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2nd Soldier, 1st Clown


Harry Buschman

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 actors realize.

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 through Othello.

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 them.

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

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