Monday, August 16, 2010

Day 130: A play about nothing?

I don’t get Hamlet? I’ve seen about four film versions, Kenneth Brannagh, Mel Gibson, Nicol Williamson and “Larry”, I even had a contemporary version in my hands at the DVD store but put it back on the shelf (thanks to the voice inside of me yelling “no,no, please don’t make us watch Hamlet in da ‘hood”). I’ve seen two stage productions: Richard Roxburgh (Passion & In The Winter Dark) in the Belvoir Street version here in Sydney and an Old Vic production in London with Ben Whishaw (Perfume & Bright Star). I’ve even sat through a one-man Japanese Noh theatre interpretation of the “to be or not to be” monologue and if you know Noh, then you’ll know how long that took to get through (there certainly is Noh business like......) and there were times , let me tell you, that I wanted “...not to be..” during that performance.

So last night, in preparation for writing this piece on the Tragic Plot I slipped the Franco Zefferelli version - with Mel, Glenn Close, Helena Bonham-Carter, Ian Holm, Alan Bates and a ton of other notables - into the DVD player and then realised that this was not how I wanted to spend my Sunday evening. To be honest, I would have preferred to sit there jabbing a compass into my arm, and I had good reason.

See, just last week I’d stumbled upon DVD treasure - a copy of the complete fourth season of Seinfeld, at my local public library and season four is the one referred to as “the breakthrough season”, the 24 episodes that elevated Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer from cult favourites to ratings sensation and on to Emmy winners.

Season four is jam-packed with some of the best episodes: it begins with the two-parter where George and Jerry go out to LA to find Kramer who is accused of being the Smog Strangler, then there’s the three, of four, ep’s that feature Crazy Joe Davola, Jerry and George getting the pilot commission from NBC to write a sitcom “about nothing”, George meeting Susan, Kramer burning down her father’s cabin with Cuban cigars, her father’s secret love letters from John Cheever....the Seinfeld hits in this series just keep on coming. There’s the the episode where George's mother catches him “treating his body like it were an amusement park”, provoking “the test”. There was no contest, Elsinore vs The Bubble Boy, whadaya gonna do??

Some of my greatest sound bite philosophies have been borrowed from Seinfeld, one in particular crops up in Episode 12 ('The Airport'). George is thinking of breaking up with Susan and can’t make up his mind what to do? Kramer asks him what “the little man inside says?” George responds that “the little man inside doesn’t know” to which Kramer replies “the little man inside ALWAYS knows.” If only Hamlet had watched a few episodes of Seinfeld, things might not have turned out quite so rotten in the state of Denmark.

The little voice inside always knows, or at least my little voice inside always knows. I was ‘filmed- out’ last night and my little voice told me so; “enough of the erudite filmmakers” it yelled, “stuff Laertes, we want Uncle Leo”. Sometimes I go through periods where I vow that for the next few months I will only watch the films or read the books that I WANT to see or read, not the ones that I SHOULD see or read. However, I’m as guilty as the next person at telling you what you “should’ see, how many times have I said such a thing here; ignore me in the future.

I know that I should revere the play that is Hamlet, arguably the greatest dramatic piece in the Western canon, but I’m afraid that it’s yet to bang my gong. Chekhov.....well that’s a different story altogether and I’ve banged that gong a-plenty here. And now that I think of it, is not Seinfeld, at it’s best, Chekhovian? People are always saying that “nothing happens” in Chekhov’s plays!

I don’t know what it is? I just don’t get lathered up the way that others seem to about Hamlet. Every time an actor, new to the part, is going to take it on, the papers and weekend supplements seem to be full of self-absorbtion about “his” take on the the dirty Dane and, quite frankly, it sends me gaga (loony not Lady). Now, the episode in season four of Seinfeld where Jerry indulges in some “dirty talk” with his girlfriend of the day, that’s something else entirely and it should be added to that “canon”. I could never do the “dirty talk” episode justice here, and if you’re not a Seinfeld fan or aren’t familair with that ep., then what I’m about to say will make absolutely no sense whatsoever; I just wonder if the young Prince might have faired a little better, had he said to Ophelia “Are they the panties your mother laid out for you?”

Day #130 Tip: The Tragic Plot
Over the last week and a bit, I’ve covered off twelve different plot forms that have been reworked and revisited by writers over the years and down through the centuries and have been ably abetted (probably it’s been more me doing the abetting) by the words, thoughts and ideas of Norman Friedman (‘Form and Meaning in Fiction’, University of Georgia Press, 1975). I find these plot forms of great help, just like I do, mastering the conventions of genre.

If I choose to write a maturation plot or use a pathetic plot within the context of one of my screenplays, or in helping someone else with one of their scripts, the study of these story paradigms and what the “greats” have done before me can often mean the difference between moving ahead (in my work) nourished with a little understanding and confidence or groping about in the dark, unsure of my footing.

Friedman describes the Tragic Plot as “ of the most notable of artistic achievements, and instances may almost be numbered unfortunately, on the fingers of one hand”. He goes on to cite the examples of Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Othello, Hamlet, Julius Caesar and King Lear.

This is just some of how he describes such a plot: “ ...when such a man suffers misfortune, part or all of which he is responsible for through some serious mistake or error in judgement on his part, and subsequently discovers his error only too late, we have the tragic plot, strictly speaking. There is here, long-range fear provoked by threatened misfortune; but there is also here a more complicated relationship among fortune, character and thought, resulting in that sort of catharsis, where our fear and then our pity are followed by a sense of justice and emotional release, since the tragic protagonist not only has had a hand in his own downfall but has also come to recognize that involvement.”

“His ensuing agony of spirit therefore, although frequently resulting in the death of an otherwise good man, is somehow deserved; is indeed the best possible end for him, given what he has done or suffered; or is even a necessary atonemnet for his somewhat imperfect or arrogant nature.”

Just re-reading that pasage and writing it out here, gives me an inch more understanding about Hamlet.....I won’t give up on him just yet.

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