Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Dead Father's Club--Hamlet and Others

Summer is the designated season for Shakespeare, at least in California, where we have a variety of festivals going on. In keeping with the season, I recently read Matt Haig's The Dead Father's Club, which is a modern day rendering of Hamlet, although mind you, Hamlet lives in an English suburb and is only eleven years old, which renders his take on the situation slightly more sympathetic.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and will look forward to more from Haig, who has a new one out called The Labrador Pact . I think I enjoyed his divergences from the plot as much as the strict attention to detail, but won't elaborate lest I give too much away.

In thinking about posting this, I was struck by the way I am drawn to Hamlet novels, and all things Hamlet in general. I had a professor and mentor, Mary Holmes, who had the theory that you should winnow down your undergraduate study to just one Shakespeare play, and mine would definitely be Hamlet. Although my sister and aunt were both riveted by the Olivier production, I found the Kenneth Branagh movie to be my own personal transformative experience. But I have read all sorts of things as well--not as a scholar or actor or anyone who would have some claim to expertise, but just because I love the play. Just in case there are any other Hamlet lovers reading this, I will offer a few more works that tend to illuminate the play.

First of all, there is Michael Innes Hamlet, Revenge!, a mystery set in a classic English country house, where the characters are busy staging a production of Hamlet. Michael Innes was a psuedonym for J.I.M. Stewart, a professor of English literature at places like Oxford. So the scholarship behind the funny but absorbing mystery is of a high level.

Another novel that was pointed in my direction is The Prince of West End Avenue by Alan Isler. This one is set in a Manhattan Jewish retirement community. Ostensibly a comic novel about an attempt to stage Hamlet, it strikes a deeper more melancholy chord as the narrator tries not to remember the fact that he is also a survivor of Auschwitz.

A recent novel, which I haven't read but which also has a Hamlet theme going, is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. It's already a bestseller, ,at least on the Indie lists, but I won't let that stop me from putting it on a to-be-read list of my own.
Of course,there are less obvious derivations from Hamlet, and it was only in writing this that I realized that I had in all likelihood read another recently--namely, Justin Evan's A Good and Happy Child. The Hamlet theme from this persepective goes something like this: Dad's dead, Mom has found a sustainer in someone who she knew all along but who is now getting a lot closer. The grieving son--and it's always a son, somehow--isn't happy about this development, and some aspect of the supernatural, very possibly demonic, enters the picture. I liked this novel a lot though I think in the end, it didn't quite work itself out in a way that satisfied me. Still, I'd definitely read Evans again.

I haven't even touched on critical works, or memoirs from an actor's point of view. I've read a couple, and will in all likelihood read a few more. I'd recommend Marjorie Garber's Shakespeare After All for anyone who would like to read a lucid, short essay on any of the plays.

But this is an almost too fertile field. Perhaps it would be best to revive this topic again later.

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