotion that I wanted -- to explore the kind
of dark passions that give rise to abuse and violence. So I sat down with my many "Othello" themed books: Nabil
Kanso's brilliant, dark and sensual collection of Othello paintings...Harold Bloom's insightful exploration of the
themes of the play...several novels based on the story...my favorite movie version, with a young Laurence
Fishburne (later of Matrix fame) as the Moor. They were all wonderful, all inspiring. So in typical mad fashion, I
decided to mirror them all. A series of oil paintings that will soon begin to appear on the site, a book that I can sell
to benefit CASA, and the crowning segment of the benefit, a performance of a kind of play framed into poetry, to
post and run online.
Though no actor (if I were to step on a stage, I'm certain my face would turn bright red, and I would forget every
word in the English language), I resolved to take on the part of Othello. For Desdemona, I have many dear friends
that I might have asked, but one stood out in a brilliant spotlight in my mind: Jaeda DeWalt, a spoken-word poet, a
luminous creator of photographic art, and a person with a powerful spirit and heart.
Jaeda and I have never met...we live about as geographically far apart in the continental U.S. as possible (the
Pacific Northwest and the Gulf shore of Florida). But we have been friends for years, and she took part in the
original Poets Against Abuse benefit I organized in 2006. I have watched her unfold one astonishing creation after
another as a creator and artist, and she has always applauded as I worked within my own creative and
collaborative artistic world. When I asked Jaeda, I of course braced myself that she might be too busy with her own
amazing career...but she didn't hesitate for a moment, telling me she would be honored to be Desdemona for this
benefit. I described the concept and sent her Desdemona's first recitation, assuring her that I would totally respect
the demands of her schedule, asking her to create an mp3 reading when she could, to launch the benefit. Within
24 hours, it was in my mailbox. Jaeda, you are just too much.
And so here we are, the curtain about to rise. We will add to the growing play-in-poetry every week, unless the
demands of life interrupt...and I am proud and happy beyond words to offer this creation, along with the hope that
people who are touched by it will walk away desiring -- in whatever small or large fashion -- to embrace an end to
August 16, 2011
The opening of the Othello Falling benefit was exciting and satisfying – so many friends stood up and made their
support known, by commenting, re-posting the links to the benefit site all across the internet, and offering the
kindest words to Jaeda and myself for the effort we are making. A special thank-you to Gina, Kristaline, Lisa, Lucy
and Rose, who went above and beyond in their support, advice and encouragement.
I think my favorite moment in the aftermath of the opening was a note from Jaeda (who had never heard my voice
before), telling me that her feathered housemate, Birdie Boy, had begun to warble at the sound of my recitation as
Othello. What more delightful validation could there be than that?
But of course there is much more to do, and I quickly settled myself down to continue the project. My thoughts had
always been clear in my mind that I wanted to follow the first recitation, which introduced Othello and Desdemona
on their wedding day, with vows exchanged between the two. Somehow in those vows I wanted to display, subtly at
first, the gap between their visions of one another and the realities that would very quickly begin to pull apart their
harmony together. Othello, in his vows, out and out admits he is puzzled why Desdemona should love him. He is
much older, and has known very little in his life but war. He sees pleasure and fire in her eyes, and tells himself
that there can be no other reason for that than honest love, for he has no “temptations” to offer her – equal youth,
or cultured learning – that might be serving to cloud her perception. And this is of course true, though his
perception of that love will change, as his own self-doubts gnaw at him. For Desdemona, my writing of her
character has grown in many ways since I first heard Jaeda read the part. I always thought of Desdemona as a
strong woman (as I believe Shakespeare portrayed her, though this is not always brought out in theatric
productions), but Jaeda’s Desdemona is fierce and fiery indeed, making me think her character has been brought
to a high-strung emotional edge herself, from a lifetime of being controlled and used like a possession. In the
rebellious act of her marriage to Othello she sees an end to servitude, and a freedom to be strong with a man who
should be accustomed to strength; in her eyes he has emerged from war and strife with what she feels is nobility
and a form of proud wisdom. In short, she is quite blind to his doubts and troubled sense of self-worth.
I think these currents of emotion and expectation echo what happens in many relationships that become abusive.
The baggage carried into the relationship – old violence, self-doubt, idealization of one’s partner based on flawed
perception – is ignored in the beginning, but ignoring it only lights an unseen fuse, which will haunt and shadow
the sometimes nearly-mad happiness of passionate infatuation.
So the wedding vows of Othello and Desdemona are in fact poignantly sad and unknowingly desperate…neither
one truly sees the other at all.
August 23, 2011
In the third week of the Othello Falling benefit, I delve deeper into the sexual relationship of Othello and
Desdemona. It’s a part of the play that has been controversial for different reasons in the past. Race, of course,
has given the physical side of the marriage a “forbidden” aspect, more or less so depending on the current state
of society – but it’s clear upon reading the original Shakespeare that it is not a morality piece about race.
Shakespeare’s choice of Othello’s ethnicity comes from the play’s roots, as it is based on the Italian short story
"Un Capitano Moro" ("A Moorish Captain") by Cinthio, a disciple of Boccaccio, first published in 1565.
In fact there are no overt sex scenes in the play. But in the relationship of the characters, as is true in many
relationships that become violent or abusive, sexuality plays a large part. The “Othello” paintings of Nabil Kanso
(huge canvases filled with primary colors and fevered sensual imagery), seem to portray the entire relationship as
a tortured sexual one.
I have, in my experience assisting battered women, known many who told me they stayed with their abuser in part
because of fear and intimidation, and in part because they felt the sexually romantic lover who initially wooed them
must still be present somehow – still accessible, and it was impossible to give up on the belief that the passionate
love they shared was somehow unreal.
I think it’s safe to say that communication between individuals is often at its most flawed when it should be at its
best: during sexual bonding. People hide their feelings, or pour them out—they make assumptions, take on roles
that they feel are expected or desired—vulnerability and intensity go hand in hand, carving volatile new paths into
the psyche; or unearthing old, painful experiences, which each new bonding was supposed to have made all
My goal in this poetic interpretation, of course, is to try and illuminate some of the factors that contribute to violent
relationships. And so as I look at the wedding night of Othello and Desdemona, I see him troubled by the
passionate sexuality she displays: as a soldier, he is used to passion being displayed by camp followers
(prostitutes), and to see similar lights of passion in his wife’s eyes is difficult for him to reconcile. He has idealized
married love (particularly to a noblewoman, like Desdemona), and expected some kind of revelation in her sensual
behavior – an impossible mix of goddess-like detachment from sexuality while at the same time enjoying it with him.
At first he blames himself for not seeing that in her, but that will change, as the seeds of possessiveness and
jealously grow. As for Desdemona, she continues to exalt her marriage as a symbol of new freedom and strength,
and puts Othello in her mind far above the petty aristocratic noblemen who have surrounded her in the past. He is
not really there as a person in her perceptions, and so she misses every signal of his sudden doubt in her
qualities as a woman of “great heart”. They are objects to one another, and this, more than anything, lays the
groundwork for the feelings of mutual betrayal that are soon to grow into violence.
September 9, 2011
Abusive environments and relationships rarely “come out of nowhere”. Cultural and family dynamics play a huge
part in shaping the individuals who become enmeshed in abuse. Violent behavior between parents, or by parents
and relatives toward children, can be carried from generation to generation; a tragic perpetuation of old hurts into
I wanted to present this, at least peripherally, in Act Two of the “Othello Falling” script as well. In the original
Shakespeare play, Desdemona particularly seems to display negative feelings toward her father, and it is not hard
to imagine their relationship being one in which cruelty played a part. She keeps her attraction toward Othello
hidden from him – it is insinuated that she even pretended to be shy or even frightened when in the company of
the Moor, when in fact she was intensely attracted to him. They are married in secret, and when the marriage
comes to light, father and daughter are filled with recriminations and disdain for one another. One is given the
impression that Desdemona has at the very least been treated like a possession, not a loved child – and the
mutual anger seems to imply more even than that, as there is absolutely no effort made by either to even attempt
reconciliation. Desdemona’s mother is never mentioned. On Othello’s side, his family is mentioned only once: in a
reference to the handkerchief that will play so tragic a part in the later story. A gift to Othello from his mother, it
came with the admonition to give it only to his own true love, and as long as that woman cherished it their love
would flourish, but should Desdemona give it away or lose it, the love between them would be spoiled and come to
ruin. This of course may have been fabricated as a manipulation by Othello when in the play he comes to suspect
Desdemona has been unfaithful to him (which she has not), but it still presents a mindset of relationships having
no grey areas: either they are perfect, or they will inexorably descend into pain, cruelty, and hurt.
So in this presentation of the story, both Othello and Desdemona are primed by negative family influences to
respond to problems or doubts with extremes. For her, these will manifest in emotional moments when her passion
toward her new husband will seem laced with old sadness – emotions that he will misinterpret as a sign that her
love for him is fading already, and to which he will respond not with understanding and support, but doubt, feelings
of betrayal, and the “green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds on”: jealousy. Ultimately, this will
manifest in the violence that destroys both of them.
September 16, 2011
As the original play (and also Act Three of our production) moves beyond the opening scenes, the location
changes. This may have been a simple device used by Shakespeare to stay in line with his source material, but it
echoes another factor that feeds into abuse. Couples who are not emotionally mature, or who have never been
exposed to the give and take that goes on in healthy relationships, can find themselves living together in a new
environnment that bears little resemblance to anything they are used to. Women who have been treated as
objects and used or abused as girls may experience relief at getting out of the childhood homes where they have
been hurt, but roots of place and familiar human connection get pulled up as well. A man who has been trained to
think that he is unmanly unless he “owns” his wife or girlfriend, may lessen or even abandon the more romantic
behavior used to win her affection. Now that he has her, she may be expected to provide domesticity and sex in
measures determined solely by his whims or wants. A recipe for disappointment and unhappiness at best, and at
worst a new perpetuation of cycles of violence.
In the play, Venice is left behind as Othello departs for a war in Cyprus which in fact never takes place.
Desdemona follows, and what results when the opposing army is unexpectedly destroyed by a storm is a time of
peace that was supposed to be war, in a place far from any home they might have attempted to build together.
They have endured being parted almost immediately after their wedding night, and when they are reunited the
shape of the world around them seems to change by the minute. Othello has been racheted up emotionally to deal
with expected combat, and instead the martial general is now expected to administer his rule over a peaceful
island-state. The couple has been apart more than they have been together, with nothing but change swirling
Not so different from women and men who attempt to build a life together with no blueprint for how that is done.
They may flounder while reaching for ideals of fulfillment and happiness; in the end falling back into conditioned
behaviors of possessiveness, manipulation, domination and submission.
September 26, 2011
“Othello Falling” has now reached Act Three, and here is where the decisions about structuring the classic play in
a different way are being keenly felt.
Because this is a two-person performance, made up entirely of dialogue and internal thought that moves between
Othello and Desdemona, there was no place for one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, Iago. In the play, the
venomous Iago puts into motion all of the elements that destroy the tragic lovers. He insinuates constantly to
Othello that Desdemona has not been faithful; he makes sure the damning evidence of the lost handkerchief is
placed in the possession of Cassio (Othello’s perceived rival); and as Iago proclaims piety, loyalty and honesty, he
lies to and manipulates all involved, in order to fan high the flames of jealousy and violence.
But in real-life abusive relationships, there are no Iagos, or at the very least they are clothed in the colors of
troubled life, not the pure black of villainy. The descent into cruelty and tragic violence is precipitated by many of
the factors that have been introduced already in this play-in-poetry: flawed and unrealistic preconceptions
between partners; generational and cultural histories of abusive behavior; objectifying of individuals and lack of
communication; an environment where home feels unstable, isolated and untrustworthy.
The events of Scene Three provide many challenges to me as a writer, and to Jaeda and myself as performers.
Desdemona, after a traumatic episode in which she had every reason to believe her new husband dead, is
reunited with him, but during an intimate moment she is gripped by flashbacks of an abusive childhood event
which does much to explain her alienation and disdain earlier displayed toward her father. Feeling helpless and
ashamed, she cannot bring herself to confide these feelings to Othello. This is a pervasive, sad (and
unwarranted) syndrome among battered women: many consider themselves “damaged”, or in some way
responsible for the abuse done to them. This is no more their fault than the abuse itself—abusers will often
emotionally manipulate their victims into a state of fear that should they tell anyone, they will be not be believed,
and subsequently loathed and ostracized. In addition, they are burdened with further fear that even if they are
believed, no one could possibly love a “spoiled” or “stained” partner. The cruelty of this kind of conditioning from
abusers is vicious indeed.
Making matters worse both in real life and in “Othello Falling” is the sad fact that confiding these feelings and
experiences to one’s lover hardly insures a compassionate and supportive response. Many men, to their discredit,
would respond exactly as the woman has been conditioned to fear: with anger, expressions of betrayal, and the
inflicting of further hurt. Othello is not Iago; he is not an evil man, bent on destruction. But neither is he an
enlightened man in the arena of love and complex relationships. He lives in what he perceives to be an
uncompromising world, filled with absolutes. Often used by the powers that he serves, he has been conditioned to
expect that kind of interaction between people, and trust has become an elusive concept for him. He has many
self-doubts and repressed angers. He states that “honesty is more important than life” – a noble ideal, except for
the fact that what constitutes honesty for him are simplistic and unrealistic concepts of perfect mental and physical
loyalty and openness.
So Desdemona displays a brief interlude of troubled distance from her lover, and not comprehending, Othello
interprets this as evidence that her love for him has faded already. He begins to poison his own thoughts with
jealous fantasies and feelings of being tricked and wronged.
Would the results have been any different had the lovers attempted hard but clear communication of their
feelings? In this play, with these characters, probably not. And that is part of the ongoing tragedy of this type of
interaction in real life, too. But in real life things are not always so absolute as they are in a play. There are ways
to break free from a relationship filled with hurt and a dead end of violence and pain. That’s why this benefit is
happening, and why (even if there is no hope for Othello and Desdemona), there is hope for the rest of us.
October 22, 2011
Othello Falling is now deep into Act Four, in which jealousy and confusion are running rampant, and are soon to
rage out of control. In this penultimate Act of the poetry/play, Othello's suspicions, built on small circumstantial
events and powered by his own insecurities, have come to hinge on the "evidence" of Desdemona's
unfaithfulness: the handkerchief that was his first gift of love to her, and which has now (through innocent
accident) come into the possession of Othello's lieutenant, Cassio. Desdemona has of course been completely
faithful. But her fear and surprise at the extent and display of Othello's anger when asking her about the
whereabouts of the handkerchief have caused her a moment of worried indecision about admitting its loss. Othello
sees this as a baldfaced lie, and so the tragic couple are on a collision course with disaster.
As these scenes unfolded, one of my most treasured friends, Gina Colon, offered her thoughts on how all of this
captures some of the essence of what can happen to couples when for whatever reason, trust is lost. I was very
touched by her thoughts, which really come to the core of why abuse happens, in whatever form (from subtle
emotional undercurrents in a relationship, on along a frightening spectrum that can include violence). She pointed
out that couples live in a world where their lives are in so many ways open to one another, an environment based
on truth, which can simultaneously be a rock-solid foundation in their lives, and fragile beyond belief. Truth, like all
things in life, can be subjective, and filled with nuances that lead to misinterpretation. And when communication
also breaks down, it is a prescription for unhappiness, if not disaster.
If both members of a couple accept that there will be times of hurt and miscommunication in their relationship, but
are committed to working through those times to a true and mutual understanding, then the tragedy of Othello and
Desdemona would at last become no more than a story.
On a side note, a few (hopefully amusing) glimpses behind the scenes of the production of Act Four...during one
of her recording periods, Jaeda kept being interrupted by the warbling of her feathered companion, Birdie Boy,
meaning she had to do multiple "takes" before getting a clean recording of her recitation as Desdemona. This
made me chuckle (Did Irene Jacob have such moments in her portrayal of Desdemona in the film version?) at the
things that come out of the blue to provide technical difficulties to performers. I've resolved to have a scene in Act
Five where Desdemona listens at her window to the sound of birds as she tries to reconcile her troubles, so that
Birdie Boy can have his debut.
For me, I often record in the enclosed environment of my car, before I go to work. As I prepared this week's Act
Four, Scene Two, I was running late to work, and so was at a loss as to when I would make my recording. I brought
my little hand recorder with me inside, and my first task of the workday proved to be the hard labor of moving over
a hundred heavy paper-filled boxes from one building to the next. I'm not as young as I once was, and when the
job was done, I was breathing pretty hard. It occurred to me that the struggle for breath might be enhancement to
Othello's scene, in which he anguishes over what he thinks is his wife's betrayal. I also remembered a story of how
Orson Welles, in his radio days, found that the bathroom of the recording studio had some of the best acoustics
he had ever discovered. So off I went into the bathroom of my workplace, and half out of breath, I recorded the
scene. Whether all that proved an effective technique or not, I leave to the listener. But that is why Othello seems
to be partly gasping as he speaks about the pain and personal desperation of his feelings.
Thinking of myself crouched in the bathroom with recorder in hand and script propped on the toilet, I have to laugh
all the harder. So much for the glamor in a writer/performer's life.
November 11, 2011
And so after fourteen weeks, we come to the next to last scene of "Othello Falling". Act Five has been an
emotional experience, as Othello and Desdemona approach the climax of their tragedy, in ways that echo the
violence that can erupt in any broken and abusive relationship.
In Scene One of Act Five, Desdemona has been banished to her bedchamber by her angry husband, and she is
completely at a loss to understand the change that has come over him. But in fact, nothing has changed except
the externalizing of demons of anger, fear of betrayal, and self-doubt that had always been present in him. The
same is true in real life relationships that grow violent. The seeds of the violence are present in the abuser long
before they are apparent on the surface. Desdemona still has hope in this scene, but a deepening despair also
grips her -- she remembers a sad song a maid of her mother's had once sung, about a love gone wrong...and
about the insanity and death that resulted. The singing of the "Willow Song" is a poignant moment in the play.
Though it takes place one act earlier in the original Shakespeare play, I moved it to the final act, as it epitomized
what I felt was a crucial turning point in the tragedy: the moment in an abused person's life when they succumb to
feelings that what happens to them is unavoidable. That surrender of the spirit is to me the saddest of all; the
wounding of hope that eclipses even what pain may come to the body.
Visit Community Action Stops Abuse
Painting by Hannah Tomkins 1990
Jaeda, so deeply conscientious in her role as Desdemona, wrote to me to discuss how best to capture the moving
essence of the scene, and we talked through trepidations about her characterization of the song...throughout this
production she has had so many brilliant, deeply individualistic innovations to bring to Desdemona, and in this
scene her instincts also resulted in a touching performance. She sings "The Willow Song" as a wandering,
dreamy, almost broken lullaby, that rends the heart.
It is a reminder of how deep the center of life and love goes in all of us, and how irreplaceable in our souls that
center is. No anger, no imagined betrayal, is worth its loss.