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 been through poverty and riches,...
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