Sometimes when you muck about with a well-known classic, you get into trouble by changing something that proved to be essential. Other times, though, you can get into trouble by the opposite – clinging to something that, in this new vision, was actually inessential. And sometimes it’s hard to tell which is the problem.
The current production of Hamlet at Classic Stage Co. in New York, directed by Austin Pendleton and starring Peter Sarsgaard, for both of whom I have a great deal of respect and affection, has a host of problems, from a speaking style that obscures the verse in an effort to make the language seem naturalistic, to a too-static set, to a generally lugubrious and mopey tone, to some downright peculiar casting decisions. But the “big idea” of this production is one area where I suspect Pendleton just didn’t push far enough.
That idea was to cut the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
Now, given that the entire play revolves around Hamlet’s response to the ghost’s information and the ghost’s command, this would seem to be a pretty risky choice. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw the promise in it, as a way of simplifying and psychologizing a play that can wander off into the philosophical and theological weeds. Not that those weeds aren’t really interesting – they most certainly are – but I find them more interesting to study than they are practical to explore on stage.
If we never see or hear the ghost, and neither do the other characters, then we don’t know whether it is even real, or a figment of Hamlet’s imagination – or even Hamlet’s excuse for his increasingly wild behavior, a part of his “antic disposition” act (if it is an act). From being a meditation on the inability to act, the play would become a story about the kinds of stories we have to tell ourselves in order to overcome our scruples about revenge. Indeed, Claudius, in such a reading of the play, might not be guilty at all – at least not of murder – and Hamlet’s wildness may in fact make a mortal enemy of a man who was entirely sincere in wanting to be a surrogate father. The result might be less Shakespearean – but it might be more, well, Scandinavian.
But if you wanted to stage that play, you’d have to cut a lot more than the part of the ghost. You’d have to cut the ghost’s earlier appearance on the battlements – which establishes its reality outside of Hamlet’s head. You’d have the option to cut Claudius’s confession – though you might keep “Now I might do it pat,” which would play very differently in the altered context. Or you could keep Claudius’s confession, and his guilt would be much more of a revelation if we hadn’t already heard the ghost’s accusation.
The point is: you’d have to do a thorough exorcism.
In this production, though, the ghost remains real – Horatio sees it before he meets Hamlet, just as in the canonical text. And the ghost speaks the truth – we learn Claudius’s guilt from his own mouth, again as in the canonical text. So this is still a play about the interplay between epistemology and ethics, about what Hamlet does or does not really know, and how that uncertainty “puzzles the will.” Except we, in the audience, are at a disadvantage relative to the Danes, in that we don’t see or hear the ghost.
Or, rather, we don’t see the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Other ghosts pop up unbidden and unconnected to the text. Polonius’s ghost walks solemnly off the stage after his murder, leaving no body for Hamlet to drag behind the stairs. Ophelia’s ghost starts eavesdropping on conversations she has no business hearing before she is even dead, and haunts her own funeral. These ghosts are there for us to see – but not for Hamlet.
I’m really not sure what Pendleton was after with these contradictory approaches to the seen and unseen. I wish I did, and I wish I could ask him. Because he could have been onto something interesting, and I’d still like to see that possibility staged, rather than have this production be the end of that particular line of inquiry.
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In Brooklyn, meanwhile, you can see a Scandinavian play explicitly haunted in the manner of my hypothetical exorcized Hamlet: Ibsen’s Ghosts, adapted and streamlined to a mere 90 minute run time by director Richard Eyre. But this production, too, has been purged a bit of the qualities that should make it so haunting, I fear as a consequence of the effort to make the play move at a pace more congenial to contemporary audiences.
Ghosts appears at first to be a story revealing the hidden corruption in an apparently staid and upright Norwegian town. Helene Alving (Lesley Manville) has been a dutiful wife to her late husband, and now that he is gone she’s built an orphanage in his memory that will be managed by the local pastor (Will Keen). Very quickly, though, we learn that things are not as wholesome they seem. Helene, as a young bride, fled her brutal, drunken, whorechasing husband, into the pastor’s arms, which she had reason to hope would be loving. He convinced her to return to her duty, and to all outward appearances the husband reformed. But, Helene reveals, that was a sham she maintained to protect the family’s reputation. In fact, Mr. Alving changed not a whit his whole life long, and she suffered in silence, devoting herself to work that her husband got the credit for, and sending her beloved son, Oswald (Billy Howle) away from her not because she was uninterested in mothering him but to protect him from learning what his father was really like.
Well, now Oswald is home with his own plans and his own pains, all of which recall the ghost of his father in unwelcome ways. He’s fallen in love with Regina (Charlene McKenna), a servant girl in the house, not realizing that she’s his half sister; he appears to his mother (the only one who knows the girl’s true parentage) to be repeating the pattern of his father’s seduction of the girl’s mother. But he wants her not so much for romantic reasons as for need of her tender care. The big revelation of the last act of the play is that his inheritance from his father includes congenital syphilis, which has been rotting his brain and will soon incapacitate him. He had hoped to spare his mother the pain of seeing him deteriorate, and the worse pain of having to help him kill himself rather than go through the last stages of decline, but since she foiled his plans to marry Regina, she’ll have to do the job.
I say it appears to be this story – a story of hidden corruption coming to light. But the central story is not about the compact of mutual deception that allows such corruption to fester, but about the self-deception of poor Helene. She believes that she is the victim, but that she has risen above her parents’ crime in marrying her off for money, and done what was right and best under almost unbearable circumstances. She has survived, and thrived, and now she will put her ghosts to rest. But the play reveals, painfully, that this is largely untrue. She is as corrupt as the rest of the town, though she doesn’t know it because she believes she acted out of noble motives.
The key revelation is that she never told Regina her true parentage, and kept her as a servant (her mother’s station) rather than acknowledging her as family (her inheritance from her father). She never considered Regina’s position in her calculations, just as she never considered how her son would feel about her after being sent away. Her fault was not really that she didn’t consider the consequences of her actions, but that she acted in a silent vacuum, and therefore could only understand her actions from the limited perspective of her own awful predicament.
This production does many things extremely well. Lesley Manville is a powerful and thoroughly real Helene, persuasive in her thwarted affection for her son, Oswald; in her sense of newfound liberty now that her hated husband has died; even in love for Pastor Manders, though as played by Keen I could see little reason for her to harbor any such feelings. There’s fine work as well from Billy Howle, and from Brian McCardie as Jacob Engstrand, as Regina’s cynical and corrupt father. Tim Hatley’s set is positively luminescent, bringing the title of the play hauntingly to life in the images of actors passing behind panes of frosted glass.
But I fear that the text has been streamlined too much for the revelations of the play to land with the force they need to. Helene’s arc felt to me foreshortened, as did Regina’s. I didn’t get to know these people as well as I needed to before I was hurried on to the next turn of the screw. Ibsen had a lusty enthusiasm for melodrama, which he bent to his deeper purpose, but as is more often the case with stage adaptations of novels, the severe cuts left the bones of the melodrama insufficiently fleshed for me to feel their true weight of the living.
Nonetheless, if the final view of Oswald, writhing and twitching in the bloody dawn light, doesn’t haunt you as you leave the theater, I don’t know what will.
Hamlet runs at the Classic Stage Company in New York through May 10th. Ghosts runs at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn through May 3rd.