Fifty Percent Illusion, performed in the Weitz rehearsal theater during tenth week of last term, brought together three of the best plays in the Western canon in a polished exploration of power structures.
In the mash-up orchestrated by senior Emily Altshchul for her English COMPS, words and scenes from Hamlet, The Seagull and A Street Car Named Desire race through the mind of Ophelia before she plunges to her death in a brook.
The trip through Ophelia’s mind-space lets us witness the promise and eventual peril of her, Nina, and Blanche in their respective worlds. Productions of Hamlet alone can drag on for hours, but thanks to Altschul’s shrewd excising, Fifty Percent Illusion moves through noisy New Orleans, rotten Denmark, and the nostalgia of the Russian countryside with excellent pacing.
Apt lighting and seasoned acting facilitated the efficient transitions between the locales. Sarah Price was dynamite as the masquerading Blanche; her accent and demeanor perfect southern belle. Sarah Olson was a graceful Ophelia and Laura Freymller nicely captured the bashful ambition of Nina.
Ben Stroup was his bombastic self as Hamlet and quite memorable as astral Trigorin. Patrick Stephen played well the savageness of Stanley, which served as a good foil for the earnestness and innocence of Ned Heckman’s characters Konstantin and Harold Mitchell.
This piece presented the packed audience with a stimulating exercise in comparative literature as images—water, a trunk, the city—link the plays in unexpected ways. However, Altschul’s decision to work with these particular pieces wasn’t at all random. The Seagull often alludes to the plight of the prince of Denmark (this facilitated a wonderfully liminal moment in Altschul’s construction when Stroup appears just as Konstantin mocks Trigorin as “real genius, striding along like another Hamlet”). Tennessee Williams, in turn, was a great admirer of Chekhov and actually adapted The Seagull in the early ‘80s into the play “The Notebook of Trigorin.”
It was a wonderfully staged and acted production, serving as a valuable piece of cultural education, but from a socio-political perspective, it wasn’t anything we hadn’t heard before.
The program asks us to consider the question of “who controls a life;” asserting that “a pattern emerges” in the three plays from which this one draws. This pattern is can be described as “the men, from an implicit position of power, influence[ing] and mold[ing] each woman’s self-image, her desires, even the words in her mouth.” Once these men leave, however, the women “are left grasping for an image of former happiness—or at the least, a concept of self—in a world where it can no longer exist. Their world is overtaken by delusion and illusion, and it is here that madness thrives.”
Unfortunately, this pattern only partially maps onto the source material. For example, it must brush aside the suicides of Konstantin and Allen Grey that suggest fruitful comparison to Ophelia, but don’t conform to the play’s feminist spin.
Furthermore, the program’s position of blaming “powerful mechanisms in our society” like “television, magazines, advertisements” and “gender-coding language” that “teach men and women how they should behave” is not wholly convincing. In general, it seems the more we’re bombarded on all sides by images and narratives gendered by our culture industry, the more we can’t help but recognize the artificiality of each of them. As Derrida would remind us, everyone—even masters, colonizers, etc—ultimately speaks a language that is not one’s own.
Because this play insists that the problems it addresses result solely from society and its unequal distribution of power, its tone is vengeful, rather than tragic. It demands we assign blame for “Ophelia,” the universal victim, and feel guilty for being “complicit in her creation.”
However, in Act II, Hamlet compares Ophelia to Dido, who kills herself in the Aeneid after her lover Aeneas sadly abandons her to continue his predetermined mission of founding Rome. This illustrates (to me at least) Hamlet is already deeply affected by awareness of the pain he may cause her as he tries to answer his call to serve Denmark (and his father’s ghost).
One is certainly sympathetic with the program’s encouragement to “take this play as a quiet plea for self-definition.” However, one is also aware that one’s own conception of oneself can also oppress and drive oneself mad; an act of will, even if it’s in the service of self-determination, merely repeats the attempt at control over a life that the play wants to caution against.
The trajectory of Hamlet, it seems, actually illustrates a more nuanced understanding of identity. After an attempt on his own life, he intimates, “there’s a hidden divinity that shapes our ends” and reaches an evaluation of himself that not only affirms his uniqueness but also his sense of being embedded in familial and political arrangements; this compound identity is expressed in his climactic declaration: “This is I, Hamlet the Dane.”