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April 12, 2002

To Be or Not to Be a Woman: That Is the Question for Smith-Howard's Hamlet

Photo: Fred LeBlanc

Members of The Lady Cavaliers, a New York City-based, nonprofit action theatre company that was created to promote a stronger female image through the art of stage combat, came to MHC to train Hamlet actors in the art of using a sword.

"Frailty, thy name is woman!" laments Shakespeare's Hamlet. In traditional productions of the famous tragedy, this criticism is Hamlet's despair over the inability of the “weaker sex" (his mother Gertrude and all women) to honor their husbands with long widowhood and mourning. In Alycia Smith-Howard's upcoming production, the same lines can be heard as self-loathing, Hamlet's own despair over her indecisiveness and seeming inability to avenge her father's murder. The twist is one of many in Smith-Howard's gender-bending Hamlet, in which Denmark's Prince Hamlet is Princess Hamlet, a daughter denied her rightful throne and caught in a web of corruption, intrigue, and sexual politics. The production is scheduled to run at Rooke Theatre April 18–20 and April 26–27 at 8 pm, and April 28 at 2 pm.

Hamlet has become so hackneyed," said Smith-Howard, visiting assistant professor and departmental coordinator of first-year students in the Department of Theatre Arts. “Everyone has an opinion on the play, regardless of whether they have actually read it or not. I have even seen people mouthing the words along with the actors, they know this play so well. So I began to ask, how can we hear this play with new ears?"

Alycia Smith-Howard

Smith-Howard's answer—that new (female) voices might give us 'new ears'—goes a step beyond casting a woman in the role of Hamlet, a long-standing tradition made popular by actresses such as Sarah Siddons (1776) and Sarah Bernhardt (1899). Her answer enacts an idea first expressed by nineteenth-century scholar Edward P. Vining in The Mystery of Hamlet (1881), the idea that Hamlet actually is female. “The charms of Hamlet's mind are essentially feminine in their nature," wrote Vining. “The question may be asked, whether Shakespeare had the thought dawn up on him that this womanly man might be in very deed a woman."

Smith-Howard's production of Hamlet will also present other new voices. Although all characters except Hamlet will remain their original sex, all will be played by women. This reversal of the Elizabethan stage practice of casting only male actors will seize the play for female actors, says Smith-Howard, who is amused when people ask whether the all-female cast will be confusing. “In Shakespeare's own time, male actors played all the parts," she says. “We have no evidence to suggest that his audience was 'confused' by this convention. In fact, looking at the plays, we can see Shakespeare delightfully exploiting this convention and taking it to all sorts of gender-bending limits. In Twelfth Night, for example, there would have been a male actor playing a female character (Viola), who then takes on the disguise of a boy (Cesario). So we have a boy pretending to be a girl, who is pretending to be a boy! And in As You Like It we have a boy (the actor) pretending to be a girl (Rosalind) pretending to be a boy (Ganymede) pretending to be a girl (Rosalind)! Somehow Shakespeare's audience was able to watch this and not get lost. I would like to think that we are just as sophisticated as the Elizabethans."

Smith-Howard admits that her Hamlet isn't for playgoers interested in watching the play “on autopilot," but she is confident that MHC student actors have the sophistication to pull it off. Jeanne (Beth) Wienert '04 agrees. “I wouldn't contend that Shakespeare intended Hamlet to be a woman, but playing Hamlet as a woman seems really clear and really simple," said Wienert, who will play the role of Hamlet. “I don't find myself struggling or 'working around lines' at all. In fact, this gender switch brings to the surface a lot of lines that I didn't hear or focus on before. If Hamlet is a woman, lines such as 'This is the kind of foreboding that would trouble a woman' emphasize Hamlet's self-doubt and self-hatred. I can experiment with delivering them toward others or toward myself."

Smith-Howard is confident that her production of Hamlet would have pleased Mary Ann “Buzz" Goodbody (1947–1975), the founder and first artistic director of The Other Place, Stratford's studio theater for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Like Smith-Howard, Goodbody wanted to present classical theater in new ways. Goodbody's approach at The Other Place and that theater's productions between 1974 and 1989 are the subjects of Smith-Howard's forthcoming history Shakespeare at The Other Place (Ashgate Publishing, 2003).

“Goodbody wanted theater to be accessible and meaningful to a wide cross section of society, not just the intelligentsia and middle classes," says Smith-Howard, whose research sources included Goodbody's own director's notes, private papers, journal entries, and correspondence. “She wanted theater to be affordable, approachable, and accessible. She wanted the young to experience it in a 'nonthreatening' environment."

Goodbody's idea was to create an alternative to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Swan Theater, the Stratford venues of the RSC, at which she felt directors and actors were sacrificing substance for pageantry. Small and simple, The Other Place forced a minimalist style devoid of pageantry, says Smith-Howard. “The Other Place did not accommodate gimmickry, huge complicated sets, or other theatrical pyrotechnics," she explains. “It was basically a leaky tin shed that was cold in the winter and blistering in the summer, but actors and audiences loved it! It placed the audience in a closer proximity to the action, actors, text, and words. There was no pretense, just great acting and great directing and little else." Sold out in its very first season in 1974, The Other Place has been called the “training ground for an entire generation of Shakespeare actors and directors."

In addition to being her major research subject and directing influence, Goodbody has also provided teaching inspiration for Smith-Howard. “Ben Kingsley, who played Hamlet in Goodbody's production of Hamlet at The Other Place in 1975, once said to me that Buzz's greatest gift was her ability to free her actors creatively. She inspired them to find in themselves things that they never dreamt existed, giving them a sense that 'everything is possible.' This is my goal in all the work that I do as a teacher and director, to free my students imaginatively. Students come to Shakespeare with such baggage! They are told it's too hard for them to understand, it's out of their reach intellectually or artistically, or, worse, that it's boring or dead. I know how they feel; at one point in my life I was even told point-blank I was the 'wrong color' for Shakespeare. Comments like these only served to make me more determined. I have always been rather defiant, so, like Goodbody, it is my mission to shatter obtacles and preconceptions about who can 'do' Shakespeare and how Shakespeare 'should' be done."

Before coming to MHC in 2000, Smith-Howard was director of the Berea College Theatre Laboratory, in Berea, Kentucky. She has directed plays in Europe, Canada, and the United States, including the premiere of The Coffee Trees, Arthur Giron's Guatemalan revision of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, at the Jelkyl Drama Center, Berea, Kentucky. She has served as a dramaturg for London's Soho Poly Theatre, for Aspect Theatre Company (London/Stockholm), and for the Battersea Arts Centre's New Writers Project. Recently she was the director of the International Dramaturgy Symposium, held at the College in March, and was appointed to the Advisory Committee of New WORLD Theatre in Amherst. She is also the MHC representative to the Five College Multicultural Theatre Committee.

Smith-Howard's publications include various articles and papers on Shakespeare, feminist scholarship, and performance, and (with Greta Heintzelman) Tennessee Williams A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work (Facts on File, 2003). She was recently appointed to the Editorial Advisory Board for Theatre: Its Art and Craft (fourth edition).

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