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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Number 267: Carl Sandburg "They All Want To Play Hamlet"

They All Want To Play Hamlet

They all want to play Hamlet.
They have not exactly seen their fathers killed
Nor their mothers in a frame-up to kill,
Nor an Ophelia dying with a dust gagging the heart,
Not exactly the spinning circles of singing golden spiders,
Not exactly this have they got at nor the meaning of flowers—O flowers,
flowers slung by a dancing girl—in the saddest play the inkfish,
Shakespeare, ever wrote;
Yet they all want to play Hamlet because it is sad like all actors are sad
and to stand by an open grave with a joker’s skull in the hand and then to
say over slow and say over slow wise, keen, beautiful words masking a
heart that’s breaking, breaking,
This is something that calls and calls to their blood.
They are acting when they talk about it and they know it is acting to be
particular about it and yet: They all want to play Hamlet.

-- Carl Sandburg

Hap Notes: Sandburg is cleverly doing several things here with his casual sounding narrative. First of all, he's poking a bit of fun at actors and Shakespeare (the "inkfish" which is also slang for a squid and implies a writer who shoots out a lot of ink.). He's also giving the play a somewhat backhanded compliment through the actors who want to speak its verses and situations so full of drama and wisdom and beauty. So, sure, he's saying that actors who cannot possibly have gone through the travails and disappointments of Hamlet are eager to set their acting teeth in such a meaty role. Sandburg obviously admires Shakespeare.

As you can see from the masthead today there are a variety of actors who have all played the role. Paul Gross may have played the role but he also played an actor/director who played the role and then went mad (a parallel of Hamlet himself) in Slings And Arrows (which I could do a whole blog on- a wonderful Canadian television series that is far too complex, funny, moving and wonderful to talk about here.) Each of these actors brought something wonderful to the role (although in the case of Gibson it was mostly good costumes and great scenery) but each of them lacked one little edge of Hamlet. Auden claims in an essay that it is an unplayable role and he may have a point. But Shakespeare filled it with dialog that appeals to actors in their teens, middle years and maturity. Amazing.

Now Sandburg is not just poking fun at actors although the tone of his poem, at first, suggests this. No, he's talking about something far deeper in the acting profession. Notice that he says "all actors are sad " and "They are acting when they talk about it " and "they know it is acting to be particular about it."

Why would all actors be sad? What kind of a profession is it that asks you to pretend to be another person and say words written by somebody else? Who would want to do this, and why? Acting is a profession that asks its practitioners to feel like another person whom they are just pretending to be. Not only that, but actors find themselves often "acting" in real life. The profession is one in which its players are constantly honing their skills. It becomes hard to tell what one really feels from what one "acts" as though they feel. And how many of us, as the audience, are also actors in our own lives? Who are we, anyway?

When Sandburg says they want to say "beautiful words masking a heart that’s breaking, breaking," whose heart is he talking about? Hamlet's? The actor's? The audience's? All three?

Now let's go back to our original question: why is it that "all actors are sad"?

Here is where we have talked about Sandburg before:

and here:

and here:

The masthead today features actors who have played Hamlet. They are, clockwise, from far left to right: John Barrymore, Ethan Hawke, Kenneth Branagh, Lawrence Olivier, David Tennant, Emile Hirsch, Derek Jacobi, Richard Chamberlain, Paul Gross, Mel Gibson. In the center is Richard Burton.

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