Hamlet via Bertolt Brecht, Essay Example
To be frank, I chose William Shakespeare’s Hamlet for this unusual assignment because, having read it in my senior year of high school, I remembered enough about it to save myself the trouble of reading something new. Although I would have preferred Macbeth, it turns out that there is some interesting material about Bertolt Brecht and Hamlet online. One item is a Youtube video supposedly showing how Brecht might or would have directed Ophelia’s drowning scene (Mitchell). It at least gave me an idea of how I would not stage a Brechtian Hamlet.
The problem is to stage the play today as Bertolt Brecht might have done so. Where to begin? First, the main attributes of Brecht’s “Epic Theater” staging: the house lights stay on throughout; simple staging with props showing; broken 4th wall (actors talking to the audience, etc.); interruptions in the action; songs; projected images; each scene standing on its own, leading to disassociation of the audience from any traditional sense of art in illusion.
It is one thing to write a new play in the Brechtian manner, like Thornton Wilder did with his 1938 Pulitzer-winning classic and still-popular Our Town. In that case, Brechtian elements, such as noticeably spare staging and the actors talking to the audience, were used to brilliant effect. Of course it takes a special creativity to write a play that people will enjoy over and over, and the spare stage itself was a new kind of character when the play was new. And for first time viewers it’s new still. But when a long-standing classic like Hamlet gets the Brecht treatment, an entirely different challenge is being confronted — not a greater one, just different. And that challenge is to make it new. Is such a thing even possible by now?
It depends on the audience. First there is the question of whether that audience is even going to realize what Brechtian staging is. Our Town was an entirely new play, as new as Brecht’s theories, and audiences just accepted the unique staging at face value, as art. But such a presentation of Shakespeare will strike them quite differently. Many won’t have heard of Bertolt Brecht, and many of those who have will remember the name only vaguely — something about the Threepenny Opera and Bobby Darin singing Mac the Knife. Some in the audience will definitely know, but you can’t count on them being impressed by that fact before they see it and maybe not after. (And maybe especially not after.) Then there is the problem of those who haven’t seen Hamlet even as it is traditionally played, nor read it, or at least not seen or read it recently enough to remember much of what it is all about, or is thought to be about. Will the Brecht interpretation add or subtract from such viewers’ ability to understand what they are seeing and hearing? In other words, is Brecht’s model itself the point of the play (as it might be), or is the point of the play what it has always been, just played another way to add to all the other new ways Shakespeare’s plays have been tried before, only to fail to gain traction?
Next, will you be updating the play while experimenting with the staging, or are you going to keep the original chronological and geographical setting the same while experimenting only with the presentation? To make a comparison, consider the 1995 film version of Richard III, which takes place in a fascist England of the 1930s. Transferred into a play, would you also make the stage hands visible on a bare stage with minimalist props and backdrops? Or would those two radical new elements conflict with each other to the point of making either one or both of them irrelevant in a non-Brechtian way, turning the production into something out of Monty Python — which was not the kind of parody Brecht had as a goal — or compelling the audience to just focus on the dialog while more or less ignoring the staging and changed chronology? The question is tantalizingly answered in the Youtube video I mentioned in the introduction. The setting is spare, and updated to the present, but the support crew and its props and tools are missing, violating that particular interpretation of the Brechtian canon. In addition, there is a totally unique musical interpretation — turning it into something of a music video. What would someone think of such a play who hadn’t ever (or recently) seen or read it? Is a thorough knowledge of the play essential to appreciating a Brechtian staging and interpretation? If so, what does that say about the essential nature of a Brechtian staging and interpretation?
Another problem is the fact that Brecht died in 1956. How far can we press the technological envelope before we lose sight of what was unique to Brecht and his era — or is his era even important? Perhaps his theory transcends his era. But this time Brecht himself provides us an answer: The question of what artistic devices we should choose is simply the question of how we can get our audiences to be socially active, how we can knock them into shape. We should try out each and every artistic device which can help towards this aim, whether its old or new. So I take it that there actually is no set form of Brechtian staging — it is not restricted to what was in place during Brecht’s lifetime. Whatever acts or might act in furtherance of his aim is Brechtian by definition. Technology is not the issue. The issue is whether the technology is being used in service of an artistic device (device meaning both a dramatic technique or interpretation, as well as possibly a new kind of lighting that allows for a new kind of interpretation). I think that if such a device is used to, for example, break down the fourth wall in a new way, then again by definition it is an artistic device which Brecht would at least have theoretically approved of — expanding the scope of the art of the spectator which he believed was an integral part of Epic Theater. But of course Shakespeare and other playwrights had already broken the fourth wall through the dramatic effect called the aside — in which the actor turns and says something that is directed to the audience but ignored by the other actors still in character. There is no question that the aside is artistic. Can we match it? Should we even try?
The next issue is whether this kind of staging can be used artistically to make the audience more “socially active” to boot. But it is unclear when the audience is supposed to become “socially active”, or indeed what that really means. Is it during the play itself via a broken fourth wall? Are they supposed to register their approval or disapproval more emphatically? Or are they suppose to leave the theater after the show and then become more socially active in some relevant but unspecified way — to become radicalized somehow. Brecht probably meant both ways, but today, “socially active” is apt to mean an active user of social media. Here the potential artistic use of new technology becomes an issue again.
I cannot answer all or maybe even any of these questions. I can only ask them in my own attempt to challenge the outlook of the reader(s) of this paper. But what I can do (and am supposed to do) is present my own view of what a Brechtian staging on Hamlet might look like today. Brecht actually did his own version of the play in 1931. But it was a radio production, in German. Only fragments remain, which tells you something of how it was received — compare that to Shakespeare’s entire body of plays that survives from his era. Translated from the German, the fragment consists of Brecht’s rewriting of Act V, Scene 2 of Hamlet, being Laertes’ interior monologue as he and Hamlet duel with their swords (run in to save space): In this bloated body, slow to bite, Reason proves itself a cankerous pox: Amid the steel-clad clansmen, in his socks, Stands this profound defenseless parasite. But then the drums of Fortinbras which gain His ear, muster a thousand fools to hand, To fight and die for a mere spear of land, “Which is not tomb enough to hide the slain.” At last this pin in Fatso’s skin succeeds, In making clear he only stalled and fooled: Now must he bravely steer toward bloody deeds. All this and yet we still nod gravely when they say, That had he worn the crown he would have ruled, Without a doubt in a most royal way (Brecht, and Bonheim).
Do these changes tell us anything about a Brechtian staging of that play? The answer is Yes. They tell us that we can be free with Shakespeare’s text if we do it to achieve a purpose. One essayist wrote that Brecht’s purpose was standard practice for Epic Theater: to remove audience sympathy for the characters, especially Hamlet, through parody, that is, to achieve the “suppression, rejection, redirection of the vision of the play” (Whall). Brecht was also known to rearrange parts of the original to suit his purpose, and did so with Hamlet by using lines from Act V, Scene 2 (lines 384-9) as a part of the prologue (run in again for space): Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, And, in this upshot, purposes mistook Fall’n on the inventors’ reads: all this can I Truly deliver (Whall). Such rearrangements tend to equalize those in the audience who are familiar with the play with those who are not: both must put aside any preconceptions they bring with them, and just listen and watch and draw their own (probably different) conclusions.
I don’t propose to cut, paste, or rewrite the dialogue. Instead I want to take advantage of the great number of actors available or in training and use a unique cast for each scene. (If necessary, they could be recycled and remixed throughout.) This suppresses the audience’s tendency to begin to identify with a particular actor. As an aid to that audience, each actor would, wearing one or two obvious items of costume, be introduced in character on stage, giving the overall look of this play to be that of an dress rehearsal. However, it’s vital that all scenes be handled with technical mastery and professional-level acting, to emphasize that the Brechtian version isn’t really just an easy venue for amateurs and beginning acting-students.
There would be a scene announcer, kind of like the stage manager from Our Town. Each actor would take a turn as that character, whose job it would be to announce beforehand the definitions of some of the more obscure Shakespearian terms, as well as background information typically given in footnotes in printed editions of the plays. (In short Act IV Scene 2, the definitions might be shouted out during the performance.) Such between-act performing would become integral to the play itself, and in some cases might end up being as long as the scenes they introduce. If necessary they might even be acted out on the stage between acts. For example, in Act V Scene 2, line 13, the term sea gown is used. In one edition of the play, it is defined as A coarse, high-collared and short-sleeved gown, reaching down to the mid leg, and used most by seamen and sailors. So between acts IV and V, that outfit could be modeled as if at a fashion show by one of the actors, or at least an illustration provided and paraded about the stage, sort of the way a ring girl at a boxing match strolls about holding up a numbered placard.
Act III Scene 2 is a special opportunity for Brechtian staging because of its extended play-within-a-play, starting with Hautboys play. The dumb-show enters. Enter a King and a Queen very lovingly . . . Lights dimmed, matching footage from Asta Nielsen’s 1920 version of Hamlet would be projected onto a screen onstage. Silent theater music would either be live or recorded. There would be no comments from the announcer. The rest of the play-within-a-play, starting with the King declaiming Full thirty times hath Phoebus’ cart gone round Neptune’s salt wash and Tellus’ orbed ground to Sleep rock thy brain; And never come mischance between us twain! would be acted out strictly in the traditional Shakespearean manner, with no announcer, and house-lights dimmed. The point here is to bring the audience full circle to a traditional play.
The start of Act IV Scene 2 offers a similar cinematic opportunity. In it, Horatio reads aloud from a letter from Hamlet: Horatio, when thou shalt have overlooked this . . . He that thou knowest thine. In this scene, the actor scheduled to play Horatio in his next scene would read aloud while in the background images are projected from movies more or less matching the action as Hamlet describes it. (Film students could easily do the research, or even make suggestions from memory alone.) Again, the house lights would be dimmed. The relevance of film to Brecht would be to provide additional distancing of the live actors from the audience, and to provide contrasting styles of staging that he felt would jolt the audience into viewing the play without any kind of continuity of illusion — just when they are about to do so, it changes.
Finally, the musical bits sung by mad Ophelia cry out for something Brechtian. Here the opportunities are endless. She could at least be accompanied by a chorus, but she also could be accompanied to the track of an old and recognized recording. (I don’t think any music-major would have a hard time with this part.) The danger lies in unintended parody. Brecht didn’t want his intended parody to make fun of the character, at least in Shakespeare. He had too much respect for the author to do that. His parody was directed at what he felt were outmoded rules. My suggestion is that the music be done in a way that enhances Ophelia’s madness. One way might be to use the manic, madness-inducing yet comic sound of a steam-calliope. (I think avoiding unintended parody may be the most challenging part of any Brechtian staging.)
Hamlet, being one of Shakespeare’s most famous (and some would say best) play, is difficult to do anything new for that adds to its understanding and impact. I think the only thing Brechtian left is to include all the explanatory material that really is necessary to know in order to understand the play in full. And that can only be done by trying to make such instruction a part of the presentation itself. It must be done in a way that is at least as effective as the play itself.
Brecht, Bertolt, and Helmut Bonheim. “Note.” Hamlet Guide. National Counsel of Teachers of English, 1957. Web. 13 Oct 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/372715 >.
Mitchell, Katie, dir. Five Truths: Bertolt Brecht. Perf. Michelle Terry. Royal National Theater, 2012. Film. 3 Oct 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62-gYcO6jrY>.
Whall, Helen. “The Case is Altered: Brecht’s Use of Shakespeare.” Holy Cross College, n.d. Web. 13 Oct 2012. <http://college.holycross.edu/projects/shakespeare/PDFs/Whall_Brecht.pdf>.
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