Saturday, February 11, 2012

Alas, Yorick...

Hamlet’s Yorick
Concept for a play/film, working title: Alas, Yorick…
Tom Ryan

There’s a part of me that dislikes “what if” tales that derive from literature. But the character of Yorick, who appears only as skull in Hamlet (Act V, Scene i), has always intrigued me. I have “what if’d” him into Hamlet often; wondering how Hamlet, the prince, would have acted, and viewed the world differently had his old friend Yorick been there with him.

In my mind, I picture Yorick alive, an older man, still very witty, funny, and after years of jesting, quite wise. He’s no longer the simple clown. He’s a clown with insight, the ability to help us laugh at ourselves, to understand the folly in life. Yorick, the old jester, is a generous person. A very good listener and observer.

I’ve read in a few places where a Robert Armin replaced Will Kempe in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men of Shakespeare’s Day. Sources, notes on folio scripts, indicate that Kempe originated the role of Falstaff. Harold Bloom suggests Armin brought a new sophistication to the aura of a “fool” after Kempe departed the company. Armin was a writer as well as an actor. I’ve always been fascinated with the process of theatre as it was then. How did these stories come to life on the stage?

In contemporary theatre and film, we’re fascinated by the auteur, the writer, the director, the producer rolled into one person who passionately willfully achieves their vision in a creative single-handed way. I think Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, David Mamet. I’m intrigued by the auteur way.

Yet, when thinking of troupes like Lord Chamberlain’s Men, I imagine a collection of creatives who collaborate; where in my mind the collaboration becomes the drama. For in my mind the collaborative process, while the word suggests collective vision, egalitarian, valuing the talents of others, I feel that the process must have been raucous, full of intrigue, conflict, and yet it must have been fun too. A group of people, doing this most days, performing together, developing characters; they must have learned a depth of respect and admiration for one another.

So, maybe this has been done before. Kenneth Branagh’s film A Midwinter’s Tale is a favorite of mine. I admire Branagh’s fondness for Shakespeare, his ability to make the stories and characters come alive for me in the realm of film. I know that purists, theatre professionals may disagree, as theatre is theatre, not film. Nevertheless, I like both…the stage and what happens upon the screen…

I’m reminded of Yorick in the title of David Foster Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest”…

The play…from Hamlet, Act V, Scene i
First Clown
Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade, that
he will keep out water a great while; and your water
is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.
Here's a skull now; this skull has lain in the earth
three and twenty years.
Whose was it?
First Clown
A whoreson mad fellow's it was: whose do you think it was?
Nay, I know not.
First Clown
A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! a' poured a
flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull,
sir, was Yorick's skull, the king's jester.
First Clown
E'en that.
Let me see.
Takes the skull
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell
me one thing.
What's that, my lord?
Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i'
the earth?

From the gravedigger’s remarks, it seems Yorick died 23 years before. And how old is Hamlet at the time of this drama? that ever revealed in the play? I’m comfortable with him being thirty or so based on dialogue…

Where am I going with this? Ah yes, the Yorick were he to have been alive for Hamlet tale. Or perhaps the tale is, and this has been my real idea for a long time, that during the development of Hamlet, Yorick is written out of the play…the old actor who helps write the character is retired…or maybe he dies suddenly before the production and Lord Chamberlain’s Men have to quickly re-write the thing. A last minute rush that results in a stunning play.

So, perhaps, there’s the story…the drama is in the unexpected death of a central character, the actor and writer…and the re-write.

Working titles for this…paly, script, whatever…
The Re-write
Alas, Yorick…

Farce? Drama? Or just theatre development as it is…a bit of both with a good balance.
But could I write something like this given my limited knowledge of the theatre? Or use my imagination…

Sappy? I’m thinking of how the older actor infuriates and inspires others. His experience. Is this the Will Kempe who created Falstaff perhaps? Is his replacement and the guy who re-writes much of it with whomever, Shakespeare and the boys, the new guy Robert Armin? Armin’s the actor who played the gravedigger. Armin was a writer.
So, the new guy acts and he writes and helps save the play… schmaltzy?

Act I – Hamlet in the making with Yorick as his old sage advisor, a voice of wit and wisdom. It’s a different play from what we know…
Act II – The actor who plays Yorick dies…how? That would be interesting. Murdered? Just keels over onstage at rehearsal? This is what happens… oh shit, now what are we gonna do? Maybe he dies carrying the script, the script’s lost…!!! The new guy speaks up…
Act III – They work together to re-write, a furious process or re-invention, doing things a little differently, pressure from the patrons (producers) a deadline…I’m tempted to throw in a love story to this to distract things…
Act IV – Hamlet…scenes…what we come to realize is that much of Hamlet’s internal struggle is due to his renunciation of the wisdom of Yorick…sound too philosophical?

Too academic? Or maybe the feeling we come away with is the appreciation of spirit, how others who are gone, influence the present in a very real way, even if the reality is the imaginative world of the stage…

What’s at all interesting about all this, other than to me? Why would people wish to see this? What’s so interesting about the development of a play before the curtain rises. Why should people care? They want to pay to be entertained? Right?

Much to do on this idea. For today, the writing of it, from idea to written idea, an idea that I’ve had in my head since high school English class, looks more confusing upon this page now, but it’s a beginning.

pictured above:
actor: David Tennant
scull: Andre Tchaikowsky
from the RSC production, 2008

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