Paula Vogel’s 1987 three-hander, Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, is not a play about a handkerchief. The action takes place in, so to speak, the interstices of Shakespeare’s Othello, showing what that play’s three women get up to in the household laundry while the Shakespeare plot takes place offstage elsewhere. Think of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead with less metaphysics and more sex and you’ll be in the right ballpark. So while Desdemona is intermittently anxious to locate the handkerchief which her Irish Catholic maid Emilia (or ‘Mealy’) has stolen, and whose disappearance helps to make her husband jealous in Shakespeare’s play, she’s much more interested in many other things. The handkerchief isn’t the subject of the play so much as a symbol of the male agenda and its dominance over the public lives of women who are really, the play tries to aver, much more complex than men allow or want them to be.
One of Desdemona’s complexities is something that no audience of Shakespeare’s Othello would ever imagine. She’s not a virginal, faithful wife after all: on Tuesday nights she does a shift in Bianca’s brothel, helping out with customers who pay too little and come too quickly to be worth Bianca’s personal attention. Sometimes they are allowed credit, which is what brings cockney Bianca to the laundry, to settle up after Desdemona’s last session. That makes her sexually experienced, but she isn’t sexually imaginative, as becomes obvious when they discuss some of Bianca’s less conventional clients, one of whom enjoys doing something to Bianca that we would probably enjoy seeing:
DESDEMONA: Doesn’t … doesn’t it hurt?
BIANCA: Naw, not usual. It’s stingy-like, but it’s all fakement.
Then she gets an idea, and offers Desdemona a demonstration. ‘C’mon,’ she says, ‘it won’t hurt you none.’
What follows is headed ‘The beating scene’ in the script. Some productions refer to it instead as a ‘spanking scene’, but I’ve never seen that followed through in the way it’s actually played; in other words, I’ve never seen Desdemona over Bianca’s knee. (In fact, I don’t think the scene can be physically played like that, not without some adaptation.) Vogel’s clinical phrase more accurately describes what happens.
The scene begins with a protest from Emilia: ‘Are you out o’ your mind? Lettin’ a strumpet strap you in your own house like a monk in Holy Week?’ Desdemona tells her to turn her back and say her rosary, which she duly does while Bianca gets to work.
BIANCA: Get up on the table with your tail-end up. Right now, I’ll just take a strap ’ere, an’ I’ll just brush you wi’ it – but when I lets go, you move yer tail up. All right?
DESDEMONA: I… I think so. It’s rather like coming to the trot on a horse.
BIANCA: Right, then. One – up. Two – down. All right now. One.
(Desdemona moves up.)
(Lightly straps Desdemona as she moves down.)
(Desdemona moves up.)
(Desdemona moves down; a strap.)
Does it hurt?
DESDEMONA: No … no, it doesn’t really.
BIANCA: Right, then. Let’s have some sound effects. One. Two.
(Desdemona screams. Emilia clutches her rosary.)
NO! Not that loud! The bobbies would be in on you so fast you wouldn’t get your panties up. Just a moan enough to get him excited. Now: one – two – one – two – one – two – one – two – one – two – one – two!!
Carey Cahoon is whacked by Rachael Longo in the 2014 production by Theatre Kapow of Derry, New Hampshire.
(Desdemona perfects her synchronized moaning, building to a crescendo, at which point she breaks into peals of laughter.)
DESDEMONA: It’s smashing! Mealy, you really must try it!
And directors and actresses seem to agree. ‘The spanking scene is pretty awesome,’ says Wayne Wilson, who directed Kaitlin Winslow as Desdemona and Kim Rogers as Bianca in a production at Charleston, South Carolina, back in 2008: ‘The reason is because Kim and Kaitlin came up with a way of doing it, not me. I just told the two girls to be on a table and go for it.’ And here they are, going for it:
But, like most good drama, it’s a scene that has multiple flavors and can be played in different ways.
In this school production at Austin, Texas, there was a less than fearsome strap and it was treated primarily as a lesson in how to fake a response:
Other productions present it more as Desdemona’s introduction to the pleasures of S and M. Here’s Kelly Sue Elder enjoying what she gets from Andrea Marie Freeman in the 2010 production by Hunger Artists Theatre Company of Fullerton, California:
Other Desdemonas don’t like the experience quite so much, at least at first. At Penn in 2013, Desdemona simply has no idea what to expect at the hands of Bianca:
Likewise in Greece in October 1997, when Theatrou Keffalinias staged the play in translation: Eleutheria Sapountze’s Desdemona seems rather indifferent about what Elsa Pelagidou is going to do to her.
But the leading lady of the 2012 Minneapolis production by the Mission Theatre Company looks decidedly apprehensive to begin with:
And this Illinois Desdemona from 2013 clearly isn’t enjoying herself very much:
It doesn’t help her that the script indicates that Bianca should use a strap on Desdemona’s aristocratic Venetian bottom. And that’s just what she does in most productions. At Warren Wilson Theatre, Asheville, North Carolina, in 2002:
At the Edinburgh Festival in 2003, with Charlotte Milchard as Bianca:
At the University of California, Irvine, in 2006:
At the Mill Theatre, Chicago, in 2008, with Alison Connelly as Bianca and Amanda Link as Desdemona:
And at Sarah Lawrence College in 2011:
But other implements are available. For example, at Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri, the 2014 production saw a redheaded Bianca use a tennis racket on Desdemona. (No photo of that, unfortunately.)
In 2013, the play was produced by Spicy Witch Productions at the Kabayitos Theater, New York, in repertory with Othello, using the same cast, sets and costumes for both plays. Isabelle Russo’s Desdemona seems to have heard there was no leather strap in the prop box, and is taking a chance as she sprawls face down on the tabletop in an earlier scene.
What she hadn’t heard, it seems, is that Hannah Hammel was going to be using a cane instead:
I guess that must be the ‘up’ position on ‘One’…
And if the props budget won’t even run to that, there is always the oldest spanking implement in history, as used at the University of Oregon in 2003…
… and by Kala Roquemore on the rear end of Leah Jenkins at Colorado’s Springs Ensemble Theatre in 2014:
As well as using a cane, Bianca introduced another variation in the 2009 production at a Boston drama school: Desdemona wasn’t allowed the protection of her skirt – and you can see in her face that she can feel the difference!
A similar fate befell Tanja Bertok-Zupkovic at the Croatian National Theater, Osijek, in 2005:
But perhaps the most daring production ever was staged in Boston in 2002, starring Jennifer Alison as Desdemona. Here she is:
But that wasn’t the end of her that audiences saw in the scene in question! It was played with her facing away from the audience, and Hillary Alcuri wielded the strap on what was, in effect, her bare bottom. I mince words there because, for modesty, Jennifer did in fact wear what a reviewer called ‘micro-panties’, but they still left most of the target area completely unprotected. No doubt that’s why Hillary went easy on her, which is just as well for safety in the acting profession even though it disappointed the same, slightly pompous reviewer: he complained not only that Vogel’s play had disrespected a work of art, Shakespeare’s Othello, but also that Jennifer’s bottom was insufficiently disrespected by the strap: her ‘snowy cheeks betrayed not a flush of pink’!
To finish off with, we return to the 2014 Theatre Kapow production we started off with. Here’s the beating scene in rehearsal:
And the trailer will give you just a little glimpse of the resultant performance:
For more productions of this play, go here.