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New York Times - November 2, 1988


a Mirror Of the Times

William Shakespeare's “Hamlet,” in accord with how directors and artists sensed their time, has been played in dozens of ways: a criminal melodrama, a drama of metaphysics, a lesson in Viennese psychoanalysis or an internal passion play.
At the end of the 20th century, “Hamlet” once again looks beyond the man to the state of the nation, and seethes with the politics. As recently directed by Ingmar Bergman, “Hamlet” is less about a young man's inner struggles than about a nation's collapse, about what he feels lies behind the prosperity in the West, about the political and moral circumstances that drive a man mad. That “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” has seldom been shown with such force.

But the meaning of this capacious play also depends on the audience that sees it. “Hamlet” staged in the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles means something quite different from “Hamlet” staged in the Taganka Theatre in Moscow. It has a different meaning in Kansas City and a different one in Armenia. In 1980, just before the beginning of Solidarity in Poland, I went to “Hamlet” in Warsaw. The hero's observation in Act II that “Denmark is a prison” provoked enthusiastic applause.

We don't know whether the Elizabeth I liked the first production of “Hamlet,” but surely the Elsinore Court and the murderer on the throne might not have appeared completely exotic. The times were hard. She herself cut off more than 1,000 heads. The Queen must have appreciated the fact that the promising young playwright showed sufficient political maturity to set the action of the play in Denmark.

In more recent times, neither Hitler nor Stalin liked “Hamlet” very much. Of course, both of them being serious statesmen, they did not consider the possibility that someone might identify them with the murderous King Claudius. Still, they were very irritated by the play's overly intellectual protagonist, who talks too much and does too little.

While Hermann Goring eventually permitted his favorite actor, Gustaf Grundgens, to stage “Hamlet” in Berlin, it was a hero that the Third Reich could be proud of: dynamic, a man of action and, most important, a full-blooded Nordic.

In the 30's, the great Soviet theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold had a very interesting idea. He wanted to show the duality of Hamlet by casting two actors in the role. One would symbolize action, the other reflection. Meyerhold, in the end, did not stage “Hamlet” - nevertheless in 1940 he was executed for “formalism.”

If Hamlet appeared on the political arena in this year's campaign, which interpretation would be chosen by the spin doctors as most attractive to American voters? The fact that Hamlet talks too much and does too little would not, as we know, pose an obstacle. But he would be eliminated from the race because of his extramarital affair with Ophelia.

In Ingmar Bergman's production, which was performed last June at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Swedish actor Peter Stormare played Hamlet in a black turtleneck, sun glasses and a black rubber coat. He would not stand a chance in the Presidential debate: For too long he was too close to power to preserve even a trace of innocence or illusion.

At the University of Wittenberg, he'd read the Manifesto of the Red Brigades and learned to use a stiletto. This is a Hamlet who drags the wounded Polonius roughly from behind the curtain and finishes him off with expertise. He has been sleeping with Ophelia regularly and has observed Fortinbras with interest. This episodic figure of the Norwegian prince has for centuries been very important to “Hamlet.” Moments after Hamlet's death, the Norwegian army enters Elsinore: On Fortinbras depends the future of Denmark. In the shocking final moments of Bergman's “Hamlet,” Fortinbras's army enters by demolishing the back wall of the stage, carrying machine guns and boom boxes that blast a deafening roar of hard rock. On their heads they are wearing black helmets with protective plexiglass shields. They are a cross between Middle East terrorists, New York crack dealers and South American guerrillas. Expertly, they toss corpses into a common grave, followed by the furniture.

Obeying Hamlet's dying request, Horatio tries to explain to Fortinbras what has been going on in Denmark. Fortinbras orders Horatio shot. Denmark is finished. There is nothing to talk about.

America has not had any experience of the loss of independence, foreign armies or occupation. In most American stagings of “Hamlet,” the character of Fortinbras never amounted to much. In many productions, he was simply cut out from the play to reduce the budget.

The audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music received the entry of Fortinbras's army with carefree laughter. Not me. I belong to the nervous generation. But I hope they are right in seeing this Hamlet's ending as science fiction.

Copyright 1988 The New York Times Company


Warsaw Scenes | Hamlet | Gombrowicz | Polish Odyssey

Playwright is Free | Stage View | A Tale of Two Moscows


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