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World's Greatest Tragedy Becomes Comedy

By Ace G. Pilkington

In 1987, Paul Rudnick rented an apartment “on the top floor of a brownstone in Greenwich village” (“Introduction,” I Hate Hamlet [Garden City, New York: The Fireside Theatre, 1991], vii). John Barrymore had lived in and transformed that apartment in 1904, turning it into what the real estate ad described as a “medieval duplex,” and what Rudnick called a “gothic aerie” (vii). A year later, “the apartment insisted” (viii) that Rudnick write a play about Barrymore’s legacy. The result was, of course,I Hate Hamlet.
Now, whatever powers of persuasion brownstones may possess and whatever vestiges of Barrymore’s flamboyant personality may have been left floating about in the apartment he named the “Alchemist’s Corner,” it is oddly significant and very nearly inevitable that the play Rudnick created was about Hamlet.

Paul Rudnick has Barrymore describe himself in I Hate Hamlet as “a light comedian” (81), and that’s certainly nearer the truth than labeling him a Shakespearean actor. And yet, Shakespeare’s most amazing and challenging character cast his spell over Barrymore as over so many others. He was “possessed. . . . A voice clearly had challenged him from across three centuries.. . . . He would climb the highest of the magic mountains, the last great peak he was to scale in the fabulous domain of the theatre” (Gene Fowler, Good Night Sweet Prince [New York: The Viking Press, 1944], 205). Barrymore found something of himself in the Prince and something of the Prince in himself, which is the power of any great role or indeed any great character in literature, but there has always been something intensely personal about such discoveries where Hamlet is concerned. John Barrymore declared the Prince to be “the easiest role he ever played,” and his brother Lionel agreed, “You must take into account that when the Bard wrote Hamlet he had Jack in mind” (Fowler 209).

I Hate Hamlet is a comedy and a very funny one, but under the surface laughter there is a strong Hamlet current that carries us along in the same way it carries Andrew Rally and in the same way it had carried John Barrymore. The Prince walked out of the play long ago and has been making himself felt in the world ever since. As Harold Bloom says, “No other single character in the plays, not even Falstaff or Cleopatra, matches Hamlet’s infinite reverberations. The phenomenon of Hamlet, the prince without the play, is unsurpassed in the West’s imaginative literature” (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human [New York: Riverhead Books 1998], 384).

Hamlet has had enormous influence on the literatures, philosophies, and even the moods of most European countries. In Russia, for instance, the play has been extraordinarily popular from the nineteenth century on. “The principal reason for the sustained interest of the aristocracy lay in the romantic fascination with the character of Hamlet himself. Russian aristocrats felt a strange kinship with this privileged court figure torn between the mission he was called on to perform and his own private world. . . . By the early nineteenth century there seemed nothing surprising in a Russian aristocrat’s leaving his boat to make a special pilgrimage to `the Hamlet castle’ at Elsinore” (James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture [New York: Vintage Books, 1970], 354].

Elsewhere in Europe, not only had the Prince escaped from the play, but the Prince’s name had to some extent been abstracted from the Prince. “Hamletism as a term had become established by the 1840s, and had come to have a range of meanings, all interconnected and developed from an image of Hamlet as well-intentioned but ineffectual” (R. A. Foakes, “The Reception of Hamlet,” in Shakespeare Survey 45: Hamlet and its Afterlife [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993], 1). Hamlet and “Hamletism” came to have different meanings for the Romantics, the Symbolist poets, and a variety of others. He stands to one side, haunting the imaginations of such disparate writers as T. S. Eliot and Tom Stoppard.

Over and over, Hamlet, a character who is only an imaginary person, has personified people’s most perplexing problems and dearest hopes. In Russia, the “Hamlet question” led to aristocratic and artistic suicides, but it also became a “search for the meaning of life” and “inspired the turn to `the people’ by Belinsky (and the radical populists after him)” (Billington 355). Perhaps the most surprising re-imagining of the Prince (and one of the closest to Shakespeare’s original character) was Boris Pasternak’s in the poems he appended to Doctor Zhivago. In Pasternak’s words, “Hamlet is not the drama of a weak-willed character, but of duty and self abnegation. . . . Hamlet is chosen as the judge of his own time and the servant of a more distant time” (cited in Billington 562). In the hands of Pasternak, who was also a translator of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet had been transformed and, of course, personalized yet again, the Prince once more became the perfect symbol.

For Paul Rudnick too Hamlet and his play are symbols. He is the center piece of our culture, hated as “algebra on stage” (49) and adored as “the most beautiful play ever written” (21). Hamlet is the challenge that television actor Andrew Rally fears to face but can’t escape from. Rally is literally haunted by the part and by the ghost of John Barrymore, who insists that he must play the part. Hamlet is the ultimate acting challenge, the meaning of an actor’s life, proof that he is truly alive. When Rally tastes that glory for only a few seconds, he refuses to go back to Hollywood. He has been Hamlet—briefly—and he has become himself permanently.

I Hate Hamlet is hilarious, but much of what is funny in it gets its energy from the serious issues that have swirled around the Prince ever since Shakespeare set him loose on a stage. Ironically, the happy ending here requires a successful encounter with a tragedy or at least a tragic figure. It is Paul Rudnick’s particular felicity that he can make such large issues lighthearted while still making them light the way for his characters; he can render the theatre ridiculous while simultaneously making it glorious. In the same way, Andrew Rally’s failure on stage becomes his success in life, and a play about the world’s greatest tragedy turns into an extraordinary comedy.

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