I am most dreadfully attended – HAMLET, II ii

The blog has been dormant for the last week or so because it turns out Guildenstern (and honestly the entirety of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead) is mentally exhausting. Who knew? To the point, in fact, where I was unable to chat with friends who came afterwards; the tip-of-the-tongue-the-teeth-the-lips, like a ballet dancer’s feet when unchoreographed, were accustomed to such Stoppard-enforced precision by the end of the night they couldn’t really do much articulating on their own. This seems to have continued over into having anything intelligent to say about the play – or anything that the play doesn’t say just fine on its own.

The pleasure came when the audience showed up – not that rehearsals weren’t fun, but the amount of legitimately hold-for-laughs comedy they mined out of it was even more, I think, than we anticipated. Or I may just have been so mired in learning the whole show over a period of months (memorization was a multi-front war, as it increasingly is with age/repertory, of highlighting, listening to myself recorded, writing it all out in unintelligible longhand, doing the dishes, etc., with a page or two of the script at hand to go over and over, pacing, mumbling, and of course actual rehearsals) that I couldn’t even be bothered to concern myself with how much the audience might respond to it.

It was nice to do for a modern audience we could still guarantee had some familiarity with Hamlet, many of them having seen Kentucky Shakespeare’s 2014 production. For instance: I consistently got a fair (cheap?) laugh with a slight pause – relative to the rest of the pauses in this script – after the second word of the line, “Words, words, they’re all we have to go on” which I thought would be at best a way-homer. There were others.

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to escape. Once I was solidly off book, I allowed myself time for some pleasure reading again and picked from my room-sized To Get Around To stack Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent The Buried Giant, a novel about, among other things, a mist of vague amnesia and attendant anxiety creeping across post-Arthurian England. It’s a lovely book but it’s rather cruelly played into one of the trickiest parts of R&G: the difficulty of remembering a ludicrous amount of very delicate, articulate, repetitive, nay, loop-prone lines, many of which are precisely about the characters’ lack of memory. Not a nice thing to do to oneself.

Then I started catching up on the New Yorkers I’ve left sitting about for a couple of months and opened the December 19/26 issue to find this Alan Burdick piece on the psychology of time, which would have been exactly the sort of thing I picked up a New Yorker to read were it not for having spent the last while trying to get the rhythm right on a line like:

          G: Yes, one must think of the future…

          R: It’s the normal thing.

          G: To have one. One is, after all, having it all the time…now…and now…and now…

          R: It could go on for ever. Well, not for ever, I suppose.

Those “nows” and more importantly their accompanying ellipses are a bear if you want them to sound non-contrived and therefore funny. (The effect was aided by the staging, which had Rosencrantz trying to sit down but startling a bit as each was said, so timing the line was a matter of keeping another actor’s left hip in my visual periphery.) So to pick up an article that quotes William James on the passage of the instant – “We tell it off in pulses…We say ‘now! now! now!’ or we count ‘more! more! more!’ as we feel it bud.” – is to relive something one is trying to clear one’s mind of to make room for the next show.

(I could have given James a hand here, honestly. The concept of time exists so punchlines land properly. Any other usage is tangential. Steve Martin once joked in Q&A form (G: “Question and answer. Old ways are the best ways”) that the perfect amount to pause for a punchline was “a second and a half”…which was how long he waited to answer that very question with that very answer. Had James, St. Augustine, and Burdick watched that special sixty or seventy times as a youth as I did – Comedy Is Not Pretty – they’d have had fewer such nagging questions. Though the show had more to say on Socrates than Augustine, I guess.)

This isn’t uncommon, this seeming attack from the outside by the very topic you have no particular intention of being obsessed with or consumed by but which seems to enjoy your company, which seems drawn to you like the disproportionate amounts of dust that surround electronic equipment at home while one is at rehearsal all the damn time. Or not uncommon to me, at least. 

But it does have a way of making one feel like Michael Corleone, as bememed above, is all.

O dainty duck, O dear! – MIDSUMMER, V i

Let me introduce you to my Patronus…

No doubt you are familiar with the Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies animated classic “Duck Amuck” (1953), written by Michael Maltese, voiced by Mel Blanc, scored by Carl Stalling, layed out by Maurice Noble (in some of his finest work this side of the 24 1/2 century) and directed by one of my primary (also prime and primal) artistic influences, Chuck Jones. (This post was very nearly titled “…dearest Chuck…” (Macbeth, III ii) instead, but Bottom won the toss.)

If you haven’t ever seen it, a) I envy the opportunity you’re about to get (though never miss a chance to see it on the big screen) and b) here it is, not in the best visual quality but still magical.

I’ll wait.

Now, as I’ve mentioned one hundred times in self-aggrandizing plug after plug, I’m playing Guildenstern next week in this stellar production of Stoppard’s classic. And what I’m going to suggest to you now, before I get buried in tech for several days and have to lay off the blog while I mumble my four thousand lines to myself for a couple of hours a day, is that the two aforementioned works are as spiritually analogous to each other as the latter is textually with Hamlet.

If you aren’t familiar with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, a) I envy the opportunity you’re about to get to see it on stage (if you’re within driving distance to Louisville, directions are at the link above – January 3-8, curtain times vary) and b) you could always read it, too.

I’ll wait.

I should note here that I’ve always been of the opinion that comedy, especially of the goofier sort, is always a few steps ahead of the avant garde. Beckett is a wonder and a favorite, but Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, & Harry Secombe were pop stars doing the same thing on radio first, not to mention Laurel & Hardy. The following falls into that line of thought.


Rosencrantz & Guildenstern = Daffy split;

The Player = The Pencil/Brush;

Shakespeare = Bugs;

Chuck Jones, et al. = Stoppard.



Now to a few tedious work days of tech, then the relative sport of the playing holidays of performance. And then, as Silence drunkenly sang, “we shall

          doe nothing but eate,

          and make good cheere,

          and praise heaven for the merrie yeere” – Happy 2017, y’all!

Say, has our General met the enemy?–CORIOLANUS, I iv

Say, has our General met the enemy? - Coriolanus, I iv

It’s difficult to tell, the internet being what it is, whether we’ve really lost a disproportionate number of beloved cultural figures this year (though it sure seems true) or whether generationally some of them were statistically due (and were of a generation not particularly lauded for taking care of its physical health). And I am not a person who sits around contemplating mortality all the damned time – surviving surgery does put the thought in your head, but mostly it’s made me more determined to Do The Thing rather than spend my energy worrying about the undiscovered country.

That said, The Thing I’m currently Doing is Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are You-Know-What, so even the simple act of running lines on what was apparently the darkest night in five hundred years this past Solstice means running into:

Let us keep things in proportion. Assume if you like that they’re going to kill him. Well, he is a man, he is mortal, death comes to us all, etc., and consequently he would have died anyway sooner or later. Or to look at it from the social point of view, he is but one man among many, the loss would be well within reason and convenience. And, then again, what is so terrible about death? As Socrates so philosophically put it, since we don’t know what death is, it is illogical to fear it. It might be…very nice. Certainly it is a relief from the burden of life and for the godly a haven and a reward. Or to look at it another way: we are little men, we don’t know the ins and outs of the matter, wheels within wheels, etc. It would be presumptuous of us to interfere with the designs of fate, or even kings.*


…so it’s hard, between work and Twitter, plus the added end of year In Memoriam habit (the best of the genre is always the “TCM Remembers” reel, which I highly recommend, and which I hope they don’t have to update yet again in the next few days; twice is enough), not to have such matter in mind in a year that has seemed kind of cruel even for friends and family, beyond the losses of so many observed-of-all-observers.

And of course I’m torn, as this centering chunk of Stoppard’s Guildenstern could be the admirable kind of stoicism or the other kind – since I’m also working on notations for Julius Caesar, let’s call it the “Brutus showing off how chill and balanced he is in front of his men when he’s already known Portia swallow’d fire for some time” kind. Or whistling, as Blue Valentine-era Tom Waits (and others) would have it, past the graveyard.

There is also the inveterate whinging kind of response – as soon as the Caesar notes are done, I move on to Richard II  and rather than quote a lengthy passage, let’s say starting about here and moving on until he’s actually dead, our title character has little else on his mind or lips. Ros & Guil have plenty of this as well. They cover most options, really.

(I am aware that I’m leaving out Hamlet’s famous contemplations, but honestly, he contemplates just everything, and were there another act nestled between One and Two, he’d have contemplated the recipes of those funeral baked meats and whether they were better hot or leftover. It’s hard to call death his only preoccupation – being preoccupied is his real preoccupation.)

Now, my tendency is to mock…many things, mortality included – the Barely-Inner Groucho is my strongest force (oh, that word). Carrie Fisher’s death was made public a few hours ago, and one of my favorite things about her has always been this (in her case, notorious) B-IG.  It was the real source of her power, not the buns and the blasters and the (still disappointingly clinical) midichlorians.

When I played Feste a few years ago, I got to both sing/play and write a setting for the songs, including this one:

          Come away, come away death,

          And in sad cypresse let me be laide.

          Fye away, fie away breath,

          I am slaine by a faire cruell maide:

          My shrowd of white, stuck all with Yew, O prepare it.

          My part of death no one so true did share it.

          Not a flower, not a flower sweete

          On my blacke coffin, let there be strewne:

          Not a friend, not a friend greet

          My poore corpse, where my bones shall be throwne:

          A thousand thousand sighes to save, lay me ô where

          Sad true lover never find my grave, to weepe there.

…and the choice, what with Feste’s prime goal being survival via remuneration most of the time, when a self-involved ninny like Orsino makes a song request, is going to be the most maudlin (or if you’re reading this in England, Magdalene) thing imaginable. So I composed an ersatz Irish ballad fraught with Melodrame, limping along in 3/4 time, smacking “corpse” and “bones” and “grave” for maximum financial potential. It worked, in the scene at least.

My hope is that if nothing else makes it out of 2016 intact, the mockery will. I have yet to run across any Grand Force (there’s that word again) that cannot be deflated through the pokey pinpricks of laughter at its expense. We’re already seeing how this plays out with would-be human powers in other current affairs, but it certainly works against abstracts when apostrophizing. Or it hasn’t killed me yet, at least.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, Nor the furious winter’s rages…     




*Pardon any inaccurate punctuation – I’m working on these lines and I am NOT going to go find the script to check. If I don’t know that speech now, I certainly don’t want to know that I don’t.

So much as from occasion you may glean/ Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus – HAMLET, II ii

Like this blog, my Twitter account is not widely followed. Not that it should be – it’s mostly the semi-daily ramblings of a guy who cracks wise, follows comedians, & gets mildly-to-very outraged at various sociopolitical happenings. The only real upside for folks who follow me is a No Cat Video guarantee.

I have been, on fewer occasions than one needs a hand’s worth of fingers to count, retweeted by People of Note. One of those instances was a few days ago when I noted something during some light road trip playlisting and the band in question retweeted said observation, which resulted in a weird amount of strangers commenting/favoriting/retweeting and it’s all over now, this phenomenon of something in the neighborhood of twenty or thirty people noticing some damn fool thing I said.

Anyway, I promised to dig deeper into this blithe comment, and herein do I so dig.

En route to Florida, The Wife and I were listening to the 2015 They Might Be Giants album entitled Glean. I am, as I have mentioned here before, also in rehearsals for Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (from which we had a brief break for this pre-arranged trip). These two things are not related.

At least, they weren’t. But I listened too closely.

I will neither dignify this foolishness with a well-footnoted treatise nor any real claims that the band set out in its Dial-A-Song project to make a companion soundtrack to a fifty-year-old absurdist reimagining of Hamlet. But I feel compelled to share a few observations.

We’ll begin with the first track, “Erase”.

          You and I will be together

          When we shed our memory…

          Think of this as solving problems

          That should never have occurred

          Please don’t call it strangulation,

          That is such an ugly word…

          When darlings must be murdered…

          The skeleton that won’t stay down

          The mercy kill that can’t be drowned

If you’re at all familiar with the play (which I’m going to have to assume because I’m not going to try to summarize it and its themes here; I have too many lines to learn), this will stand out to you immediately. The title characters have constant short and long term memory loss, which causes them no end of consternation. Also (spoiler) they die, which also causes them consternation, though with an end in that case. They are themselves problems that should never have occurred, characters who exist for no real reason except perhaps to be one of Hamlet’s many proverbial women in refrigerators.


The second track, “Good to Be Alive” is even easier to apply. It’s about what the title would imply. So there you go. Think of it as an oblique version of Rosencrantz’s Act II speech about being dead in a box, favorite of college auditions for decades.


The third, “Underwater Woman”, can only now make you think of Ophelia:

           No one on the shore will ever know what’s in her heart…

           Laughing uncontrollably, who is she talking to?…

           Intently staring at a photograph…

           No one can tell when she cries…



“Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2”, I hear you cry? Clearly the musicians who, along with the tragedians, are implausibly stuck in barrels for the first half of Act III. Next.


“Answer”, a word with profound significance in R&G, is filled with images of surveillance and agents and spying (the very job Claude & Gert have hired them to do), and also features the quatrain:

           It might seem like a thankless existence

           But don’t lose hope just yet

           You’ll be remembered for your persistence

           And this is the thanks you get

Which is about half of the title characters’ lines in a (pardon)  nutshell. Though they’re more often in the form of a question. But when one is in jeopardy, what else can one expect?


“I Can Help the Next in Line” is a stretch, sure, but the line “Have you been with us in the past?” is not without import here. Also, the extended calling for “Next!” is something that happens repeatedly as R&G wait with increasing desperation for someone, anyone, to enter the stage.


“Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel” I take to be aimed at poor little Alfred, slave to the Player, that purveyor and perverter of “transvestite melodrama” and various over-wordy tales of swordplay, “full of fine cadence and corpses”.

           Such a lot of words



“End of the Rope” – here we are back at strangulation imagery, and while beheading is more likely to be their fate, it should be noted that even the cover to the published version of the play includes a rope-as-ampersand in the title. Hanging is in no way too good for them.

           You’re gone, but I’m still there

           Clawing at the air

           Now it’s curtains for me

           And I’ll spend eternity

           Doing joyless cartwheels in the void…

is as close to Guildenstern’s last words as one is likely to encounter via serendipity (cf. the whole first scene of the play and its thoughts on coin-spinning and the laws of probability). And

           How dumb can you be?

is something Guildenstern asks Rosencrantz repeatedly in the form of “Are you stupid?”, “What’s the matter with you?”, and several other withering phrases.


“All the Lazy Boyfriends” is Hamlet’s song, I think.

           Who needs motivation when you live in your head?…

           Did you say out loud that you think you’ve lost your edge?

           Begin again, begin again…

(“What’s he doing?” “Talking.” “To himself?” “Yes.”

And furthermore, “”He might have had the edge.”

As well as the repeated variations on “practically starting from scratch…”)


The very first words of “Unpronounceable” are “Time stopped”, which is but one of Guildenstern’s theories on their plight as it relates to the constant heads-uppery of the coins they toss. But then we get to the meat…

           Your name it is unpronounceable

           Distorted and illegible

           I never figured out what that was…

(On trying to figure out which is named R and which G, after realizing no one can tell them apart, including themselves: “…people knew who I was and if they didn’t they asked and I told them.” “You did, the trouble is, each of them is…plausible, without being instinctive.” They never do figure out what that was, not with real certainty, even with only two to choose from.)


The wordplay and poetic lic-/nons-ense of “Hate the Villanelle” works more as a tribute to both this play and its verse-laden source material. “Words, words, they’re all we have to go on.”


Though at first I was thinking of “I’m a Coward” as another Hamlet song, pulled right out of the “rogue and peasant slave” speech, it quickly became more Stoppardian via Laurel and Hardy or Abbot and Costello or whichever duo you think these two most resemble.

           I need a confidant

           A co-conspirator

           To turn the tide

           On my losing side…


“Aaa” is about unpleasant surprises of the sort that result in both physical and existential danger, with lots of screaming. Ditto R&G.

           And what am I made of?

           I’m gonna find out now





“Let Me Tell You About My Operation” is about a procedure in which

           Doctors removed your memory

tying back into the constant memory loss (“We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and the presumption that once our eyes watered.” I am so incredibly proud to have typed that from memory right now, because getting off book for this damned show is slowly killing me.)

More importantly, this song provides the only reference to Stoppard’s other obvious source material, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which I am not currently memorizing but still know a “tray bong” when I hear it.


Which brings us to the final and title track, the instrumental “Glean”, which is a word I say seventy damned times in this show, almost as much as the actor playing Rosencrantz says “heads”. I don’t know that we ever do quite “glean what afflicts him” beyond the profoundly obvious, because we’re too afflicted ourselves to solve that pampered mutterers problems, regardless of his uncledad’s potential financial generosity.


That’s it. That’s too much. That’s enough. That’s all.

Seafaring men, sir. They say they have letters for you. – HAMLET IV vi

In pulling out the previous post title (and remembering one from a couple of months ago regarding the same scene), I’m was hit by the notion that the reason scenes like that are often trimmed mercilessly or cut entirely (besides of course the human bladder) is the very reason people love particular episodes of the better episodes of this New Golden Age of Television we’re in.

Ask fans of Game of Thrones or Mad Men or what have you for a favorite or at least a monumental and point-turning episode and they’ll frequently mention “that one where they dropped sixteen of the seventeen plotlines we usually jump around among and focused on just one for the whole hour”. (“The Watchers on the Wall” and “The Suitcase” episodes of the aforementioned are good respective examples. You no doubt have your own favorites.)

But the moment the Burbage Break hits a play like Macbeth, the whining begins. “That’s not our lead actor; that’s not the main story; can’t we get rid of most of that and get back to a star turn speech or a swordfight?

The Burbage Break, for people who don’t do this all the time, is a colloquial term (one of many – I’ve heard it called other things, but I like plain “Burbage” most) for that moment around Act IV when Shakespeare et al. would leave a nice and probably contractually dictated gap in which the inevitably Richard Burbage-portrayed protagonist would be captured by pirates or something and the actor himself could go have a pee or an ale or a shag or just a seat before coming back refocused for the big swordfight that led to his temporary demise, twice Wednesdays.* And the candles would get their wicks trimmed for the indoor shows, and the audience would have to live with other stuff going on.

(In the midst or rehearsals for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, I noticed that even in that play’s Act III version of what happens during Hamlet’s Burbage, Hamlet sleeps through most of it. All that nattering is exhausting. And even during his break, Hamlet won’t butt out – he sends a long letter poor Horatio has to just stand and read on stage. There are other people in your nutshell, Hamlet. Make room.)

All this is hearsay, of course, but the fact remains that these rest spots do exist for the big feather-in-the-cap tragic roles – Shakespeare was a practical man; just look at his grain storage.

And that Other Stuff gets fascinating. You don’t notice Lear disappears for several scenes because of the onstage eye-gouging. Hamlet’s gone? Groovy – let’s watch a woman go stark raving mad. Malcolm & Macduff, though, bless their hearts. I’ve seen their long (long) scene done really well, but there’s a long while between the baby-murdering that distracts us from the start of Macbeth’s teatime and Macduff’s grief about something we knew already as Macbeth finishes his biscuit. And most of that long while is a not-even-argument-exactly purity test given in real time. It’s a staging challenge when compared to blinding a man with one’s thumbs.

So TV producers out there, hear me out: do a four or five hour episodic adaptation of one of the plays (instead of doing four plays in that span coughhollowcrowncough); let your star off for Episode Four and suddenly everyone will be all excited about Malcolm and the lingering visuals of the healing hands of Edward the Confessor and of Rosse’s long ride to England and no one will even notice the big jerk was gone.

…I suspect the lack of break for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern was in the back of my head when I thought of this. They don’t rest. There’s no ale. And I’m blogging when I should be memorizing. Back in a bit.



*I know, I know, they didn’t do twice Wednesdays then. We barely do it now, relatively. It’s an expression. The internet demands such a lot of preemptive defenses against literality.