"Hamlet's Last Act"
from an interview by Karen Smith
A new puppet show developed by Samuel Gold turns Edward Gordon Craig's designs for Hamlet into fully articulated shadow puppets. The puppets are made from rawhide leather and their physiognomy reflects the traditional forms of Balinese wayang kulit, a puppet theatre Samuel studied while living in Bali. The show premiered at a theatre conference dedicated to Craig, called "Action, Scene, and Voice: 21st Century Dialogues with Edward Gordon Craig," held earlier this year at Pomona College, and was recently featured at Giri Kusuma, a concert of Balinese music and performing arts in Los Angeles. I sat down with Samuel to discuss "Hamlet's Last Act" and his experience with wayang kulit.
You might expect a Craig-inspired puppet show to be done with marionettes first, but Craig was interested in wayang kulit, as well. They are featured in some of his writings and, in fact, he edited one of his own books under the pseudonym, "'John Semar"—which I can only assume is a nod to Semar, the clown character in Javanese wayang kulit. But I only learned these facts recently. Really, the initial spark for the show came from Professor James Taylor, who teaches at Pomona College and was going to present a paper at the conference about the woodblock prints of Hamlet that Craig contributed to the Cranach Press edition of the play. Professor Taylor and I were having lunch with Thomas Leabhart, who was organizing the whole conference, and we started talking about how much these woodblock prints reminded us of shadow puppets. Somehow, by the end of lunch, this idea had turned into a show that would be commissioned for the conference.
I had only recently returned from Bali and I was eager to continue practicing wayang kulit. It just so happened that Pomona College has an amazing Gamelan teacher, I Nyoman Wenten, in the music department. I went to him with this idea to see if he and his musicians would be interested in collaborating on the show. Not only was he game, but he had a team of musicians able to play gender— the instrument used in Balinese wayang kulit— so we could feature the traditional music and really turn the show into a proper wayang performance. At that point, I decided to lean into what I had learned in Bali and use the wayang kulit structure as guideposts for designing my show.
For example, I knew the show had to feature clown characters— a wayang kulit show is nothing without its comic servants. That meant featuring either Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or the gravediggers in Act V. I went with the gravediggers, because centering the show on the end of the play also allowed for a swordfight, another hallmark of wayang kulit. From there it all began to fall into place. I was asked to make the performance about thirty minutes—which, of course, wound up being around forty-five— so I knew I wouldn't be doing the entire show. But I found that, by cutting together scenes from the end of the play, I could create a structure that roughly fits the story arc traditionally found in Bali.
I hope I don't anger too many wayang scholars, but at its simplest, the structure goes: first, one side—either the good guys or bad guys—shows up to set the scene. Once they leave, comedic clown characters linger on the screen, cracking jokes and providing commentary on the show's events. Next we see whichever side—good or bad—didn't appear at the show's opening. There's an encounter between the two, followed by an epic fight, and, finally, resolution. The end. So "Hamlet's Last Act" opens with Claudius and Laertes receiving the news of Hamlet's return from England and plotting his demise, followed by the news of Ophelia's death. Then we jump to the gravediggers discussing the politics of burial procedures, and Hamlet and Horatio's entrance. Hamlet ponders his existence before the King, Queen, and Laertes enter with the funeral procession, at which point the two sides meet, exchange words, and—because I condensed the final two scenes into one—fight and die in the graveyard.
I hope that doesn't sound too glib! For some reason, I sometimes find it tricky to strike the right tone while talking about these things. The show itself is Hamlet, not some spoof. It's just with puppets and not human actors, which I suppose does different things to an audience. These are two-dimensional shadow figures, not flesh and blood actors, but within this less familiar visual and dramatic vocabulary, my Hamlet still takes his encounter with Yorick's skull very seriously.
In Bali, making wayang kulit quickly became one of my favorite parts of the practice. My friend Rekayasa, who is a talented puppeteer and puppet carver, had a sort of outpost at his compound where we'd spend day after day hanging out and making puppets. He never gave me formal lessons, but by working alongside him, I tried to pick up the practice through a lot of repetition and questions. I brought the leather carving tools home with me, and so, when it came time to make the puppets for Hamlet, I knew they needed to be constructed as I learned in Bali. Of course, Edward Gordon Craig's aesthetic was quite different than that of a traditional wayang kulit puppet, so finding the appropriate balance made for a satisfying challenge. In the end, the look of the puppets closely adheres to Craig's designs, but the forms fit within the Balinese tradition. So, for example, Hamlet has two articulated arms and is smaller that the antagonist Claudius, who has just one articulated arm. The clown characters get fully articulated mouths and a side-profile design, while the other characters are in the more hieroglyphic front/side angle typically found in Bali.
I lived in Denpasar, within a local community on Sedap Malam II, so that I could apprentice under I Nyoman Sedana, a dalang (puppeteer) and all-around performer of Balinese music and arts. I often practiced alongside Sedana's thirteen-year-old son, Georgian, beginning—as most aspiring puppeteers do—by learning to perform a story from the Mahabharata, "Arjuna Tapa." Sedana was also a professor at ISI Denpasar, the local arts university, where he taught performing arts theory to student dalang. Fortunately for me, a particular cohort of these students took me in. We all became fast friends and I was able to continue my wayang kulit studies alongside them—in and out of the classroom. So my training was both a formal and informal thing with plenty of hours spent in front of the practice screen drilling my technique as well as long nights spent joking with friends about how to contort your voice to sound like the monkeys in the Ramayana, making puppets at Reka's compound, and taking turns improvising stories on a small screen we set up. Recently it seems to have become a bit of a cliché to say that your time in Bali was magical, but for me it really was.
"Hamlet's Last Act" was actually more of an overtly Balinese production than I ever thought I'd do after leaving Bali. I was able to train in Bali as part of a fellowship I received to travel for one year to study different forms of traditional puppetry around the world. When that fellowship ended, I felt self-conscious, probably overly so, about not becoming a novelty act—you know, "the American who presents puppet wonders from around the world!" My experiences in Bali—as well as those I found in other countries I visited like Japan and the Czech Republic—became meaningful puppetry training for me. They're what I know. But, Craig and his ideas have long been a fascination for me, too. Before I was a puppeteer, I was trained as a Corporeal Mime and in physical performance, and it was Craig's writings on things like the Über-Marionette that first got me interested in puppets. As I was developing "Hamlet's Last Act," I thought it was a show more about Craig than wayang kulit. Now that it's finished, I'm not so sure. I think it'll be something to grapple with in future work.