The Writers Voice
Favourite Literary Website
2nd Soldier, 1st Clown
Did you know there is a "Hamlet" web site? Go there, you'll find people from all
walks of life -- students, buffs of the Bard, and fanatics who should not be
allowed to sit at a computer.
I confess I'm drawn to the site like a fly to sugar, and to a certain extent, to
the grouchy old Dane himself. You know how it is, you go along for years
thinking you're perfectly normal, then suddenly without warning somebody will
point out that you're fixated on something that no one else gives a damn about.
My attachment to Hamlet is a purely selfish one, and probably the result of
frustration. I almost got to play him on the splintery boards of the Pomerance
Memorial Theater in Brooklyn in 1939. If I was born with legs like Manny
Drucker's I would have played him I'm sure but my legs let me down. I had my
one chance to play Hamlet in school, but I had to swallow my pride and watch
Manny Drucker do it. Manny, let me repeat, had great legs he filled his
tights, you might say. He was also a natural blond.
>From that day to this I nursed a self-deception that I was born to play Hamlet.
You'd think that a man my age would come to his senses eventually and find
consolation elsewhere. But because fate prevented me from making a fool of
myself in Hamlet, I try to pull the wool over my eyes now and imagine how much
better I would have been than Manny Drucker.
I've seen Sir John Gielgud, Leslie Howard, Sir Maurice Evans, Sir Laurence
Olivier, Sir Richard Burton, Sir Paul Schofield, Nicol Williamson, Mel Gibson,
and Kenneth Branagh, (there's a few more that slip my memory at the moment)
that is one hell of a lot of Hamlets, and a lot of Knights as well. They all
shared one thing in common, they had British accents. Manny was the only Hamlet
I ever heard with a Brooklyn accent, and while I will never understand why a
British accent is necessary to play a Danish Hamlet, it's my uneducated opinion
that a British accent is a smokescreen all Shakespearean actors hide behind. It
lends a dash of authority to an otherwise ineffective performance. Britain is an
isolated little archipelago in the North Sea, inhabited by people who, like
ventriloquists, speak as though their lips were sealed. I'm sure if Hamlet were
to choose someone to play him, he would not choose an Englishman.
Without fear of contradiction, I can state that I've seen more men play Hamlet
than Shakespeare did. I've even seen a woman play Hamlet, and with one or two
notable exceptions, all of them have found themselves enmeshed in a web of
complex and self-cancelling emotions. There, in the clutches of the Bard of
Avon, many of them have made fools of themselves and by that bond of
communication that all actors share with their audience, they made fools of the
audience as well.
I don't mean to infer that Manny Drucker with his Brooklyn accent gave as good a
performance as Sir John Gielgud. By no means! Manny bungled it Shakespeare
would have been justified if he'd shot him dead on the stage. But Manny's accent
would not have been his reason for doing so. He would have been equally
justified for shooting Kenneth Branagh and Mel Gibson. In plain terms, all three
of them bungled it whatever their accents!
How I longed to lose myself in this jungle of Elizabethan jargon, to plum to the
depths of my adolescent soul this most eloquent of Shakespearean heroes.
Instead, I had to content myself with playing the second soldier and the grave
digger on the same night. I accepted those roles grudgingly they are, after
all, one-dimensional people, (in fact, the second soldier seems to have no
dimensions at all). Hamlet, on the other hand, is a man in the round a three
dimensional man. Maybe even four. In any case, he is a far rounder man than most
Hamlet is basically an unplayable role, and like a golfer faced with an
unplayable lie, it is best to take a drop, rather than play him out of the
rough. This is where the English accent comes in. If you're a lousy Hamlet,
you're considered much worse if you don't talk like an Englishman. This is also
true if you find yourself cast in the role of Mark Antony or Othello, (neither
of them were British either). I felt a warm rush of satisfaction when I
discovered that many British actors got very nervous when they saw and heard
Marlon Brando mumble his way through Mark Antony and Paul Robson toted his bale
In addition to the British accent, there are the tights. Very few men, (perhaps
none) look good in tights. Most Hamlets are spindly creatures. A thin man in
tights can not be taken seriously. Even with the best British accent in the
world he cannot command respect or sympathy. Ridicule is about the best he can
hope for. One of the reasons Manny Drucker won the part was, as I said before,
his superlative legs. He had better legs than anyone in the senior class legs
like a line backer.
You rarely see Hamlet in a hat, but until the middle of the nineteenth century,
all Hamlets wore hats. Many Hamlets used their hats to carry their cue sheet in.
They would take them off and stare into them from time to time. I think it was
Booth who defied the custom and first went bare-headed since then everybody
does it. At the Pomerance Memorial Theater, we decided Manny Drucker should wear
a hat; or to be more accurate, carry one. Inside Manny's hat we planted the cues
and the lines he could never remember. He was not a quick study quite the
opposite, he needed constant prompting and prodding to stand where he was
supposed to stand and to keep his mouth shut until he was supposed to open it.
All in all he was a disgraceful Hamlet, but he fit the rented costume and his
voice could be heard all the way back to the last row of the Pomerance Theater.
Hamlet is an exceedingly long play, and in the hands of college dramatic arts
students, it seemed much longer than it really is. Mr. Ogden, our dramatics
professor, was forced to resort to radical surgery to bring its length down to
two hours. It pained him to do it, for as he said, "If Hamlet had done what he
should have done in act one, instead of waiting for act five, we wouldn't have
to go through this meshuggas,* would we?" We all agreed that putting up with
Manny Drucker for five acts was more than anyone could sit through.
It's a grueling play, with much hemming and hawing angst is everywhere
people hiding in the drapery, and yes, even a play to be played inside the play,
"to catch the conscience of the King." "The mouse trap." Hamlet's madness, (real
or make believe) is the catalyst that keeps the audience on the edge of their
seats. Is he as nutty as a fruit cake, or is he using madness to penetrate the
King's defenses? After 400 years we still can't make up our minds, and after
five acts of soul searching, we're still not quite sure. Great actors have
walked a narrow line; kept us wondering. But there was no doubt in Manny
Drucker's mind at all. Mr. Ogden's truncated adaptation and Manny's conception
of the role coincided and left no doubt in anyone's mind that Hamlet was
certifiably insane from the opening gun. From Manny's point of view, Hamlet was
balmy from the opening round until the final bell.
It meant, of course, that Manny delivered his rare and wonderful lines with a
wild eyed stare and a Groucho Marx shuffle .... strange how my memory clings
doggedly to the parts that, by now, I should have forgotten. I'm sure there were
virtues but I think the green eyed monster of jealousy has made me forget
Two other factors came into play. One, we were all within a year or two of each
other in age. I can only imagine how it must have appeared to an audience who
had never seen Hamlet before to lose the generational significance between
Hamlet and his ghostly father, or Ophelia and Polonius. It must have been a
visual shock to see Hamlet trading small talk with the Gravedigger younger than
he who remembers the very day young Hamlet was born. Secondly, the new King; who
is Hamlet's uncle and his mother's new husband was played by a young black man,
a second year Library Science major. This could be a touchy casting decision
today it was far touchier then. In a play with so many conflicting emotions
and points of view, it was asking a lot of this particular audience to consider
inter-racial marriage as a part of the mix. I have since tried to put myself in
the role of a black man watching Porgy, in "Porgy and Bess" when it was played
by a white man back in 1939.
The final scene of Hamlet requires timing and coordination. The only thing I can
compare it to is a pas de deux in classical ballet. When the ballerina flings
herself into the arms of the principle male dancer, he had damn well better be
there. Along the road to the climax there is a breathtaking duel with a poisoned
sword that changes hands, and a poisoned cup of wine that makes its way from the
King to Hamlet and then on to the Queen, then back to the King again. Even
though the cast is liquidated one by one, they must be on their toes every
moment. They must not go down before they're supposed to. It is an exercise in
cooperation and split second timing, and it never fails to amaze me when things
go as planned.
I'm afraid it is this particular scene that comes back to haunt me most of all.
We were all guilty. Manny was not the only one to blame. Somehow things got out
of synch. The King was slain before Laertes died. Therefore Hamlet had to kill
him again. I think the clumsiness of the duel unnerved all of us. Hamlet and
Laertes waved their swords like fly swatters. There were moments during the
scene when the entire cast was in danger.
But we were happy just to be up there, bumping into the scenery and waving our
arms at each other in mock anger. We didn't do much to enhance the epic
narrative of "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark." On the plus side, the audience seemed
to have a good time, they forgave us our forgotten lines, our late and early
entrances .... and our Brooklyn accents.
Will Kemp and Richard Burbage played the role in Shakespeare's day in a little
round "O" of a theater, on a stage without a curtain, lights or seats and open
to the sky. Nothing! Nothing but the words! From what I hear, they kept the
audience spellbound. We seem to have lost some of that magic since then. Hamlet
has grown smaller in stature as the bells and whistles of each succeeding
production have grown louder and louder.
©Harry Buschman 1999
Critique this work
Click on the book to leave a comment about this work