The Inevitable Endgame of Thought
An Interview with Brian Craig Ceely
by Ryan Johann Perry
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, is the great language puppeteer; a programming of a person through text. A world so enclosed by interior monologue coupled by action made necessary by momentum, by providence, is not only a high water mark for actors, but a figurative drowning by the high tide. Is there anything as futile as inhabiting Hamlet and expecting to come out unscathed? The language is not yours, the language is Glossolalia. Hamlet serves as the ultimate vivisection of acting, and an actor stepping into the role displays free will as nothing but a series of physical gestures and preparatory choices, free will as nothing but a resigning to the wave you cannot control.
Brian Graig Ceely, who plays Hamlet in this years production by Shakespeare on the Rocks, seems acutely aware of this paradox. His interpretation, taking Hamlet to 1845, viewing the 'madness' in a personal way, analyzing the role in the way Hamlet analyzed his own 'role', is the foundation for the architecture of possession. Ceely's preparation for the piece, through analysis, close reading, interpretation, is a parallel for Hamlet's preparation, “if he but blinks i'll know my course.”
What is to be expected? Ceely seems intent on somehow making himself pierce through the costume, like a sewn mouth prisoner praying loudly in front of his executioners. The audience, who know the play like a jury, knows the law. There is no escape, but like a good heist movie, with the soul as the loot, we can watch the plan in design and recognize the blueprint in all of us.
Did you push for this production?
B. Absolutely not, Vanessa Keyser asked me to do it, she kinda asked me out of the blue and I thought, there is an opportunity and I took it. Jude law played hamlet recently and he said the actor does not play hamlet, hamlet plays the actor, it has taken over my life. When I first started looking at him I did not know who he was and he showed me parts of me that I did not realize I had. Parts of myself that I am facing and dealing with. They are definitely negative things, Hamlet is not a good person.
Do you think he is an idea costumed as a person?
B. I don't know about an idea, he is a cacophony of ideas. He is so many things to so many people. Its hard to pinpoint any one thing Shakespeare intended as much as pointing out what you get out of it. It is a very reflective and subjective text.
One thing i was noticing, Shakespeare has a moral ambiguity, almost a nihilism, but in Hamlet there is a moral struggle there. Do you think the moral struggle makes him go mad? Do you think wrestling with morality is a form of madness? Macbeth has the same thing, he goes insane because of the moral questioning.
B. it is interesting that you bring up Macbeth because Hamlet and Macbeth are polar opposites. Hamlet's flaw is he thinks too much, he is constantly thinking, second guessing himself trying to find the right answer, where Macbeth hates thinking, his wife does all the thinking for him. Where Hamlet does not act, he thinks instead of acting, where Macbeth acts instead of thinking.
You don't think that morality is a thinking game? it is a sort of intellectual construct? Morality, good and evil, we try to reason our way into it, but morality does not exist in a primal sphere.
B. It is interesting because Macbeth experiences a deep level of guilt after the murders he commits and so does Lady Macbeth, with the 'out, out spot' lines, but Hamlet kills a lot of people without expressing any guilt whatsoever. the morality of it, I think, Hamlet does not necessarily explore the morality as a character, but the play explores the morality. It explores the morality of the choices you make when you are pushed into something very very dark and in the darkness of Hamlet's melancholy and trouble he commits these horrible, horrible acts and so it is up to the audience to decide 'is this guy a victim, or is he the aggressor?'. Is he doing something wrong, or has the world wronged him and are these the consequences of that wronging.
The world sees the ghost too, the world sees his father.
B. Interestingly enough, at the beginning, yes. The others do see him. But in act III scene IV, the ghost appears but the mother does not see him. So there are a lot of ways to interpret this text and this strange apparition. You could either see it as something about Gertrude, the queen, her morality, she does not want to see the consequences of what she has done in marrying the queens brother or you can see that as Hamlet's madness manifesting itself and he is seeing this ghost he may have once seen, that may have once been real but is now entirely his imagination. We are taking it in a very specific direction in our production. I don't want to spoil the fun, so I won't say anything about it.
Why does everyone love Hamlet? Everyone hates Richard III for example, but Hamlet kills everyone. Is it because all you hear is his reasoning through his violence, his soliloquies, his internal dialogue. So he is able to logically convince people in a way that Richard could not?
B. Richard wants something very specific, he wants war, he expresses that. But Hamlet, we don't really know what he wants, or it is not expressly said, like Richard. In that ambiguity of intention, i think, that creates the difference between the judgments laid upon these characters.
Why are his intentions so ambiguous so unclear when we presumably have greater insight to Hamlet?
B. His main struggle is to make sense of the universe. Really, the through line of the play, everything he does is in some sense trying to make sense of the world and that is why he thinks so much, why his actions are so inconsistent because he thinks, this is the right thing to do, then he messes up.
Is that why he goes mad?
B. I would say that Hamlet does not go mad. In today's knowledge of mental health we know that people don't necessarily go mad they are born with mental illness. I, am bi-polar myself, and view the world through a certain lens for better or for worse.
Do you have triggers? Does Hamlet have triggers?
B. Hamlet definitely has triggers and you can see them in the play and in the text.
So Hamlet was enabled.
B. He even says, "I have something dangerous in me which let thy wiseness fear". he has it in him already, it is the external forces that force his hand in that sense.
Inertia? Richard had a death wish, his fate was predestined and he inhabited the role and at some point becomes self aware of the role he is playing and says "fuck it". Does Hamlet come to a similar revelation, self awareness?
B. Absolutely, he comes to a realization toward the end of the play about divine providence. Hamlet comes to this realization and he talks to Horatio about this, that he needs to stop trying and trust in the forces of natures, the cosmos, god, perhaps. That everything will fall into its right place. Most of the play up until that point is him trying to force things to happen. It is his thinking 'how can i make this happen' and the realization comes in the revenge speech. When he is on the ship and he makes these rash decisions to go into Rosenzrantz and Guildensterns bag, and with out thinking, he replaces it with a letter that says to kill them. Then the pirate ship and he jumps on....he realizes that instead of forcing it he just lets it happen. He does not make anything happen, like the fencing match. they challenge him. He does not decide to kill the King. Laertes tells him 'the king kills your mother' and so Hamlet acts off of that. He lets it happen.
In other performances of Hamlet that you have seen, what do you think were missing that you want to bring. Was there a void, or something that you wanted to see, that you will now show?
B. The first that comes to mind is the Mel Gibson version. In that version, he was very controlled, sane, but they went all the way with his 'playing mad' his antic disposition, that it was entirely an act. To me, I feel that Hamlet's madness is not an act but an affliction and when he pretends to be mad it is a defense mechanism, maybe even an aspect of denial of that storm that is going on in his brain.
The play is resolved via the plot, and of all plays, Hamlet's plot points seem the most arbitrary. So how do you push that language out there, make it the most important. Or are Shakespeare plays gonna continue to be performed because they are not understood. what is he trying to say through the medium of the character Hamlet.
B. That is hard, because the plays are flexible, they can mean anything to anyone. I don't like to think about what the author was trying to say. I am thinking, what is in this for me, what is my relationship to this text. I don't want to say I don't care about his intention, I want to say that it is not as important as our intention. Which is not to say that i want to force anything on it that is not already there, but pull out what already exists and interpret it through our lens, through citizens of America 2014, through the lens of someone who has a mental illness. It is not necessarily about artistic intention, but artistic interpretation.
How would you describe Hamlet's world view. Or rather, is there an iconic figure that you relate to Hamlet?
B. Kurt Cobain meets Lex Luthor.
Suicide is a big part of Hamlet. he is intensely suicidal. He is also mourning his father. how do you reconcile somebody that is that depressed and yet is still in constant mourning. Does he want to be in a revenge play? Does he want to enact revenge? Because it seems like he is struggling, 'I don't want to be in this play' in a meta way, but it is the momentum, people telling him the ghost is there. People seeing his uncle with his mother. There is that amazing part, what is the line...?
B. I'll observe his looks, I'll tent with the quick if he but blinks I'll know my course.
So he is not insane, he is calculated in a way.
B. Yeah, my acting technique is based on the Meyers Brigg type indicator which is based in science and psychology. it is a series of sixteen different personality types. Hamlet is a ENTG, extroverted, intuitive, thinking, judging. The metaphor of the archetype for the ENTG is the executive, or the super villain, Lex Luthor. I personally like to call the ENTG "the destroyer of worlds"
B. It is this darkness surrounds him, not only surrounds him but emanates from him and he has to filter that through his immense intellect. The play is this very calculated plan that comes out of that darkness within him to fight the darkness without him. There is a lot of thinking, a lot of deliberation and the deliberation is also what keeps him from killing himself. It is what keeps him from killing himself in the first place, from enacting revenge, and what leads him to accidentally destroy Ophelia and Polonius. It leads to his mothers death.
Is it a paralysis through analysis?
B. That is a good way to say it. "Thinking to precisely on the event, a thought which quartered has one part wisdom and ever three parts coward." He realizes this this in his revenge speech.
He mentions "thinking makes it so". It is as if all of this is make believe. That is why i have this bias that i am trying to use in this conversation, whether or not it is the intellect, the thinking that creates the problem, that creates his paralysis and eventual madness, amorality. He does seem like a moral character, or that he has a moral compass and by the end the compass is out of time, due to him allowing the world to run through him. To let the universe have its way and when the universe has its way, everyone dies.
B. Hamlet, he grew up, in our production, in 1845. In that point in Denmark history Lutheranism was the prevalent religion, it was the state religion. So Hamlet grew up as a Lutheran. I see this as where he starts his moral compass, then he went to college in Wittenberg, the Weimar Republic. There was a lot of absinthe, opium, liberal ideas coming from the romantic era. He was probably hugely influenced by Byron. He has those two external influences, the religion at the start and the drugs and poetry and experiences in the city in college and from within there is the mental instability. He has these ideas of what is right, this knowledge of what goes against that and he has this obstacle in his brain that he may not even realize that prevents him from seeing things as they are.
B. Definitely. So making moral decisions through those three forces, he is definitely doing what he thinks is right but it is those three forces that lead to what he does and what he says. In our production it is madness and sexuality, and those are the two biggest obstacles, flaws in our decision making process. They sort of motivate most of the action.
Is it the culmination that is the catalyst, is madness and sexuality symbiotic.
B. Definitely. He is definitely motivated by sexual factors in the way he feels and deals with his mother and Ophelia. His madness also affects how he feels and deals with them. He has a lot of lines about how he feels regarding women "Frailty, thy name is woman", etcetera. They fuel and effect each other.
You can judge through his language that he has these issues with sexuality and with an oncoming madness. They gesture towards sexual ambiguity, madness. You know those are there and you see how he articulates it. Is that where the cognitive dissonance comes into play?
B. There is a lot of cognitive dissonance. He has a line to his mother, "virtue itself a vice must pardon beg". He says that to his mother, saying 'you've fucked up, you have done something morally wrong but here I am, ready to forgive you for it' and so he does not realize that he is doing morally equivalent things to what his mother has done and yet he has this supposed virtue over her supposed vice. It's a sexuality, in that particular moment, that fuels that feeling of vice in his mother and it's his madness that keeps him from realizing, that fuels that feeling of virtue in himself. That is an example of the dynamic created by madness and sexuality.
It is almost dissociative, right?
B. Oh, Definitely.
Opens October 31st at 7 p.m. with a second performance Saturday, November 1st at 7 p.m. Directed by Vanessa Keyser. For more information, visit shakespearontherocks.com.