A one-act play by Sanjeev Mohan
Scene: A one-bedroom-hall apartment with all the paraphernalia of middle class life visible: wooden furniture, a battered TV set, pots and pans near a kitchen sink. A middle-aged man appears to be looking for a book. He finds it and proceeds towards an old armchair. He is around 50, balding, with spectacles perched on his nose. As he sits down, we notice that he is reading The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. He starts as if he has heard a knock on the door. The entire speech is a soliloquy, spoken as if another person is present but we see no one.
MAN: Come in. O, it’s you. Come in. What brings you here? This (indicates the book in his hand)? I’m just re-reading my Shakespeare. Yes, indeed, it’s still my Shakespeare. After all, what else would a poor accountant know. I haven’t the benefits of your kind education, have I? Oxford … No, no, not that. Let me remember, ah yes, Pennsylvania … no? Well, then Columbia? Sorry, I said I’m sorry, didn’t I? You still haven’t learned to take a joke.
(Shuffles about, searching for something)
Would you like some tea? No? So what have you been up to?
Directing a new play, eh? I thought so. For you plays have to be enacted; you can’t recreate them in your mind. The best playhouse is not the Experimental or Prithvi, it’s here (taps his head). So what’s the play about? What Hamlet! Again? Sure brings back old memories. Who’s playing the Enigmatic Prince? …. WHAT! Are you out of your mind? I’m not touching that play. And besides, you have already seen me interpret it, so why do you need me? All right, all right, I’m not going to start reopening old wounds; but you yourself had said that you didn’t wish to see me again. That you could do any play without my help. Yes, I know I was rude but then watching you pick my brains over every scene and hogging all the credit later … Okay, okay, I’ll stop but tell me why come to me now. You’re well established and have all the fame you’ll ever need. What could you possibly want from an old bhaiya like me? Yes, that’s what you called me. Never mind, who told me. “An old fogey and an uncouth bhaiya to boot, who would be better off leaving Shakespeare to his betters.” Those were your very words. What “betters” You? … Of course I’m bitter, what else did you expect when you replaced me with a younger, more energetic man…What was the term you used…Yes, someone with a “fresh” outlook. Well, he most certainly was fresh… and from what I hear, so were you. What the hell are you getting so worked about? Want to know who told me? The same people whom you so trustingly share confidences… let me tell you, you may have studied (or what’s that ever so-LilBrit term you use– “read” literature.) “I read literature at Oxford.” (mimes about) You may have a degree in literature but you couldn’t block a single scene. Not dramatically. No, definitely not. Unless, of course, you’ve got yourself yet another Mohan Prakash. All right, all right, tell me about your proposal. But don’t give me all that gaff about it benefiting me. The only person who benefits is you. (A long pause as he appears to listen) A foreign trip, a festival of Shakespeare-in-translation in Edinburgh. My, my, aren’t we ambitious? So you want this poor, uncouth bhaiya to help you translate and adapt Hamlet, so that you can take your troupe to UK and strut around as the Savior of the English language in India, keeping its syntactical bloodline as pure as your colonial masters. You’ll never change. There are so many translations around– you could easily pick up one. I’m sorry, I forgot you can’t even read Hindi properly. But then why Hamlet in Hindi, do it in German. Forgotten all your Deutsche, mein Herr. All right, all right, keep your shirt on. Yes, I have been drinking, like I always do– with my own money, on my own time. Just a mere statement. No veiled insinuations here, as if there could ever be unveiled insinuations. Call yourself an English major… never mind what I said. I’ll help you but I will most definitely not play the part. You know very well what it does to me. Besides, just look at me: do I look like a bewildered stripling? Bewildered maybe but a stripling never. Okay, let me think it over. I’ll call you in a day or two. (flops into his chair, broods for a while, and then abruptly gets up)
Why should I play Hamlet again? For me and most of my generation Hamlet is the archetypal Indian male: passionate, dithering, insecure, an enemy to himself, a bully, a coward, a victim, gratefully repressed, arrogant repressor, psychotic, schizophrenic–a number of selves operating at once. One merely needs to introduce a Hamlet-like character into a play (our films do it all the time) for the audience to obtain an immediate identification with the diverse aspects of his varied personae. I for one always find myself being drawn into Hamlet’s prevailing mode of expression–that is, depression. Manic. A sense of deep, enveloping despair that makes me sink deeper and deeper… So why did I agree to do the play and why do I read it so often? Well, in the beginning I used to experience catharsis, after which an enormous sense of relief. But now it’s becoming more and more difficult to achieve this kind of a release. Once the mood catches me, it grips me like a fever. One thing leads to another and soon you have a full-blown fit of depression. No I’m normally not depressive; in fact, I’m an unabashed optimist. I’m able to bear fortune’s slingshots and arrows like the best of us. Unlike the Pensive Prince of Denmark, I’m a positivist in terms of philosophy: the reason for the world’s existence is not a matter of doubt but affirmation.
(turns and recites) “The righteous man rejoices in this world, he rejoices in the next; he rejoices in both. He rejoices and becomes delighted seeing the purity of his own actions.” (From The Dhammapada, translated by S. Radhakrishnan, did y’know that?) I accept the cycle of birth and death, of eternal renewal with the hope of ultimate release. I believe in action. For me action is far more important than speculation or thought. I believe in expressing myself through action rather than words. You could say I’m the very antithesis of Hamlet– though if you say that you’ll be wrong, for Hamlet is the antithesis of himself … (a change of mood, a bit disgusted with himself). Who am I fooling? I am not an unabashed optimist or an unabashed anything. I’m every bit as fragmented as Shakespeare’s hero, every bit a Nowhere Man, if anything. It’s just that I don’t get into fits of depression if I stay off plays like this. Once I start entering the persona of Hamlet, I metamorphose into an illogical creature unable to control the sum of my composite parts, unable to differentiate between good and evil. I begin to negate all that is positive in myself. Nothing is of any real consequence, since good and evil are the same: the ends and not the means matter and it doesn’t matter, if one accepts that all matter is only destined for ultimate destruction. Why act, why express one self when words are all we have. It’s okay to express a character like Hamlet in a printed text; but if you try to internalize him, all hell breaks loose. I only read the Manic Prince now, mostly after The Tempest or The Merchant of Venice or something feelgood that would act as a foil for the passions aroused by the antics of the Mercurial prince. What I’m trying to explain is just how dangerous it is to take Hamlet–or for that matter, any play–too seriously. Let us suppose that a rational analysis of Hamlet’s malady is possible. After his father’s death, Hamlet returns to Denmark, where he learns of possible foul play, palace intrigues being the order of the day in medieval Europe. However, as he suffers from the malaise of Academia, he is incapable of raising an army to avenge his slain father. What we need here is a man of action not a ditherer. Nevertheless, Hamlet feels he needs to determine beyond all possible shadow of doubt that fact that a dastardly crime had been committed. One day, he hears of a ghost roaming the castle battlements. (Under controlled conditions, it is possible to conjecture this as the product of the collective imaginings of the guards). Hamlet, full of remorse at not having avenged his father’s death, is deranged. He feels that the ghost speaks to him. What probably happens is that Hamlet’s personality has begun to split or come apart. On the one hand, he embodies the clear-headed, rational student; on the other, a merciless, avenging son. So now we now have two Hamlets. It is also possible that unknown to Hamlet, it was this other Hamlet who was roaming the battlements in the guise of his father’s ghost. Around this time, another element, a most powerful one for a son, comes into play. He is outraged at what he perceives as his mother’s lack of modesty in marrying his uncle even before his father had been properly laid to rest. A liaison outside the bounds of propriety in his eyes. This–given the ancient taboos against incest–is a most devastating emotion, one that the grieving Hamlet cannot suppress. So, another persona is let loose. We have now three conflicting emotions in the Irresolute Prince, each of which refuses to reconcile with the others. Linked with incest is a hatred of women or misogyny, which leads him to repel Ophelia. In short, yet another self has entered the conflict. His avenging self-goads Hamlet to counter palace intrigue with a scheming, callous, Machiavellian manipulation of power to achieve his ends. This aspect of the Schizophrenic Scion soon starts to dominate him; to the extent that he loses all sense of good and evil. But contemporaneously, Hamlet the Connoisseur of High Art is still very much at large, which inspires him to philosophise in his justly-famous soliloquies and to deploy drama to coax out the guilty conscience of his uncle. Art has been subordinated to politics and become its handmaiden. After the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia, Hamlet is plagued by a stricken conscience. This wreaks a major change in him, for now the death-wish has entered him. By now, he has so many conflicting personalities that he is no longer in control of his selves. The persona, that surfaces in response to a particular stimulus, takes over, until he is emotionally drained or the stimulus subsides. What in another case would have been a simple case of Murder and Revenge turns into a veritable battlefield of clashing personae. Remember that, other than Horatio, Hamlet had few whom he could trust. He has no emotional support, whatsoever. He had been fighting a losing battle on all fronts. And since he had been visited by the death-wish, he was destined to die soon. He himself wills his destruction; some other means would have presented itself, if not at the hands of Laertes. (a long pause) Hamlet, the ‘character’ in the play dissolves once the curtain falls. But what about the various Hamlets the reader or viewer creates within himself. Where do they go? (another significant pause) Some divine playwright is not directing my destiny. My life has not been written out in neat scenes that will not burst open with turbulence. No blank verse transforms my traumas into beauty; no poetry regulates the rhythms of my speech. I can’t flip back to the first page once I’ve reached the end. The audience may achieve catharsis on watching me on stage but what about me? No, let my warring selves be subjugated by my ego, my own idea of who I am. My identity. I exist. I insist I exist. And I wish to continue to exist.
So, mein Herr, I will not, leh werde nicht ever play Hamlet again.