I had a number of ideas in mind when I decided to produce Hamlet in one of San Francisco’s small theatres.
I had read The Private Tremulous Body by Francis Barker, a disciple of Michel Foucault who found early traces of the rise of the individual in Hamlet. The book’s thesis is that in the 16th century the body was beginning to be subdued beneath the intellect in preparation for the carnal austerities of the Puritan revolution, which destroyed the ancient regime’s claim on the person and paved the way, eventually, for the postmodern individual, the singularity that forms the basis of our consumer society.
And of course Bloom's thesis and his follow up Hamlet, Poem Unlimited where the self-conscious theatricality of the character created a fold in the personality, the new complexity emerging as the modern individual.
So Hamlet could be read as the birth of the new Self.
I had been guest-lecturing in the English Department of San Francisco City College in a course on criticism and had developed a theory of drama* based on some aspects of structuralism. I had used David Mamet’s plays, particularly Oleanna, as a research subject and found some techniques that quickly enabled me to form insights about its deeper structure of which the visible drama was only the surface and that could be applied generally to character-driven drama. Mamet's early plays could be read as being about the self, being about being.
When I turned my structural anaysis on Hamlet, I discovered that I could talk about the play as a struggle between two families of selves: the Hamletians and the Polonians. Each member of the family wanted to get its genes on the throne of Denmark. The Polonians were more functional in that they could form alliances to advance their goals. The Hamletians were more disorganized, divided from each other and from the Polonians.
I also had our company’s production history and style to consider. We had been producing one-acts in the San Francisco Fringe Festival and Hamlet would be our first full-length production. Our plays were cultural criticism that focused on the obsession of postmoderns with the individual self. We criticized hedonism, always a handy target, and we took it to the extreme. To continue in this rich vein, our had to be about the self.
Perhaps we could get our young cry of players to perform this a large and complex piece of work. While the play is famously long, the cast is large, the language intricate beyond general analysis, and the ideas and themes crash in on the actor like the wind and the sea, it might be simplified.
The solution would begin with a careful edition of the play, sticking tenaciously to our company’s strength. Our style was about the self, about greed: There’s plenty of other people in the world but there’s only one me. Alliances must serve the self.
I reduced the cast to the six characters who die. The monarchy was within their reach but they failed to grasp it and died in profound disappointment.
I retained Horatio, the outsider, who provided something of the objective within all the writhing subjectivity that would be discovered in the edition. I kept the Ghost, as he could be played by the same player that played Claudius, his younger brother. The Player King and Queen would be the undisguised Polonius and Ophelia, performing at the behest of the royals. And I kept the Grave Digger because of the high irony he brings to the funeral scene and also because our company has a tradition of bringing the director in for a small part.
Polonius is often represented as a fuddy-duddy and I was determined to develop the character as selfish and as resourceful as any of his rivals. I reduced his most rambling speeches and this cut allowed the actor to focus on the selfish objectives of his character.
Ophelia is often depicted as weepy and wailing and falling apart. I wanted her to conspire eagerly and intelligently with her father to marry Hamlet and thus get their genes on the throne. She challenges her brother, who has royal aspiration, and she must be enthusiastically eager to try to deceive Hamlet.
Claudius has plans for the death of Hamlet, his strongest rival, before the play begins. In the line “… you are most immediate to our throne…”, Claudius is not generously offering Denmark to Hamlet but is telling all that Hamlet is the next to die.
Following this pattern, I wrote a short article on each of the characters, re-centering each on his or her royal objective, which was always the selfish gene.
Then I started with the Moby version of Hamlet available on the web and in six editorial passes**, cut the word-count of the play by 40% while keeping in mind the objectives of each character.
I made about 20 word-substitutions that increased the understandability of the work for the non-scholar.
I did not cut any of Queen Gertrude’s or Ophelia’s lines. By word-count, their parts were already small and the edition created relatively larger parts for them.
I called the play Evil Hamlet because I wanted to encourage everyone concerned to part with their cherished ideas of Hamlet and to approach eagerly the work as a new and original adaptation.
Director Irving Schulman set the play in Brooklyn, his home town, in 1965, a decision that dislodged some of the casts’ preconceptions. He also worked on the evil aspect of the adaptation: Evil is the result of selfishness. This redirected much of the poetry toward another character on stage and minimized playing to the audience.
Rather than cast Polonius as an older, foolish man, Irving cast Leer Relleum, a handsome, intelligent young man who had to age-up to play a father of a 16- and 18-year old.
He asked Alexia Lodde, who was running lines with a classmate from the SF Actors’ Center where we were auditioning for the part, to read for Ophelia and immediately gave her the job, her first role in community theatre. He landed Charlotte Brockman, an excellent comedienne, as Queen Gertrude, Matt Ingle, a diligent and talented young actor, as Hamlet, the intense Alex Plant as the angst-ridden Laertes, Larry Rekow as the cynical outsider Horatio, and Vonn Scott Bair, CatchyName’s patriarch-in-residence.
Irving worked tirelessly to urge the cast to find themselves as people with their own individual origins, bringing their own ambitions to the stage as the foundation for their characters. The key was the equation of selfishness to evil. All members of the class were utterly familiar with the autonomy and freedom of choice that is so valued in our time and were eventually able to take the freedom of choice to its extreme: the self undoing itself.
Initially, the actors, being charged up with the opportunity for doing Shakespeare, brought with them from somewhere a set of gestures and mannerisms and expectations as well as an impulse to project poetry at the audience.
When the cast finally got away from the director and seized the stage, they began to invent gestures and facial expressions and other body language in their actual onstage relationships that extended the theme of the original self-centered individual, diverging ever further from the tradition of Hamlet. With each performance, they became more self-centered and confident, raising their bets, and eventually risking all for personal gain. For example, Alexia Lodde, in her deception of Hamlet, is called upon several times to act within the acting, to tell everyone that she is now lying to someone on stage about something.
As the characters became thoroughly and consistently selfish, it also began to flatten out. But the script presents each character with at least one opportunity to open up, to confess, to remind us that they are not perfect robots of expediency but genuine human beings with awareness of others, that the others are really just like them with their own ambitions and vulnerabilities. The cast was greatly relieved to receive this note and quickly explored the new dimension.
I am immensely pleased at the results of our effort. I created an impetus that the cast picked up and I gave them the freedom, within an envelope, which they used to create their own production, so that as actors they satisfied the theme of our play and the theme of our time and took it to the extreme.
CatchyName’s style has once again been successfully demonstrated in community theatre. I can see that there is plenty of room for better production values but that means more financial investment, which comes from bigger audiences and better reviews, a difficult challenge as one tends to drive the other. We publish low-budget videos of our work on our site. ***
The play suggests to me a tantalizing possibility for a new tragedy. If the intensity of Periclean and Elizabethan tragedy can be talked about as the threat of civil chaos resulting from the death of the monarch and if the 20th century American drama, such as the works of O’Neille, Miller, Williams, and Shephard can be talked about as the threat of civil chaos resulting from the disintegration of the head of the nuclear family, then there might be a new form of tragedy that extrapolates the reduction in scale of the tragic figure from at first a king and at the last the singular individual.
Post-modern culture relies, in part, on the self-sufficient individual. What happens on stage when our sacred idol of the self is threatened? What tragedy would illustrate the disorder in civil society if we begin to question, at basis, individual choice and the selfish consumer? If it is true that the individual was invented by Shakespeare and Descartes, what will its demise look like to us, its champions?
Evil Hamlet was reviewed on PlayShakespeare.com.
* This work-in-progress can be seen at…
** The script can be seen at…
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The review of Denise Battista's seems a bit strong. I assert that if one want's to complain about the service, she should go to a five-star restaurant. Nevertheless, I would complain about what might be unnecessary complications. For instance, the blood on Ophelia's dress. I thought of self-mutilation. Battista points out a reference to Ophelia's getting pregnant (followed by abortion). How about simplifying Ophelia's role into simply going bananas? If you have to have blood, you could do either the self-mutilation or have bandages on her wrists. We would then get the point about mental illness. Her ensuing death could be "updated" to a drug overdose--she might well be less sophisticated than the others about drugs, and she is certainly despondent. Or how about bringing in the Golden Gate Bridge (sure to get a laugh)?
On the subject of drugs (and updating), how about using a hypodermic instead of the poison vile? Instead of a "ghost", how about hallucinations on the part of Horatio and Hamlet? The ghost role could then be a voice-over (backstage).
One more thing about drugs, the motivation of evil could be understandably projected onto the bulk of the players with addiction at its core. When it comes to getting the next fix, perhaps even the best people would compromise their morals.
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Thanks for your comments.
We had a number of options and were looking for a way to simplify our approach to this large and complex play. 'Evil' came from selfishness and selfism, being the anthem of our time, was familiar to all involved in the production.
We didn't want to blame (or even identify an origin of) the characters' behavior on elements outside of the characters' lives and choices. Behavior, in our model, is original with the human being who has a range of choices. I know this idea is at odds with other models but we were determined to be consistent with our choices so that the characters would always be seen as erupting out of their individual own experience rather than being an agent, conscious or not, of social, cosmic, or traditional dramatic forces.
The usual solution to Ophelia's behavior is going bananas and we pretty much kept that.
But her pregnancy and her subsequent abandonment by the father of her child (ambiguously Hamlet or Horatio) is something we added to accent the selfishness of the two men and to accent her plummet from great expectations of royalty to being a ruined woman, a social outcast, a worthless object on the marriage market.
Alexia Lodde, who played the part, used her plummet and the men who caused it, including the king, as sources of anger. So, rather than being just weak and mentally unstable (the usual Ophelia) she was alternately poetic and caustic, pathetic and revengeful, all of which were logical and in contrast to the usual weepy, falling-apart Ophelia.
Some of us wanted to bring in the self-abortion issue but I felt that that would bring in an entire battalion of other isssues and so just had a muscarriage, perhaps caused by her grief and her plummet from a great height.
We could have brought the Golden Gate Bridge in but we were determined only to cut and not to add anything to Shakespeare's script.
Thanks again for your comments. It is always challenging to transmit clearly an idea in any medium and I am grateful for the feedback.
If you haven't seen the production, check in with http://www.catchynametheatre.org. In a week or two we will have an online video of the show.
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