by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - August 14, 2006) According to T.S. Eliot: "So far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the play (Hamlet) is most certainly an artistic failure.... Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. And the supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point: that Hamlet's bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem."
Hamlet may be "an artistic failure" but it's been on the boards for five centuries. If you want examples of "artistic failure," I would refer you to Mr. Eliot's The Family Reunion and The Confidential Clerk, both of which flopped when they were first presented and have lain in poetic obscurity ever since.
No one is seriously making a comparison between contemporary plays and your works.
Bernard Shaw did! He said he was better than me, and of course both his champions and his apologists have been taking him to task for it ever since. But then the Irish, after a jar or two, have always been prone to bursts of crapulous hyperbole.
But what about Eliot's point: that there is something in Hamlet which is "inexpressible" and which the play doesn't seem to be able to come to terms with.
Of course, there is something "inexpressible." It's what your critics would call "ambiguity." Not something which can be simplistically nailed down but which is expressed in many ways, some of them contradictory. In short, very much like life. Eliot would like to have a masterpiece, neatly wrapped with a large red bow around it which says precisely what a playwright set out to say -- which betrays a terrible ignorance of the creative process in which there can be no calibrated equivalence between intention and result. Every great play contains more than the writer intended because it was never written only by himself who was writing it. His "collaborators" include Tradition, Current Events, the Zeitgeiist, and his own jam-packed subconscious. If it turns out to be any good at all, it is because it has been fortuitously blessed by a Muse and contains a mixture of both the Past and Present which is what makes it relevant to the Future. It is too tedious to have to spend time putting down four-eyed Anglican bank clerks who believe that a few short poems and a handful of brilliant acquaintances automatically endows them with genius. And y' know don't you, Alcestis is a far better work than The Cocktail Party from which it was cribbed.
But if Hamlet can be reinterpreted from generation to generation and always seems to be saying something different, doesn't that reduce your personal stake in the play? Doesn't its malleability bespeak a lack of authorial jurisdiction over your own work?
I have no "personal stake" in the play -- just as Kyd had no "personal stake" in The Spanish tragedy from whence I lifted my own bon-bon. We are all pilferers -- and we invariably pilfer either from our immediate contemporaries or writers so long gone that few people can identify our plagiaries. We are all working with the same clay and behind every new shape offered to the public, the smudge of other writers' thumbprints can always be discerned. How can anyone have a "personal stake" when the only way a work of art can emerge is from the accumulated debris of the culture itself?
Then you agree with T.S. Eliot that the contemporary writer owes a debt to tradition?
That's how an academic might put it -- which of course is what Eliot was, as mossy-and-mildewed as an ivy-covered tower in a decaying university town. But that doesn't mean he can't stumble onto a truth now and again even if, as in this case, he stumbles over the weather-beaten galoshes of Matthew Arnold.
Does it bother you to have your plays radically reinterpreted, their time periods changed, the characters costumed in attire ranging from the Stone Age to the 21st century?
Why should it? I did the same in my own time. We played in "modern dress," you know -- or what was modern in the l6th and l7th centuries. It doesn't matter to me what the clothes look like, or the settings. What does bother me is when these wiseacres impose a new story on to mine which disintegrates the original and makes a mush of both. It's like a bad organ transplant; the original organism rejects the new heart or liver and the fusion only draws attention to the incompatibility of both. Now that really does get my goat!
So you don't mind being freely "reinterpreted"?
Being reinterpreted is the only way my work can possibly survive. It almost perished in the Victorian era because a few fussbudgets were determined to protect and defend me against distortion -- but what they called "distortion" was really the Present interacting with the Past, which is the bounden duty of the Present to do. God forfend that I should fall into the hands of the Purists, the Scholars, and the Academics! They're the New Puritans and we have to fight them as staunchly today as I did five centuries ago.
Could you tell me: was Hamlet actually mad?
Would you say a man who berates the girl he ostensibly loves, who has communion with the spirit of his dead father, who attacks his mother for committing incest and his step-father for sleeping with his wife, who interrupts public performances by inserting scandalous tidbits into other people's plays, who arranges the murder of his old school-friends and then walks directly into a trap which snuffs out his own life, who turns the grief over his father's death into a scandal which allows a foreign dictator to take over his country ....... was mad?
I don't know. Nowadays people are institutionalized for less egregious faults, so he may well be mad. Then again.... You don't seem to be too sure about your own character.
He's not mine any more. I lay no claims upon him. He's whatever he can be turned into. He can certainly be played "mad," after all he's already been played philosophically, romantically, morbidly, militantly, cerebrally, pugnaciously, effetely, moronically, neurotically, effeminately. He can express any conception an actor or a director has of him, so long as it harmonizes with the text. And you know, nowadays, those harmonies can be dissonant or atonal, the melodies aleatory or polyphonic. There are no more rules, thank God, which, while it gives artists more freedom, also imposes more responsibility. What is it Eliot, that cranky old fusspot, says: "There's really no such thing as vers libre if a man is going to do a proper job."
You seem to be very permissive but let me just remind you that in Germany, there is now something called "regieteater" which, according to Frank Gunther, a leading German translator, means: "a theatre invented and created by a director who stages his own arbitrary chains of association and flights of imagination on the pretense of some traditional piece of drama using any element of pop culture, pop music, trash or pornography that leads him into one association or another." This kind of theatre scores highest in so-called "intellectual circles" and is often considered "avant garde." Is there any degree of extreme interpretation that you would consider "over the top"?
None! Anything that springs from the canon which is in some way germane to the branch-and-root of the original material is legitimate. To put limitations on interpretations, no matter how far from the root material they stray, only diminishes the plays' possibilities -- and no playwright wants to do that. Who knows what innovations the 2lst century will bring, and who gives a damn! The play-proper is always there and the tendency of art is both to contract and expand. After the wildest departures from what was originally posited, there is always a return to terra firma, so why worry?
Er, I've always wanted to know: why did you in your will bequeath Ann Hathaway "the second best bed"?
That's the one with the springs prodding up your bum. She made my life such a torture, I thought it would be poetic justice to deny her a good night's sleep for the rest of her life.
Do you think your plays will go on and on?
You mean like this goddam interview!!!
(The Bard tosses a tankard of sack into the journalists' face and, spewing epithets, chuffs off into the night.)
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