November 10, 2014:
Thanks to my wife's get-up-and-go, she is now the theater reviewer for a local paper, which gets us free tickets to all the local plays, musicals, what-have-yous, and it has been a boon. Yesterday we went to see a production of Hamlet, locally produced but with some professional actors, and to prepare for that we watched the BBC production of Hamlet the night before. It was on CD and it starred Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart, Claire Bloom, and other English actors. It was magnificent. The local play? Not so much.
Hamlet is one of those touchstone plays, a measure of greatness in the theater, and everyone wants a shot at it. I've seen it a number of times, both on the stage and in the movies. I saw the Mel Gibson version, out of curiosity, to see what somebody like him would make of the part. I saw Richard Burton play Hamlet in Toronto, on the second evening of his tour in Canada and the U. S. Probably everyone has seen Olivier's movie version. The merit of the BBC production, besides the fact that it is so wonderfully acted, is that it presents the whole play, uncut. Most versions are cut. Uncut, it runs very close to four hours. Yesterday's version ran a little over an hour shorter. Even at that length it's long, and you have to admire the courage of the people who undertook it.
In any case, having seen so many versions of it, I was wondering this morning what it takes an actor to inhabit such a complex part as Hamlet is, as opposed to merely acting it. Hamlet is sly, clever, devious. He is full of passion. He feigns madness, and may sometimes feel mad. He is brilliant. He cannot bring himself to do the thing he knows he must. He is witty. He mourns; he is melancholy; he is intense. He is resolutely indecisive. He loves; he hates. How does an actor transform himself into such a person? The local player yesterday seemed not to know; he was uniformly bland. He had memorized the lines, a feat in itself, he spoke them clearly, and he has trained in England to do Shakespeare, according to his biography, but only a certain emotional depth could prepare a man for this part.
Emotional depth--and what is that? Tragedy is about emotional depth. It is about suffering, loss of all kinds, the crushing of hopes, running out of time. It is about the acquisition of wisdom. Nations must go through these things to become wise, just as human beings do. Is Hamlet wise at the end? Yes, he is at last. Fully equipped both to act out his revenge, and to bear the burden of the costs entailed in it. But I wonder whether Americans in general are suited to play this part. We are not as a nation wise, as it is easy to see from the way we conduct foreign policy, our lack of education, the grotesque lack of intelligence in our Congress, our anti-intellectualism. The distance of our image of ourselves from the reality. The actor yesterday did not give the sense of having lived enough. He "got" only one or two aspects of the character. So it all too often is with America. We "get," as a nation and as a public, only one or two aspects of situations that in fact are extremely complex and difficult. We are the fools who rush in where angels fear to tread. We aren't ready yet to play the hero in the continuous tragedy of our time.