THE NAKED HAMLET (Hamlet # 1)
Joe Papp was a New York City icon. In many ways, he still is because his legacy thrives. It was Joe, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, who convinced NYC to approve the creation of the New York Shakespeare Festival. In the early 60s, Joe introduced free Shakespeare-in-the-Park, with two or three plays a year presented at the Delacorte Castle in Central Park. Many of the world's greatest actors, from George C. Scott and James Earl Jones to Meryl Streep and Amy Adams have thrilled audiences with free Shakespeare and other dramas and musicals. Below: Joe Papp and the stage of the Delacorte.
It was Joe who galvanized forces to save New York City's classic theatres from destruction when the city was undergoing architectural transition in the 70s and realtors were razing 19th Century theatres that were an integral part of the city's cultural history to erect shiny, new box buildings. In 1967, Joe managed to wangle a deal with NYC to take over the old Astor Building/Library on the corner of Lafayette and Astor Place in Greenwich Village. He intended to convert it into theatre space for his non-profit company. In that building he transformed the American theatre. Shows like Hair, A Chorus Line, For Colored Girls, The Normal Heart, and No Place to be Somebody all got their start at the Public Theatre. After Papp's death, the Public still turned out ground-breaking shows like Hamilton. Below: The former Astor Library, now The Public.
For his first show at the newly-created Anspacher Theater within the Astor, Joe decided to mount a production of Hamlet, one of his favorite plays. But he didn't want a conventional staging of the play. It was 1967 and the whole world was changing. Joe wanted a reinterpretation of Shakespeare's tragedy that would speak in a new way to ordinary people. Thus, The Naked Hamlet was born! Papp and a student, Ted Cornell, said they wanted to slash the play by half, pull out many of the famous lines, put those lines in different places in the play, give them different speakers sometimes, and see what happened. Characters were cut and the scenes were all reconfigured. I know all this because my high school sent a bunch of us into the city to see it. It was my second show. As I recall, the soldiers at the play's beginning all looked like they worked for Fidel Castro, and a cigar-smoking, bearded Claudius, dressed in a khaki uniform, barked commands. Gertrude showed up in a cocktail dress. A very fetching Ophelia pranced around in a micro-mini-skirt. Sometimes, Hamlet, played by a very young Martin Sheen, wore nothing but boxer shorts. He slept in a coffin. The ghost of King Hamlet sported long-johns. I remember during the carnival-like atmosphere of this play (and I had never seen or read Hamlet before) that Sheen grabbed a bunch of bags of peanuts and balloons and came up the aisles into the audience as if he were hawking them to customers at a ball game. There was even a rock-music score created by Galt MacDermott, the composer of Hair! There was a lot of schtick, a lot of slapstick. At one point Hamlet and Claudius get into a foul-mouthed fight, and the audience wasn't sure whether it was real or not. One striking moment was the delivery of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Sheen, of course, was born Ramon Estevez. His father was Puerto Rican. So Sheen spoke Hamlet's famous lines with a thick Hispanic accent that stunned the audience. Cornell wrote "not only did it get quiet, you started to hear sobbing in the audience...He liberated those lines so people could listen to them freshly." It was all over in ninety minutes. Papp then came out and talked to us all about the show and his ambitions.
Below: Sheen's 1972 reflections of the 1967 production.
Clive Barnes and Walter Kerr were the daily and Sunday critics for the New York Times. Both of them pretty much eviscerated the production as jejune and sophomoric. Barnes called it "a Hamlet for philistines". Never a good thing to read. Most of the other reviews were kinder and more appreciative of what Papp had aspired to if not fully achieved. Richard Watts in the New York Post said it was "at times satirically amusing, at others seemingly pointless, but always irreverently inventive." But Papp won in the end. Everyone in New York was talking about this production, good or bad, fascinating or moronic, artistic or juvenile. It created a buzz. I'm not going to lie. I didn't know what to make of it. I probably would disapprove today but the production's anarchic spirit entertained me back then. (It probably helped that I didn't know the play!) I have seen many Hamlets since, but nothing like this one! And ultimately it was an honor to see Joe Papp's first Shakespeare production at the Public. I have taken students to see many since.