17 June 2000 | tedg
The Play Without the Play
As an architect, I am often asked what is the world's best building. The answer: a small chapel outside Barcelona started by Gaudi but never finished. We have the model (a bunch of strings) and the basement. But when one visits, it is a profoundly lifechanging place. Gaudi exceeded the building's budget, and then that of the whole community (which was to have been built) before getting out of the ground. But the ambition was so grand, one can see it with only the barest explicit minimum. But, you have to have the reference of what the master intended.
Hamlet is the same. It was never really finished, being so large a conception. Shakespeare tinkered and added over decades. So what Stoppard does here is expand Hamlet by shrinking it. The plot is only glimpsed, but that part was always incidental anyway. The play is about reasoning, and when things are real and when not, and about what element of reality is causal. So instead of giving us the language, Stoppard seizes on one device, the play within the play.
In the raw Hamlet, this is pretty rich, but Stoppard weaves new dimensions of inversion and self-reference. There are at least four levels of play here, and we keep switching about, together with most of the characters. This is not just amusing, but elaborates on `Hamlet,' when is fate real? would it change if we could see the larger clockworks of the universe? does language (specifically query) aid in this endeavor? considering that, are ideas tied to time and fate? This last point is comically illustrated as one of the pair (they don't know who is who) keeps `stumbling' on great ideas, which then vanish.
The play (Stoppard's first) seems to have been his one excellent work, followed by the mundane. Some are unhappy because the film is not so frantic as the 1967 play, but I think that is because there is a different dynamic with a film audience than a stage audience. Fewer tricks can be played. But this is a wonderful solution to the problem of language in film: it is just not cinematic, so best to exploit the dissonance.
There's risk here. The film as film is not great, so set that aside. And the notions are dangerously sophomoric. But that's what makes the whole thing so darned funny. Some critics (notably the normally intelligent Stanley Kauffmann) think Roth and Oldham are poor. But this is a strange sort of acting demand, one for which no measures exist: part surreal, part comic (in different traditions, half Monty Python, half Abbot and Costello) and part tragic confusion. They reward my trust and that's what matters I think. Dreyfus is supposed to be over the top, and he complies.
In the great Hamlet sweepstakes, many recommend seeing Mel Gibson and then Gwyneth Paltrow. I suppose that's a colorful route. But the real sense of what this is all about comes through with more real reward via Branagh and then this clever film.