Saturday, June 26, 2010

Other Hamlets: Theatre of War by Justin Richards

It occurs to me that I should find a place for versions of Hamlet that appear in media other than the ones I've chosen to dissect. So from this point on, there is a good chance of my doing just that in between Scenes. Having just run through a number of scenes of David Tennant's turn in the role, I thought it might be appropriate to look at a Doctor Who (currently Tennant's most famous role) novel that makes strong use of Hamlet.

Theatre of War by Justin Richards doesn't feature Tennant's Doctor, of course, but rather Sylvester McCoy's, as part of the New Adventures, a range of books that continued the Doctor's story after the show's cancellation in 1989. The novel presents a future society obsessed with theater and a team of archaeologists who find an ancient theater-projecting machine that creates a virtual Hamlet as well as other plays. Richards has fun with Shakespeare throughout, giving voice to drama critics of the future in various text pieces, or turning some of the text into doggerel written by a fictitious future dramatist called Osterling. (The latter is by all accounts a rather poor writer, but brought people back to the theatre by embracing the technology of his time, more or less creating live action films... not too far from where theater seems to be going.)

For purposes of these articles, the plot of the novel isn't particularly relevant, but I did note down a few passages that are. On page 211, the Doctor makes the following observation about the Hamlet theatre projector: "There's a whole universe captured in there. People who think they're real but who are actually just fiction are running about saying pre-written lines about self-will and never even realizing it." Hamlet is one of several Shakespeare plays that make implicit references to the world being a play, and all of us players, and yet I hadn't really connected with that central irony until I read that sentence. The postmodern answer to Hamlet's inaction is simply that he was written that way. "Fortune", in a very real sense, is dramatic necessity, incarnated as Shakespeare himself. It's not TOO useful to go too far in that direction, but it is a legitimate take on theatre (or fiction in general; but more pronounced when that fiction is meant to be repeated).

Page 270 presents a fictitious critical essay that makes an interesting point about Shakespeare. In contrast to the fictitious Osterling, who wrote detailed stage directions because he did not work with the actors or theatre, Shakespeare's are incredibly sparse, exactly because he DID work with the actors in staging the play. This is an interesting notion, and perhaps how and why directors are now able to stage his plays in such a variety of ways. Today, the plays and their characters seem widely open to interpretation, but originally, they had Shakespeare on hand to direct them, much as Hamlet does with the Players of "The Mousetrap". What was the original intent? We will never know, and that mystery is part of the plays' longevity. The "essay" does mention how Shakespeare actually embeds stage directions in the text, offering the example of the Ghost leaving in Act I Scene 1: "See how it skulks away!". This tells the actor what he must do, and perhaps was a useful cue for actors who had to learn and stage the plays in a matter of days. Since the audience sees the Ghost skulking away, it need not be said, but one must understand how Elizabethan theatre functioned to see its necessity. It perhaps also helped members of the audience who were sitting in unadvantageous seats.

Theatre of War doesn't use Hamlet is a revolutionary way, and is not a proper critical work, but Richards does use it to make some interesting points in a format that suits him. If anything, the scenes with the Hamlet characters reminds one of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, in the way other characters are swept into the action of the play, a stronger current that the actual unfolding fiction. Tom Stoppard's play is one we'll have to get to at some point.

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