Before British dramatist Patrick Hamilton coined the term "gaslighting" in 1938, before social media called out Mike Pence for doing it during the 2016 vice-presidential debate, and before Teen Vogue accused Donald Trump of using the same tactics to undermine America's basic freedoms, William Shakespeare penned his own account of psychological manipulation in his circa 1603 tragedy Othello. Since then, directors have applied the politics of Othello to the American experience, usually with diminishing returns. (The most unsuccessful was Peter Sellars's 2009 production, starring an otherwise brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago, which cast Othello as a Latino and had characters clumsily trade dialogue through text messages.) Yet none has been so perfectly au courant as Sam Gold’s New York Theatre Workshop production, which coincidentally closes tonight, two days before Trump's inauguration. This version stars David Oyelowo as the titular character and Daniel Craig as Iago, the gaslighter in question.
Gold's production opens in pitch black. We hear Iago’s voice, plotting against "the moor" (a term for black Muslim inhabitants of Northern Africa). Seconds in, it’s already clear that Gold understands how charismatic racists need to be to thrive in society. Like a toxic Reddit thread or Twitter-egg call to arms, we hear nothing but Iago's words in the dark; it's not until the lights come up that we see Daniel Craig. His Iago hides his racism in plain sight, behind his chiseled features, behind his winning smile, and, above all, behind his black wife. The casting of Marsha Stephanie Blake as Iago’s wife Emilia doesn’t merely complicate Iago as a character; it turns the play into a timely illustration of racism’s insidiousness. It’s a reminder that white people who love the black people in their lives (the “good” ones) can still hold zealously racist beliefs. That same contradiction is why Donald Trump can work closely with both Jared Kushner, his Jewish son-in-law, and Steve Bannon, who runs an anti-Semitic website. It's how police officer Jason Holding could refer to black suspects as “niggers” while having a black girlfriend testify that he’s not a racist. After all, didn’t Thomas Jefferson own slaves while taking Sally Hemmings to bed?
Tackling the specter of race is, of course, a prerequisite for a production of Othello. But what’s surprising is the way Gold also uses the play to critique America’s culture of toxic masculinity. In the same year that Moonlight challenged the ways black men are depicted in film by confronting sterotypes of performative masculinity and showing black men, both gay and straight, being emotionally intimate with one another, this Othello grapples with the realization that Othello himself was never innocent to begin with. He treats Desdemona (Rachel Brosnahan) as his property, and he would rather kill her than allow her to be with another man. Gold dials up the machismo of the play’s military setting by including battle cries of “Hooah!” and boisterous sexual innuendos over beers, and a singalong to Drake’s misogynistic bop “Hotline Bling” contributes to the same idea: While Iago is motivated by racial hatred for Othello, it is both men’s devotion to misogyny that ultimately leads to their destruction. In the final scene, when Iago’s schemes have been exposed, the two duke it out in a brawl befitting men who have spent the previous two acts trading verbal jabs like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed.
In the waning days of Barack Obama’s presidency, Oyelowo’s portrayal of Othello felt equally trenchant. His Othello is as formidable as Obama, offering a promise of victory not dissimilar to the president’s invocation of a brighter, hope-filled future. Oyelowo’s prowess as a general and the eloquence of his speech have quelled Brabantio’s displeasure over his daughter’s relationship with a black man, just as Obama — for many white people, the ideal image of a black man in America — won over so many voters in 2008 who would turn around four years later and cast their vote for a racist candidate endorsed by the KKK.
This Othello was the first production that felt truly, viscerally American. The closest recent attempt was perhaps Tim Blake Nelson’s film O, which transferred Othello and Iago’s exploits to a high-school setting and had the misfortune of being shelved for two years due to the Columbine High School massacre. Starring the hottest teen actors of the moment — Josh Hartnett, Mekhi Phifer, and Julia Stiles — the film is a metaphor for how dangerous our high schools have become. It’s also an illustration of how poorly America responds to tragedies: We mourn them, we keep them in our “thoughts and prayers,” we post about them on Instagram — and then we move on. Just this week, for example, conservatives trotted out warped images of Martin Luther King Jr. as a token of “all lives matter” dogma, ignoring his unmistakable message of resistance — and the fact that his pleas for peace still got him shot.
Racial tension pumps through all our veins, allowing men who trust Othello to fall prey to Iago’s vicious machinations. It’s easy to see Iago as our reality TV host turned President-elect Trump, as Craig depicts him in a likable (to his voters, at least) manner rather than as the brooding, grotesque vulture of many Iagos before him. “How am I then a villain?” Iago asks us, as he spouts anti-Muslim rhetoric (Bianca, one of his victims, is cast as a Muslim woman, portrayed by Homeland’s Nikki Massoud) and gaslights Othello right before our eyes. Even the claustrophobic nature of this production, wherein Iago walks through the audience (so close, at one point, that he could have reached out and strangled me), mirrors our own world: We see Iago everywhere, much as Trump's rhetoric permeates our cognizance. We see him question the legitimacy of Obama's presidency, lie about mocking Serge Kovaleski's disability, or try to punish reporters for doing their jobs, but all we can do is watch. Much like when Iago asks, “How am I then a villain?” we remain spectators, witnessing the unfolding of a tragedy that wasn’t at all inevitable, but that happened because we came back for the second act to see the carnage.