Many people visit the theater for a chance to forget their lives for a little while (or a long while, depending on the play). That’s what I intended to do when I took a friend to see “Othello” in a performance in Forest Park in St. Louis.
I first watched a live performance of “Othello” at the age of 10, and I have seen the play several times since. The title character’s descent into blind jealousy, which results in the murder of his wife, Desdemona, had always moved me to tears. This time was unlike the others, though.
As the familiar story unfolded, I started to panic. Rather than providing the escape I’d intended when I purchased the ticket, the performance showed me a record of my friend’s life over the past year. From the look on her face, I could tell she was seeing the same thing.
She had been involved with someone who was chronically jealous. He would often drop by her home, unannounced. “I just wanted to check up on you,” he would say.
As their relationship became more involved, the problems escalated. I witnessed him track her down when she was spending time with me and other friends. I’d seen him embarrass her with public accusations of infidelity. When she told him she didn’t like his behavior, he defended himself by saying he’d never hit her, so she shouldn’t complain.
She’d finally broken up with him after he’d torn her house apart and tried to take her car keys and cell phone. But just before we’d settled into our seats at the play, she’d confessed that she was thinking of getting back together with him. He could be so sweet — I’d seen it myself — and she felt certain her behavior had forced him into acting the way he did.
As I watched similar treatment of Desdemona — minus the details about the phone and car keys — I noticed her face turn pale. By the time Othello smothered his wife in her bed, my friend was in tears, but not for the same reason as the rest of the audience.
She later told me that performance convinced her never to see her ex-boyfriend again. Her friends and family had warned her about him. She’d even spoken to survivors of domestic violence. But somehow, a play written 400 years ago had the power to convince her to make a change at a time when nothing else could.
The statement that William Shakespeare’s plays resonate in the modern world sounds trite, but after that performance of “Othello,” I realized it was true. I believe that’s the driving force behind the countless adaptations and retellings of Shakespeare’s work — including “West Side Story”— and the reason audiences continue to visit the theater.
Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641.