A New Addition to Othello in Colonial Calcutta
In Act Five of Othello, before stabbing himself, the Moor laments that he, “Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away” (5.2.347), having squandered everything good in love and life by succumbing to jealousy and murdering his innocent wife. The comparison here, for the English audience, is to the exotic Indies, whose backwards inhabitants do not realize the value of the purported riches that surround them. Less than 200 years after William Shakespeare wrote the tragedy of the Moor of Venice, his play was performed in India, which was increasingly under the control of Great Britain, leading to full appropriation as part of its empire. Calcutta, in particular, has a rich stage history for both colonials and natives in British India. Its Shakespeare productions in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries have been the subject of many recent books and articles, and Othello has been an especially conspicuous inclusion in Calcutta theater history, staged in both English and in Bengali translations, by both English and Indian actors.
Othello is the earliest recorded Shakespeare play performed in Calcutta, the week of December 23–30, 1780, at the Calcutta Theatre (Chaudhuri and Lal 15). But perhaps its most conspicuous production is that of the Sans Souci theater in August 1848, which has been the subject of postcolonial scholarship focusing on its anomalous casting of a young Indian man in the title role—a first for the colonial Calcutta stage—and the consequent media reaction. Aside from this production, Othello in Calcutta takes two divergent paths, either on the stages of theaters built for and frequented by expressly native audiences (in English or in up to seven Bengali versions translated between 1882 and 1919) or on those largely attended by English colonials: “the two English-language traditions (Anglo and Indian) did not intermingle again until about the time of the Shakespeare Wallah,’ Geoffrey Kendal,” whose family’s Shakespeareana troupe toured India around and after the country’s independence from Great Britain in the mid-twentieth century (Paul 70; Gillies et al. 274).
One example of this divergence in the era before Indian independence is a production of Othello from Calcutta that has not yet been included in any modern performance history: November 1, 1871 at Lewis’s Theatre Royal, Chowringhee. According to the theater’s playbill publication, The Programme (which I discovered in a collection of Othello ephemera at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in 2011), Othello was portrayed by “Mr. Burdett Howe, after his severe indisposition” (The Programme). Howe’s 1888 memoir, A Cosmopolitan Actor: His Adventures All Over the World, details the genesis of the production, stating that Mr. Lewis, the theater manager, apparently contracted Howe to perform in Calcutta after seeing him at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, Australia (Howe 186). The second production at the new and speedily-built Theatre Royal, Chowringhee was to be Othello, but Howe fell ill, as evidenced by his aforementioned “indisposition” (200). He cites in his book a review of his eventual performance: “Mr. Howe’s delineation of the character of the jealous but noble Moor is without a doubt a very fine performance…The impersonation is chiefly remarkable for the intense pathos with which the actor relieves those frantic bursts of passion natural to the half-savage disposition of the fiery and tortured Moor.’—Calcutta Mercury, 1872,” (200–201).
Frantic, passionate and savage, fiery and tortured, Howe’s Othello in colonial Calcutta had not come far from the similarly characterized non-European other of the “base Indian” in England at the turn of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, the playbill from this previously-undocumented 1871 production fills in a few more pages of a long history of Shakespeare in the British Empire.
Bhatia, Nandi. “Different Othello(s) and Contentious Spectators: Changing Responses in India.” Gramma: Journal of Theory and Criticism: Special Issue: Shakespeare Worldwide and the Idea of Audience. 15. (2007): 155–74.
Chaterjee, Sudipto and Jyotsna G. Singh. “Moor or less?: The surveillance of Othello, Calcutta 1848.” In Shakespeare and Appropriation. Edited by Christy Desmet and Robert Sawyer, 65–82. London: Routledge, 1999.
Chaudhuri, Sukanta and Ananda Lal, eds. Shakespeare on the Calcutta Stage: A Checklist. Calcutta: Papyrus, 2001.
Frost, Christine Mangala. “30 Rupees for Shakespeare: a Consideration of Imperial Theatre in India.” Modern Drama 35.1 (March 1992): 90–100.
Gillies, John, Ryuta Minami, Ruru Li, and Poonam Trivedi, “Shakespeare on the Stages of Asia.” In Edited by Stanley Wells and Sarah Stanton, 259–83. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.
Howe, J. Burdett. A Cosmopolitan Actor: His Adventures All Over the World. London: Bedford, 1888. Google Books.
Majumdar, Sarottama. “That Sublime Old Gentleman’: Shakespeare’s Plays in Calcutta, 1775–1930.” In India’s Shakespeare: Translation, Interpretation, and Performance. Edited by Poonam Trivedi and Dennis Bartholomeusz, 260–68. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2005.
Singh, Jyotsna. “Different Shakespeares: The Bard in Colonial/Postcolonial India,” Theatre Journal 41.4 (December 1989): 445–58.
Sunita, Paul, ed. A Tribute to Shakespeare: 1989. New Delhi: Theatre & Television Associates, 1989.
The Programme [Calcutta, India], 22 (November 1871): 1–4. Hiram Stead Collection. #897. New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.