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The Folger Spotlight

Vault Tour II and Closing Night

Hello again from your blogfriend Louis Butelli, lately of Folger Theatre’s Othello.

I am very, very pleased to report the following couple of things!

1. We had an incredible closing night this past Sunday. We were sold to the rafters with standing-room-only audience members in the back of the theater, and we had a very moving standing ovation from the whole audience to finish off the run. On behalf of the whole cast and crew, thank you to all who came to see us. It was an honor and a pleasure for us to play for you.

2. The terms of my blogging require two more posts from me. First is the one you are reading right now, which will show you some of the items we were shown during the Othello cast’s recent tour of the Folger vault. My final post, coming later this week, will sort of sum up the experience of creating this blog and introduce you to Folger Theatre’s next guest bloggers. Keep an eye out for that.

I described an Official Folger Shakespeare Library Vault Tour in a previous entry. Last week, the whole company was fortunate enough to take one. While my previous tour focused specifically on items related to Roderigo, my character in Othello, the full cast vault tour included many other Othello-related items. Without further ado, then, here are some images and thoughts from the cast vault tour! Format is subject first, actual items second.


First Folio

1. First Folio. This is a very special item. Published in 1623, the First Folio is the first comprehensive full volume of 36 of William Shakespeare’s plays. It was collated and edited by two close friends and colleagues of Shakespeare, John Heminges and Henry Condell, and is widely considered to be the definitive source for all subsequent editions of the plays. It is believed that around 750 copies were originally printed, of which (again, it is believed) around 228 still exist. Of these, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection currently includes 82. This is an extraordinary number of Folios to be in a single collection—the second highest number of Folios is in a collection at Meisei University in Tokyo, Japan, with 12 copies. It’s hard for me to put into words exactly what it feels like to stand in the presence of one of these. It is physically large, and fairly imposing. But when you get up close to it, and read some very, very familiar words, it starts to release something like a whisper. You can almost hear it, welcoming you. An amazing experience.

2. Quarto Copy of Othello. Another gem. Quartos are printed copies of single plays in a much smaller format. Quarto copies pre-date the First Folio, which made them redundant. Of the 36 plays in the Folio, 18 appeared prior to that publication in Quarto format, the earliest of which were Titus Andronicus and Henry VI, part 1 in 1594, and the latest of which was…Othello in 1622. This is a beautiful little piece. One can almost image a lady taking one along with her to read on a long carriage ride, or an actor popping one in his pocket to read to his friends at the pub.

3. Third Folio Prompt Book. In total, there were four Folio editions created in the 17th century, with the Third being printed in 1663. The one we saw was used as a prompt book for a production of Othello at the Smock Alley Theater in Dublin in 1676.

Africa in Shakespeare’s Time:

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum

1. A Report of the Kingdome of Congo. Duarte Lopez. Published: London, 1597

2. Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Hand colored map of Africa by Ortelius Cage

3. Arrival and intertainments of the embassador. Alkaid Jaurar Ben Abdella…from the…Emperor of Morocco. Published: London, 1637

Ira Aldridge:

OK, so this is pretty cool. You may have already been familiar with Ira Frederick Aldridge. I was not, and it was a joy both to learn something about this actor, and to see original promotional materials from his 1833 production of Othello in Covent Garden. Born in 1807 in New York City, Aldridge was an African-American stage actor who achieved great acclaim in the UK and across Europe. While he did appear in the States in such roles as Romeo and Hamlet, he felt that discrimination here against black actors would hold him back, and he emigrated to England. There, he found work as a dresser in the theater, and gradually worked his way up to speaking roles, and then leading roles. By 1825, he was receiving top billing. By 1831, he was touring the UK, including Ireland, where he played Othello in 1833. By 1852, he was touring Europe, playing for royalty, and enjoying a loyal following in places as far afield as Germany, Hungary, Serbia, and Imperial Russia. He was married twice—to an English woman and to a Swedish Countess—and had five children. He had always planned to return to the States, once the Civil War had ended but, sadly, he died at age 60 while visiting Lodz, Poland. Fascinating stuff.

1. Playbill with Illustrations from the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden of Ira Aldridge’s Othello, 1833.

Paul Robeson:

Paul Robeson and Uta Hagen in Othello

You’re more likely to know, or to have heard the name, Paul Robeson. Well, I’d heard of him. Robeson (1898-1976) was born in Princeton, NJ, and was one of our nation’s great actors, singers, athletes, and political activists. He was the first African-American actor to play Othello here in the States, and his name is associated with a wide range of Americana, a short list of which includes: valedictorian at Rutgers, Columbia Law, the NFL, the “Harlem Renaissance,” “Ol’ Man River” in Show Boat, benefit concerts for the American Effort in World War II, appearances in Hollywood films, radio, and television, Othello on Broadway with Uta Hagen and Jose Ferrer (he was barred from the opening night party at Sardi’s because he was black), the Cold War, McCarthyism, House Committee on Un-American Activities, the Civil Rights movement, and a controversial death at age 77. Truly a pinnacle, both of American life, and of Shakespearean performance. Worth a further look than this feeble nut-shell can provide.

1. Second Folio Prompt Book. Robeson’s Othello, London, 1930

2. Costume Sketch with Fabric Swatch for Robeson’s Othello

3. Photograph of Paul Robeson and Uta Hagen in Othello

Laurence Olivier:

Folger Shakespeare Library has recently come into possession of certain items from the estate of the late, great actor Laurence Olivier. We got to see one!!!

1. Olivier’s copy of Othello, 1935, heavily marked in his own hand

Drury Lane:

Among the numerous invaluable treasures in the Folger Collection are a series of “prompter copies”—or, more accurately, ledgers of all company activity—from the Drury Lane Theatre in London. While the original Drury Lane is long gone, there have been only four theaters on the site since the original was constructed in 1663. The most “recent” incarnation opened for business in 1812. It is one of the Western World’s most enduring and most revered theaters. The piece we saw was a ledger of the 1817 season, with attention called to an entry from an evening when Junius Brutus Booth was to be playing Iago in Othello. Apparently, on the evening in question, Mr. Booth had become “exhausted,” and couldn’t perform. He had, again apparently, absconded to a country estate with a female cast member so that he might “reinvigorate” himself for the rest of the run. Meanwhile, at the theater, the stage manager had to go out before an “unruly crowd,” to appraise them of the situation. They couldn’t be calmed but, through some cajoling, agreed to watch the performance with the actor playing Othello going on as Iago, and the stage manager himself going on as Othello. Priceless. And, thank goodness nothing like this happened during our run.

OK. Thanks, as always, for reading. My very, very last post will be up by week’s end, and then we will say goodbye. For now.