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Production Notes for the October 17, 1951 staging of Othello
by William Shakespeare, 1564-1616

Produced at St. James Theatre (London, England)
Directed by Orson Welles, 1915-1985
Sets and costumes by Margaret Harris

Accompanying Documents on the Production


The production was only moderately successful. THEATRE WORLD (24 December 1951) credited him [Welles] with a "personal triumph." The TIMES (19 October 1951) termed him "an impressive but an unexciting Othello."

The critics zeroed in on the clumsy arrangement, condemning the whole idea. "The Motley set produced some pretty effects," wrote [the critic] T. C. Worsley, "but the device of drop scenes with a curtain half-drawn was not effective, while the noise of preparations going forward behind the shrouded half of the stage was thoroughly distracting." The TIMES (19 October 1951) repeated that judgment, saying "the half-curtained scenes fail of their effect because they are not one thing or another."

Excerpts from other works

Archie Nathan [the designer] rather charitably recalled that Welles was "a wonderful Othello, very much looking the part," paying more homage to Motley's costuming than to Welles's acting. [See COSTUMES BY NATHAN (Newnes, London: 1960, p.104.)]

Comments of Margaret Harris

In 1951, Margaret Harris seized the chance to work with Orson Welles, who had achieved great stature as a film director and would-be Shakespearean. His earlier efforts, a controversial "voodoo" Macbeth and other projects in New York for the Federal Theatre Project, had been popular successes. By coming to London to direct and star in his own production of "Othello", in collaboration with Laurence Olivier Productions ("LOP"), he set himself a challenge that he found difficult to meet. "He was a very undisciplined stage actor," said Margaret Harris. "It occurred to him to do something, and he just did it, without considering what it was going to do to the other actors. He was terribly nervous about doing Shakespeare in London. He was in Larry's [Olivier's] theatre, you know, so he was a bit scared about it. It was a terrible ordeal for him."

Welles asked Margaret Harris to create a scene-changing effect that was like a film "wipe" in which a new scene sweeps across from one side of the screen to the other. The set was divided into two halves. A curtain could run back and forth across the front of the stage. On one side the action could continue while the set was changed on the other. The full stage, without the curtain, could also be used. "We had a big brown curtain made, but the effect never worked, because the track was made badly," said Margaret Harris. "We were trying to get a filmic feeling to it."

Working with Welles himself proved to be a trial to the designer. "Orson used to come and work in my studio in Earl's Court Square," Margaret Harris recalled. "He used to arrive in the morning and say he must have some coffee; before he could do anything he had to have coffee. And he had to have coffee all day long, without cease. My flat was on the ground floor. There was a basement below where the landlord lived, and there was a yard out at the back, where the landlord's little lame boy used to play. He had a little wagon made of tin. He would go clippity-clop, clippity-clop, running round dragging this thing. Orson said to me, 'You must stop that, I can't stand it.' So I said, 'I can't stop it, it's his yard. He must do what he likes in it.' So Orson said, 'I'll stop it.' The kitchen windows opened out onto the yard. He went into the kitchen, and he opened the window. He stood there, for two or three minutes. What he was doing I don't know, but the sound stopped, and the boy had a slight heart attack--not a serious one, but he collapsed--and the toy wagon never reappeared. I suppose Orson just made faces at him, I don't know. That huge creature must have absolutely terrified the boy."

When "Othello" went onstage, problems multiplied. [According to Margaret Harris,] "[t]hat production was a very difficult situation, because everyone who had anything to do with it was completely drunk. Nobody, including Orson, I have to say, could do anything. We got to Newcastle, where it was going to open, and Orson said, 'Do you know anybody who can get this on for us?' The stage director was drunk, the management was drunk. Everyone was drunk. So I said, 'Well, George Devine could, but I don't suppose for a minute that he will.' And Orson said, 'Ring him up, ask him to come.' So I rang him up, and reluctantly he decided to come. Orson was furious when I had to go back to London to deal with the School after we opened in Newcastle."

[As Margaret Harris recalled,] "Orson had a dresser, a tiny little lady called Betty Martin. She had a cold, and Orson wouldn't have her in the dressing room. So he said to me, 'You must dress me.' So I had to dress him. I don't know how she managed, because he had to have earrings, and she'd have had to stand on a chair to get them onto him. It was a very horrid experience. The difficulty was, he absolutely poured with sweat, and the black makeup wouldn't stay on. It would just run off. Poor Gudrun Ure, who played Desdemona, was always black from head to foot, because wherever he touched her, it came off on her."

Opening night brought its own disasters. [Margaret Harris continued,] "[o]n the first night in London, when he came down a long flight of steps into the bedroom on his way to kill Desdemona, he was carrying a candle, which went out on the way down the stairs. That wasn't too good, because he says 'Put out the light' just before he goes to kill her, and it was already out! Then, when he was throttling her, or suffocating her, he slipped, and he fell on top of her, CRASH!!! Her head went plonk against the end of the bed, which was a plywood box, covered with bedding. It didn't seem really to damage her, though. When they came to take their curtain call, she was completely black, her white nightgown, her face, everything was black. When he was supposed to fling the coins down, as if paying for Desdemona, he flung them in Emilia's face. Maxine Audley was naturally very angry. As soon as the curtain went down, she dashed across the stage and caught him a great clip in the face. She could just reach. When the curtain went up, they bowed, and he tried to be conciliatory."

From Michael Mullin, DESIGN BY MOTLEY (Newark, Delaware; University of Delaware Press, 1995). Copyright 1995, Michael Mullin. Reproduced by permission of the author.

Cast List

Orson Welles (Othello), Peter Finch (Iago), Gudrun Ure (Desdemona), Maxine Audley (Emelia).


THEATRICAL (SELECTIVE) REALISM - created through the selective use of primary research material and careful arrangement of specific elements of a period (line, shape, color, and historic detail) so as to create the essence and impression of a period unencumbered by the minutia of extraneous details for dramatic purposes and theatrical effect.


Late Italian Renaissance - c. 1500-1550.