For some time now, there has been a tendency for directors and actors of Hamlet to treat the protagonist’s mother and uncle/stepfather with more tolerance than in the moralistic past. Shakespeare doesn’t oblige us to view them as outright villains or to see them—or the deceased King of Denmark—from Hamlet’s eyes, but that’s what has usually happened. In the late 1990s John Updike took this about as far as it can sensibly go in his novel, Gertrude and Claudius,
As soon as the Wilder play opened, rehearsals for The Merchant of Venice began. Viveca Lindfors had already been rehearsing The Cretan Woman for two weeks and directors Tabori and Martin Fried would share the actors who were in both plays. Tabori’s task was an immense one, almost impossible. He and his actors dealt in rehearsal with three levels of reality at once. His production was based on legend, on the rumor that Shakespeare’s play had been performed by actors in an internment camp during the second World War. In this “model” camp, created by the Nazis to show the world that they treated their prisoners with kindness and compassion, imprisoned theater artists had approached their warders and proposed a theatrical production. The commanders of the camp had said “All right, but you must perform that anti-semitic play The Merchant of Venice.” George said to us “I don’t to this day know the production was done in the death camp, where, or by whom, or how, or ever. But the legend persists, unconfirmed and haunting as legends are. This spring, a Hungarian magazine carried an item, suggesting that the play had been presented, at the command of the Nazis, in Terezin, already famous for a performance there of Verdi’s Requiem.”
Arthur Penn saw his chance in a proposal that the Hungarian writer/director George Tabori and his wife Viveca Lindfors made to the board of directors of the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, where Penn and his friend and colleague William Gibson happened to live. The Playhouse had operated for decades as a typical summer stock theater, often featuring stars in leading roles, but what was known as “The Straw Hat Circuit” was fading in popularity and the theater’s board of directors, hearing Tabori and Lindfors’ proposal, decided to try a different approach to summer theater.
We are already well into the series of performances of Shakespeare’s early masterpiece, Richard II. The only one of his plays to have been written entirely in verse, it has long been treasured for the poetic beauty of its sad tale of a failed monarch. As rich as this stream in the play is, Shakespeare never neglected the toughness of the genre of history plays he helped to create.
This most famous quote, precariously balanced, elevates the word question to existential status. Hamlet is a play of questions. Could Gertrude following hard after, have saved Ophelia from drowning? Did Hamlet ever love Ophelia? Is the ghost real? There is a glimmer of hope—Hamlet lets us know very clearly that if he had more time, being blessed finally with the proximity of death and its widening of perception, he could tell us more. Perhaps he could answer some of these questions.
As life in the city slows down, life in the country west of Boston ratchets up. I went out to the Berkshires to catch as much as I could of Tanglewood’s fiftieth Festival of Contemporary Music, this year curated by Boston composers and longtime Tanglewood faculty members John Harbison (a composition fellow in 1959) and Michael Gandolfi (a fellow in 1986).
HIP (Historically Informed Performance) is not so hip as it used to be. William Christie does Baroque opera with cutting edge directors. René Jacobs records a Matthew Passion with tempi that rival Furtwängler’s. The information age was what made historically aware performances possible. It did not give us all the answers. In fifty years will we have HIP performances that are more like the 16th or 17th century than they are today? And how will the information we gain then be applied? Will not the actually application of it be indelibly tied to the decade?