The Play is the Stage and the World: Theater Director and Playwright Deloss Brown

So I was writing lyrics when I should have been dealing with quantum mechanics. After I graduated, I worked as a chemist for five years, but I wrote lyrics for Jeff Meldman’s Tech Show, and I acted in M.I.T.’s Dramashop club. In 1968, my friend Ellen Greenberg asked me to direct Tech Show. I said I would if I could also write it. My faculty advisors were Professor William Greene and A. R. Gurney Jr. After that show, I knew that I was misplaced in chemistry (I was a danger to science, in fact) and I applied to Columbia in playwriting.

In my last year at Columbia, I was made master electrician of the chief production, and when I graduated I got hired by Joe Papp to be an electrician at the Public Theatre. The best part of this job was when to get assigned to run a show as an electrician. I could spend all day writing, and not have to be at work until seven at night.

I had never thought much about Shakespeare, although working for Joe Papp in the summer I got to see every Shakespeare production in Central Park. In 1979, I got hired by Isaiah Sheffer to teach in a literature survey course at Rockland Community College.

Did you teach Shakespeare there?

No. Dante, Plato, Rousseau… But one of the students wanted to do a project based on Othello for the following year. I told her what I wanted her to research. Othello’s name (which Shakespeare invented) has “hell” in the middle of it, and Desdemona’s name (which Shakespeare got from his source) has “demon” in it. I told the girl I wanted her to try to figure out why, and what this had to do with the play.

Production shot of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir
The King (Keith Herron) worships in the burning chapel
© Hunter Canning

All these may seem trivial… but it’s central to the play’s structure. Every character, even the blameless Desdemona, has a devil inside waiting to take over. In fact the play’s very structure is a confused, foggy shape which conceals a hellish monster. As the play progresses, the monster gets loose and a lot of people die. That’s not all that’s in the play, but it’s the main structure, which Shakespeare repeats over and over again. I didn’t figure this out for myself until I was teaching at Juilliard. This is the reason I find Shakespeare irresistible. His plays are built on clever, complex structures which he conceals, and discovering those, and directing the plays so that the structure is used is absolutely delicious. I’ve had the good fortune to direct eight of his plays.

At Juilliard, Michael Langham gave the master classes in Shakespearean acting, and I taught the nuts and bolts routine classes. The Juilliard students were very smart, and used to ask difficult questions. They came to class one day and asked, “Why does Juliet’s mother speak in rhyme?” They were talking about Juliet’s mother’s speech to Juliet about why she should marry Paris:

Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face,
And find delight writ there with beauty’s pen;
Examine every married lineament,
And see how one another lends content;
And what obscured in this fair volume lies 85
Find written in the margent of his eyes.
This precious book of love, this unbound lover,
To beautify him only lacks a cover.

(Rom. I.3.81-8)

Understanding why Juliet’s mother speaks rhymed verse is the key to understanding the entire Capulet family.

Incidentally, for Juilliard, I sometimes had to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays to simplify them for our audiences, whom the directors considered incapable of understanding the complexities of Shakespeare. Or I would put in things that poor, ignorant Shakespeare didn’t understand were necessary. Collaborating with Shakespeare — who had no say in the matter — gave me a partial understanding of how clever he is as a playwright, and how much fun he is to work with.

I don’t pretend to understand everything he does. I know that everything that’s in any one of his plays is integral, but I don’t always understand how and why. About a week ago, one of my students pointed out that Othello’s epileptic fit connects him to Julius Caesar, who also had epilepsy. It’s important to the play, and it had never occurred to me in thirty years.

When I’m asked about him, I usually reply that Shakespeare is underrated. Hollywood knows he’s good for the box office, though, and that’s why he keeps getting hired to write screenplays.

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