Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Puppets Dallying: Thoughts on Shakespearean Theatricality

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Puppets Dallying: Thoughts on Shakespearean Theatricality

Article excerpt

In the film version of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, directed by the playwright himself, we see the dumb show from Hamlet twice. In the first case, we watch the traveling players rehearsing the show on a stage in the great chamber of the palace, with the court absent. As the player-king is poisoned in his sleep and his widow wooed by the poisoner, the chief player explains to Guildenstern, who watches with his friend, how useful the dumb show is in making the action that follows more or less comprehensible. The rehearsal is interrupted when desperate Ophelia opens a door behind the stage and runs into the midst of the actors, chased by Hamlet denouncing the hypocrisy of marriage--"it hath made me mad." Claudius and Polonius enter in turn, the king exclaiming that neither love nor madness is Hamlet's problem. When they leave, however, the dumb show resumes, continuing past its usual ending and sliding into Hamlet's own story. In a compressed mime--aided by the head player's narration--we see the poisoned king's nephew, his vision of the ghost, his pretended madness, and are told of his plan to "catch the conscience of the king." Whereupon we suddenly cut to the players staging a scene that resembles much more fully the play-within-a-play scene from the original work. Again with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern looking on, a pair of masked actors playing the murderer and his queen sit watching a second version of the dumb show, in this case performed not by actors but by rod puppets on a smaller, isolated stage on the chamber floor, a stage that we've seen no trace of before.

The puppet work (done by a skilled Slovenian puppeteer, Zlatko Bourek) is remarkable, the movements of the stiff but expressively sculpted figures adding a real and at moments uncanny pathos to the spectacle--for instance, in the mad shaking of the puppet-king when he is poisoned, or in the grotesque, immovable leer of the poisoner when he returns to woo the queen. It is as if we have regressed or receded into the starkest, least human version of the dumb show, a form that offers itself as inherently schematic and incomplete, at best a prologue to a fuller drama. What we get is something that is yet truest to a vision of humans as mechanical perpetrators or victims of murder and seduction, which is Hamlet's vision at moments. For a long interval, the puppet show fills the entire screen, though the film also cuts back at intervals to the masked player-king and player-queen, who look at the show and at each other with increasing anxiety. When the puppet poisoner puts the crown on his head, the camera suddenly focuses on the masked king's face, his terrified eyes visible through the slits of the mask. He rises, but then the film cuts suddenly to the face of the real King Claudius. We see him looking on in astonishment, guilt, and fear--and then we see suddenly that he is looking at a different version of the dumb show, one performed by the very actors whom we'd seen serving as the audience to the puppet show. We suddenly cross a threshold back into the world of Shakespeare's play, and then quickly again are reabsorbed by the ironic world of Stoppard's alienated, baffled duo, who wonder what has caused the court to scatter in chaos.

Stoppard's great touch of inspiration here is not just the nested puppet show within the play, but also a small detail the camera picks up at one point. It zooms in to look at the painted, wooden face of the puppet-player-queen, as she stands isolated and rigid, mourning her dead husband. Just in the corner of her eye, we see a drop of clear water, an actual tear we are to suppose, on the painted surface of the inanimate carved head.

It's a nakedly cinematic trick, Stoppard's joke about film close-ups, perhaps--throughout his film, he's acutely conscious of what it means to translate onto the screen so stage-obsessed a play. (The original script has no puppet show, I should add.) But the shot is also tellingly uncanny in its collision of mimetic registers. …

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