[In which, for a ReDiscovery reading, I try to figure out just what Lee Blessing is up to with FORTINBRAS, a play which has proven surprisingly popular.-DL]
In a 41-year career, American playwright Lee Blessing (1949-) has shown himself to be a gifted storyteller with a knack for formal experimentation. He is most well-known for A Walk in the Woods (1988), which told the story of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear standoff through a conversation between two diplomats in Geneva, Switzerland. Based on true events, Walk received runs on Broadway and London’s West End, as well asnominations for the Tony and Olivier Awards, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Blessing’s most often produced play, however, Eleemosynary, looks at three generations of women in the same family, telling a story of epic emotional depth with a similarly small canvas. Blessing typically writes a play per year, criss-crossing the country with productions at theatres both large and small. He headed the Graduate Playwriting Program at Rutgers for over a decade, and lives now in Los Angeles, where he is married to fellow playwright and TV writer-producer Melanie Marnich.
Fortinbras, written in 1991, tunes into the eerie frequencies of Shakespeare’s Elsinore, retelling Shakespeare’s “poem unlimited” not as tragedy but as farce. As Horatio and Osric repeat the happenings of Hamlet to Fortinbras, the Norwegian Prince who ascended the Danish throne at the end of Shakespeare’s play, Blessing has fun with the Bard’s baroque plotting. Poisoned foil tips? Pearls in wine chalices? Tapestries with holes poked in them? Ghosts and feigned madness? Offstage pirates? “I mean, who can understand all this stuff?” Fortinbras says, as we nod our heads in agreement.
In a series of short, sharp scenes, Blessing reverses everything we thought we knew about Hamlet. Our protagonist, instead of a vacillating intellectual, is a forthright man of action. Ophelia, morbid and suicidal while alive, reappears as a ghostly life-force, funny and randy. She is foiled by Polonius, talkative in life but nearly mute in death, as well as Claudius and Gertrude, once concupiscient, now born-again in the afterlife. Among the living, Horatio and Osric make a comic duo worthy of Laurel and Hardy. “They say the unexamined life is not worth living,” Osric says, summing up the play’s anti-philosophy. “But the examined life is also not worth living, and it’s a good deal more painful.” Up is down, thanatos has become eros in this dramaturgical bizarro world.
The play’s metafictional larking has obvious echoes in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which set the template for absurdist Shakespearean sequels. Fortinbras’ plan of action, however, it is more apt to Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi: instead of learning the lessons of Hamlet’s story, Fortinbras invents one of his own, with disastrous consequences. To Blessing and Jarry, Hamlet prolonged is essentially Macbeth. That is to say, the story of the 20th Century: megalomaniacs presiding over Europe, invading Poland, resulting in what one characters calls “the most extraordinary mass-regicide in the history of Europe.”
Finally, metaphysics. If comedy, according to an old formula, is merely tragedy plus time, then this play comes full circle, returning us to the eternal questions of the Danish prince. What dreams do come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil?