I have loved Hamlet for most of my life. I've read it, performed in it, read it again and again, seen it on stage countless times, performed in StoppaI have loved Hamlet for most of my life. I've read it, performed in it, read it again and again, seen it on stage countless times, performed in Stoppard’s 15 minute version, read it again and again and again, and taught it over and over. I have always loved it.
But not this time.
I finished re-reading it last night (I've one more class to teach tomorrow), and I feel like I've just fallen out of love. You know that feeling when you still love someone but you're no longer in love? That's where I seem to be with the Dane.
I struggled all night trying to locate these new feelings. “Where did they come from?” I wondered, and I think I found the answer while I was eating my breakfast bagel. I'm tired of Hamlet and his internal world.
I know there is much more to Hamlet than this internal struggle -- which the Romantics gave us in the 1800s and psychoanalysts entrenched in the 1900s -- but I can't seem to shake myself out of Hamlet's self-absorption. It's like standing in front of Picasso’s Guernica and being so entranced by the suffering that Picasso’s technique and political message disappear.
I am always reading Hamlet criticism, I listen to what others have to say (including my often insightful students), and I even discover new things for myself that I’ve never noticed before. I hear these voices, but none of them can break through my emotional attachment to Hamlet’s self-examination. And I am bored with it. I see the other stuff going on around it, I hear the other things going on around it, but I am as fixated on Hamlet’s internal struggle as he is.
And to make matters worse, I am starting to wonder if the two hundred year preoccupation with Hamlet’s internal world has reached the end of its usefulness. Is self-awareness useful in our time of reality shows and vampire love affairs? Is it as precious as the novel Push by Sapphire? Is it as dusty and mouldy as Woody Allen and Philip Roth? Do we need to find our way back to the roots of Hamlet (“what is this quintessence of dust?” where man and dust are the key components) or do we simply need to find something in Hamlet that speaks to us in the here and now?
Or is the question really only one I can ask myself: do I need to find something new in Hamlet that speaks to me, something to break my obsessive focus on what’s going on inside?
Is there a better artistic expression of death's myriad manifestations than Shakespeare's Hamlet? I say no. In my counter-factual universe I see WilliIs there a better artistic expression of death's myriad manifestations than Shakespeare's Hamlet? I say no. In my counter-factual universe I see William Shakespeare as a Lieutenant at the First Somme. Imagine the war poetry that Shakespeare could have written. Perhaps one such war sonnet would have gone something like this:
My subaltern’s eyes will ne’er again see the sun, Exposed hearts are more red than whores lips are red; If we go o’er the top we are sure to face the gun; And those caught on wires are things better off dead.
I have seen bodies gouged open, red and white, And from froth-corrupted lungs seen gas leak; The scent of naturally rotting flesh gives more delight Than the breath of vesicant that from blisters reeks.
I loathe the whine of 5-9s we needs all must know Dying screams hath a far more pleasing sound; I grant I ne’er saw an unworthy boy go; My subaltern when he dies rots on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my loss as rare As all the missing and dead I blench to compare.
There is a scene in Act IV, rarely presented on-stage, wherein Hamlet looks upon Young Fortinbras' forces and feels guilt over his own concerns compared with the concerns of the men who go to die: "...to my shame I see / The immanent death of twenty thousand men / That for a fantasy and a trick of fame / Go to their graves like beds..." (IV.iv.59-62). Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori, indeed. ...more
Comedy is tough to do well, even by those who create it, but it is even tougher to go back and restage past comedies for modern audiences. The easy exComedy is tough to do well, even by those who create it, but it is even tougher to go back and restage past comedies for modern audiences. The easy explanation is that humour is such a product of its time that audiences are simply not capable of getting the jokes -- not truly. There may be something to that, but I think the real problem is more complex, and I think it can be remedied.
Most comedies, particularly those that hold up and become memorable classics, tell their jokes to make a point. Great comedies are generally political, either explicitly or implicitly, and the laughs spring out of the message(s) being delivered. On the surface, again, the time distance between a comedy's creation and restaging could be blamed for any problems. Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, for instance, satirizes the Victorian era in which it was written, so modern audiences simply don't have inherent access to the shared experiences that would have made The Importance of Being Earnest easily accessible to its audiences.
Yet I don't consider these problems of time insurmountable. The real problem arises in the way directors and actors approach classic comedies. It is not so much their or the audience's understanding of the setting as it is what they choose to emphasize in their restaging. Restagings of comedies invariably focus on the humour, and in doing so they deliver the humour humourously. Everything is an attempt to be funny, so the restaging becomes about buffoonery, slapstick, the obviously funny, and the subtleties of great comedies are drowned out by the vuvuzuela cacophony of silliness.
The most recent screen adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest is a prime example. Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, Francis O'Connor and even Dame Judi Dench -- under the misguided direction of Oliver Parker -- do everything they can for cheap laughs, making their characters a pack of blithering, over-the-top idiots rather than the trivially serious idiots Wilde intended them to be (the play is subtitled, after all, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People).
The key to The Importance of Being Earnest, as with so many comedies from the past, is to play it straight. The comedy is in the writing rather than the performance. Algernon and Jack are written to believe the inane things they say, they are also written to believe the brilliant things they say, and it is their belief in who they are, silly as that may be, that makes them genuinely funny. It is the genius of Wilde: to make us believe that his characters believe in themselves. But when the people restaging Wilde don't believe that his characters believe, when they don't believe in the characters themselves, they wind up being too silly by far. (e.g. they have Algernon prance around in plate mail armor while wooing Cecily).
Yep, playing comedy for laughs is a mistake. Comedy is a serious business, and when it is performed seriously it is vastly funnier than comedy performed foolishly. The laughs will come, they don't need to be shopped for.
So if you ever have a chance to see The Importance of Being Earnest onstage, I hope that you find a group of performers who are playing it seriously, delivering the jokes with the conviction that Jack and Algy should have rather than delivering the jokes as jokes. If you do the time it was written, the distance between now and then won't matter one wit. You'll see a comedy as fresh and relevant and genuinely funny as anything being written today -- and The Importance of Being Earnest will forever be one of your favourites. I promise....more
The reasons are myriad: my mother hated Austen (a disdFor a lover of books, I came to Pride and Prejudice (P&P from now on) very, very, very late.
The reasons are myriad: my mother hated Austen (a disdain she took to the grave without ever explaining), so she never recommended her to me; I was a boy in the '70s and a teen in the '80s and even though I loved Barbra Streisand, ABBA, Wham!, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran (and...yes...I still do) I wasn't about to let people know that, and since I carried whatever book I was reading with me wherever I went, I wasn't about to let myself get caught in possession of a literary chick flick; I played tons of D&D and there's no room for P&P when you're busy writing new spells and fragging Orcs with exploding eggs; and when I began studying literature in earnest, in my undergrad years, I was more taken with the Lost Generation than any other generation, so I spent most of my time steeped in the early-Twentieth Century.
I finally bumped into Ms. Austen in grad school. I took a course that covered all her novels, but even there I skipped over P&P. The reading list was her entire body of work, and the A&E P&P miniseries, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle -- which remains an excellent adaptation of P&P -- was big at the time; it saved me from having to read P&P along with S and S and E and P and NA and MP. I took part in the P&P discussions, albeit sparingly, and wrote my papers on E and P, eschewing P&P for the books I knew well.
But P&P wasn't about to let me off that easily. You see...my wife was a former stage manager turned accountant who wanted to get back into theatre, and one of the profs at school was putting on Love's Labour's Lost. There was a bit of an emergency, and she put out a call to the entire grad community for a stage manager, with any level of skill, to save the production. Enter my wife (who is an amazing stage manager). I gave her the heads up; she became the s.m.; two weeks later I found myself rushing to learn the lines and blocking for Nathaniel to save the show from a second emergency, and suddenly I was an actor.
I was actually pretty darn good (I have only recently bowed out of the craft), and I found myself cast as Mr. Darcy early the following year. Now I had to read P&P.
So I did. And I read Bridget Jones's Diary. And I watched every version of P&P I could get my hands on. And I grew out my mutton chops. And I learned how to dance. And I improved my posture. And I had the most miserable time I have ever had on stage anywhere. My Elizabeth and I grew to loathe one another (I have never worked with a more selfish actress). Our director cast herself in a fairly important role and lost track of actually directing, so the performances were terribly imbalanced. The play adaptation we were working from was butchered beyond recognition, which horrified the writer in me as the playwright was never consulted. And the rehearsals were utterly excruciating.
But that acting gig gave me some great things too. It gave me one of my finest moments on stage (I fell off the thrust in the middle of my first dance with Elizabeth, climbed back on stage and rejoined the dance, never missing a line or breaking character. Whew!) It gave me my first leading role and the confidence that comes along with that. It made me a better playwright (showing me what was actually doable); it made me a better director (teaching me what not to do when in charge of a show); it gave me some everlasting friendships; and, despite all the impediments thrown up by the play, it made me love P&P.
These days I teach P&P every semester or two, and it gets better every time I read it. My twins, now 6, recently watched the mini series for the first time, and they, too, have fallen in love with Darcy and Elizabeth. P&P looks to continue its popularity well beyond my lifetime, and there are few books that deserve such sustained readership as P&P.