That’s the Question: Realism vs. Expressionism

Hamlet1921The terms realism and expressionism dominated theatrical design in the 19th and 20th centuries, but in Shakespeare’s time they didn’t exist, and nowadays they seem like something of a false dilemma. In an age where most blockbuster films are conceived simultaneously to deliver hyper-real CGI and totally unrealistic stories and characters, there’s no easy bellwether for what constitutes “real” in the arts. And I wager that most people don’t really understand the alternative, “expressionism,” and couldn’t list more than a handful of pure examples.

So it’s foolish to ask myself if my Hamlet will be “realistic” or “expressionistic.” It’s going to be both, almost from its DNA on up. The world of Hamlet doesn’t strike modern audiences as particularly realistic — between the supernatural stuff, the hard-to-swallow plot contrivances, and all that pesky iambic pentameter, it’s never going to achieve a documentary style, and why would you want it to? Yet there are clearly elements that embrace realism, or even realism’s stodgy cousin, naturalism. Hamlet’s own psychological state, writ large throughout the play, is the best example. Harold Bloom thinks Hamlet is the perfect fictional human, because he’s just as messy as we are — so complex in his thoughts and emotions that we only manage to get fleeting glimpses of the true man when his guard is down.

Complicating the dichotomy, but probably simplifying the design process, is the fact that audiences can believe just about anything, if you pitch it early and often. Want to peek into a universe where people routinely turn and speak to audience members who co-exist with an invisible wall? Those sorts of conventions are so well-established that we don’t even bother to question them — until a script reminds us that they’re there. Hamlet has a play-within-a-play, and of course is has plenty of soliloquies, but I wouldn’t classify it as meta-theatre; its characters share their own self-contained world, and it has its own consistent rules.

Expressionism is a play (or film, or painting, or whatever) that seeks to render a character’s interior mental landscape accessible to the viewer. It’s the opposite of realism in the sense that, when we are talking to each other in real life, our thoughts and emotions remain private, instead of, say, manifesting all around us through lighting changes or sound effects. A play that commits wholeheartedly to an expressionistic style still does have rules, but the rules involve how, when, and why interior identity escapes into the atmosphere.

Here’s a simple, almost silly example I use with my students. In English, we use the idioms “see red,” “yellow-bellied,” and “rose-coloured glasses.” They each use colour as a metaphor to describe an internal state — anger, cowardice, and fanciful optimism, respectively. So what if, every time I actually felt one of those things, it wasn’t just me who “changed colour” internally? What if the room I was in became red, yellow, or pink?

I’m not really interested in broadcasting emotions like that in Hamlet, because (a) it’s cheesy, and (b) I generally trust my actors to convey emotional states without the aid of lighting cues. But as I already said, the Prince’s mental landscape is a great deal more complicated than that. I don’t see it as lacking faith in my lead actor if I choose an expressionistic design to help tease some of his inner motifs out into the light.

But then, I almost feel like mapping Hamlet’s own brain onto the stage is the easiest, most obvious choice. It certainly helps me to explore the idea that the Ghost is more a force of evil than a “spirit of health,” but it gives the other characters short shrift. Seeing Claudius, Ophelia, and Gertrude through Hamlet’s eyes would mean coaching the actors to perform as Hamlet expects them to — as monstrous caricatures of villainy or infidelity, rather than complex characters in their own rights. I don’t want to go that route.

But I was looking at the structure of the middle part of the play, and I started to wonder if expressionism could be used to bring a lot of characters’ interior states out to play. It was 3.3 and 3.4 that got me thinking about it. Both scenes feel book-ended by the King and Queen, respectively. In 3.3, Claudius begins with “I like him not,” a very blunt and personal reaction to Hamlet’s trick of the Mousetrap. And it ends with a soliloquized couplet — “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below / Words without deeds never to heaven go” — that’s about as personal as any line can ever get.

3.4 does a similar thing with Gertrude, setting up her reaction to Hamlet (and her anticipation of his arrival), and then ending with a moment of solitude as she responds to his unexpected act of violence. In both cases, the scenes are still about Hamlet, but because of the locations and structure, the Prince feels like an intruder, not the centrepiece. It isn’t hard to imagine staging and designing these scenes in such a way that Claudius and Gertrude become the “subjects,” the point from which the “expression” of the scene emerges.

With a little bit of script tweaking, it wouldn’t be hard to make other scenes follow the same pattern. 3.1, the so-called “nunnery” scene, has some R&G business at the start, but it would be easy to adjust it so that the scene begins and ends with a focus on Ophelia. And 3.2, which begins with Hamlet’s intrusive advice to the players, could become a sort of “study of Hamlet” if an outside observer were there from the start…say, Horatio is pretty good at watching people, isn’t he?

There will still be plenty of room for Hamlet to project his frenzied thoughts all over the stage, but I’m intrigued by the idea of creating an Elsinore where everyone is embroiled in a private, psychological battle, allowing the audience to move almost voyeuristically from one to the next, peeking into ears to see how each brain measures up.


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