Friday, February 01, 2008

Debates: Othello and Desdemona

Watched the second part of the democratic presidential debate last night. I have to say, I'm not terribly interested in what either Obama or Hillary has to say when it comes to foreign policy. They both present their own respective problems which cannot be answered satisfactorily for now. There just isn't enough information. Any pretence he professes to speak with authority about these issues has more or less been challenged by this kind of report, or this kind of report. In other words, Friends of Israel are not really reassured, even assuming that Martin Peretz's information is more reliable than Noah Polack's.

As for Hillary on these matters, well, she is the one who sat through an antisemitic tirade by Suha Arafat and when it ended, got up to kiss her. Which to me suggests, not that she agreed with what she heard but that she was not even listening properly. A grave mistake in judgment, since she had assumed she could afford to relax her guard, trusting that Mrs. Arafat would act with decorum befitting the position of her guest. In this she somewhat resembles her famous husband, who thought he could be sexually serviced in his White House office, and still be protected from being exposed by the augustness and authority of his position as President.

One wonders if she might not be deeply ensconced in her own bemusements when some actual, and not just rhetorical, catastrophe, was taking place.

And here I come to the gist of my post.

It was a little painful to watch Hillary Clinton yesterday, as she was competing against Obama's charisma and popular appeal. He was a poised and assertive gentleman, listening thoughtfully, smiling slightly when the occasion called for it. It was a perfect pitch performance from a presidential aspirant.

She, on the other hand, seemed overly concerned with coming through as confident and authoritative. And she achieved the opposite effect. Her body language does not bespeak self-confidence but rather some turmoil. Smiling too widely (and defensively) when Obama was making some comment about her. One can get away with one such smile. But not when it becomes the standard non-verbal response to a challenge. Then bursting into maniacal laughter when Wolf Blitzer asked her a provocative question or two. And repeating that burst of affected laughter a minute of two later. That kind of behaviour does not denote confidence. It rather signals weakness.

Hillary is trying too hard to present herself as tough, to show she is an experienced politician and can compete in a man's world. Obama, whether from natural inclination or acquired wisdom, does not attempt to pretend to be what he is not. It is this very authenticity, which makes him such an appealing candidate.

Who are they like?

In the film "Stage Beauty", Ned Kynaston has been playing a woman's part for so long, that his ability to act as man has atrophied. When he tries to do Othello, when all he is used to do is Desdemona, his body language seems odd and awkward and unmanly, eliciting both mirth and pity from his audience. And he defends his success and failure in this way:

Samuel Pepys: You know, Mr. K, the performance of yours I always liked best? As much as I adored your Desdemona and your Juliet, I've always loved best your 'britches' parts. Rosalind, for instance. And not just because of the woman stuff but also because of the man sections. Your performance of the man stuff seemed so right, so true. I suppose I felt it was the most real in the play.

Ned Kynaston: You know why the man stuff seemed so real? Because I'm pretending. You see a man through the mirror of a woman through the mirror of a man. You take one of those reflecting glasses away it doesn't work. The man only works because you see him in contrast to the woman he is. If you saw him without the her he lives inside, he wouldn't seem a man at all

Then comes along Maria, a talented actress who plays Desdemona as a woman would play her. Authentically. Without the grotesquely feminine gestures that characterized Kynaston's version. And she plays her superbly. While Kynaston is focused on convincing the audience he is a woman, Maria, who is a woman, can focus on convincing the audience she is this one special woman, Desdemona.

Maria: Your old tutor did you a great disservice, Mr. Kynaston. He taught you how to speak, and swoon, and toss your head but he never taught you how to suffer like a woman, or love like a woman. He trapped a man in a woman's form and left you there to die! I always hated you as Desdemona. You never fought! You just died, beautifully. No woman would die like that, no matter how much she loved him. A woman would fight! (watch scene here)

See what I'm getting at? Hillary is like Kynaston, exerting herself to look confident, aggressive, slightly superior, a woman with iron balls, so to speak. She ends up looking somewhat pathetic and insecure, an effete Othello..

Obama does not need all this. He is like Maria. Comfortable in his own skin. He wears no mask. So he can actually do the work, while she is still entangled with her image problems.

Can Hillary act a convincing Othello to match Obama's natural Desdemona?

I thought he came away the big winner last night. And she knew it.


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