Sunday, July 15, 2007

More Mike

Mike came back with some great analogies, although I would argue that those are precisely what make the play universal and enduring through the ages, and don't so much explain its heightened popularity these days in particular (if indeed that's even the case, as Mike himself queries). It's probably safe to say that teenagers have always been moody and rebellious and that heartbreak and hardship go way back.

And yet, there are other ways of looking at Hamlet’s appeal. One of the things about it that jumps out at me these days is its function as the archetypal dysfunctional family story. In a culture that has now been overrun by such tales, from Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to American Beauty and Little Miss Sunshine, no one does it better than Shakespeare. In a sense, Hamlet is the original moody goth; his mother and stepfather are the predecessors to all those beastly parents who’d rather spend the weekend dining at the country club than having quality time at home with the family.

The other aspect of Hamlet that stands out for me is its depiction of a man who is heartbroken by everything he holds dear to him - life, his family, his friends, his girlfriend, etc. The aggregate amount of misfortunes that fall on Hamlet’s head simultaneously short circuit both his ability to mend himself and his sense of social decorum. Politeness goes out the window as Hamlet lashes out at the world for his pain. Such emotions are familiar to anyone who has ever lost a parent, gone through a divorce, been dumped by a partner, or [insert your choice of hardship here].

The beguiling and awe-inspiring (and addicting) thing about the text that you learn over time is:

Of course, that’s just how I feel today. Ask me again tomorrow and I might say something different. But, as [Peter] Brook so astutely points out, whatever I say tomorrow would most likely be supported by the text.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Post Mortem

Over on nytheatre mike's blog, he queried today why Peter Brook called Hamlet “the greatest experimental work of all.” And, "What is it about this play that still compels us after 400 years?" And, more particularly, "Why is it on the mind of so many different theatre artists all the time right now?"

My response in his comment section:

Oh Michael, like the Ghost in Hamlet, I fear you’ve been sent by the devil to torture me. Just when I vowed to quit the play cold turkey -- I am under so much time pressure from other projects and the universe is begging me to move on -- you’ve delivered me back into its clutches at all hours of the night…

Background: I was in a production of the first quarto of Hamlet in July of 06, playing Gertrude and the Ghost. Was so gripped by it that I searched for a way to remount it. Meanwhile, I studied the play – after the first run I knew I had only scratched the surface. Took a class dedicated solely to it taught by a wonderful woman named Annie Occhiogrosso who has studied it for 30+ years and lost not an ounce of passion for it. Finally got accepted into the Brick’s Pretentious Festival this June. Was able to reassemble the entire team and rehearse for 6 weeks, beginning where we left off a year earlier, for a mere four-day run. (We’re the “of it” link in your “four/different/productions/of it.”) Wrote a blog during that time dedicated to dissecting it, to which I posted 64 entries in 2 ½ months ( Ended the one-year journey through it bereft and lonely at its loss, knowing it probably doesn’t have another life.

And now, like a voice from deep within me, you wanna know why. Keeping in mind that there have been centuries and piles and piles of smarter words than mine dedicated to this question, I’ll take a relatively off-the-cuff stab... Maybe because the play is all about deceit? Levels of complicit lies we tell? To others and, perhaps most importantly, to ourselves? Beginning with our inability to face up to the fact that we’re going to die and to act accordingly towards our fellow humans? About how hard it is to muster sincerity and honesty in our dealings with each other, even knowing we’re mortal? Even with the people we share our most profound life experiences with? Even with family? And this makes everyone ultimately lonely, whether they know it or not? And these things just become more nagging as we age, but only in proportion to the degree in which we’re capable of living an examined life in the first place.

As to why it is on the minds of so many different theatre artists all the time right now… I went to a reading recently by my friend Josh Furst. He’s got a novel coming out in a month. Afterwards, the audience was clearly moved. I told him how comforting it was to hear his words, which were powerful, complex, gripping inquiries into his characters’ souls. He knew of my post-Hamlet blues and how hard it was to explain them to anyone. He said, “Yeah, it’s a strange mood in the country these days. Not much into introspection.”