As its title suggests, Paul Rudnick’s 1991 play I Hate Hamlet deals with the question of just how relevant William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is for modern audiences. The play centers around a young actor who has just earned fame and fortune on a television show about doctors and is apprehensive about returning to New York to play Hamlet in the prestigious Shakespeare in Central Park festival. To add to his insecurities, his realtor has rented him an apartment once inhabited by John Barrymore, who many consider to have given one of the greatest performances of Hamlet in the twentieth century. A séance brings the ghost of John Barrymore back to the apartment where he once lived. Barrymore offers guidance to the young actor, who has to decide between the easy money that he could make with a new television series and the confidence to be gained by facing the world’s most difficult acting challenge. Rudnick fills the play with laughs, as he lightly satirizes greedy realtors, vacuous Hollywood producers, pretentious but well-meaning actresses, and hard-drinking, womanizing actors.
I Hate Hamlet opened on Broadway on April 8, 1991, at the Walter Kerr theater. In its initial run, Nicol Williamson, playing the ghost of John Barrymore, immersed himself into his part, channeling the famous rogue with such fury that he once hurt another actor during an onstage duel, causing an understudy to step in for act 2. Since its initial run, the play has been a favorite for small theaters, enjoyed for its wit and its reflection on the actor’s art in the modern, commercialized world.