Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Wallowing in Soliloquies

After posting that blog entry on Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Hamlet the other day, I began YouTubing other versions available.  I am now focusing on the question of what it means to have so much information at your fingertips.  When the world moved at a slower pace, you had more time for things to sink in.  You were also left more to your own devices.  You watched a performance of Shakespeare, took the time, if you wished, to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary, and went for depth, and paid less attention to superficialities.  Before television and way before the age of the internet you were lucky to see Shakespeare performed at all.  You could spend years thinking and talking about a single theatrical event.  Today we live in a world of luxury.  We can do so much more than read and study and try to understand.  We can wallow.

There is a fascinating video clip online of a conversation between Peter O’Toole and Orson Welles.  Also present, but much overshadowed by these two giant egos, is the San Francisco born actor who pioneered Shakespeare for BBC Television, Ernest Milton. The discussion is moderated by Huw Weldon. Peter O’Toole is playing Hamlet at the time of the interview and demonstrates how much work he has put into getting into the character.  Welles adds much to the discussion, explaining for example, that Hamlet is driven to kill not as an individual but out of a divine requirement to put right the act of regicide that has taken place before him.  That raises the question of whether he really is a troubled youth contemplating suicide – which is how I connected with him in my twenties when I myself was suicidal – and have stayed connected ever since – or whether he was a prince of great strength acting out a destiny assigned to him.  The discussion brings home how much pleasure can be derived from taking a course in Shakespeare and digging for motivation, background and perspective.  And how brilliant people can alternate between half-baked ideas and brilliant observations and make you want to listen to them no matter what level they're on at any given moment.

I’m still riding high from that marvelous night out with Benedict Cumberbatch, and this discussion with three greats of the English theater, two of them American (Welles was born in Wisconsin), offered just the kind of wallowing I was in the mood for, just the kind of discussion to prime you for a serious engagement with a work of the stature of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, an intellectual journey which, experience suggests, if undertaken sincerely, can turn just another night out at the theater into an event which stays with you for years, and maybe forever.

Once you dwell on them for a while, the two suicide soliloquies, “Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt” and “To be or not to be” are no longer disembodied lofty language pieces you take and apply to your own life (as I did as a kid filled with self-doubts) the way fundamentalists quote lines of scripture out of context.  As you grow and learn you are not the center of the universe as you thought you were at twenty that there is much to learn from the lives of others, even from someone who lived four hundred years ago. 

I know people speak of relating personally to characters on stage, and it was through Hamlet in moments of personal desperation and through Romeo, when my teenage heart was broken for the first time, that I first saw something irresistible in Shakespeare.  I saw them as telling my story and that made them some version of me.  That's what I looked for in the lives of others, people who could speak in my voice while I wasn't yet confident I really had one.  The time came, though, when I stopped looking for myself in others and came to appreciate the fact they had their own stories to tell, different from my own.  They had ways of coping with success and failure.  And I found comfort in the sheer number of ways there are to meet life's challenges.

That meant looking less for ways in which "we all are the same deep down," more for ways of understanding the full scope of the human condition in all its fascinating variability.  That could only be done if what is presented on stage (or in books) is true.  The more one is stretched to understand difference, the more important it becomes to know you are observing honest and sincerity.  And, in theater, that means cutting out the bombast and the pretention and getting at what's genuine.  To run through a great work of art such as Hamlet and see how many ways his expression has been interpreted is to see how hard that is.  How often the lines are delivered, even by the greats, as overly weighted, ponderous, even bombastic.  Shakespeare is put on a pedestal, and the words, particularly the soliloquies, are often treated as messages from heaven, rather than as devices for providing the best opportunity to see into a man’s soul.  Shakespeare, it seems pretty obvious to me, chose the soliloquy precisely because it is in speaking (loqui) to oneself (solo) that one is most likely to speak the truth.  Not to do so is to be a fool.

Listening to Hamlet’s thoughts of suicide these past few days I came to realize for the first time that he was not simply expressing self-loathing and cowardice (oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I...makes cowards of us all) as we would understand it today, but he was dealing with medieval notions of the power of Satan.  Was his father's ghost really his father?  Or was it Satan taking that form in order to drag him down to hell?  Hamlet was of the world of Christian ideology, where spirits "roamed the earth seeking the ruination of souls."  His agony was thus inflicted by the culture he lived in and his hesitation in killing his murdering uncle (something he had to do for justice - who was he going to go to, the police?) was church-imposed.  To read Hamlet becomes yet another reason to rid the world of Christianity.  Right?  No?

Whatever conclusions you reach, Hamlet's circumstances are not yours.  He is a prince.  His loneliness and his burden can be yours, but he is not you.  He is artifice. You have the great master of the English language putting words into his mouth that can be distracting in their loftiness. But for me, the engagement with Shakespeare (or any other playwright) begins there – in the connection you are able to make with the hero at the same time as you wallow in language too rich and suggestive to be real.  It is being lifted up and out of the ordinary that a better understanding of the human condition can begin to take place.  Because the language is so unreflective of real life, you have to determine for yourself what is real and what is artifice about the man uttering them.  This is what draws you up onto the stage and out of your own experience.

There should be times for objectivity and careful analysis, I think. And there should also be times for simply wallowing in the wealth of human experience.  With Shakespeare, everything begins with language.  How can you not wallow in such glorious language?  Put “I wish I were dead” up against “Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew.”  Put “Why did God make suicide a sin?” up against, “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!”  How are you supposed to avoid making the language itself your focus, and not the events unfolding and the character revealing himself.

The answer, it seems to me is precisely to read or to listen to the words again and again over time, to see how many ways people have found to deliver them and to judge with each new turn the sincerity of each delivery.  You have to accept that most performances, in the end, will come to be unsatisfactory as you become more discerning (or perhaps just bored).  But fortunately, in the case of Hamlet, for example, there are enough brilliant performances – and I’m embracing the internet age where Olivier, Gielgud, and other greats are now instantly accessible ­– to keep you going for days. I'm still not done wallowing, actually.

Because Hamlet has been taken in by the world and has been translated to an astonishing degree, right down to Esperanto and Klingon, the internet offers you enough rope to hang yourself with.  It is possible to lose whatever critical skills you might have started with.  But that’s up to you, I should think.  You can just as easily use the repetition to sharpen those critical skills as you add more and more to look for in the next performance.  You might want to take Laurence Olivier’s version as the performance to beat, and handicap each succeeding actor’s performance accordingly.  For me, it’s not Olivier or Gielgud, or Orson Wells’s favorite, John Barrymore, but David Tennant whom I most enjoy watching twist and turn over "the law's delay...the proud man's contumely..."  And sorry that the Barrymore link it to such a silly recitation.  To get a better sense of him, check out this link to him doing the “Rogue and Peasant Slave” soliloquy.

If you want to really get into the game, listen as well to Hamlet in translation, even if you don’t understand the language.  Listen for inflection and sincerity.  You may be struck more by its absence, but no matter.  It can be a way of enhancing your appreciation for a job well done once you get back to a great performance. Take these two versions, for example, one in Danish, one in Japanese.  My Danish is virtually non-existent, so I cannot judge the quality of Danish version, where the Iranian born actor Alexander Behrang Keshtkar expresses the tension of his emotions through tears.  I sense it has some merit, though, but I may be unduly swayed by this photo.  If you think this guy is just a run of the mill wuss – you might want to join his fan club. (And then take a moment to reflect on what immigrants can do for a country.)  Then contrast that performance with this dreadful Japanese version I came across, which made me want to find a stick and beat the actor off the stage.  He’s stuck in a Japanese kind of method acting where men growl their lines and you’re left to conclude that Hamlet actually works for the yakuza.

And, to jump back to some of the English-language greats, here are versions by Kenneth Branagh, Mel Gibson, and Richard Burton (directed by Gielgud, yet!).

You can’t miss the evidence of the universal appeal of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  The phrase “to be or not to be” is now sufficiently widespread that it makes a pretty good illustration of language families.  I list a few here, with links to performances in those languages, where I have been able to find them:

West Germanic:
German - sein oder nicht sein - (Kenneth Branagh dubbed in German)
Dutch - zijn of niet zijn -
Luxembourgisch - sinn oder net sinn
Yiddish – צו זייו אדער ביט צו זייו (tsu zeyn oder nit tsu zeyn)
English – to be or not to be
Frisian - bestean of net bestean
Afrikaans - om te wees of nie te wees nie

North Germanic:
Swedish - att vara eller inte vara
Icelandic - að vera eða ekki vera

Romance languages
Latin - esse aut non esse
Spanish - ser o no ser - (Mel Gibson dubbed in Spanish)
Catalán - ser o no ser
Galician - ser ou non ser
Portuguese - ser ou não ser -  (by Brazilian actor Daniel de Oliveira)
Italian - essere o non essere - (Kenneth Branagh dubbed in Italian)
Corsican - a essiri o nun essiri
Romanian - a fi sau a nu fi

Slavic languages
Russian – быть или не быть (bit’ ili ni bit’) – (Mel Gibson with consecutive translation)
or быть или не быть - (Russian version with Innokentij Smoktunovskij) 
Polish –  być albo niebyć 
Bulgarian – да бъдеш или да не бъдеш (da badesh ili da ne badesh) - (Bulgarian version with Bogdan Dukov)
Ukrainian – бути чи не бути (buti chi ne buti) 
Serbian – бити или не бити (biti ili ni biti)
Croatian – biti ili ne biti
Slovenian – biti ali ne biti
Bosnian - biti ili ne biti
Belarusian – быць ці не быць (bits’ tsi ne bits’)
Czech – být nebo nebýt –  (Kenneth Branagh dubbed in Czech – monologue begins at 6:19)
Slovak – byť či nebyť

Scots Gaelic - a bhith no gun a bhith
Irish - a bheith nó gan a bheith
Welsh - i fod, neu beidio â bod

Other languages

Japanese - 生きるべきか死ぬべきか (should live or should die) – that wretched performance cited above

And when you’re tired of reality, there is always:

Klingon – taH pagh taHbe’ (to continue or not to continue) 

Or, here, for English subtitles translated back from the original Klingon.

and Esperanto -  Ĉu estiaŭ ne esti – spoken with a lovely Portuguese accent 

And then you’ve got to see what Mel Brooks made of the soliloquy – (not a translated version; more of a hit-and-run version.

Then take a few years off and start all over again.

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