Paul Rudnick Essay - Critical Essays


Like British playwright Joe Orton, Paul Rudnick has written primarily about homosexuality, but Rudnick parodies or satirizes what exists rather than creating original material. He targets conservatives, whether they are religious fundamentalists, Republicans, or Reaganite politicians. His comic gifts tend to consist of one-liners and outrageous skits, rather than carefully crafted plots. For the most part, his characters are a bit stereotypical, but occasionally they achieve complexity and make his audiences see that the problems he discusses are not limited to homosexuals but have much broader applications.

I Hate Hamlet

In his introduction to the published play I Hate Hamlet, Rudnick writes that the source of his play was an advertisement for an apartment listed in The New York Times. He rented the apartment, which formerly belonged to legendary actor John Barrymore. It is the setting for the play, which Rudnick claims is about his and the United States’ ambivalent feelings about High Art and the classics. The play mixes comedy and tragedy, the present and the past, and High Art and television—all within the apartment, where the “ghost” of Barrymore resides and where the fate and identity of young actor Andrew Rally are determined.

Rudnick’s stage directions call for the apartment to look like “a Hollywood interpretation of a King Arthur domicile; think Hollywood Jacobean.” When Felicia Dantine, New York realtor, persuades Andrew Rally, a popular television actor on LA Medical, to take the apartment, she pairs Rally with Barrymore: “John Barrymore, the legendary star! And now you, Andrew Rally.” In the course of the play, Rally discovers that he and Barrymore, who initially is visible only to Rally, have much in common and that he really is a Shakespearean actor rather than a television star. Rally has come to New York to play Hamlet, and for both Rally and Barrymore, playing Hamlet is a defining moment. In addition, both play under assumed names: Blythe (Barrymore) and Rallenberg (Rally).

Barrymore intends to save Rally from making the same mistake he did, going commercial. He tells Lillian Troy, an old flame with whom he had an affair in the apartment, that Andrew is “my cosmic lunge at redemption.” Like the Ancient Mariner, Barrymore “cannot return.” He “will not be accepted until my [his] task is accomplished.”

In this kind of morality play (Rudnick draws freely from theatrical history), Barrymore as Good Angel is juxtaposed to Gary Peter Lefkowitz, a crass but somehow likeable Hollywood agent who equates William Shakespeare with “algebra on stage.” Gary wants Rally to return to Hollywood to star as Jim Corman, a high-school teacher in Night School. Rudnick has acknowledged that “Gary expresses my distrust and more honest feelings about High Art.”

By the time the play is staged, Rally has become like Barrymore, a change reflected in his altering the apartment to be a “truly medieval lair.” Before the opening night performance, Barrymore’s advice to Rally is taken verbatim from Hamlet’s counsel to the players in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Barrymore also offers Rally advice about how to cope with Deirdre, Rally’s virginal girlfriend. As Rally becomes Hamlet, he becomes irresistible to Deirdre, so that sexual and acting performances are equated. Rally knows that he was “awful” opening night and would seem ready to accept Gary’s television offer, but because he “got” the “to be” soliloquy, he decides to go ahead with the other “eight thousand lines.” As the play ends, Rally is imitating Barrymore’s legendary, theatrical bow to the audience.


Jeffrey, which Rudnick describes as a play about “love, death, and wisecracks,” is...

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