How Iago Explains the World
Peter Sellars, the avant-garde director known for staging classical plays and operas in joltingly contemporary settings, has once again aroused controversy with an unorthodox production of a canonical work.
This time it’s “Othello,” now running at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in Greenwich Village. Mr. Sellars has updated Shakespeare’s tragedy of jealousy and revenge with cellphones, Blackberrys and wall monitors.
But Mr. Sellars needn’t have bothered with all the new technology. The play itself speaks to one of the most salient confusions of our time: the conflict between transparency and secrecy.
The character who best exemplifies this theme is the villain, Iago. An “ensign” or aide-de-camp to Othello, a general in the Venetian army, Iago is enraged when passed over for a promotion, and schemes to destroy the hero he feels has betrayed and belittled him.
For all his uncontrolled anger, Iago is the most calculating of avengers, who as he plots Othello’s downfall knows he must conceal his true objectives behind the appearance of goodwill:
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.
For Iago, success lies in never being what he seems. He manipulates appearances, lies without remorse, and cultivates opacity the way some men work on their abs.
He is the ideal forerunner of so many contemporary dissemblers — the deceitful politician, clergyman, athlete or entertainer; the conniving money manager; the prevaricating realtor; the online sexual predator. Iago takes deception to the highest possible level. He becomes the ultimate creature of secrets, the man whose petty grievance doesn’t match his outsize fury. He is driven by “motiveless malignity, ” in the phrase coined for him by the 19th-century poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Iago’s love of secrecy is all the more disturbing because it contrasts so starkly with the openness and candor personified by Othello, who not only believes all men “shouldst be honest,” but seems to think many really are.
But Shakespeare’s tragedy suggests that transparency and secrecy are not simply opposites. Instead they interact, each reinforcing the other. As events rush to their conclusion, the audience knows that Othello’s naïve trust in outward appearances, his “free and open nature,” as Iago contemptuously calls it, not only feeds Iago’s ego but also leads Othello to be untrue to himself and obliterate everything he cherishes.
And this, in turn, raises questions of particular relevance today. In 21st-century America, the quest for openness, so often pursued in the name of democracy, can lead to the violation of a sacred democratic principle: the right to privacy. Reality television, for example, promises to pry other people’s secrets wide open, but in so doing has exposed the participants’ off-screen lives to endless scrutiny. So too, in the case of celebrities, the post-death excavation of secrets — for instance in the case of Michael Jackson — has become a gleeful shared ritual.
No wonder Ricky Gervais’ new movie, “The Invention of Lying,” has provoked an uneasy response. A comic portrayal of a world in which everyone tells the truth, all the time, the film seriously proposes that honesty is sometimes the most destructive policy.
Transparency can also be dangerous in the world of public policy, as the current health-care debate has shown. It is hard to remember a time when the specifics of any legislative process, let alone one so complex, have been so open to public scrutiny. The Obama administration was especially sensitive to accusations of secrecy, since the closed-door deliberations of the Clinton administration’s initiative is commonly believed to have doomed it in 1994.
Yet Mr. Obama’s decision to pull aside the curtain left the emerging proposals available “for daws to peck at” — the daws in this case being flocks of lobbyists, interest groups and assorted organizations that rallied opposition to health-care reform.
Or take the administration’s internal debate over Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s public warning that the war might be lost if Mr. Obama rejected his call for 40,000 new troops gave the impression of divided and indecisive political leadership. In both cases, secrecy — or at least reticence —might have served the White House better.
This is not to say that Mr. Obama himself is universally credited with having a “free and open nature.” On the contrary, he is often accused of being a deceiver. Some conservatives say he is a “big-government” liberal, who, as a candidate, disguised himself in the sheep’s clothing of a centrist. Some liberals object that he won their backing by appearing to advocate policies — for instance, legalizing gay marriage — he has since backed away from.
Mr. Obama is not alone in treading the troubled new border separating transparency from secrecy. Last June, Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina used the word “honesty” to defend his marital infidelity. And the tear-stained spasms of Glenn Beck, the right-wing’s cable star of the moment, recall Iago’s emphasis on the importance of impressing observers with “heavenly shows” of sincerity.
This might be called opaque transparency. And it appears to be all the rage just now. David Letterman’s recent confession that he had sexual relationships with employees was woven so skillfully into his standard monologue that it seemed a new permutation in the theater of public openness, one in which an acknowledgment of misconduct was transformed into judgment-neutralizing entertainment. Here, too, Iago’s histrionics might be instructive. When Othello questions his veracity, Iago audaciously pretends to regret having been too candid. “Take note, take note, O world: To be direct and honest is not safe.”
The moral agony of “Othello” is, in fact, that its bone-chilling villain is the only character who is in possession of the play’s truth. Through his machinations, Iago demonstrates that directness and honesty are, indeed, not safe — and in fact never are — because the overly transparent victim sometimes invites the predator’s manipulations and so becomes complicit with him.
Honesty and transparency, Shakespeare’s great play suggests, are two different things. As Othello learns too late, the “ocular proof” of truth is not by any means the same as truth itself.
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company