“Enter Ghost ...” :
The linguistic, theatrical and post-dramatic afterlife
of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Flanders
Christel Stalpaert—Bram Van Oostveldt—Jaak Van Schoor
University of Ghent (Belgium)

The very diverse “afterlives” of Shakespeare’s plays often lays bare the translator’s, adapter's or director’s conceptions of theater. Goethe’s comments on and his translation of Romeo and Juliet reflect the European romantic vision of Shakespeare. Bertolt Brecht’s interpretation of Hamlet and Coriolanus reflects his approach to theater as a potential means of political reflection (Brecht 167-68). This essay seeks to discover how Flemish Hamlet translations, adaptations and performances shed light on the development of Flemish theater history, from the first Southern Dutch traces of it in Joannes Peeters’s work in 1682 to the recent post-dramatic performance of Jan Decorte (2001). The twentieth century is characterized by a discontinuum, by a transition from a literary to a visual culture. In theater, a rupture of the hegemony of the word coincides with a steady reconsideration of traditional idealistic aesthetics. First, this essay traces the evolution from a linguistic to a theatrical and ultimately to a post-dramatic approach to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Second, this essay investigates the way in which Hamlet productions constructed, deconstructed or reconstructed a Flemish identity or a national culture—with 1830 as a landmark in Belgian history: the independence of the Kingdom of Belgium.
From the earliest beginnings in the Southern Netherlands: Let there be light ...
In his standard work (1975) on the reception of Shakespeare in the Southern-Netherlands—now known as Flanders—Jozef De Vos complains that in international research on the history of reception of Shakespeare’s work, so little attention is paid to the Southern Netherlands. This neglect can partly be understood as caused by the strong cultural dominance of French, which blocked the way for a definitive breakthrough of the Bard on the Southern Dutch stage until the end of the nineteenth century. 1 In this relatively late breakthrough, in European terms, the reception of Hamlet cannot be isolated from the reception of Shakespeare in general. The lack of a genuine Shakespearean tradition on stage implies that we cannot confine the history of reception to the theater only, but must instead approach it from an interdisciplinary perspective. We must take the general aesthetic, literary and essayistic aspects of this reception into account as well.
We also have to pay attention to the fact that, because it is near the English Channel, the Southern Netherlands was one of the first regions to come into contact with the work of Shakespeare through troupes of English actors on their way to Germany. From the late sixteenth century till about the middle of the seventeenth century English troupes were to be seen in a number of Southern Dutch towns (De Vos 1975, 13-23; Claeys 1-2; D’hont 70; Hoppe 1949, 305-21; Riewald 65-92). Though we only possess exact information on cities like Ghent, Lille, Brussels, Bruges and Aalst, from 1603 on, given the fact that these troupes frequently performed in Northern Dutch cities, it is not improbable to assume that they would also have been seen in Southern Dutch towns at a slightly earlier date (Hoppe 1949, 306). One important fact in this connection is that English companies not only performed for the general public but also gave performances at court (De Vos 1975, 16-18; Hoppe 1955, 26-33; Riewald 79; Faber 43-57; Liebrecht 13-17). We know for instance that in 1614 and in 1617 English troupes performed in the presence of the archduke and duchess Albrecht and Isabella in Southern Dutch towns, both at their palace on the Coudenberg in Brussels and at their summer residence in Tervueren.
We know that English actors were guests at the Brussels court up to the middle of the century. Unfortunately, no repertoire of their performances is available. We can suppose, however, that it was not any different from what was brought to German stages. In this context, L.M. Price has noted many Shakespearean plays, Hamlet among them (30-31).
But even if the repertoire were known in full, we must admit that Shakespeare’s influence in the Southern Netherlands in the sixteenth century is rather small. Not until the end of the seventeenth century do we come across Hamlet, in particular. The oldest trace of Hamlet in the Southern Netherlands is the piece by Joannes Peeters, the leader of the “White Lily,” the Rhetorical Chamber 2 of Tongeren, a play called Amleth, dating from 1682, which has been lost (De Vos 1975: 23, Paquay 116-17). The only information we posses is from a funeral oration spoken on the death of the leading rhetorician. According to De Vos the use of the names Amleth, Fengo and Horwendill provides evidence that Peeters probably went back to the old source of Hamlet—Saxo Grammaticus or Belleforest—or to Bestrafte Brudermord— rather than to Shakespeare himself (De Vos 1975, 23). Neither has the performance of De Veynzende Torquatus (The Pretending Torquatus) in Furnes in 1719 much to do with the original story of Hamlet. The Northern Dutchman Geerard Brandt wrote the play in 1641. It is an early classical version of Hamlet, in which the scene and the dramatic plot are set in imperial Rome.
The (re)discovery of Shakespeare
As was the case elsewhere in Europe, theoretical literature on Shakespeare only began to appear in the eighteenth century. This is partly due to Voltaire, who made the continent acquainted with the genius of Shakespeare. The glorious performances of David Garrick on both sides of the English Channel also resulted in the Bard becoming more directly known (Carlson 25-26, 85, 148-50). Voltaire’s criticism in his Lettres Philosophiques (1734) was to be the mainstay of Shakespeare reception in Europe till Lessing. Although he condemns Shakespeare’s breaking of the rules of classical poetics, he admits that this feature also provides proof of the originality of his work (106). In this debate the concept of “nature” and “naturalness” played a central role. “Imitatio naturae,” the condition required for true art, remained in force as of old. But this no longer happens according to the a priori, rational, artificial rules of classicism, but by imitating nature as it appears empirically (Ehrard 305-28, Fischer-Lichte 91-103). In this evolution from “belle nature” to “vraie nature” Shakespeare is put forward as an ideal to be aspired to. In the preface of the Laplace’s translations (mid eighteenth century) the “natural” is even considered as being inherent in the work of Shakespeare: his work is not an imitation of nature, it is “nature.” For the first time, the road to the state of genius seems open.
Never before has a poet been more inspired by the bowels of nature. The others had some notion of the arts, be it by reading the authors that have preceded him, be it by tradition. Only Shakespeare seems to have received it by inspiration, and he must be seen not as an imitator or as a painter of nature, but as the organ of sentiments and movements that characterize it (La Place, Pierre-Antoine [de] 29). 3
In the Southern Netherlands, which were under strong French influence, the echo of this debate on aesthetics reverberates in De Verhandeling over de redenvoering dienstig voor predikanten, redenaars, tooneelspeelders en gezelschappen (1751) from the Brussels rhetorician and Voltaire translator Francis de la Fontaine. The work consists of two parts. The first part contains his own essay on oration, which is for the greater part based on Luigi Riccoboni’s Pensées sur la déclamation from 1738. Here, inspired by the new aesthetics of true and genuine nature, La Fontaine condemns the acting style of the rhetoricians, which functions according to the mechanistic, cartesian principles of classicism. 4 The way of declamation in particular with its respect for specific rules and restrictions now met with opposition. How far this was removed from a “nateurlijcke uytdrukkinghe”—a natural expression in speaking! (La Fontaine 3-4) 5 The influence of the new aesthetics was quite strong and is part of a process in which the “naturalness” of Shakespeare and his lack of respect for rules had a great impact.
The second part of de la Fontaine’s work contains a short description of the theater in Europe—a Beknoopte Beschryvinghe der Tooneelen van Europa. Although this is mainly an extended translation of Riccoboni’s Réflexions historiques et critiques sur les différents théâtres de l’Europe (1738), and thus contains little original material, it is not without importance as it is the first historical survey on theater to be published in the Netherlands (De Vos 25-26). In the chapter on ‘English’ theater, La Fontaine pays some attention to contemporary theatrical practices in Britain 67). To him it is Shakespeare who embodies the true spirit of English theater. But as was common in the eighteenth century, he dwells in the first place on the breaching of the classical rules of “bienséance” (propriety) and “vraisemblance” (verisimilitude). To illustrate his argument he sketches the various horror scenes that are found in Hamlet. He paraphrases the burial of Ophelia and the famous gravedigger’s scene along with Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and also the horrible end, which was applauded excessively, according to him (68-69).
Although he probably never set foot on English soil and probably never saw a Hamlet performance, La Fontaine tries to interpret the work of Shakespeare in a broad cultural context. His accentuation and recognition of English national identity is especially striking. Given this interest in English literature, which characterizes the whole of intellectual Europe after Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques (1734), La Fontaine asks himself how the superior spirit of the English can be reconciled with the onstage violence in Shakespeare’s writings (72). Unlike Voltaire, who sees Shakespeare’s lack of respect for the classical rules in a strictly historical framework and attributes it to ignorance of those rules (101-103), La Fontaine rigorously follows Riccoboni’s view on that matter. The horrible in Shakespeare’s work is an intrinsic consequence of the dreaming and philosophical character of the English and is meant primarily to keep their attention on the play (73). This strange explanation, which rejects any a priori historicizing view, shows a clear admiration for the empirical thinking of Locke and Hume. La Fontaine attributes specific qualities to a people and to a whole nation. This explanation is far more related to the historical model of explanation found in Montesquieu’s cultural relativism than to Voltaire’s fundamentally egalitarian and universalistic thinking, which considers cultural difference as only a thin layer of varnish (White 45-54).
Classical Shakespeare
La Fontaine’s Redenvoering was the only work in the Southern Netherlands that went deeper into Shakespeare’s work, and in spite of its servile following of Riccoboni’s ideas it is still ahead of the aesthetics debate of the day. These new views about aesthetics did not have much effect on the performing arts. Charles Simon Favart was director of the Brussels Theatre of the Monnaie from the 1840s on and scored enormous successes all over the country with his opéras comiques. As is the case in France, innovation comes about through the new comic, sentimental bourgeois theatrical genres, such as opéra comique, comédie larmoyante and the bourgeois drama. Quick translations by traveling troupes of this mainly French repertoire resulted in its becoming very well known throughout the country.
Though tragedy still kept wandering about in its classical form for quite a long time, it was performed less and less on the professional stages (Van Oostveldt 2002b: 120-26). This means that Shakespeare’s plays, which were invariably performed in the classical versions of Jean-François Ducis, were not staged very often. At the end of the eighteenth century, apart from a singular performance in the Monnaie during the season 1774-75 (Schrickx 1977a: 44), Hamlet appeared only twice on the bill. The play was translated, as was the case with Romeo and Julia, by the French-Flemish rhetorician Jean François de Breyne (1758-94) and performed by the Chamber of Bergues-St. Winoc (De Vos 1975, 26-27). During the season 1793-94 the Rotterdam group of the star actor Andries Snoeck traveled through Flanders. Although they mainly performed Ifland and Kotzebue—the rising star of the time—in Bruges they gave a performance of Romeo and Juliet and of Hamlet. Once again this Hamlet translation by Mrs. M. G. De Cambon-Van der Weken was of Ducis’s text (De Vos 1975, 26-27). Although she included the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, she followed the classical example. In keeping with the claims of “vraisemblance” (verisimilitude) the ghost could not be seen on the stage and so could only be evoked by Hamlet (De Cambon-Van der Veken 25). And in keeping with the rules of “bienséance” (propriety) characters of lower rank were not allowed to appear.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the classical versions of Ducis kept dominating the scene. During the Napoleonic period (1735-1814), the love of all things French that characterized the Austrian rule (1713-95), continued and even increased. The language of culture became almost entirely French. During the final decades of the Austrian rule the Rhetorical Chambers, whose goal was to renew people’s ardor for the Flemish language, were forbidden. This prohibition was canceled in 1806, and Dutch language performances were once again allowed, if followed by a play in French, which meant that the activity of the rhetoricians was still very subdued. This does not mean, however, that theater life in the Southern Netherlands was completely silent. Traveling star-actors were very important at the time, especially in terms of Hamlet reception. Next to the French star-actor François Joseph Talma, who performed the Ducis Hamlet on various occasions during both the French and Dutch periods, the famous Dutch company of T. J. Majofski’s and its star-actor Andries Snoeck performed Hamlet in 1825, however once again in its classical version (De Vos 1975, 50-53, Faber II. 264, III. 77, 102, 106, 186).
Although the rhetoricians played a leading part in Dutch-speaking cultural life, under Dutch rule (1815-30) and especially from Belgian independence onwards, Hamlet was not performed again until 1841. Ducis’s version was performed yet again by the Brussels Rhetorical Chamber De Wijngaerd. The Gazette van Gend of 1 December 1841 criticized the performance for its typical French declamatory style, in which the stylized movements were meant to support the word. This way of reciting was not exceptional at all in the 1830s and 1840s when passages from the Ducis’s Hamlet were often recited at contests (De Vos 1975: 50). Even though the Southern Netherlands became acquainted with an original Hamlet—with Charles Kemble in the leading role—the classical version of Ducis continued to dominate the stage for a long time after (Schrickx 1977b, 627-38; Faber III. 6). Still, the critical note found in the Gazette van Gend proved that times were changing.
The struggle for a growing Flemish self-consciousness and German Shakespeare criticism
Jozef De Vos draws our attention to the literary reviews, which he considers more responsible for the change than theater-practice itself (De Vos 1975, 61-65). In their intellectual vision and romantic ardor to re-value Dutch as a cultural language, these magazines rejected French literature. They use nearly the same arguments in their struggle as pre-romantic critics did with respect to classical aesthetics. “Naturalness,” “simplicity,” “purity” and “true emotion” became more highly esteemed than the “artificiality” of classicism. It is important to note, however, that this criticism was not merely imported from France as was the case during the second half of the eighteenth century with Riccoboni, St. Albine and Diderot. The influence here comes especially from both contemporary and historical German and English literature. So the rupture between Dutch and French in the Southern Netherlands became greater and more problematic, whereas the effort to find a connection with the other great Germanic language families seemed to become more important. Moreover, this thinking in terms of simplicity, verisimilitude, naturalness and purity began to evoke its contrary and more and more explicitly so. The search for a form of national identity that expressed itself especially in language and language-affinities had begun to increasingly exclude the heterogeneous, the complex, the different. 6
The reviews Le spectateur Belge, ouvrage historique, littéraire, critique et moral and the Dutch review Argus are exemplary in this context. Both pay great attention to Schlegel’s famous Vorlesungen über die dramatische Kunst (1817), which put forward the romantic vision of Shakespeare in a radical way (De Foere 88-89; Anonymous 43-48). The same vision is to be found in the Ghent journal Broedermin, which published a translation of Hamlet on 29 November 1849. Once again the preface praises the naturalness, true emotion, freedom and vigor of Shakespeare’s work.
To be useful for our fellow citizens and for the erection of a real and strong Flemish theater, we have made a precise translation. This translation is not made for pure literary amusement alone, but is especially meant to revive our national character (Broedermin cited in De Vos 1975, 67). 7
Although this nationalist, romantic vision of Shakespeare and Hamlet remained alive in literary reviewing after 1850 8 , it neither resulted in a form of literary dramatic production modeled on the Bard nor in a type of performance-practice, in which original Shakespeare plays were given a chance. Yet both this new kind of reviewing and some performances of foreign troupes made the spirit of the time ripe for a definitive move from Ducis’s version to translations made directly from the original. Among the foreign groups mentioned are the Italian company of Adelaïde Ristori which performed Macbeth in 1860 as well as the black American actor Ira Aldridge who played Othello in 1867 (De Vos 1975, 79-83).
During the second half of the nineteenth century the search for the original Shakespeare also came from literary circles, especially that of the West-Flemish poet-priest Guido Gezelle. According to Jozef De Vos, this interest in Shakespeare has to be seen as an instrument of emancipation designed to promote the Flemish language and literature (De Vos 1975, 147). Gezelle’s fascination for English culture was not only fed by literature, but also stimulated by his interest in the “Oxford Movement,” an alternative, mystic English movement with which he became acquainted through the English colony in Bruges. As a teacher at the Minor Seminary in Roeselare and later at the Seminarium Anglo-Belgicum in Bruges, he passed on this interest to his pupils. In Roeselare he founded a secret society whose motto was All for Jesus, which stems from the work of the English priest Frederick Faber (1853) (Van der Plas 97). Gezelle’s pupil Hugo Verriest, who was also a poet-priest, made this influence felt in his boundless admiration for the Bard. Hamlet fascinates him above all as we can gather from his lecture on Shakespeare in 1898, which appeared in the review De nieuwe Tijd and in his collected writings Voordrachten (1904). This panegyric continues the tradition of German Shakespeare criticism. Yet Verriest is not so much inspired by Schlegel as by Goethe’s Zum Shakespeares Tag (1771) and by Herder’s essay on the Bard in Von deutscher Art und Kunst (1773). With Verriest the idealistic conceptions of the Sturm und Drang movement manifest themselves in an exaggerated admiration for the “natural,” “universal,” and “genius” in Shakespeare.
The physician Emiel Lauwers and the writer Albrecht Rodenbach also continued the idealistic admiration initiated by Gezelle and Verriest. In the work of Rodenbach, however, there are no traces of Hamlet. But in Beelden uit Shakespeare Lauwers published some passages from Hamlet in translation, as well as translations of Julius Caesar and King Lear from the original (Lauwers 227-300). In these “images” he speaks about the Bard in less general terms than did his tutor Hugo Verriest, and he concentrates in particular on some deep character portraits. This attention to psychology shows the influence of contemporary naturalistic literature creeping into Shakespeare reception. It makes clear how one text is inscribed in others.
Shakespeare on the Flemish stages
During the last decade of the nineteenth century, the literary, yet rather particularistic and isolated intellectual circle around Gezelle, was not the only stimulator of versions and performances of the Bard, which became a fashion from then on. The performances of leading foreign companies played a part in it and were especially important for acting style. The Hamlet performances by the Italian actor Ernesto Rossi in 1876 and 1877 in Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent (De Vos 1975: 232-237), as well as a version of the Danish Prince staged by French actor Sarah Bernhardt in 1898 in Brussels, were unanimously praised for their “convincing dramatic power” and their psychological and melancholy Goethian characterization, which in the Bernhardt performance even acquired symbolist features. 9 The greatest enthusiasm however was aroused by the Shakespeare performances of the Meininger Theatre in Brussels and Antwerp in 1888. 10 The company acting and the realistic historical costumes and scenes, which were influenced by a growing critical awareness of history and which distanced itself from the historicizing tradition of romanticism, made each performance a startling total happening (De Feyter 506-12). The success of these foreign companies was of the utmost importance for the Bard’s final breakthrough on the Flemish stage.
The accomplishment in 1887 of the first complete translation of Shakespeare into Dutch by the Northern-Dutchman Burgersdijk provided the final touch (Leek 496-505). Frans Van Doeselaar, director of the National Theatre in Antwerp in the 1880s, was the first to program plays in Dutch drawn from world literature. Shakespeare and especially Hamlet became a constant on the Flemish stage. In this context the actor Jan Dilis must be mentioned for his famous Hamlet interpretations in 1886 in which he was assisted by an equally moving Philomena Jonkers as Ophelia, and later by his wife Mina Dilis-Beersman (De Vos 1975, 272-81).
In spite of this new current there was no real innovation in the theater (De Feyter 512). Cautious attempts, such as those made by director Lambert Kettman to replace melodramatic acting and star acting by more company: acting, did not bring any structural or interpretative change. For real innovative theater we have to wait until the twentieth century. Though Shakespeare did not play much of a part in nineteenth-century Flemish cultural life or in theater practice, he was important as a useful instrument in the struggles, pan Germanic in inspiration, for Flemish emancipation from French cultural hegemony.
The turn of the century: Maurice Maeterlinck and the inner action of Hamlet
Most Flemish theater artists used the Dutch translation of Dr. L. A. J. Burgersdijk at the turn of the century. However, the translation was revised, reshaped and sometimes adapted to the Flemish idiom. At the turn of the century, theatricality entered the avant-gardist stage. The text, the pure diction of the word, the images, the insistent structure of the scene, the posture of the actors, their gestures and body language become equal and independent semiotic components within the framework of the performance text. This material is no longer subordinated to the narrative logic of Shakespeare’s text and the viewer became engaged in an auditory and visual, as well as a textual sign system.
From the mid-1880s, some young representatives of the symbolist theater and their leader Stéphane Mallarmé aimed at suggesting another, more elevated, mysterious life that was hidden in the unconscious realm of the soul. This meant that they renounced the theater as a perfect illusion of reality and tried to embody this immaterial, “higher” inner life by means of a peculiar, stylized presentation of gesture, costumes and decor.
The avant-garde was originally an attempt to liberate the theater from the clutches of representation and from the traditional idea of the text as the central locus of theatrical meaning. Maeterlinck’s Hamlet was in blatant contradiction with the dominant discourse of illusionist naturalism. In his symbolist essay Le tragique quotidien, he describes Hamlet as a man of inner action or static drama. It is not surprising that Maeterlinck displayed a particular fondness for Hamlet. More than in any other Shakespearean drama, Hamlet displays moments of what scholars such as Willem Schrickx have called “frozen actions” or “stop-actions” (199). Maeterlinck stated that an actor should not address the audience while pronouncing his soliloquy because this violated the required “inwardness.” A symbolist Hamlet was characterized by a silent center; Hamlet suffered internally and the tragedy was not displayed by external action—especially during the soliloquies. Like many critics, Maeterlinck described Hamlet as a man who cannot decide; he is constantly hesitating, prevaricating and postponing action.
Maeterlinck no longer considered the text as the coordinating linguistic or narrative sign system; he considered precisely the nonverbal, auditory elements as the key to inner life. The assonance, alliterations, repetitions and suggestive silences in the text were to be used to allow eternity to reverberate. Though Maeterlinck’s Hamlet was never performed, his ideas inspired many theater practitioners. If Maeterlinck’s Hamlet had been put on stage, the metaphysical would have seemed to permeate the stage through the nonverbal auditory power of Shakespeare’s lines: pure diction in service of sound and stylized acting. The scene would have been shrouded in mystery and darkness, the stage would have been empty, except for a few props. The actor would have spoken gently and melodiously, in order to avoid raging and raving and to focus on calculated silences. His diction would have rendered the sound of the words and the rhythm of the lines to full advantage, carefully observing the silences produced by caesura and meter.
The symbolist stylization of gesture and stage was adopted at the beginning of the twentieth century by a group of young avant-gardists, among them the Dutch theater artists Eduard Verkade and Willem Royaards, who were also influenced by Appia’s and Craig’s monumental stage designs and who would further develop the non-verbal, sign material of the scenery, thereby generating meaning independent from the linguistic paradigm of Shakespeare’s text. Theatricality became a primary concern in avant-garde Hamlet performances in Flanders in the 1920s.
The historical avant-garde: theatricality versus the linguistic paradigm11
In May 1926, the pupils, laureates and former pupils of the Ghent Theatre School gave a noteworthy open-air performance in the courtyard of the Castle of the Counts, behind the battlements. The director was Luc van de Putte. Hamlet was played by Paul Schumacher, and Michel Van Vlaenderen was Polonius. 12 In his book Tooneelgroei (1926), Willem Putman wrote that the interpretation reminded him of Eduard Verkade’s staging of Hamlet of 1919 in the Netherlands—and as a consequence of Edward Gordon Craig’s staging and Stanislawski’s (co-)direction of Hamlet at the Muscovite Art Theatre (1911). 13 In keeping with Craig’s interpretation of Hamlet, the Ghent Theatre School staged the tragedy of a lonely honest soul pitted against the corrupt court, as a conflict between matter and mind. The forms and colors of the decor and the costumes symbolized the battle between good (Hamlet) and evil (the court). The impressive walls of the Ghent Castle of the Counts that towered majestically in the background supported the image of uninterrupted power. The king’s and queen’s royal power was given a sepulchral tone by the high walls. The expansive, uncluttered spaces above them sustained their royal stature. The sense of high, open, vertical space suggested uninterrupted power, for there were no elements in the scenery to suggest that they were in any way “contained” or diminished in their individual power by their environment. 14 The performance obviously made use of an acting ground that was far removed from the illusionistic stage. High, movable fences and “practicables” (stages) divided the front from back of the scene and indicated the swiftly changing locations.
Johan de Meester jr.: Hamlet inspired by the work of Tairov, Meyerhold and Jessner
1927 was the year of the spectacular Hamlet production by the Flemish “Volkstoneel.” Johan de Meester jr. (1897-1986), the artistic manager of the “Volkstoneel,” was director of the play and actor of the title role. Staf Bruggen (1893-1964), an esteemed actor of the Flemish theater, played Claudius. The premiere (in Dutch) took place on 6 October 1927 in the Brussels Théâtre du Marais.
Under De Meester jr.’s leadership, the Flemish Volkstoneel became an experimental company, inspired by the theatricality of the Russian avant-gardists Aleksandr Tairov (1885-1950) and Vsévolod Meyerhold (1874-1939). This resulted in a theatrical interpretation of Hamlet which employed the carefully constructed movements of the actors, who had done physical training for the purpose. De Meester jr.’s Hamlet production was grotesque in style and interpretation, opening with a long musical introduction composed by the Fleming Karel Albert (1901-87), who was also the conductor. The musical accompaniment served as an integrative means of creating a sensory experience of physical beauty. In De Meester’s interpretation, Hamlet was the heroic, but impotent idealist. He resisted the corruption in the court, but he did not possess the appropriate means to conquer the unjust and impure rulers. His struggle was represented in frenetic sign language. “His fears, his doubts and his horrors were mainly expressed through posture and gestures”—not language (Putman 19). De Meester jr. obviously shared Meyerhold’s idea that gestures, movement and posture of the rhythmically trained actors could express the emotional content of a play much better than could words and dialogue. Instead of using psychologically oriented, mimetic method acting, De Meester jr. sought to express the play’s content by means of controlled forms and rhythms. Each step and each gesture was part of a carefully calculated layer in the sign material of the play. Above all, the actors were not to get lost in the character’s psychology. Each emotion expressed was pure bio-mechanism, generated by means of precise gymnastic movements, most of them up and down stairs. In the middle of the opening scene, a complicated flight of stairs was constructed which reminded one somewhat of Leopold Jessner’s Hamlet of 1926 at the Staatliche Schauspielhaus. As a result of this insistent construction, Hamlet moved as a kind of acrobat, a modern clown. The exercised body of the actor was carefully grafted to fit with the stage construction; he was not given the opportunity to engage in individual or mimetic representation. The other characters appeared operetta-like and caricatural next to the figure of Hamlet, except for Fortinbras. In the third act of the performance, Johan De Meester jr. mainly worked with paling and let Fortinbras’s soldiers appear on stage as athletes, performing very refined movements in tune with the ensemble. The costumes were brightly colored—mainly red for the men, light green for Ophelia—and again were reminiscent of Jessner’s Hamlet.
Hamlet or Fortinbras? Romantic or pragmatic “Flamingant’?
De Meesters jr. programmed Shakespeare’s canonical text in the theatrical season of 1927-28, next to Flemish folklore plays such as Smidje Smee (Little Smith Weld), Van twee Coninxkinderen (Of Two Royal Children) and Marieken van Nijmegen (Little Mary from Nijmegen). At first sight, the Elizabethan play seemed therefore at odds with the aims of the Vlaamse Volkstooneel, i.e. the revaluation of popular Flemish culture. On the other hand, Hamlet had a very special quasi-symbolical value for the Flemish intelligentsia. Geert Opsomer investigated the socio-cultural discourse of the Vlaamse Volkstooneel in the year 1927, and stated that the character of Hamlet had become a symbol of the pre-war literary and cultural “élite,” of the unworldly idealism of “Van Nu en Straks” and its romantic melancholy (Opsomer 685-692). Fortinbras, then, appeared as the symbol of the post-war, younger generation that aimed at reconciling idealism with social commitment and pragmatism. They were engaged with the real life; sciences, economy, law, industry, education, ... and no longer lived an isolated, unworldly life, far removed from the everyday people. As an advocate of post-war humanitarian literary men, contesting the pure artistic ideals of the older generation, Marnix Gijsen wrote about this antithesis in the 1927 issue of a leading Flemish literary magazine, Dietsche Warande en Belfort, and in so doing availed himself of Hamlet-Fortinbras imagery:
After all those years, it seems that our ideal was pure and civilian, theirs [of the pre-war generation] purely artistic [...]. You ask me who was right? I answer thee: Hamlet dies, Fortinbras is alive (qtd. in Opsomer 690). 15
The pre-war dreamlike figure, who cherished the rediscovery of an impressive Flemish socio-historical past and who had striven against all forms of French cultural influence, was now “passé.” The role assigned to the pre-war intelligentsia was that of Hamlet; a dreamlike character who was too firmly rooted in cultural struggle and did not (as yet) possess the tools needed to win economic or social battles.
According to Geert Opsomer, the Hamlet-Fortinbras antithesis not only marked an artistic discontinuum; they were also emblematic of a break between nineteenth-century and twentieth-century representatives of the Flemish Movement, between the romantic and the pragmatic “Flamingant,” between the unworldly literary man and the socially engaged artist. Johan de Meester jr., the director of the Hamlet-version for the Vlaamse Volkstooneel in 1927, clearly followed the postwar interpretation of Hamlet, and foregrounded Fortinbras as the forerunner of renewal. In his manifesto Over Volkstooneel (1927) he wrote:
Also in this new theatre, the most gifted and most talented personality will take the leading part, but only if he is willing to give up his isolation, only if he is prepared to be a part of a real society—not of an abstract universe. Hamlet remains the most up-to-date theatrical character, but we no longer see in him the lonely, literary aristocrat, but a man who reacts immediately and intensely against the impure and unjust elements in his surroundings. He condemns the old world, but he himself is (yet) too weak to act as the new leader. He is the indispensable pioneer to Fortinbras, though. The new theatre flies the Fortinbras flag; the harmonic society of idealism and realism; realising the fact that theatre won’t have any value unless it lives for and by virtue of the masses (qtd. in Opsomer 691).
In this way, one can read De Meester’s Hamlet as a comment on the contemporaneous artistic and socio-cultural discourse in Flanders in 1927.
Charles Gilhuys (1881-1955)
Charles Gilhuys was one of the many Dutch directors (from the Northern Netherlands) attracted by the Flemish (from the Southern Netherlands) professional theater at the beginning of the twentieth century. Dutchmen often introduced a more international and edifying repertoire, their analysis of the text being more thorough and their performances more professionally skilled than the Flemish. By the age of thirty, Gilhuys was already familiar with the Shakespeare repertoire, because he had collaborated with Eduard Verkade (1878-1961), the eminent Dutch interpreter of Hamlet. In 1921, Gilhuys was engaged by Gustaaf Cauwenberg as director and actor of the Antwerp theater and became one of the most eminent directors of Shakespeare’s plays in Flanders. He always worked with the translations of L. A. J. Burgersdijk, which he followed rigorously. Inspired by the productions of Verkade, his direction was characterized by stylized, simple decor and costumes. His direction of Hamlet at the Royal Dutch Theatre of Ghent (7 March 1943) is considered one of the most famous Hamlet productions of the first half of the 20th century.
On 22 and 23 September 1945 director Vic De Ruyter also opened the new theater season of the Royal Dutch Theatre of Antwerp with a Hamlet production directed by Charles Gilhuys (1881-1955). His theater company had not produced a Hamlet for twelve years. Gilhuys again played the title role. For this occasion, the theater music was composed and conducted by Karel Candael. Jet Naessens played Ophelia, Jeanne De Coen Gertrude and Jos Gevers Claudius. According to contemporary theater critics, the actors’ great naturalness of expression clarified Shakespeare’s poetry and his insight into human nature (H. G. s.p.) 16 The simplicity of the decor (mainly with cloths) reminded one of Verkade.
Shakespeare translated by Willy Courteaux (°1924): respect for the structure of the revenge-tragedy
Towards the 1930s, a young generation of Flemish theater artists and translators set to work on Shakespeare’s plays. They were dissatisfied with existing translations by Dutchmen Burgersdijk, Van Looy and Roland Holst and there was a great demand for a new, “modern” translations. Robert H. Leek remarks that from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, not only the Shakespeare productions, but also Shakespeare translations became more like adaptations, until they were labeled personalized translations as was the case with Hugo Claus’s versions of Hamlet (500).
The complete Shakespearean canon was translated by the Fleming Willy Courteaux between 1955 and 1971. His Hamlet-translation is a rather “faithful” adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Courteaux is particularly praised for the way he let the Flemish idiom meet the original intentions of the author in the translations. The scholar Willem Schrickx investigated the way the Courteaux Hamlet-translation fitted the structure of the revenge-tragedy so remarkably well, specifically with regard to the translation of the words “heaven,” “earth” and “hell” (187-208). He focused on the starting lines of the second soliloquy; the famous lines pronounced after the first encounter with the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. This soliloquy is a crucial step in the development of the action because Hamlet sees himself in the role of the avenger for the first time.
O all you host of heauen, ô earth, what els,
And shall I coupple hell, ô fie, hold, {hold}, my hart,
And you my sinnowes, growe not instant old,
But beare me {swiftly} <stiffely> vp (777-80)

O hemels heir! O aard! Wat nog? Noem ik
De hel erbij? O, wee! Sterk, sterk, mijn hart:
En gij, mijn spieren, word niet plotseling oud
Maar houd mij krachtig staande.
Schrickx thinks that Courteaux offered a translation that corresponds with the structure of the revenge-tragedy. Hamlet’s invocations of heaven, earth and hell have a symbolical implication as they are the pendants of God, Claudius and the devil to which Hamlet alternately expresses his allegiance. According to the Elizabethan revenge tragedies that were in vogue in Shakespeare’s time, revenge could only be righteously performed when one had expressed one’s allegiance to public justice (the earth) and divine intervention (heaven). Only when one feels deserted by both, has one the right to be in command and to express allegiance to the dark powers of hell. 17
The reference to hell in the fourth act is of a crucial importance here. When he learns of the death of his father, Laertes dashes into Elsinore castle and cries out loud: “To hell allegiance, vowes to the blackest deuill, Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit I dare damnation” (2878-80). “To hell allegiance” can be translated in two ways; as “to hell with allegiance” which means that Laertes contemns all forms of faith, or as “I declare allegiance to hell.” Courteaux’s translation follows the latter interpretation: “de zwartste duivel hale mijn eed en trouw” (the blackest devil can have my oath and allegiance). According to the structure of the revenge-tragedy, Laertes is forced to take revenge by immediately calling upon the dark forces of hell. The avenger denies God’s command never to kill and surrenders himself to hellish powers. Now that the tragedy is coming to an end, Laertes has no time to invoke God, and Claudius can no longer provide him with public justice. Allegiance to hell is his only way of justifying revenge.
Willy Courteaux’s Hamlet translation has been very popular on the Flemish stage. Until Hugo Claus’s translation in 1983, Courteaux’s version of Hamlet was the major linguistic material in Flanders. His careful observation of the structure of the revenge-tragedy inspired many directors to stage political Hamlets, thereby focusing on the enfolding-unfolding of violence and revenge instead of on Hamlet’s inner conflict. For example, the Dutch Theatre of Ghent created such a Hamlet in 1968, directed by Kris Betz, with Jef Demedts in the title role. In January 1972, Senne Rouffaer directed Hamlet at the Royal Flemish Theatre of Brussels, with Rik Andries as Hamlet, and in November 1979, the Westvlaams Teaterkollektief Malpertuis performed its version of Hamlet. Jo Gevers directed the play and Eddy Vereycken played the title role.
In his political reading of Hamlet, Senne Rouffaer did not expatiate upon Hamlet’s inner conflicts and did not focus on Hamlet’s relationship with his mother and Ophelia. In the playbill, one can read the director’s notes; he was interested in the structure of the revenge-tragedy, in the plundering, in the bellicose spirit of Denmark and Norway, their political games and Hamlet’s impotence, despite his knowledge and skill, to resolve the conflicts of feudal mastery. These words strangely resemble Bertolt Brecht’s words in his Schriften zum Theater (167-68). Senne Rouffaer preferred to focus on the strong political position of power of Claudius—who has unlawfully mounted the throne—and wanted to foreground the corrupt character of the political system. Specific lines that were casually deleted in other performances—such as “Denmark’s a prison” (1289)—were now emphatically pronounced. The stage was almost permanently occupied by bodyguards in order to stress the climate of spying and guarding, and the abstract, cold decor corresponded with the harsh, political climate in which the tragedy of revenge unfolded.
Hugo Claus’s Oedipal reading of Hamlet: a ritual approach
Hugo Claus is a Flemish writer who is famous, amongst other things, for his “personalized translations” of Shakespeare. In the 1980s, he was eager to translate Hamlet into the contemporary Flemish idiom, and his particular vision on the play seemed to clash with that of Arturo Corso’s vision, a director who had been engaged by the Dutch Theatre of Ghent (NTG) from 1980 onwards. However, Corso then worked with Hugo Claus on a new Hamlet performance. The play, which premiered on 30 April 1983, was not a success. The NTG included the play in the following theatrical season, now directed by Hugo Claus himself, house dramatist Frans Redant, and Walter Moeremans, Corso’s former assistant-director. This second version premiered on 20 October 1983 and was more successful.
Claus put his stamp on his translation of Hamlet by letting his own obsessions and his personal idiom infuse the “soul” of the play. Inspired by Antonin Artaud and his principles of the Theatre of Cruelty, he sees the play as a ritual; in revealing its vital drift and its primary instincts of desire and lust, a performance should cause complete panic and hallucination. One should not go and see a play; one should feel and live it. As is the case with pestilence, exposure to cruelty, pain and basic instincts has a purifying effect in the end, through merciless self-analysis and self-discovery. Claus interpreted the violence, the cruelty, the hate and fear in Shakespeare’s tragedies as transcending the anecdotal because of its unrealistic character. He made some considerable changes in his translation, but carefully kept the images of disease and decay in Hamlet.
Claus followed Caroline Spurgeon and Wolfgang Clemen who remarked that the description of the murderous act is pervaded with the imagery of leprosy, a disease that slowly affects the whole body. Already at the beginning of the play, the young Hamlet states that “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark.” Shortly after, he confronts his father’s ghost, who describes how he has been murdered and the slow, but fatal effect of the poison. This effect not only characterizes the murderous act; it also sets the tone for the whole tragedy. The imagery of leprosy thus becomes the leitmotiv of the tragedy and of Claus’s translation. The decay of Denmark and its people is portrayed in an irrevocable process of poisoning, a process that is repeated in the dumb show (De Vos 1992: 76). 18
Sleeping in {my} <mine> Orchard,
My custome alwayes {of} <in> the afternoone,
Vpon my secure houre thy Vncle stole
With iuyce of cursed {Hebona} <Hebenon> in a viall,
And in the porches of {my} <mine> eares did poure
The {leaprous} <leaperous> distilment, whose effect
Holds such an enmitie with blood of man,
That swift as quicksiluer it courses through
The naturall gates and alleies of the body,
And with a sodaine vigour it doth {possesse} <posset>
And curde like {eager} <Aygre> droppings into milke,
The thin and wholsome blood so did it mine,
But apart from his respect for the imagery of leprosy in the description of the murderous act, Claus made some far-reaching and radical changes in the translation to fit his personalized, Oedipal reading of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Scholars aptly remarked that this Hamlet had a lot to do with Claus, but little with Shakespeare. Hamlet’s erotic mother bond was firmly foregrounded in Claus’s version. Ophelia did not commit suicide; it was the queen who killed her. She drowned Ophelia because she was a rival in love.
In Corso’s staging, this Freudian preoccupation went over the psychoanalytical top. Not only was the incestuous relationship between Hamlet and his mother visualized, incest was also suggested in the relationship between Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia. During the bedroom scene, Hamlet caught Polonius in the very act of seducing his mother in bed. This was in fact the reason he eventually killed Polonius (in contrast to Claus’s text, where Polonius was hiding “behind the tapestry”). In the second NTG version of October 1983, the erotic feelings of Polonius and Laertes towards Ophelia were weakened and Polonius was expelled from the queen’s bed.
Hugo Claus is fundamentally an artist in words. Looking for a similar auditory experience as the English speakers have with Shakespeare, he translated with a view to the Dutch diction as target language and in function of the contemporary stage. His aims affected both structure and style. On the one hand, Claus trimmed Shakespeare’s narrative plot structure. Like many others, he omitted some “secondary” characters, such as Reynaldo, Voltimand, and Cornelius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were reincorporated in the figure of Horatio, who thereby acquired an interesting complexity because friend and enemy were united in one person. A new, ambivalent relation arose between Horatio and Hamlet, and Horatio became a more active force in the plot (Penning 185).
On the other hand, Claus omitted or explained references to the classical world. Mythological digressions were left out. The soliloquy “O that this too too {sallied} <solid> flesh would melt, ...” (313) thus became in Claus’s text:
O, dat dit voze vel kon smelten,
ontdooien, veranderen in dauw.
Hoe moe en mat en schamel en schraal
lijkt mij de praal van deze wereld.
Bah! Een tuin die ongewied
alom zijn zaad schiet,
het goor geil onkruid kruipt alom.

In a literal English translation, this becomes:

O, that this sham flesh would melt,
thaw, change into dew.
How tired and faint and poor and scanty
seems to me the pomp and splendor of this world.
Oh! A garden that is not weeded
and shoots around its seed [in the sense of sperm]
the dingy rank [in the sense of lascivious] weeds grow apace
Claus preserved those images he considered still valuable for the contemporary stage and deleted the rest: the repeated invocations of God, references to Hyperion, Niobe and Hercules. Claus used the regular verse of Shakespeare in a free form, but he managed to maintain its musicality without having to introduce syntactical improbabilities. Claus’s musicality was generated by the frequent use of alliteration and rhyme (Penning 185-86). By using trimming shears, Claus hoped to graft Shakespeare’s text upon the contemporary audience’s experience, without destroying its mythological roots. He thought that the increased tempo and direct appeal of the audience should stimulate the ritual impact of the play. Just as Artaud was deeply moved by Seneca’s language—“les forces primordiales font entendre leur écho dans la vibration spasmodique des mots” and “j’y sens sous le verbe des syllabes crépiter de la plus atroce manière le bouillonnement transparent des forces du chaos” [“the primordial forces will echo in the spasmodic vibration of the words” and “Beneath the verb, I feel the syllables crackle in a most cruel way the transparent ebullition of the forces of chaos”](qtd. in Decreus 63, translation Stalpaert)—Claus admired Shakespeare’s melodious language. By using repetition and alliteration, and by linking sound with ideas, Claus tried to unlock a ritual approach to Shakespeare’s text, inspired by Artaud.
Something is rotten at the stage of Jan Decorte...
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the political theater of the 1960s and the 1970s had proved to be a failure; political power could not be tackled directly, because power was interwoven with every aspect of human life. Cross-grained performances of contemporary post-dramatic theater point at the way in which structures of power are concealed but at work in ideological, religious, rhetorical and linguistic structures.
Jan Decorte (°1950) has been celebrated and abused for his very opinionated approach to Shakespeare’s plays. He had already performed Hamlet (1978) and Cymbeline (1980) at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels when, in 1983, he and his theater company Het Trojaanse Paard (The Trojan Horse) translated, overhauled and staged Shakespeare’s King Lear. An empty space, three seats, blue neon tubes above the doorways, a roller-skating fool, armed with a plastic sword, ... A pathetic, clumsy King Lear masturbated in a corner of the stage, giving a particular interpretation of the lines “Gloucester: let me kiss that hand. Lear: Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality” (4.3.132-33). The audience was shocked and excited at the same time: “Something was rotten at the stage of Decorte [...] a new theatrical language was being explored.”
Other Shakespeare adaptations followed at a steady pace; Anatomie (1984) was based on Titus Andronicus, and King Lear became a flashy collage of slapstick and parody in his Meneer, de zot en het kind (Sir, the Fool and the Child), for which he received the prestigious Nederlands-Vlaamse Toneelschrijfprijs in 1991. In 1994, Decorte adapted Macbeth into Bloetwollefduivel. In 2001 he applied his motto “the text means what I make of it” to his adaptation of Hamlet for Het Toneelhuis. He translated Shakespeare’s text himself and worked with five actresses, two actors, a choreographer and a visual artist. Amlett premiered at the Bourla Theatre of Antwerp on 2 February 2001.
Post-dramatic theater
From the end of the nineteenth century onwards, the avant-garde theater expressed its desire to redefine theater and to dismantle the traditional Aristotelian dramatic principles. Hans-Thies Lehmann (1999) labeled this contemporary theater as a post-dramatic theater: it poses questions from a dramatic perspective, but no longer provides answers that fit the traditional dramatic code. It considers the text as an important element within the overall sign material of the performance text, but it contests the classical concept of drama as a “latent normative Idee des Theaters” (49). Post-dramatic theater tries to get rid of the linguistic paradigm; it considers the text as linguistic material, not as coordinating narrative principle. Being an exponent of Flemish post-dramatic theater, Jan Decorte builds upon the theatrical insights of the avant-garde and questions the traditional concept of drama and the referential mimetic aesthetics it entails.
Post-dramatic theater shares the post-modern insight that there is no longer a meta-narrative that serves as a guiding principle; there is only a culture of margins around a collapsed center. As the basic principle of mimesis has been overruled, post-dramatic theatrical communication is no longer guided by a coordinating Whole, by classical idealistic aesthetics which entails the idea of a conceptual Unity that materializes the details, as Hans-Thies Lehmann put it in his Postdramatisches Theater (17). 19 The semiotic material is no longer subordinated to the narrative logic of Shakespeare’s text, nor can the viewer rely on the coordinating signifying principle of a whole. He or she has to rely on the internal composition of the performance. Because the internal composition is characterized by a non-illustrative and thus autonomous arrangement of the theatrical elements, such as sound, corporeal movements, gestures, words and decor, theatrical communication is based on a simultaneous reading, a reading in multi-perspective of these theatrical elements. The juxtaposition of signs in a non-hierarchical structure invites us to adopt a specific way of looking, to define and to unite several lines and not to be guided by one interpretation or narration. The successive linear mode of perception hence gives way to a simultaneous and multi-perspectival mode of perception. Synthesis gives way to what Lehmann call parataxis (147). Each theatrical component has a dialogical relationship with the other theatrical components, but functions in a non-hierarchical sign-system and retains its own, specific force, thereby contributing to a synaesthetic perception (“syn-ästhetische Wahrnehmung,” Lehmann 147) Because of these heterogenetic connections, a synthesis is no longer possible. According to Hans-Thies Lehmann, contemporary post-dramatic theater has evolved towards a rhizomatic connection of the heterogenetic (154). Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari defined a rhizome as a reality that presents a wildness of ramifications that are difficult to survey.
The rhizomatic possibilities of Shakespeare’s plays is precisely what drew Jan Decorte to Hamlet: “Discussion is always possible. The dialogue is always open, and that entails the freedom of interpretation I demand. [...] Shakespeare was a writer who wrote everything at the same time. I think that’s marvelous” (Decorte 3-4). The post-dramatic potentialities in Shakespeare’s text are offered by the multilayered plot and its subplots, and in the way they deconstruct each other. Sabine Pochhammer states that “Such fragmentation reveals a fundamental ambivalence which characterizes almost all of Shakespeare’s figures, and not only his figures, the totality of his plays as well. Plot and its simultaneous subversion, one might be tempted to say deconstruction, inscribed within it have the effect of unleashing a multiplicity of textual meanings” (27). Jan Decorte’s Amlett does not reduce this multiplicity of voices and perspectives to a dialectical synthesis. In his post-dramatic version of Hamlet, the clarity of the arrangement is no longer the ultimate aim. Thesis and antithesis are put next to each other, while synthesis is not forthcoming. The co-existing and divergent concepts demand a simultaneous reading, a reading in multi-perspective.
Jan Decorte not only allows a number of forms and contents to diverge; he also puts a number of corporealities into a dialogical relationship. In this context, he puts all the characters on stage simultaneously. There is no entering or leaving the playground while the play is still unfolding. All the characters remain on stage, even if the stage directions says that they should not. Moreover, The dramatic continuum is interrupted several times by a choreographical “interlude”; the traditional “mousetrap” is replaced by a dance performance by Hamlet (Jan Decorte) and Ophelia (Charlotte Vande Eynde), and when Ophelia recounts her own death, she ends her story with a dance performance.
The criteria of unity and synthesis not only fall into decay in the narrative. Synthesis is neither forthcoming in the verbal and nonverbal theatrical components, which as a result acquire autonomous significance. In this way, corporeality and speech for example, are split. The unity between the universe of acting and the universe of sound is cancelled out. Speech is then treated as an autonomous reality. Shakespeare’s melodious, poetic verse intrigued Decorte: “The language of Shakespeare inspires me to work with speech as well [...]. In Shakespeare, I have never had the feeling that language was finite. On the contrast, I have this feeling that he invents language on the spot” (Decorte 3). Shakespeare believed that merely pronouncing words in a certain way, or the musicality of words, the arithmetic of words and the down-to-earth vibration of words all have an impact on our actions (Lepage 77). Sometimes Decorte has his actors whisper the words, while employing a minimal set of gestures. Sometime later, the words are coughed out, dug up and exclaimed, still using the same minimal set of gestures. The performance emphatically breaks with the theatrical convention of mimetic representation and psychological method acting. Every actor identification is overruled by inserting recitation and declamation, which interrupts the dramatic continuum. The character being played has to make way for the corporeality of the actor, who is shown struggling with the text, with the other actors and with the theatrical space. In this way, the formerly unaesthetic penetrates the theatrical space. A critical analysis of Western idealistic aesthetics is displayed in this kind of close reading of Shakespeare’s texts. The acting is almost reduced to a “degré zéro” of reading. This down-to-earth and distant “reading” of the text scrutinizes Shakespeare’s words, and investigates each resistance, each ambiguity, each level of rhetorical mulitlayeredness in it (Decreus 823).
The actor becomes what Hans-Thies Lehmann calls an active performance-character (64). Through the construction of the character and its mask, the corporeality of the actor, the reality of the actor as human being off the stage, becomes visible. The character represents himself as a real person, through a conscious misdosing between subjectivity and objectivity. According to the post-dramatic performer, the unity between spiritual reality and material performance is hypocritical. The actor manifests himself within the actor’s mask and thereby displays a transparency, a clearness of thought. The actor often addresses the audience and creates a distance between his lines, his presence as an actor and the character he represents. The text is presented as a Fremdkörper (an alien body) that is given a non-hierarchical position among other actors, images, light, soundscapes, etc.
As a counterpart to the simultaneous, non-hierarchical and dis-uniting multi-perspective, Decorte employs a scenographic strategy of refusal. Visual theatrical components are strikingly de-dramatized. He is ascetically economical as far as the scenography is concerned: a black box, furnished with only one large table and several chairs, and a painting by Jus Juchtmans comprise the actor’s playing field.
From the first Southern-Dutch traces of Joannes Peeters in 1682 till the very recent post-dramatic performance of Jan Decorte (2001), Shakespeare’s Hamlet has experienced an impressive afterlife. Shakespeare’s text has been faithfully translated, reconstructed, deconstructed, adapted, relocated along the fundamentally unstable lines between different discursive formations—and has survived the linguistic, the theatrical as well as the post-dramatic paradigm. Just like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, the play appears again and again in the history of theater. Opinionated or cross-grained approaches to Hamlet have been celebrated and rejected, but they are in fact proof of the fact that discourse is ambiguous and multivocal. Shakespeare himself seems to invite us to seek another relationship with the discourses we employ—be it linguistic, theatrical or post-dramatic. After all, Shakespeare himself deconstructed and rewrote stories from Plutarch and Holinshed, from French and Italian sources, wrote “improved” versions of older plays and provided us with tools of omnipresent referentiality.
Note: quotations from Hamlet are from The Enfolded Hamlet
1 From the Independence of Belgium on (1830), we no longer use the noun Southern Netherlands and the adjective Southern Dutch, but the terms Flanders or Flemish, by which the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium is meant.
2 A Rhetorical Chamber is an association organized as a guild to practice the art of poetry (15th –17th century). Its members are called rhetoricians.
3 “Jamais poète n’a puisé plus immédiatement dans le sein de la nature. Tous les autres ont eu quelque notion de l’art, soit par la lecture des auteurs qui les ont précédés, soit par la tradition. Shakespeare seul semble l’avoir reçu par inspiration, et doit être regardé moins comme l’imitateur et le peintre de la nature, que comme l’organe des sentiments et des mouvements qui la caractérisent.” Translation Stalpaert.
4 For the influence of Descartes’ Les passions de l’âme, see Kivy 99-123.
5 For a contextualized understanding of La Fontaine’s theories on acting, see Van Oostveldt 2000a, 89-108.
6 For an interesting study in this perspective, see Van der Laarsse.
7 “Om aen onze medeburgers nuttig te zijn, en het onze bij te brengen voor een toekomstig echt vlaemsch tooneel, dat eigene kracht en sap bezit, hebben wij hier eene trouwe vertaling [... ] meegedeeld. Hier geldt het niet eene loutere litterarische liefhebberij, het geldt hier de ontwaking van ons zo lang ingesluimerd volkskarakter.” Translation Stalpaert.
8 The influence of Schlegel is also found in the article on Shakespeare that appeared in the review Het Nederduitsch Overzicht (1856) and in the booklet Stukken en Brokken (1841) by the Antwerp journalist Lodewijk J. Vleeschouwer. Vleeschouwer even seems to have made a translation of Hamlet, which is onfortunately lost. See also De Vos 1975: 86.
9 L’Indépendance Belge, 7 Oct. 1899.
10 The Meininger Theatre is a court company founded by Duke Georg II of Sachsen-Meiningen (1826-1914). For more information on the Meiniger Theatre see De Hart and Koller.
11 The actor Gustaaf Cauwenberg (1874-1947) celebrated his jubilee on 3 May 1921 with his interpretation of the Hamlet title role in the Royal Dutch Theatre of Antwerp. At the time, Cauwenberg had 25 years of experience in the theater, and in the same year he was also the director of the theater, with the result that the interpretation was not very profound.
12 The same production was repeated in fragments and filmed in 1927 with dr. J.-O. De Gruyter (1885-1929) in the title role.
13 In the Netherlands, Willem Royaards (1867-1929) and Eduard Verkade (1878-1961) have been strongly influenced by the ideas of Appia and Craig. This became obvious in the stage designs that they realized—respectively from 1912 and 1917 onwards—with the architect-designers Frits Lensvelt (1886-1945) and H. Th. Wijdeveld (1885-1987). See Van Pelt 595.
14 Craig designed a truncated pyramid as habitat for the king and the queen.
15 Gerard Walschap, another representative of the post-war literary men, also uses this Hamlet-Fortinbras imagery in his article “Of ons ideaal zuiver burgerlijk is en staatskundig...” [translation here], published in Hooger Leven, 11 March 1928: 321.
16 H.G. “K.N.S.: triumphant opening of the season: Hamlet.” Het Toneel. 27 (22 September 1945) 2.
17 Titus Andronicus, for example, used the Latin expression “Terras Astrea Reliquit” (4.3.4) to express that justice is no longer present on this earth. The goddess Astrea—personification of justice—has left the earth (Schrickx 195).
18 When Antonin Artaud rejected Shakespeare and reproached him for being an exponent of the theater that cultivated lies and illusions, he in fact condemned the dominant naturalistic theater practice at the turn of the century and the linguistic burden under which it operated. Jozef De Vos connected a key passage from Artaud’s Le théâtre et son double—i.e. his comparison of the theater with the plague—with Shakespeare’s great tragedy of Hamlet (De Vos (1992) 70-82).
19 “eines begrifflichen Ganzen, das die Details konkretisieren.” Translation Stalpaert.
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