Showing posts with label Hamlet. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hamlet. Show all posts

22 June 2022

An Antic Disposition


Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet are probably the best-known of Shakespeare’s plays, and at least the most quoted – if not misquoted, for that matter.  Romeo & Juliet is performed often, by both professional and amateur companies, because it’s pretty straightforward.  Hamlet is trickier, or has the more troublesome reputation.  The prince, too, is one of those parts any name brand Shakespearean actor is pretty much obligated to take on early, like Lear, later in life. 

Olivier’s is the one most people know; his 1948 picture is usually cited as a classic.  I wonder if I’m the only one who thinks he kind of missed the point.  Kenneth Branagh took a stab at it, but you have the unworthy suspicion Branagh is trying to knock Olivier off his perch.  I saw Richard Burton do it on stage, but unfortunately everybody in the cast was acting in a different play from everybody else – and surprisingly, the most effective performance was Alfred Drake, playing Claudius as mildly puzzled.  I don’t have a problem with Zeffirelli’s version, Mel Gibson, but they cut the play even more severely than Olivier does.  For my money, the most engaging production is the 1980 BBC Shakespeare: Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, Patrick Stewart as Claudius.  It’s the full original text, with a runtime of three and a half hours, and it’s unapologetically played as a political thriller.

Hamlet, notoriously, is open to interpretation.  The melancholy Dane, the guy who doubts himself, and hesitates.  Olivier takes for his epigraph a line from early in the play, “Oft it chances in particular men,… carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,…” and then leaves out the rogue and peasant slave soliloquy entirely.  To my mind, this has it completely backwards.  A recent production I just saw, by the Upstart Crows here in Santa Fe, edits out that same speech Olivier chooses as emblematic, but includes all of the rogue and peasant slave speech, which I think is key to the play.  “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?  What would he do, had he the motive and the cue for passion that I have?”  Hamlet, we can agree, is clearly a revenge plot.  Claudius has usurped both his brother’s throne and his marriage bed.  The prince is prompted, his word, by heaven and hell.    

It’s a misreading to suggest Hamlet can’t make up his mind.  He thinks Claudius is a rat from the get-go, and he’s furious with his mother, “to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets,” but he’s choking on his own resentment.  Even after the Ghost shows up, he second-guesses himself: “the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.”  The real sticking point, though, is that Claudius “popp’d in between the election and my hopes.”  Hamlet wants to be king himself, and Claudius cheated him.  In order to swing this - regicide, and a coup – Hamlet needs Claudius seen to be guilty, to be “justly served.”

If you read the whole play, front to back, or if you see a production that’s the whole thing, more or less, you notice the political machinations.  It’s not something read into the text, or grafted onto it.  It’s organic.  Watching the BBC Jacobi, or the Branagh movie (Jacobi as Claudius, all the more sinister for seeming reluctant), or the Upstart Crows, which left very little out, and moved like a rocket, with no wasted motion whatsoever, the political dimension is front and center.  Once the kid realizes he’s got a solid alibi to go after his uncle, he’s only waiting on opportunity.  But he himself understands he can’t be regarded as some cranky-pants teenager with a grudge; he has to be seen as responsible, not as settling a score, but righting a wrong.  He charges Horatio, as he’s dying, to report his cause accurately.  “Absent thee from felicity a while.”  This isn’t chump change.  The obligation is everything left to history.  How the story is told, after Hamlet leaves the stage.  He didn’t kill the guy because he screwed his mom; he killed an illegitimate king. 

There’s a terrific poem by Constantine Cavafy.  The premise is that Horatio has a dog in the fight.  After the events in question, Horatio becomes a court favorite, and if he maintains the narrative, it discredits Claudius, creates a legend around Hamlet, and legitimizes Fortinbras as heir to Denmark.  Cavafy’s an astute critic, if a bit cynical.  

What is the story, exactly?  The son of a dear father, murdered.  “A little more than kin, and less than kind,” the prince says, when Claudius calls him his cousin and his son, in the opening scene at court.  We know something’s amiss.  The question is whether Hamlet’s nuts.  The play is how he justifies crazy. 

Suppose, then, that Hamlet might be a classic example of the unreliable narrator.  He’s completely transparent, his thoughts spilling over, unpacking his heart with words, but is he trustworthy?  The rest is silence.

03 September 2018

Write What THEY Know

One of the time-worn chestnuts about getting ideas is "write what you know," and many people point out that staying on familiar ground will limit you. Obviously, it depends on what you know. It certainly didn't hurt Tom Clancy, did it? Or maybe Xaviera Hollander. If you have the right experience, you're golden.
The shared experiences some people think are mundane will be fresh if you put YOUR slant on them. And if they're shared experiences, you already touch a shared nerve that will affect many readers.

Everyone has a first job, first day of school, first date, first heartbreak and dozens of other rites of passage. One of the great literary themes is loss of innocence, which fills a lot of the high school literature reading list. "The Girl in the Red Bandanna," which I published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine last spring, revisits a summer job I only held for one night.

I've played guitar since the mid-sixties and one of my favorite stories was inspired by seeing the
Muddy Waters Blues Band when I was still heavily into the Monkees and Paul Revere & The Raiders. My musical world changed that night, but the story has had over 20 rejections and I've run out of places to send it. Oh, well...

Most of my titles are also song titles because Woody Guthrie, my wannabe rock & roller PI, came from meeting a classmate at my high school reunion. She was now a full-time session musician in Detroit. Blood On the Tracks, Woody's first adventure, was a long time coming, but he now appears in four novels and a few short stories, all of which take their names from songs.

My wife insists that Hell is really middle school. WE all have nightmares about it except the kids whose voices never changed, never had a growth spurt, or never went through puberty. Judy Blume is one of many writers who turned the angst into a gold mine. My own Postcards of the Hanging grew out of a scandal that rocked my school senior year.

Bel Kaufman had a huge bestseller recounting a first year of teaching in Up the Down Staircase, and Braithwaite fared nearly as well with To Sir With Love. My own Run Straight Down comes from my teaching, too, but has a little darker perspective.

Several of my friends (well, two. I don't have many) ask when I'm going to write a story revolving around theater. Well, Linda Barnes wrote an amateur sleuth series featuring Michael Sprague as an actor who solved mysteries. She gave the series up because, as she pointed out, if people got killed in every production Sprague joined, eventually nobody would cast the guy anymore. Barnes and I both grew up in Southern Michigan, moved to New England, and taught English and theater. She's younger and taller than I am, and much nicer. She also went back to theater for her standalone The Perfect Ghost a few years ago. If you have any familiarity with Hamlet, you might check it out.

Three days ago, I finished a first draft of my first attempt to use theater as a background for a story. I  only had to look up one detail that I no longer remembered after several years. It was fun to write, too, a refreshing break from my usual rock and blues.
My favorite poster from when I was directing...

Everybody knows something nobody else does. And maybe it's so obvious we don't even know we know it.

Now for the BSP. John Floyd and I both have stories in the newest issue of Mystery Weekly, now available at your favorite website.

22 January 2014

The 4th Wall

I wrote a story awhile back called "The Devil to Pay" and, at the end, Tommy is visiting his grandmother, who's living in a nursing home.
It's a beautiful fall day, crisp and clear, with just enough breeze off the river that she needs a lap robe. He's pushing her around the grounds in her wheelchair. The gravel on the path crunches underfoot. He's telling her a story, full of gangsters and gunrunners. She doesn't really follow it. Too complicated, too many foreign names, too many people she doesn't know.
The point, of course, is that he's telling her the story you've just read. There's a term for his, and I believe it's called metafiction– correct me if I'm wrong– meaning a narrative that's self-referential, where you play with convention, and the story comments on its own structure or dynamic. This, in turn, got me thinking about breaking the Fourth Wall.

Hamlet begins his story by addressing the audience, "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt…" Richard III does the same, "Now is the winter of our discontent…" Macbeth, after he first meets the witches: "If chance will have me king…" In each case, they don't step out of character, in fact, the reverse, but they step out of the play, to invite us into their confidences, and make us complicit in what follows. The soliloquy is a dramatic device going back to the earliest theater, but Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan playwrights, like Marlowe, use it in a very specific way, to enter a character's thoughts.

The equivalent these days would be first-person narration, where whoever's telling the story let's you know what's going on in their head, or admits they don't in fact know what's going on. MAGNUM P.I. often used voice-over, and one common phrase Magnum was fond of, as he went off on some errand you knew could only lead to trouble, was "I know what you're thinking, but–" This is actually a variation on a Victorian literary trope, had-he-but-known. Nor were the Victorians at all
embarrassed by addressing you directly: "And now, Dear Reader, we must leave this scene, and return to…" whatever it is. Dickens does it all the time. So does Trollope. The effect is to make you a party to the machinery, or joinery, and remind that this is all invention. It removes you from the fiction, so to speak, that the story is accidental.

We follow certain conventions, and I think rightly, because we assume a bargain between the writer and the reader, and you basically have to play fair. It doesn't mean you can't have an unreliable narator, or be deceptive, or simply mischievous, but the reader understands you're in collusion with each other. He or she surrenders to the illusion in hopes of being entertained, or invigorated, puzzled, or shocked, or surprised, even transported. When do you break the rules? In effect, only when you have the reader's permission. If you step out from behind the curtain, you have to do it in good faith. "I know what you're thinking, but---" In other words, the reader is your accomplice.

The trick, really, if I can put it that way, lies in not losing the reader's confidence. When you do close-up card magic, for example, the distinction is between the "effect," the agreed-upon narrative, what the audience sees, and the "sleight," meaning the method you use to pull it off. This is known in magic circles as misdirection, but the audience is asking to be fooled.

This is part of the bargain, that you enter into a world of masks, and the writer can let the mask slip, if you have what amounts to informed consent. You're dealing from a marked deck. The reader accepts this, if the narrative is convincing, and the sleight of hand reinforces it. What your reader won't forgive is the loss of trust. You've invited them in, after all, and they've made the choice to be included, to inhabit the fiction, the understanding that you'll give good weight. You promise, across the footlights, to make mad the guilty, and appall the free, unpack your heart with words. They'll take you up on it.