Some people like Paul Rudnick’s play I Hate Hamlet because it tries so hard to please its audiences, while others resent it for just the same reason. The play, a favorite of community theater and college productions, addresses serious issues about art and integrity, but it does not address them with much depth. With topics that range from high culture to television commercials, it has something for everyone, and little to offend anyone.
Critics have faulted Rudnick for taking such a superficial approach to his material, but it could just as well be said that the play is successful as a work of art, because it achieves exactly what it sets out to do. I Hate Hamlet aims to please, and loading it up with too much moral or sociological complexity would detract from its ability to do so. But being light does not mean the same thing as being free of content. As it stands, the play contains some clear contradictions. The question that arises is whether taking contradictory positions is a weakness or a strength of the play. Purists argue against taking contradictory positions in the same work, but the fact remains that an inconsistence stance can allow a writer to, at least potentially, be all things to all people.
The main thing about I Hate Hamlet is that it is a comedy. This means two things. The first is that the play must end on a happy note, with all of the problems solved, so that audiences can walk away from the theater focused on the good time they had, not on issues of greater importance. This is the comic tradition, though it is seldom enforced as powerfully and obviously as it is here. One would be hard put to find another play that practically forces audiences to applaud as a part of the script, as Rudnick does by having his two leads come out, face the audience, and bow, slowly and grandly.
The other ramification of being a comedy is that this is a play that wants laughs, and lots of them. It is a work where jokes, zingers, one-liners, witticisms and wise-cracks dominate over any other element. Rudnick is not afraid, or possibly not even unable, to have a character say something that would not be consistent with what they should be feeling if it means a chance to say something funny. Would the ghost of a Shakespearean actor, returned to earth to teach another actor to play Hamlet well, quip about how he would take the ridiculous television role that he has just seen the other actor turn down? Would the spirit of a dead mother respond to her daughter’s psychic call only when she hears that “the rates have gone down?” Would any sexually frustrated lover complain that his girlfriend’s desire to retain her virginity is like “show business for Mormons?” Unlikely as dialog like this would be in the real world, it is just the way people talk in the certain kind of light comedy that Rudnick has presented here. He can only be faulted for his jokes if they are inconsistent; as it is, however, the humor, far from intruding on the play, is the play. The rest—characters, situation, setting, action, and the other aspects—just serve to create a vehicle for delivering the jokes.
Some critics charge the play with a failure to be all that it should be, pointing out that its simple concept (ghost of Barrymore returns to help a struggling actor) and the action (modern actor learns to appreciate stagecraft) offer weak reasons for audiences to stay in their seats for two hours. Audiences, however, do not seem to mind. The jokes are frequent and clever enough to justify the night at the theater. To those seeking nothing more than amusement, the events and characterizations are only useful in that they make a play out of I Hate Hamlet; almost as good would be four or five comics, standing around on stage, trying to one-up one another. From an entertainment perspective, the trouble is not that the laughs get in the way of the play, but that the play gets in the way of the laughs.
But I Hate Hamlet is a play, after all. Regardless of how little audience members expect beyond mere entertainment, there are still dramatic elements that can heighten or flatten the experience. The first of these, of course, is a compelling lead character. In raising the ghost of John Barrymore, Rudnick has brought together elements that all—audiences, actors and writers—can appreciate. Rudnick’s Barrymore is a charming rogue—a lover, a drunk, an artist. True to the actual career of John Barrymore, he is both a superb actor and a miserable failure. He has...
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In keeping with one of the major themes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet is a contrast between both old and new, the value of Shakespearean theater versus the instant gratification of television fame. Rudnick draws on historical figure John Barrymore for his inspiration, an actor captivated by the role of Shakespeare’s prince. A sentimental, lighthearted social commentary, Rudnick’s Hamlet is not a tragedy, does not seek to redeem or preach a heavy handed message. But it does illuminate the value of the genre to which it speaks. Says the playwright: “I Hate Hamlet celebrates the theater, in all its artifice and happy dementia. May the Barrymore panache rule all productions.”
Rudnick’s play introduces Andrew Rally, an unemployed actor who has previously enjoyed great celebrity status in his role as a physician on television. When Andrew is offered the lead in Hamlet, his girlfriend swoons, his broker cheers and his agent campaigns for Andrew to take the part. But Andrew does not share the same enthusiasm. When girlfriend Dierdre tells him he must accept the honorable challenge, he responds: “But why? Just because it’s supposed to be this ultimate challenge? Because everyone’s supposed to dream of playing Hamlet?” Dierdre, however, continues to push through Andrew’s protests, ignoring his objections based on his short lived studies in acting school and his ultimate decision to leave to become a hack actor on a primetime series.
Dierdre’s insistence on his participation in “the most beautiful play ever written” becomes part of a clever banter exposing the potential flaw in Dierdre’s thinking. Her description of the play is one of heavy despair, of tragedy, “It’s about how awful life is, and how everything gets betrayed,” declares Dierdre. “But then Hamlet tries to make things better. And he dies!” Andrew responds humorously, “Which tells us . . .,” questioning the play’s redeeming value. To Andrew, playing what is historically identified as Shakespeare’s most challenging character is not necessarily the boost his career needs, it’s potentially career suicide. Modern television did not demand any real talent, claims Andrew, “I had the right twinkle, the demographic appeal.”
With Andrew, and with Gary, Rudnick’s work offers an illuminating contemporary perspective on Shakespearean theater. Gary can only respond to Hamlet, commenting, “Whoa, God, other centuries. Like, people who weren’t me.” He is Rudnick’s pop culture icon. Obnoxious, at times calculating, he is not remiss in playfully admitting it. He is completely self-absorbed, and primarily motivated by his own self interest rather than by Andrew’s happiness. Playing devil’s advocate, Gary reduces the production of Shakespeare in Central Park to “algebra on stage,” calling it “snack theater” or “Shakespeare for squirrels.” He continues to plead with Andrew to come to his senses, to realize that purchasing fine art is intrinsically more valuable than trying to emulate it, painting a portrait of his young protégé as one doomed to basement productions of Chekov scheduled between AA meetings.
In this clever juxtaposition of ideas of what is really art versus contemporary entertainment, Gary dismantles or tears apart tradition by challenging the idea that Hamlet, by virtue of its sophistication, is a higher, more noble art form. For as tactless, and as tacky as he is, Gary is plugged in, turned on, and tuned in to the entertainment demands of pop culture and what it means to be successful. He identifies happiness with materialism, and truly believes he is not only acting in his best interests, but in Andrew’s as well. And he exposes the follies of dreamers, like Dierdre, who, spurred on by sentimentality, live in a world of high-flying ideals, completely out of touch with reality.
Barrymore is Gary’s alter ego and an advocate for the arts. After hearing Andrew declare his dislike for Hamlet, Barrymore appears, his mission to reform his understudy, to convince him to embrace the role he so covets. Unlike Gary, Barrymore detests modern theater. In a conversation with Andrew, Barrymore likens the “introduction of truth” into modern theater to such artifice as “synthetic fibers” and the “GE Kitchen of Tomorrow.” He sees Andrew at a crossroads, having to make the choice between a timeless role as Hamlet or television’s slick marketing hype, asking “What will you be—artist, or lunchbox?” And...
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As a play, I Hate Hamlet is a comedy, a melodrama, a send-up of tradition and grandeur, a contrast between high and low culture, yet as a commentary on many of the ideas that pervade contemporary popular culture, it remains a biting satire. From the opening scene, there exists a juxtaposition between the characters’ expectations and their methods for realizing them, a dichotomy that makes for amusing, playful entertainment. Often, it seems that willpower alone is enough to communicate with the dead or transform the career of a TV actor into that of a theatrical star, but, alas, this is not so. To be fair, Rudnick satirizes not only the aspirations of his protagonist but those of the other characters as well. By...
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