What Can We Steal From Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: a play about a handkerchief?

Title of Work and its Form: Desdemona: a play about a handkerchief, play
Author: Paula Vogel (on Twitter: @VogelPaula)
Date of Work: 1993
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The play was first produced in by Circle Repertory Company and featured the amazing Cherry Jones in the role of Bianca.  The play has been published by Dramatists Play Service and is a fascinating read.

Bonuses: Here’s the New York Times review of the original production.  (I respectfully disagree with some of Mr. Klein’s points.)  Here’s the program for the excellent production I saw at Oswego State; the director’s note offers an interesting perspective.  Ooh, and here’s an interview with Ms. Vogel!  And here’s a podcast appearance from the dramatist.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Summary:
Desdemona: a play about a handkerchief takes a look at Othello from the perspective of the women in that classic play.  What if Desdemona weren’t a virtuous woman?  Why did Emilia betray Desdemona?  The central machinations of Othello have grave repercussions for Cassio and Iago and the Moor, but Ms. Vogel contemplates the effect of these events on the women in the play.  Set in the “back room of the palace on Cyprus,” Desdemona and her servant, Emilia, talk about life and love and their place in the world.  Desdemona is infatuated with becoming a “free woman” like Bianca, a prostitute who comes and goes as she pleases.  Emilia, a Catholic—an oh noes! when Shakespeare was writing—also yearns for a life of her own, away from her husband, Iago.  A plan is hatched because things are getting too hairy.  Desdemona will run away with Emilia’s help.  Self-centered Desdemona will eventually call for Emilia and pay her well…at some point.  Right?  Much to Emilia’s dismay, Bianca arrives to give Desdemona money she is owed.  Bianca is the live wire in the play; she is brash and unpretentious and speaks in a “stage cockney” accent to contrast with those of the other characters.  Desdemona and Bianca share several drinks and have a great time until Bianca shows off THE HANDKERCHIEF.  The one that Emilia stole at the beginning of the play and becomes a primary motivation for Othello squeezing the life out of his wife.  Bianca’s fantasy of running off with Cassio is destroyed.  The comic character is given a beautiful moment of pathos before the two women fight over the man.  Bianca doesn’t exit before she fires a shot across Emilia’s bow; she’s serviced Iago, too.  The plan to escape is accelerated; that handkerchief means that Othello is going to be very angry.  The play ends slightly before the last scene of Othello.  The audience knows that Desdemona is walking off into her doom, and maybe she knows it, too.

Shakespeare, as theorized by some, stole Othello from the 1001 Nights.  It’s perfectly fitting that Ms. Vogel looked back 400 years and stole Othello from The Bard.  Othello is certainly in the public domain, so Ms. Vogel was well within her rights to steal whatever she liked.  The playwright, however, stole with a purpose.  It’s certainly safe to call Renaissance England a pre-feminist society.  Now that women have been granted full citizenship (at least in America), it’s great to see Othello through the eyes of women.  Emilia seems to have largely accepted the restrictions upon her, Bianca tries to use the patriarchal thinking to her advantage and Desdemona both enjoys her traditional role while chafing against it.  The play is not simply a piece of drama, it’s an eighty-minute debate as to what roles are most satisfying for women and what happens when dreams are deferred.  Ms. Vogel accesses this important debate by stealing a familiar backdrop.  (Shakespeare’s play.)

One element of the play challenged me a great deal.  When I saw the excellent production, I found myself confused that the play seemed to be split into many scenes.  Two characters would be in the middle of a discussion and boom—lights out.  I couldn’t help but wonder why Ms. Vogel would break up the drama in this way.  So I went home and opened up my copy of the script to see how Ms. Vogel intended to craft her play.  Here is her note to the director:

Desdemona was written in thirty cinematic “takes”; the director is encouraged to create different pictures to simulate the process of filming: change invisible camera angles, do jump cuts and repetitions, etc.  There should be no black-outs between scenes.

I’ve thought about the structure a great deal and I think I know what to make of it.  Desdemona certainly works on its own as a piece of drama, but Ms. Vogel’s structure acknowledges that it’s the other half of a story.  I’m betting Ms. Vogel took out her well-thumbed copy of Othello and decided where she wanted to put a scene of her own.  The slightly disjointed feel that the structure lends the work is appropriate because she’s essentially filling in the gaps of Othello.  Think of it this way.  Remember the Game Genie?  You would plug your NES games into the Game Genie in order to access cheats and tricks and tell the story of the video game in the way that best suits you.

Behold, the Game Genie.

As I said, Bianca is the live wire in Desdemona.  The performer side of me loves parts like this: the other characters talk about Bianca for a long time, then Bianca comes onstage for a short period, gets the biggest laughs, gets in a fight, jerks a few tears and leaves the play in a completely different state than it was when she found it.  The role in the production that I saw was played by a fantastic young actress named Clare Bawarski who understood the character perfectly.  Ms. Bawarski, equally able in dramatic and comedic scenes, used the brevity of the role to her advantage.  She imbued the production with the energy and pathos it needed in her all-too-short time on the boards.

I think of these as “shooting star” roles.  Adriane Lenox played Mrs. Muller in Doubt.  She’s only in one scene, but it’s a helluva scene.  The part was so well-written and Ms. Lenox was so good that she won the Tony for Best Supporting Actress in 2005.  It’s not the amount of stage time that matters; it’s how much of an impact your character has on the world in which you’ve set your story.

What Should We Steal?

  • Pinch whole-cloth from public domain.  The Wizard of Oz is public domain.  What do you think was the relationship between the Good Witch and the Bad Witch?  Oh…someone already wrote that one.  Steal any of the characters you like.  What were the Thenardiers like when they were young?  Go ahead; write that novel.
  • Bend your structure to the needs of your conceit.  Ms. Vogel was “filling in the blanks” of Othello, so her play is a series of short scenes that could be plugged into the original play.  (Wouldn’t it be interesting to see both staged together?)  Your cool idea likely requires you to depart from the “norm” in some ways, and that’s okay.
  • Employ “shooting star” characters.  If your character can make a big-time impression in no time, that’s fine.

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