Dramatic Moments – where theatre and literature collide #4

Finding the stage in the novel or other work of literature.
Excerpt from Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

She had thought that coming here, watching this, might give her a glimpse into her husband’s heart. It might have offered her a way back to him…  As she rode to London, she had thought that perhaps now she might understand his distance, his silence, since their son’s death. She has the sense now that there is nothing in her husband’s heart to understand. It is filled only with this: a wooden stage, declaiming players, memorised speeches, adoring crowds, costumed fools. She has been chasing a phantasm, a will-o’-the-wisp, all this time.

She is gathering her skirts, pulling her shawl about her, getting ready to turn her back on her husband and his company, when her attention is drawn by a boy walking onto the stage. A boy, she thinks, knotting and reknotting her shawl…

…He has yellow hair which stands up at the brow, a tripping buoyant tread, an impatient toss to his head. Agnes lets her hands fall. The shawl slips from her fingers but she doesn’t stoop to pick it up. She fixes her gaze upon this boy; she stares and stares as if she may never look away from him….

…It is him. It is not him. It is him. It is not him. The thought swings like a hammer through her. Her son, her Hamnet, or Hamlet, is dead, buried in the churchyard. He died while he was still a child. He is now only white stripped bones in a grave. Yet this is him, grown into a near-man, as he would be now, had he lived, on the stage, walking with her son’s gait, talking in her son’s voice, speaking words written for him by her son’s father…

… The very same lean and tilt of the head, the gesture of pressing a knuckle to the mouth when he hears something he doesn’t immediately comprehend. How can it be? … How can this young man know how to be her Hamnet when he never saw or met the boy?

The knowledge settles on her like a fine covering of rain, as she moves towards the players, threading her way through the packed crowds: her husband has pulled off a manner of alchemy. He has found this boy, instructed him, shown him, how to speak, how to stand, how to lift his chin, like this, like that. He has rehearsed and primed and prepared him. She tries to imagine these rehearsals, how her husband could have schooled him so exactly, so precisely and how it might have felt when the boy got it right, when he first got the walk, that heart breaking turn of the head. Did her husband have to say, Make sure your doublet is undone, with the ties hanging down, and your boots should be scuffed, and now wet your hair so it stands up, just so?

Hamlet, here on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dead. He is both alive and dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. As the ghost talks, she sees that her husband, in writing this, in taking the role of the ghost, has changed places with his son. He has taken his son’s death and made it his own: he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place. ‘O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!’ murmurs her husband’s ghoulish voice, recalling the agony of his death. He has, Agnes sees, done what any father would wish to do, to exchange his child’s suffering for his own, to take his place, to offer himself up in his child’s stead so that the boy might live.

She will say all this to her husband, later, after the play has ended, after the final silence has fallen, after the dead have sprung up to take their places in the line of players at the edge of the stage. After her husband and the boy, their hands joined, bow and bow, facing into the storm of applause. After the stage is left deserted, no longer a battlement, no longer a graveyard, no longer a castle… after they have stood together in the open circle of the playhouse, until it is as empty as the sky above it.

(excerpt from Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell)

April 9, 2024