In Honor of the Bard: Walter Huston’s Extraordinary 1937 Essay on Playing Othello

Walter Huston as Othello, 1937

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday today. And so:

Walter Huston played Othello in New York in 1937. It was not, to put it mildly, a success. The following essay, written by Huston, appeared in Stage Magazine in March of that year. It is one of my favorite pieces ever written by an actor about his own process, and about Shakespeare, not to mention failure, something very few people are willing to talk about honestly.

Walter Huston: “In and Out of the Bag: Othello Sits Up in Bed the Morning After and Takes Notice”. New York: Stage Magazine, March, 1937

We were about to open Othello in New York … We knew we were fairly intelligent actors. But just so there would be no doubt about it we sailed in and played Othello with a relish and a zest, played it as we would have on a dare – with all the knowledge we had, with all the verve and understanding we could bring to it. Our performances were made better by the stimulation of a large New York first-night audience, which always brings a great excitement to bestow upon the play if the actors will absorb it.

For my own part, I never felt better on any stage than I did that night. My performance, it seemed to me, had never been so keen. Between acts I spoke of it, “I’m really enjoying this,” I said. “I’ve never known it to go like this.” And everyone else seemed to feel the same. There was no doubt in our minds that the audience felt it too, for we on stage could sense it. We felt we had it in the palms of our hands. That we could move it at will … we were certain we were a success … we earnestly believed, as deep down as a man can, that we had given a hell of a performance, as fine a piece of work as our lives ever fashioned …

Certainly I had never had that warm feeling of successful achievement as I had it that night. It occurred to me during the broil and confusion of the aftermath that I had spent too many years of my life outside the magic circle of Shakespeare …

I awoke at seven o’clock and, having awakened, I could not resist the disturbing desire to see the morning papers. I decided to read the News first, for I knew that Burns Mantle’s star system of rating could be seen at a glance. The two-and-a-half stars I found above Mr. Mantle’s column gave me a shock. That meant he had found little in Othello to praise.

Hastily I picked up the Times. Tabloids might be all right for the movies and the modern drama, but for appreciation of the classics, I assured myself, one had to look at the Times. Imagine the shock to find that Mr. Atkinson’s opinion was no more favorable than Mr. Mantle’s! Quickly I snatched up the other papers, as a stunned prize fighter clutches his opponent, but as I read them one by one it slowly dawned on me that the show was a failure. I could hardly believe it. After all those months of work, after all that fond care, after all that had been said, after hundreds of changes and experiments – after we had patted down every minute detail, could it be that we had produced a poor thing?

The brunt of all the criticism fell on me. No matter how I deluded myself, I could not escape the clear cry against my performance. I tried to tell myself that the trouble with the critics was that they did not want me, whom they considered a homespun fellow, to try to put on airs. I refused to see any truth in the adverse criticism I read, but instead turned it around and used it to criticize the critics. Did they not know that I had studied the role longer, had given it more thought, than any role I had ever played? Couldn’t they accept my conception rather than dictate to me from their own ignorance?

But then I knew this argument would not hold water, either. All they knew about my performance, I was slow to admit, was that it did not move them; that it did not grasp and hold their interest; that it did not entertain them, did not ring their approbative bells. On the contrary, their stomachs ached for me. But then I knew that even if I had encompassed the character of the Einstein Theory so that it made plain and good sense to me, it need not necessarily therefore appeal to the public. That was a hard and large lump to swallow.

What made it so hard, I guess, is the fact that Othello was my first failure in thirteen years – that and the fact that I had bent every effort toward making it as fine a production as the American theatre had ever known.

Here it appears, is my principal fault in playing the Moor: I was not ferocious enough; I did not rave and rant. I have no intention of defending myself here, of justifying my performance, my conception of the character of Othello. Either I was convincing in my performance or I was not; and evidently I was not. But after the abundant criticism, when it was obvious we were going to sink, I decided to play the role as my critics thought I should. I went forth with a mighty breath in my lungs and tore through the performance like a madman. I hammed the part within an inch of burlesque; I ate all the scenery I had time and digestion for; I frightened the other actors, none of whom knew I had changed my characterization. And upon my soul, the audience seemed to enjoy it. But please accept it from me – that performance was no good; on the contrary, it was terrible. Any 20 year old schoolboy could have played it that way. I was ten-twenty-thirty melodrama of the very lowest sort, so far as my actions were concerned, in beautiful costumes and against magnificent settings.

If that is acting then I have spent the last 35 years of my life in vain.

My subdued conception may not be the right one for Othello, I will grant, but it is so far superior to giving the role the works that there is no comparison, honestly. If I had the whole thing to do over again … I think I would arrive at the same characterization I gave opening night.

It is good to have a failure every now and then, especially for someone like myself who has had so much good fortune. It balances the books, you might say: it draws you up sharp and makes you take stock. That is not always pleasant. You know, you forget about failures if you have a series of successes. It seems to you odd that men cannot get along in this world. In all probability you begin thinking you are composed of extraordinary ingredients, that you are not like other men. So you feel sorry for the beggars on the streets and give them dimes. Now I’m not trying to be sentimental, and I hope I’m not being too platitudinous when I say what any fool knows – that is, that success breeds success, just as money breeds money, and rabbits breed rabbits. It is true also that the rich man loses heavily. That is good. He should.

I’m glad I was a failure or I should have forgotten these simple things, things I learned many years ago when, wandering about the streets of New York looking for a job, I was penniless and hungry. It does you good to quit kidding yourself.

I don’t think I’m through playing Shakespeare. There is no desire in me to show anybody, and least of all the dramatic critics of New York newspapers, that I can play it. The hell with such vanity. But the truth is that I have become ensnared by the magic of the guy’s web. It is quite clear to me now why so many of the world’s great actors (practically all of them) have grown up to play Shakespeare. His work is a challenge to any actor. His work holds a fascination for the actor such as nothing else in the literature of our theatre does. Having played Shakespeare, even in a production which flopped, was an experience by which my life is immensely enriched. I’m tickled pink to have done it. And I’m not picking up any crumbs when I say I am not in the least disheartened that it was not a success.

And yet, just the same, it would have been nice if it had been.

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7 Responses to In Honor of the Bard: Walter Huston’s Extraordinary 1937 Essay on Playing Othello

  1. Fiddlin Bill says:

    This wonderful pense by Huston expresses perfectly the existential gap that must exist between the performer and the audience. There are a thousand examples of it, or a million. Here’s a fiddling example: take 100 random people, play them Charlie Daniel’s “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and then “The Drunken Sailor Hornpipe” as played by Tommy Potts on his only recording, “The Liffy Banks.” Probably all 100 will clap for joy at Daniels, and make a face if they can even get through Potts. They are most assuredly all 100% WRONG. Then show them “The Sound of Music,” followed by “Contempt.”

  2. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Well yes, the fiddling example is apt. But I’m also hoping to tease you into writing about “Contempt” sometime, as it just blew me away on the third viewing–a movie that demands so much of the viewer. That’s Huston’s problem–his audience wasn’t edjiked enough. His Othello might have been the best ever.

    • sheila says:

      You know, it’s interesting – it certainly makes me so curious to see his Othello and see what he would have brought. A more rational approach, it sounds like. Not a roaring maniac. A more subtle Othello. Which we certainly have seen since.

      Have you seen the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows? It’s amazing – about a theatre company that does Shakespeare. A sort of Stratford, high-end Shakespeare, subscriber audience, etc. Each season is devoted to a different play. The second season they put on Macbeth and they hire a famous actor who has already played Macbeth three times. He knows how he is going to do it. He plays Macbeth as a conscience-less psychopath. But the director is looking for something else – to see him as “just a man” – who is driven to do horrible things by his wife, by his lust for power … but he was looking for a more human approach to the role. The actor refuses to do it. He will do HIS Macbeth or no other!!!

      It’s amazing to think of these famous famous roles – and how intimidating they can be because all of the greats have played them – and yet that’s why everyone wants to do them. Well, and the writing of course. :)

      • Sheila,

        What did you think of Anthony Hopkins’ Othello? It left me cold, but that (BBC, I think) filming of the play is my favorite, because Bob Hoskins’ Iago just killed me.

  3. Fiddlin Bill says:

    TCM just ran Olivier’s Othello the other day. I’ve got it in the DVR Q.

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