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William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" performed entirely in candlelight at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Chelsea, NYC, October 31 to November 22, 1975, with Bill Maloney as Hamlet, directed and designed by Donald L. Brooks
It is legend that few productions of Hamletare without thespian hubris -- many a production of the Shakespeare play is not only produced, but directed by the actor playing Hamlet. There are sensible actors who eschew directing themselves and engage a competent individual to do so. Laurence Oliver was talented enough to not only direct and star in the 1948 film of Hamlet, but to edit Shakespeare down to a manageable cinematic presentation for the masses.
I remember Dame Judith Andersonat age 72 playing the role in a rather odd production at Carnegie Hall; Richard Burton jumping up and down on a large easy chair (pre-Tom Cruise by 40 years) during the "To be or not to be" monologue. Nichol Williamson played the role in a stark nightmare of a production, later he played Barrymore playing Hamlet in a production of a play entitled "I Hate Hamlet".Mel Gibson did his turn on the role as an extension of "Braveheart" or so it would seem. I suggested to Austin Pendleton, fellow classmate from the Stella Adler Studio, that he assay the role and some too many years later, he did so, although I did not see the event. Several other productions of the play elude my memory at the moment.
However, as an actor, I always had delusions of playing the role, fully intending at one point to not only act the role, but direct and design the production. When I morphed from actor to director, shedding my vain skin of self-presentation, I was still haunted by the play itself.
After a rather tumultuous first half of the 70s, I settled into St. Peter's Episcopal Churchon 20th Street in Manhattan, a stone carved wood, Tiffany glass clock-towered wonder as their Sexton. This was not a theatre, but had functioned for a long time as same for the husband-and-wife acting couple Natalie Rogersand Harold Herbstman, under the name of The Dove Theatre Company, who retired from the theatre the previous year for other pursuits, leaving St. Peter's to purely ecclesiastical functions.
Having presented "Xircus, the Private Life of Jesus Christ" under the aegis of The Dove Theatre Company at St. Peter's in the early 70s, I approached the Pastor in reference to a possible use of the sanctuary for good clean family-rated Shakespeare, with Hamlet as a first production. Agreed.
This was simply a church -- there were absolutely no accoutrements for theatre. Sunday services were held with regularity and the congregation expected no interference with their schedule. Therefore, the simplest of productions was the answer, resulting in a presentation of Hamlet which I fully intended to resemble the touring companies that barnstormed the old west in the mid-1800s. Candlelight became our illumination, which necessitated an actor who's main function was to attend to the flames, relighting, extinguishing, replacing, quietly, in half-time to the movement of the play itself; albeit, alert to need for speedy action.
The music for the play was composed by George Prideauxfor the church organ, augmented by trumpet. The costumes were contemporary, but simple, with accessories appropriate to the play, capes, drapings, etc., and the setting was a simple twenty-foot tall white gauze curtain painted with a vortex, serving at the appropriate time, for the arras.
This was Hamlet as a liturgical high mass for the dead who still live!
In response to the following communication with regard to The Trojan Women:
Dear Mr Brooks,
My name is Madeleine Taylor and I am a student of Drama at Royal Holloway, University of London. I am currently conducting research for an essay on Greek Theatre, in particular, the gender politics of The Trojan Women, and what would happen if it were to be performed by an all-male cast, (at would have been the case in classical Athens).
I am delighted to have found that you directed such a production! Yours is in fact the only production of an all-male cast that I have found documented, internationally. I wonder if you would be willing to spare me a few words on this production? If so, my question to you is this: What were your aims in casting an all-male production of The Trojan Women? What do you feel that this achieved? Do you have any comment on how this casting affected the gender politics of the play?I thank you most graciously in anticaption, Mr Brooks. I do wish that I could have watched this performance!
I congratulate you for deciding to perform this play with an all-male cast. It clearly is not something that many directors are willing to do.
Yours faithfully, Madeleine Taylor.
Note: The format of this post was disturbed due to changes by Blogger -- it was reformatted to conform as closely as possible to the original; however, it is still subject to editing. 10/19/10
Dear Ms. Taylor,
I am attaching photographs and some notes:
I was engaged to conduct the theater program at Bennett Memorial College in Millbrook, NY in the fall of 1970, and upon arriving, realized there were three-dozen students, all of whom wished to be doing more about theater than studying it. Ergo, the selection of The Trojan Women as the fall production. The school was heavily conservative in its politics, and this at the time of the Vietnam War and the invasion of Cambodia which sparked nationwide U.S. protests. Four students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University during a protest in Ohio, which provoked public outrage in the United States. The reaction to the incident by the Nixon administration was seen as callous and indifferent, providing additional impetus for the anti-war movement. The effect was chilling to open discussion of politics at universities.
I can't say that the production was deliberately conceived as Vietnam anti-war protest, but it did end up a powerful statement on the futility of all war of any time and place in history. Needless to say, the conservative guard of the college, whose main concern prior to viewing the production upon its performances was the physical morality of an all-girl school, found it necessary to conclude my engagement with their institution.
While there is not a full analysis of The Trojan Women by Kott, the application of his theories was apt. The translation used was by Edith Hamilton, whose own remarks about Euripides and The Trojan Women were, of course, essential to the production. When returning to New York, I became heavily involved in a production of a play which I had written, Xircus, the Private Life of Jesus Christ, at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Manhattan which had it's own detractors, including an expulsion from the church and a long unprecedented off-off-Broadway run at the Performing Garage in SoHo.
The second Trojan Women began to materialize toward the end of this run -- our producer, Richard Briggs, who was associated with The David Frost Show which aired from New York at that time, had seen the production at Bennett College, and was interested in a production in New York, upon which decision to do a production, I was asked to repeat my direction and design.The theater at which the production was to play was recently opened by Ronald Tavel of the Theater of the Ridiculous and was called Theatre of the Lost Continent. This would be their second production. Ronald Tavel was the writer of Andy Warhol's "The Chelsea Girls", and along with his brother Harvey Tavel had an ongoing communication with the Warhol "Factory".
Given the milieu, along with the thought that when in Rome do as the Romans do, I immediately thought of an all-male production. Why not? At Bennett, an all girl's school, the gender had been bent -- after all, Euripides wrote for male performers. So here, at this time, with the Vietnam War aroar, the Warhol factor, the expected experimental concepts of off-off-Broadway, it was a perfect opportunity to adapt the concepts of Jan Kott and Peter Brook.
The production would be essentially the same, except for the casting. Upon assembling a cast, a shiver ran down my proverbial spine -- how powerful this play had become with men playing the roles of women -- no, not in an effete or condescending way (I would not allow it), but in a commanding and challenging manner, reigned in only by the fact that there is the fourth wall.
Hecuba was played by the well-known off-off-Broadway actor Bill Maloney, who had made the transition from the ballet corps of The Metropolitan Opera to the role of teacher and head of the Voice and Diction department at the Herbert Berghof Studios in New York. The Chorus was comprised of Harvey Tavel (of Warhol's film “Vinyl“) and seven members. Andromache was cast with a young Harvey Fierstein (age 19), whose girth and voice were fresh from playing Our Lady of 42nd Street in "Xircus".
Mario Montez was cast as Cassandra, a role for which no one thought he would be appropriate -- Mario was known for his somewhat campy interpretations of Hollywood's Maria Montez. The expectation was for a comedic result. Dressed in soiled and tattered trappings, transfixed by his own flaming torch as he whirled from a staircase down in a circle to plummet dead center on a rock-like platform, his entrance was electrifying, speaking the lines "O Greek King, with your dreams of grandeur yet to come, vile as you are, so shall you end be", quieted the would-be bemused, even when he spoke his tears as "boo hoo", not a whisper of laughter was heard. It was though Cassandra had come from the beyond and, in all her madness, simply played herself.
Ondine was cast as Menelaus, gruff and disinterested in a director's chair, reading the latest news while nonchalantly giving perfunctory acknowledgement of his surroundings, also as Poseidon within an Octopus-like structure with undulating arms and an echoplex.
Helen of Troy was played by Grover Noel of African-American descent, -- yes, in copper-green Greek costume and adorned with a head-dress as the Statue of Liberty -- this before those cheap foam things now sold it seems internationally. A strikingly handsome man, he gave Helen a dignity and strength unexpected.
Now, I was asked to cast Jackie Curtis, also of the Warhol group; however, I was completely cast and completely satisfied with my cast -- I informed the Tavel brothers of the Warhol contingent that all I had for Jackie was the role of a soldier. He accepted, his role expanding to a silent presence of Hera, and from that point on, the production began to evolve into what might be termed as a gothic kaleidoscope of the horrors of war.
I meant that each performer play in their own individual style with force and integrity. There were, of course, for the times, some rather interesting touches -- Talthybius was nude with angel wings, helmet and spear, there was an naked performer for the narration of the admission of the Trojan horse revels, accompanied by contemporary rock music. The opening of the play was in strobe with a descending neon sign reading "Euripides The Trojan Women", a motorcycle entrance for Andromache and the soldier played by Jackie Curtis, and a film of an atomic explosion (one of the first ever seen outside of archives) in slow motion at the conclusion of the play to a composition of György Ligeti.
I must now look again at your questions.Well, yes, if The Trojan Women were to be performed by an all-male cast as was the case in classical Athens, then surely classical Athens in the reverse would have been influenced by our modern technology and advances in gender roles. In the waning days of the burka and silence, we seem to forget that going outside of the household throughout the ages was very much as though going to war in many societies. A woman's life was precious, especially with children in peril, whether in the womb, or finally able to disobey. There would, needless to say, be a trade-off between the ancient and the modern, no matter which circumstance were extant.
As far as aims in casting an all-male production and what it achieved -- well, at the time of the Vietnam War, perhaps one more protest -- for our times now, perhaps one more warning of the horror and futility of war.
In reference to the casting affecting the gender politics of the play -- overwhelming, simply overwhelming. This, of course, is completely dependent upon the concept and the performers -- a production could easily induce ennui or alienation in reference to the subject matter.
I don't feel I have answered your questions in a thorough manner; however, your questions were rather general -- if you wish to be more specific, based on the information provided here, I would be glad to elaborate.
This communication is subject to additional commentary and editing upon further review.
Yours, Donald L. Brooks
Performances (28), Thurs. to Sun., March 2 to April 16, 1972.