H2016: Here’s A Skull Now

I’ve been thinking about skulls.

My three-year-old son is into anatomy books and puzzles, so there are more skeletons hanging around the house right now than there were last Halloween. Each time I see one, it reminds me of Hamlet (not that I need reminding). And each time I think about Hamlet, I think about his own obsession with mortality — the way the character, like John Webster in T.S. Eliot’s “Whispers of Immortality,”

…was much possessed by death,
And saw the skull beneath the skin
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

At the same time, I’m thinking about set and lighting design, because I’m currently putting the finishing touches on Bluenose. It’s a silly kids’ play, not a Shakespearean tragedy, but as it is set on a pirate ship, it happens to have a skull front and centre (a friendly, red-nosed skull, but still). Staring at that empty-eyed icon during our lighting hang yesterday got me wondering: how prominent should Hamlet’s motif of death and decay be, visually speaking?

If you disregard the Ghost (who is dead but apparently looks alive) there are no visual examples of death in Hamlet until 3.4, when Polonius’s body is extracted from a curtain and then lies bloodied on the floor for many minutes while mother and son have a heart-to-heart. When Hamlet finally exits, “lug[ging] the guts into the neighboring room,” both his words and actions remind us that Polonius is no longer a person, but merely a prop. From there, it’s another act and a half before we meet Yorick, arguably the most famous prop in all of Western theatre. But the motif of death and decay threads it way through all the play’s acts, mostly through Hamlet’s language.

Eugène_Ferdinand_Victor_Delacroix_018The image of Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull is so iconic, it has come to stand for not only the character and the play, but also for Shakespeare in general. It’s easy to forget how late in the play it arrives, and what little time passes between Hamlet’s most famous meditation on death and the Prince’s own death by poison (another motif which pervades the play aurally, but only really manifests visually in Act Five). One might be doing the play a disservice by introducing numerous visual markers earlier. Why front-load the play with skulls, when you can keep Yorick in reserve — something for the audience to look forward to just as their butts are getting numb?

One reason for added skulls involves a somewhat frivolous idea I had about engaging my audience in new ways. Since many of my patrons will be students on field trips, hauled out to the theatre against their wills, I want to offer them some new options for active viewing. A list of these would appear in the program, probably in the form of questions. One of the first I came up with was this:

How Many Skulls? Count the number of skulls that appear on stage throughout Hamlet. Does the number have any significance to the plot?

Spoiler alert: the stage directions of Hamlet call for the Gravedigger (or First Clown) to produce two skulls in 5.1; although the dialogue suggests that may produce a third (Yorick’s skull), rather than use one of the two he already tossed out of the grave. Some productions only use a single skull, adjusting the dialogue accordingly; others go overboard, and have the Gravedigger tossing up skulls like confetti.

Those numbers (two or three) don’t have any real significance, however. The answer to my riddle would involve a correlation between the number of deaths in the play (eight, if you count Rosencrantz & Guildenstern) and the number of skulls that arrive onstage to foreshadow those deaths. So, if I went this route, I’d need to find opportunities to introduce five or six additional skulls, presumably in earlier scenes.

A fun challenge, but likely a distraction from the manifold responsibilities of a director. None the less, it might be fun to delegate the challenge to some of my designers. Can costume or props designers find ways to integrate skulls into other objects onstage? Can a set designer make a set skull-like (Denmark’s a prison, and Hamlet’s consciousness is a prison, and Hamlet’s thoughts are forever about death) without going over the top with it?

And how about lighting design? I was thinking these thoughts during the lighting hang, and they reminded me of a powerful image. When our technical director, Ken, directed one of his lighting instruments onto Bluenose’s Jolly Roger flag, I looked down at the stage floor and noticed how the flag’s shadow fell at a complementary angle to the rest of the set — two elements that didn’t look similar in 3D, but somehow seemed to click together when rendered two-dimensional by the light. It was a figure-ground effect, like this one:

Skull Figure Ground

And that reminded me of some of the “gestalt” images that depend upon the sheer visual impact of the skull — how deeply conditioned we are, as human beings, to find skulls both repellent and fascinating:

Skull Gestalt

I love the idea of a skull that’s more or less in plain sight throughout the play, but which doesn’t become visibly skull-like until all the right pieces are in place. That effect is very hard to achieve onstage, because it depends so heavily upon perspective; but lighting effects might be able to project a sort of shadow-skull effect that everyone in the audience can see, regardless of where they’re sitting. Imagine a number of distinct set elements, situated at different places on the stage, which collectively obscure just the right components of a single light source that the projection results in this sort of image:

Skull Photo Negative

Most of those elements would not look especially skull-like on their own, but in combination, they would create a striking defamiliarizing effect when lit.

Even as I describe it, it sounds like a lot of effort for one quick bit of stage magic. But I can think of ways to incorporate the effect more organically into the play; and it might give me the hook I need to start making hard choices about Hamlet’s set.


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