An Eighteenth Century Puppet Hamlet
In 1781, a text (dated 1710) of a play entitled 'Der Bestrafte Brudermord' (Fratricide Revenged) was published in Gotha in Germany. It tells an exaggerated, action-filled version the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that is often hilarious. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father sneaks behind the sentries to box their ears; ‘Ofelia’, sex-crazed with madness, hurls herself at the clown Phantasmo; Hamlet rids himself of two murderers by asking them to shoot him at the same time – he ducks and they shoot one another instead. What is this slapstick, bawdy romp of a Shakespeare tragedy? And how did it come about?
For years Shakespeareans have been confused by 'Der Bestrafte Brudermord'. Is it a unique record of the play preceding Shakespeare’s Hamlet? A corrupt version of Shakespeare’s play? An adaptation? Writers on puppets some time ago came up with their own answer. They suggested it was a puppet play.
As an academic interested in historical performance, I was excited to explore the puppet potential of 'Der Bestrafte Brudermord'. Researching the topic, however, proved disappointing. A fairly secure ‘non-puppet’ heritage could be traced for the text. English actors had crossed the seas at the turn of the sixteenth century taking with them a handful of London plays; over time, their dramas had been translated into native languages. The 1710 play 'Der Bestrafte Brudermord', which belonged to the German actor Konrad Ekhof, probably descended from the English players via a series of adaptations by German acting troupes.
Yet what gave me pause was a stranded marionette now residing in The Collection of Zanella-Pasqualini, Bologna. Called ‘Amleto’, this Hamlet puppet was apparently carved by Pietro Resoniero (1640-1735) for performance in the Judenmarkt, Vienna, in 1667. That means that a puppet Hamlet did indeed circulate abroad before the play was formally translated.
In the light of the marionette’s unlikely survival, it is interesting to learn how puppet historians from Poland and the Czech Republic relate the tale of the travelling English players and their descendants. According to them, the English players or their inheritors, when depleted in number over time, turned to puppeteering.
Is it possible that 'Der Bestrafte Brudermord' might have had a puppet manifestation at some point in its development? Some of its features – short scenes, flying gods, constant actions from ‘behind’, a tendency for characters to tremble more than necessary – suggest it may have been. Other features – a rapier fight in which swords have to be dropped and exchanged – suggest it may not.
Enter director Beth Burns, award-winning specialist in ‘original performance’ (o.p.) productions for actors. She decided to explore the play’s puppet potential by mounting it as an o.p. eighteenth century puppet show.
Jennifer Rose Davis, music and clothing historian, sewed clothes (c. 1710) for the rod puppets specially created for the production by Mystery Bird Puppet Theatre. Davis, with the help of James Barnes, also built the puppets an ornate stage that she based partly on the Victoria and Albert museum’s 1734 sumptuous Italian marionette theatre; partly on images of Martin Powell’s puppet stage.
Research into eighteenth century puppet performance – from primary texts, pictures, and playbills – revealed how often historical puppet shows relied on an actor who ‘conducted’ puppets and spectators alike with his stick: the ‘interpreter’. Actor Judd Farris was cast in that role. Dressed in eighteenth century costume, he worked the curtain, voiced most of the puppets’ words, produced sound effects with a series of outlandish props, and indicated with his stick which puppets – or members of the audience – should be scrutinised.
Farris was joined by a second interpreter, actor-musician Jason Newman. Newman supplied further puppet voices and accompanied the action with eighteenth century music that he played on a guittara. The puppeteers, mimicking the circumstances that might have brought such a puppet show about, were actors: Joseph Garlock, Ryan Hamilton, Jeff Mills and Kim Adams, worked all fifteen of the puppets, and learned their craft by doing it.
'Der Bestrafte Brudermord', translated into English by Christine Schmidle, was put on as a puppet play by Burns’ company Hidden Room Theatre. It performed at the American Shakespeare Company’s Blackfriars Playhouse in October 2013, and at the York Rite Masonic Hall in Austin, Texas, January-February 2014.
In putting on their show, Hidden Room Theatre was able to explore a series of questions well beyond whether or not 'Der Bestrafte Brudermord' was a puppet play. They asked what ‘Shakespeare’ means without the literature – and what puppets mean with people. The result was an o.p. production unlike any other: rich with originality and charm and wild, wayward humour. As one reviewer put it, "if it wasn’t like this in the 18th century, well, it should have been".
Professor Tiffany Stern is a theatre historian based in the Faculty of English at the University of Oxford.