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Fixing Strindberg, Shakespeare, et al

What playwright’s ghosts endure

When did you last see a straight production of a classic? One that respects rather than twists the author’s meaning? They’re getting rare. There is currently a travelling version of Strindberg’s Dance of Death which is described as an “adaptation” by the man who altered it, American playwright Richard Greenberg—a production which started out in 2001 with Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren in the roles of the artillery captain Edgar and Alice his wife. Like much else in Strindberg it shows that life is impossible and marriage is hell. This might be called the standard actor’s view of matrimony, a satirical slant plainly relished by McKellen.

But the black comedy is not just pushed to the limit—it goes far beyond. It‘s all very well for Michael Billington to write complacently in the Guardian that this production “goes further than any I have seen in suggesting that the only possible response to emotional vampirism on this scale is laughter”. What he doesn’t say is that this laughter is largely at the expense of Strindberg’s intention, and even makes nonsense of the title of the play itself.

Not only does the adapter emphasise the comedy of the “dance” rather than the misery of the “death”—he eliminates the captain’s death entirely. In Strindberg’s original play Edgar has attempted to drown his wife, Alice audibly wants her husband dead, and when the tyrannical army captain is dying from a stroke at its conclusion she cries “Oh God, on my behalf and that of all mankind, I thank Thee for having freed us from this evil!” But in Greenberg, as opposed to Strindberg, it’s more like Darby and Joan at the end. All passion spent, Edgar and Alice sit comfortably reconciled on either side of the stage as the curtain falls. This neutralises the deadly thrust of the play, falsifies the characters, and puzzles the audience. It’s as odd as Colley Cibber’s happy endings for King Lear.

But who cares about Strindberg? He’s lucky to be revived at all. Why should his ghost be vexed if both Part Two — that’s just about half the play — and an entire subplot with two characters is cut? A paranoid 19th-century Swede whose work is out of copyright and whose art rarely transcends his own neurosis may safely be regarded as fair game for plundering adapters and directors. You might even say he had it coming. In any case, really ambitious theatre men want a bigger and more famous target, a larger reputation to abuse and exploit and add to their notoriety — and that of course means Shakespeare.

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“Not long ago”, writes Terry McCabe, “a celebrated production of Hamlet featured, at the play’s most famous moment, Hamlet spray-painting on a wall TO BE / NOT TO BE and then turning out to the audience and saying, ‘That is the question.’ The director seems to have been immensely pleased with himself for this innovation. Talking later to an interviewer he explained how ‘It exploded the play in this wonderful way: everybody just laughed and got over it in a perfect symbiotic relationship.” But does Hamlet need exploding? Are its disturbing thoughts something only symbiotic mirth will cure?

The argument of McCabe’s excellent little book (Misdirecting the Play: an Argument Against Contemporary Theater, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2001) is that “directing that seeks to control the text, instead of subordinating itself to the text, is bad directing. I believe the director’s job is to tell the playwright’s story as clearly and as interestingly as possible. Period.”

In his old-fashioned way McCabe evidently believes that the playwright’s story—Sophocles’ story, Shakespeare’s story, Chekhov’s story—should be paramount. And if the tragic intention of a work has long been recognised by judicious critics then it should not be played for comedy. Regarding the spray-painting episode described above, he says that while it is healthy for directors to bring to the stage a vision of Hamlet which has some originality and does not merely echo a stale or stagnant tradition, “one thing seems sure: a tragic hero contemplating suicide should not get a laugh.”

An odd feature of Hamlet productions is that they so often illustrate the very faults Shakespeare pointed to in his advice to the players. Deaf to his drift (and he could hardly have made himself more clear) they again and again provide what philosophers call an “ostensive definition” of the very failings Hamlet warns against: “O, it offends me to the soul” he cries, “to hear a robustious, periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise”, later going on to rebuke those clowns who add material of their own “to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh . . .  though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.”

Alas, much of this was ignored in a recent Sydney production. There can seldom have been such an obstreperous Polonius, shouting his final lines as if his fellow players were deaf. Since Claudius was played as an inveterate alcoholic, never without glass or bottle, I suppose it may have been difficult to get the king’s attention. Perhaps this had something to do with all the shouting.

But the actor playing Polonius also seemed to think there was something funny in madness itself: he heavily accentuated everything in Act II having to do with Hamlet’s disturbed state of mind—“. . . that hath made him mad! . . I have found the very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy! . . “, concluding with the “declension into the madness where now he raves, and all we mourn for!”. This punctuated the play with exactly the kind of gratuitous noise meant to split the ears of the groundlings and set on some barren spectators to laugh—those near me snickered on cue. And although this might seem hard to believe, almost incredible, Hamlet’s advice to the actors had been entirely deleted from the text.

And not only this had been lost. To speed things up for modern audiences lots of treasured lines were cut. Laertes’ warning to Ophelia—“the canker galls the infants of the spring”—went missing, and those who looked forward to hearing how young Fortinbras “sharked up a list of lawless resolutes” were disappointed to find neither sharks nor sharking here. Hamlet’s words to the Ghost, asking what it can mean “that thou, dread corse, again in complete steel, revisitst thus the glimpses of the moon, making night hideous”, does make life rather hard for the people in the wardrobe department. They are then obliged to dress the Ghost metallically in armour: attiring him in fur (perhaps because it was winter in Australia) meant all reference to his being helmeted and “armed at all points” had to be removed. But a furry ghost is not the same as one “in complete steel”, and never will be.

“Costume designs are metaphors for characters” writes Terry McCabe. “You are what you wear. This is why . . . productions of Hamlet that wish to emphasize Hamlet’s melancholy nature costume him in black, and it is why, to help convey the suggestion of a moth in Blanche DuBois’s manner, Tennessee Williams specifies that her costume be white.” Indeed. Prophetically foreseeing the waywardness of modern directors, Shakespeare wisely put into Hamlet’s mouth that phrase about “my suits of inky black”—and what a great pity he didn’t suggest something for Ophelia too. A single line about “my gowns of pearly white” might have prevented her being rigged in a red figure-hugging provocation looking like something from the wardrobe of Heidi Fliess. Scarlett O’Hara sounds right. But Scarlet Ophelia is hard to get one’s head around. Jaunty hips and a knowing carnality are difficult to reconcile with her father’s view that she is a “green girl”, and entirely incompatible with Laertes’ concern that his sister’s “chaste treasures” be preserved intact.

Few of us want to go back to the Ophelia of Sir Laurence Olivier’s film: Jean Simmons now seems decidedly insipid. But must we go to the other extreme with scarlet dresses and a whorish personality too? Whatever one thinks of the knowing rhymes Ophelia recites when mad, there are indications of a prevailing reserve, and if her brother describes her flesh as “fair and unpolluted” we shouldn’t disregard his testimony. According to Hamlet she spends at least some of her time at prayer (“nymph, in thy orisons… “) and also doing needlework, and when Ophelia reports that she was accosted by Hamlet “as I was sewing in my chamber”, this is more than just a line of dialogue. It sets a scene and denotes a character. Unlike the wild and distraught prince, her own life is one of order—orderly dress, the mental order of mens sana in corpore sano, the domestic order to be found in a Book of Hours, the social order of a court in which conduct is observed, constrained, and commented on—and Shakespeare knew exactly what he was doing when he conjured up that image of a young lady embroidering in her chamber.

“Even moderately competent acting can mesmerize an audience with Ophelia’s madness” writes R. M. Frye, and the young woman who played Ophelia in Sydney demonstrated the truth of this. By then, in a cream slip, she succeeded in winning a tear with that magical scene of rosemary and rue, fennel and columbines, violets and daisies. But the clash between the brazen identity projected at the outset, and the broken figure struggling to hold her mind together at the end, means that a wholly unnecessary contradiction is introduced—a confusion which merely obstructs our understanding.

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Then there’s the matter of removing “To be or not to be” out of Act III and placing it in Act II. The second act is indeed where the speech comes in the much shorter First Quarto, and I gather that by removing it from the more familiar Folio and Second Quarto position in Act III this provides a not uncommon variation. One might think it would have serious repercussions, and there have been arguments pro and con.

Those opposed to the earlier position point out that the prince approaches most nearly to a serious consideration of suicide in this speech, and that it is logically the climax of a series of increasingly agonised self-questionings, moving from mere disenchantment with a weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable world (I:2), through the self-accusations of a muddy-mettled rascal who exclaims “What an ass am I!” (2:2) all the way down to the crisis in which, acknowledging that “conscience does make cowards of us all”, his own inability to act is both explained and excused (3:1).

The comments of Muriel St Clare Byrne broadly favour this argument when she contrasts the gradual to-and-fro developmental rhythm of Hamlet with Macbeth and Othello.

“I am more than doubtful about the wisdom of following the order from the First Quarto, though I can well believe that this is how the play may originally have been acted (but not, therefore, constructed). Hamlet does not drive ahead like Macbeth or Othello: it is a play which needs space as well as speed, expansion as well as progression—a movement like the waves of an incoming tide, which fall back after each surge forward, and spread more widely the next time. The scenic order upon which the Second Quarto and the Folio agree makes this the characteristic movement of the play as a whole, and the tension thus created is subtler and more dramatic, with the alternations of depression and exaltation, inertia and energy.”

Are these literary rather than dramatic considerations? Doesn’t the meditative detachment of the famous soliloquy make it unique? In which case couldn’t you put it anywhere? Such has been the argument of those favoring the earlier location. R. M. Frye in his The Renaissance Hamlet is characteristically judicious. Yes: the poetry allows the soliloquy to stand alone and it could indeed by located earlier. But to treat it in this way is to ignore not just its role in increasing suspense, but in deepening the philosophical treatment of life and death. Regarding “To be or not to be” he writes:

“ … its ultimate importance to the tragedy arises just as much from the exciting clash of ideas stunningly expressed as from the increase of an audience’s suspense and uncertainty. Act two had closed with signals pointing forward to the play-within-a-play as a catalyst for resolving uncertainty about the alleged murder of Hamlet’s father. In this first soliloquy of act three, the audience sees that the Prince is undecided about even more basic matters than his uncle’s guilt.”

The theatrical case for a fuller text allowing a more gradual pace of development was also put by Kenneth Branagh recently. Under Adrian Noble in the 1992 Royal Shakespeare Company production he played Hamlet in the “eternity version” of the text (all of the First Folio plus additions from the Second Quarto) and reports as follows: “The performance matured as it had not before, and continued to surprise me, not least by the way in which the full text offered a much more comfortable playing experience for the actor. It was more imaginatively paced. One could take advantage of the ‘breaths’ that Shakespeare had given the actor. Paradoxically, it was much less physically exhausting to play, and the cumulative weight of the longer evening made for an immensely powerful finale.”

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“A set design is more than just an environment for the action,” writes McCabe. “The physical world of a play is a metaphor for its theme.” So how did the physical world of this Hamlet illustrate its theme? We saw a simple black box, with a couple of doors either side for the actors to come and go—“very contained and quite claustrophobic” as the director put it at a pre-production public discussion. Where had this come from? Well, he continued, Hamlet’s remark that “’Denmark’s a prison’ is a line that has resonated with us in working out the design”. Above the platform, he explained, were three highly visible TV monitors, and surveillance cameras feeding these screens were on throughout the play.

The director then went on to tell us that this is what you see in every bank nowadays. It appears therefore that a closely watched bank or some other other institution guarded by an all-seeing electronic Argus is his model of Elsinore. “There’s a sense of always being spied on, eavesdropping is happening all the time, everyone is being pried into throughout the play” said Bell. So this was the ruling concept for the physical and social environment of the production.

So far, so penitentiary. But does this concept of Elsinore as a continuous surveillance area seriously derive from Shakespeare’s play? Or does it largely reflect the current obsessions of the Left? It seems to me that people in the arts are becoming needlessly paranoid nowadays (or perhaps justifiably paranoid, in view of the widespread cynicism regarding the suicidal extremes of contemporary modernism) and surely it is this cultural paranoia which is expressed in the stage design more than anything else.

Granted, Hamlet’s depressed mental state does transfigure the world with its “brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire” into a dank and claustrophobic cell; but the environment of the play is a hundred times larger than this brief and constricting figure of speech. The haunting sense of being minutely and critically observed derives more from the anxieties of the theatrical fraternity themselves who suspect, correctly, that they are under inspection by the world at large, and that their radicalism is more and more judged to be symptomatic of political and artistic delusions.

Hamlet itself abounds with delusional states, so perhaps it isn‘t surprising that theatre folk should find in its hero’s discontent disturbing reflections of their own hysteria. This in turn confirms something which many of us have long suspected—that the leading character displays manic-depressive tendencies of a tiresome kind. Horatio’s mourning comments at the close about great promise unfulfilled must be respectfully listened to, and then set aside. It is exceedingly unlikely that Hamlet, “had he been put on, would have proved most royal”. By the time the curtain falls it is fairly obvious he didn’t have the right stuff. Plenty up top, but not much “bottom” in the 18th century sense. Not only is he overimaginative and prone to hearing voices in the dark, not only is there a tinge of misanthropy, he’s something of a moral hysteric capable of finding fault anywhere, anytime, with anyone, a psychological type so disturbing and dangerous, so unforgiving of human frailty, that in the world’s opinion such people are usually considered unfit to rule.

Hamlet’s social bonds are weak and conditional. He appears to dislike his own country Denmark. His conduct toward both Ophelia and Gertrude is hateful—breathtakingly callous. Instead of Polonius, the most conspicuous “wretched, rash, intruding fool” in Gertrude’s boudoir is the impulsively violent Hamlet himself. “I believe only in absolutely independent, individual and lonely virtue, and in the serenely unsociable practice of the same.”

The words are not of course Shakespeare’s; they are those of Henry James; but in some of the prince’s moods they could be Hamlet’s too. The fiercely pure intolerance of such a character can easily veer into mania. Whatever Horatio might say or think it’s hard to believe he had much of a political future. But the play most certainly does, and that it still grips one despite the many directorial eccentricities described above shows that even after 400 years the tragedy of Hamlet the Dane is just about bulletproof.

Posted in Theatre.