- Der Bestrafte Brudermord (The Punished Fratricide)
What if you gave a play in a language that almost no one in your prospective audience understood? Would they come? Would they stay? And, most importantly, would they pay? Those questions actually mattered to English actors who traveled to Germany and nearby parts of the Continent from roughly 1585 to 1630. In the first two decades, at least, they performed their plays in English, a language which few Germans knew. Seeking to understand this phenomenon, Christine Schmidle calculated that the actors could succeed if their performances emphasized action rather than words. No better play exists to test her hypothesis than that of the very verbal, and Melancholy, Dane. English actors took that [End Page 578] play, or rather a version of it, to Germany probably early in the 1600s. Their version was translated into German sometime before 1710 as Der Bestrafte Brudermord, The Punished Fratricide. Schmidle's idea was to present that version of the play in its own German. Would an American audience, few of whom knew German, come to the performance, respond to it, and enjoy it?
Brudermord certainly seems to reflect an effort by its authors to remake Shakespeare's play along the lines envisioned by Schmidle. It calls to mind a performance by English players seen by Fynes Moryson on his visit to the Frankfurt trade fair in 1592. The performance consisted of "peeces and patches of English playes." To Moryson it was cause for "great wearysomenes." Yet, although the players were "speaking English, which they vnderstoode not," the Germans "flocked wonderfully to see theire gesture and Action." Brudermord is likewise patched together from Shakespeare's own play. It lacks virtually all that play's cerebral elements. Every soliloquy, for example, save a truncated "How all occasions," is gone. Instead, elements of physical comedy alien to the play we know are added. The ghost boxes a sentry on the ears. A delusional and love-stricken Ophelia pursues a court clown whom she believes to be Hamlet. Hamlet tricks two ruffians assigned to kill him into shooting one another.
Schmidle produced and directed this mélange as a sequel to her M.Litt degree in the graduate Shakespeare and Renaissance drama performance studies program at Mary Baldwin College. She recruited an eclectic cast composed of other students, alumni, and instructors in the MBC program, plus an actor or two from the nearby American Shakespeare Center. The performers first needed to learn or reacquaint themselves with enough German to pronounce and make sense of their lines. And not just any German either: Brudermord's seventeenth-century language is almost as different from German today as Shakespeare's language is from ours. Acquisition of those language skills took up much of the four months in which the group rehearsed. The actors made that effort for just two public performances. The venue was the American Shakespeare Center's grand replica of the original Blackfriars Playhouse, and in ASC tradition the play hummed along with no sets, few props, and minimal costuming.
The performance began with Brudermord's prologue, which features the figures of Night and her Furies. In text the prologue seems rather odd to readers familiar with contemporary English drama. Its figures and imagery are extravagant. Its speeches seem to describe a play other than the one that follows. A reader imagines that in performance the prologue [End Page 579] would best be omitted. Yet Schmidle's production made the prologue seem relevant. Night and her Furies were made up and costumed fantastically. They...