What is the significance of off-stage action as a dramatic technique in Othello and A Streetcar Named Desire? What ideas do the respective playwrights convey with such a technique?
In The Oxford Shakespeare: Othello, The Moor of Venice (2006), editor Michael Neill lays out various scholars' arguments that some of the off-stage action found in Shakespeare's Othello concerns the consummation of Desdemona and Othello's marriage. Throughout the play, their sexuality is depicted through images of animal lust; yet, an ongoing question throughout the play concerns whether or not they truly have consummated their marriage. Their inability to consummate their marriage serves to develop Othello's personal insecurities and portrays Desdemona's vulnerability, especially in the final scene. Similarly, in Tennessee Williams's A Street Car Named Desire, Stanley's rape of Blanche takes place off-stage, which equally portrays her vulnerability. All in all, the off-stage sexual action of both plays serves to develop the theme concerning the vulnerability of women in the gender role assigned to women.
The question of consummation runs all throughout Othello. In the opening scene, Iago awakens Desdemona's father, Brabantio, by first declaring his house is being robbed, then by informing him that Othello has eloped with his daughter and that the two are right now "making the beast with two backs" (1.1.105). Yet, if the couple was indeed consummating their marriage at that moment, they could not have gotten very far with it for they were soon interrupted to appear before the Sagittary in Venice to defend the sincerity of their marriage. Othello must next leave for Cyprus, and Desdemona accompanies him on a separate ship.
The question of their consummation is raised again in Act 2, Scene 3. At the beginning of the scene, Othello escorts Desdemona off-stage, saying, "The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue; / That profit's yet to come 'tween me and you" (II.iii.12-13). By this he is saying that, though they have been married, they have not yet reaped the fruits of their marriage, which would be consummation. Iago further points out that their marriage has not yet been consummated when he says to Cassio "[Othello] hath not yet made wanton the night with her" (19). Even in Act II their consummation is interrupted when the brawl breaks out between drunken Cassio and Montano. Next, Iago convinces Othello of Desdemona's infidelity, and Othello murders Desdemona in their wedding bed. It can be concluded that by the time Othello murders her, they still had not consummated their marriage off-stage.
One of the central themes in the play concerns Othello's insecurities. Othello's insecurities feeds his jealousy, which feeds his wrath. Editor Neill further lays out arguments that having to postpone consummating a marriage would create a feeling of impotency, which would feed his insecurities even more. Hence, the off-stage action serves to feed Othello's insecurities, which places Desdemona in a very dangerous and vulnerable position. As a woman, Desdemona already has little protection against her husband; her role as a wife is a subservient role, which already places her in a very dangerous and vulnerable position. Therefore, the off-stage action serves to paint her vulnerable, subservient role and to show that, as her husband's insecurities grow, she becomes even more vulnerable, just as Blanche is vulnerable to violence in A Street Car Named Desire.