Watching the Olivier version of Othello the other day, I though I heard something out of the ordinary come out of Desdemona’s mouth:
“My mother had a maid called Barbara.”
It drifted out of mind almost immediately, but not before leaving behind a kind of earworm.
Thinking it was a trick of the mind (or at least of the ear), I went back to check…
And yet, It’s clearly, obviously “Barbary” (IV.iii.26) in the text.
So, why the change?
Was this discomfort on the part of John Dexter the stage director (or Stuart Burge the film director, or Olivier the star, or Maggie Smith the actress) over what would become the seed of Toni Morrison’s play Desdemona? That cognitively icky feeling that Barbary isn’t truly a person’s name, but that of a place? That the maid was–as far as her masters knew, or even cared–nameless.
She was “called” Barbary but not named that.
It’s a throwaway line, a tossed-off reference.
And yet it was enough to spawn Morrison’s play, and to cause the National Theatre production to change the line. And was this change made to smooth Desdemona’s character, to soften our perception of her, to remove the 20th century taint of colonialism?
I’m thinking probably so. Which is ironic, given this production’s lead performer’s go-for-broke use of blackface…