The Unterberg Poetry Center’s 2008-09 season continues at the 92nd Street Y, its Reading Series last night offering an insightful and colorful exploration of “Hamlet.”
The panel consisted of five highly informed representatives of the Theatre For a New Audience:
Cicely Berry is the Voice Director of the RSC for the past 40 years who holds the O.B.E. for services to theatrical arts.
Alyssa Bresnahan is Gertrude in TFANA’s current production of “Hamlet,” and whose presence justifies the repeal of the photography ban at these performances. She is a veteran of “Macbeth,” “Heartbreak House,” “Streetcar” and other Williams’ dramas, “Antigone,” and more. You may recognize her from the film “The Wrestler.”
Christian Camargo is Hamlet in TFANA’s production. Past Shakespearean work include “Coriolanus” at TFANA, and “Henry V” at Shakespeare’s Globe and again for Shakespeare in the Park. Masonic movie-goers may recognize him from “National Treasure 2.”
Director David Esbjornson has done “Much Ado About Nothing” for Shakespeare in the Park, and many other productions, including two premier Arthur Miller plays. His longstanding relationship with Edward Albee includes his direction of that playwright’s Tony-winning “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” on Broadway, as well as “The Play About the Baby” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
TFANA Artistic Director Jeffrey Horowitz founded TFANA 30 years ago, and since has produced Shakespearean, Greek, Jacobean and Italian classical drama, and numerous modern works. He also serves on the advisory board of the Shakespeare Society, and is part of the directorate of the Globe Theater in London. He is a recipient of the John Houseman Award from The Acting Company.
With credentials evidently in order, the group treated its audience to 90 minutes of readings from The Bard’s ultimate Revenge Tragedy, with much well informed commentary on why this play is Shakespeare’s most quoted, best remembered play. The initiated ear can understand; indeed there is much a Freemason can learn from these experts. Let’s not forget one of the most enduring phrases of Masonic ritual is borrowed directly from this play.
Freemasonry, whose highly literate rituals gradually compel its initiates to eschatological understandings, had to borrow from Hamlet’s timeless soliloquy to condense thousands of words of instructive prose:
“The undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns...”
(Bro. Jeffery Marshall expands on this here.)
For starters, I wish there was a way to put Ms. Berry in charge of every Lodge of Instruction. She, more than any Freemason I’ve ever met, understands how memorized language can be robbed of its value. “We speak in order to survive, and we’re at risk of losing the feeling,” she said, explaining that the speaker’s over familiarity with the written material can be detrimental to the comprehension of the listener. “In Shakespeare’s time, only 8 percent of the people were literate. They were innocent when they heard the play, and they relied on the sound of the language.”
Actor Camargo concurred. “You can just ride the language,” he said. “You can allow the language to just carry you through the scenes.”
There is an “energy” that guides you, he added. “It’s esoteric or Buddhist! There is this element of ‘what is.’ You accept ‘what is.’ ”
We are so used to sets and to looking at things that we can lose the language, Berry continued. She then told of a Shakespeare production in which she was employed in China. The play was spoken in Mandarin, and yet her ear allowed her to catch poignant moments in the delivery despite the language barrier.
“When we still have an ear for sound, we can laugh (at Shakespeare’s wit) without fully understanding the comedy,” Berry added, before recounting an experience with Scottish comedian Johnny Beattie. “He was knocked out by the Fool in ‘Lear.’ He found something primal in the rhythm.”
Depending on the production, a “Hamlet” can run longer than three hours. The TFANA version reaches the three-hour mark, broken into three parts with two intermissions. “This gives the audience a chance to breathe,” explained Director Esbjornson. “We break at the right moments.”
The Hamlet character is often mischaracterized as the ultimate procrastinator for his delays in confronting the duty charged him by his father’s ghost: to avenge his regicide by killing Claudius. (It is an unjust assessment of the character, considering the many actions he undertook, displaying uncommon cunning and bravery: his questioning the Ghost; his feigning insanity; breaking up with Ophelia; testing the Ghost’s veracity; killing the eavesdropper; stealing the dispatches and forging their substitutes; and fighting the pirates before winning them over. Not too shabby for a teenager.)
At the end of Act III, Scene 3 comes a moment that ought to arouse the empathy of all Masons. This is the famous Prayer Scene, when Hamlet finds a choice opportunity to slay his uncle in this moment of unguarded helplessness, and yet he declines, surmising that anyone killed during prayer is guaranteed an eternity in heaven. He is unaware that Claudius is not actually praying; the king has enough sense to know his fratricidal crime recalls Cain and Abel, rendering any entreaty to deity a folly.
But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder?’
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but ’tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell’d,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.
No Mason would need prompting to see the contrast of this prayer to that of GMHA in the Sanctum Sanctorum. The Operative Grand Master received no such spiritual regard from the Ruffians. This gives Masons a tidy comparison of assailants: Consider Claudius the regicide, in voicing his lament, expressing much of the same shame that gripped the Ruffians, and doing so within earshot of one intending to bring him to justice.
“Hamlet” also is one of Shakespeare’s plays that explicitly mentions masons. From Act V, Scene 1:
What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?
The gallows-maker; for that frame outlives a thousand tenants.
I like thy wit well, in good faith: the gallows does well; but how does it well? It does well to those that do in: now thou dost ill to say the gallows is built stronger than the church: argal, the gallows may do well to thee. To’t again, come.
“Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright, or a carpenter?”
Ay, tell me that, and unyoke.
Marry, now I can tell.
Mass, I cannot tell.