Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas
The Game of Perception

Two tragedies as unalike as tragedies can be.  Hamlet and the ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  One an old play about personal ambition and death and revenge, the other a modern experience of personal ambition and death and revenge.  Oops.  Can Hamlet throw a mirror up to nature?

We experience the world we want to experience.  The stimuli of the greater world come at us.  The winds and buffets of life, of others, of fate and the universe originate beyond us.  But we experience common stimuli individually.

This is true in the world of politics.  Is this politician up or down in the polls?  Do people approve of the president?  Disapprove?  There may be accomplishments, but how do we perceive those accomplishments.  Could they have done more?  Do we perceive that they tried hard enough?

It also appears that many people view the world using the tool of narrative.  We make sense of the seeming chaos by imposing narrative on what happens.  We like beginnings, middles, and ends.  We have underdogs, we have heroes, and we certainly have villains.

If all of this is so, even more so does this become true in the theatre. I recall a conversation of many years ago about the director's only job is to simply tell the story.  OK.  Fine. But which story?  Most plays of any worth at all encompass many stories. And there may be infinite means by which even one story may be told.  (If the means are finite, we haven't fathomed the very bottom yet.)  The story that we tell is the story we perceive in the script – in the given circumstances of the story and of the characters and their relationships.

I suppose that I'm like most folks in that I don't have a great deal of sympathy for the rich and powerful.  I figure that millionaires, billionaires, and gazzilionaires have enough money to figure out where lunch is coming from tomorrow, so they don't need any special feeling from me.  I also guess that they sleep in pretty comfortable beds.  So any troubles they might have are at least compensated with creature comforts.  This is probably wrong of me, but there you are.

So, when a BP bigwig says – probably very truthfully – that he wants "his life back," I feel he's a bit of a whiner.  Well, of course he wants his life back.  But so do the thousands of folks whose lives got ruined by corporate greed and foolishness. 

Why then am I so attracted to a play about an ancient prince? Hamlet continually attracts me.  I continue collecting media of performances of Hamlet.  Forbes Robertson to David Tenant, I love watching the play on film and seeing it live whenever it's being played. 

I recently saw yet another production of the play.  A fairly whirlwind production with much cutting, the performance still clocked in at about 3 hours.  And, as plays go, the title, the character, and the evening are one.

Shakespeare evidently wanted to show off Richard Burbage – why else would Shakespeare give Burbage so much stage time and so many lines?  He figured that Burbage could keep an audience going. And, as we know, a performance of the all of the Hamlet material (it's unclear as to what was in and what was out in touring performances, editing, evolution of the production, etc.) can be a long affair. 

So, the evening depends on the actor playing Hamlet.  That choice determines the vast majority of the production. For the production I saw, it was a very Romantic choice.  Somewhat like what I imagine Edwin Forrest to have been.  Very strong.  Very energetic.  Very personable and likable.  Not much Booth melancholy to be seen.  A fair amount of righteous American anger instead.  Not too crazy, but a Yankee slyness and cleverness to get things done.

And yet, ultimately, the play left me unmoved.  The performances were fine.  Some of my favorite bits were cut – as will happen in any cutting of Hamlet.  If you're going to cut, you're going to cut someone's favorite bit.  But that wasn't what left me unmoved.

Hamlet is a play of infinite mystery, of course. Otherwise there wouldn't be the centuries-old industry of working to crack its many puzzles.  What is the nature of Gertrude's and Claudius' relationship?  What was Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia prior to the play?  Particularly as a student in Wittenberg.  If Polonius is a dolt, why does Claudius trust him so? And then, why take so long to inter him? If Gertrude witnessed Ophelia's drowning, why was she alone?  Because if Gertrude had attendants, why didn't they help Ophelia?

And that's just a small sample of my questions.

But that's not why the production left me unmoved, I think.

I think it has to do more with the worldview today.

While the Danes in Hamlet are all royalty, I can't really associate with that.  And I can't associate a medieval/Renaissance view to nobility that as the nobles go – so goes the nation.  Despite the almost total devastation wrought on the body politic by George W. Bush and the relatively solid accomplishment of Mr. Obama; I can't say that I relate the health of my country to just one person or one family. Far many more elements weave together to make the fabric of our nation.  I think that may be the one thing that helps us survive really bad presidents.

Thus it becomes ever more difficult to really see a tragedy like Hamlet as a tragedy, I think.  It's sad.  It's dramatic.  But it's not earth-shattering.  It may not be cathartic anymore.  It may simply be a sad story of personal ambition, death, and revenge.  And when you see that story played out each day in real time for people on the Gulf of Mexico, there may not be much tragic feeling left for the nobles of long ago.


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©2010 Nathan Thomas
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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August 2010

Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

August 2010

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