Why do theatre directors work with canonical dramatic texts?: Lars Maagerø on Rüping’s 2017 Hamlet

Photo: Thomas Aurin of Rüping's 'Hamlet'

Critiques of the canon have characterised academic studies of literature and art in the last few decades. Canonical texts are no longer seen as inherently “good” or, as T.S. Eliot describes them, the fullest expression of a culture’s maturity (1945: 10). ‘The canon’ is more often viewed as an institution that excludes important minority voices and works to confirm old power structures: in short, it is non-inclusive, male, white and Eurocentric. The focus in many fields has been on deconstructing the canon, on giving attention to texts outside the traditional canon, and on constructing counter-canons. However, in one cultural sphere, the traditional canon continues to be reproduced, often uncritically, again and again. This cultural sphere is the theatre, where plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw and other ‘dead white European males’ are continuously produced and reproduced.

In my doctoral studies at the University of Kent, I study why contemporary theatre directors continue to engage with the canon and what they hope to achieve with their productions of such plays. I have interviewed six directors from the UK, Germany, Norway and Iceland, and I wanted originally to study different approaches to “national canonical authors” in different countries, i.e. how Shakespeare is approached in the UK compared to how Ibsen is approached in Norway and Brecht in Germany. But my interviews demonstrated far more complex engagements with the canon, so I shifted the focus towards studying how canonicity and canonical status itself is explicitly used in contemporary stagings of canonical plays. The directors all give two main answers to why they work with canonical texts. First, in different ways, they subscribe to a perhaps surprisingly old-fashioned view of canonical plays as of particularly “high quality”. Even when acknowledging that the canon is conservative and non-inclusive, the directors claim that canonical texts are “good” because they have survived through time. Given criticisms of the canon and its effects, this is clearly problematic. But the second reason given by directors serves as a kind of canon criticism: that working with canonical texts makes it possible to play with and challenge ideas of canonical status, and direct attention to audience’s expectations about it – in short, to dramatise these issues on stage. Directors see opportunities for challenging our relationship to these texts and the values and ideologies in our culture that have made these particular texts canonical. As German director Christopher Rüping puts it:

Hamlet and all the canonical plays, they are already part of our cultural identity. (…) And I like to question those parts of our cultural identity. (…) And that’s why I like to adapt those canonical texts: because they are already part of our cultural identity, and so I like to ask why, what that says about us (2017).

            Rüping’s production of Hamlet at the Kammerspiele in Munich is an example of playing with audience expectations about canonical status. In this production, Rüping asked what it says about us – Germany, Europe, the West – that Hamlet is one of our most important texts. While some, like Harold Bloom, have hailed Hamlet’s character as ‘the leading Western representation of an intellectual’, Rüping’s point of departure was Hamlet’s violence (1999: 383).  However  “intellectual”, Hamlet is also responsible for the death of a large number of people throughout the play. Rüping chose to present Hamlet not as a melancholy, intellectual prince, but as what I would call a “solo-terrorist”. In the preparation for the production, Rüping researched the psychology of terrorism, and the production drew parallels between Hamlet’s thoughts and statements and thoughts and statements found in terrorist manifestos and propaganda. The most striking moment in the production was the ‘To be or not to be’-soliloquy, which was removed from its dramatic context in the third act and given as the culmination of the performance. The soliloquy was staged not as Hamlet’s private contemplation of suicide, but three actors in the production delivered the speech simultaneously and directed it outwards, towards the audience. The speech was no longer a reflection on the self and the inability to act but had instead turned into the opposite: an active, direct propaganda speech that called the audience to action and to make “the ultimate sacrifice” in a very uncomfortable way. Except for being translated into German, the words were still Shakespeare’s. Rüping’s interpretation did not work against Shakespeare’s words, but was a latent potential of the words themselves.

Rüping’s version of ‘To be or not to be’ is a significant theatrical reproduction of one of the most famous texts in Western culture. Rüping’s staging did not just reproduce the text, but challenged it, and more important, challenged the culture that has made this text and this character into canonical figures. It asked what it says about our culture and our relationship to violence that the violence belonging to the figure of Hamlet has been so easily overlooked. 

  • Bloom, H. (1999) Shakespeare. The Invention of the Human. London: Fourth Estate Limited.
  • Eliot, T. S. (1945) What is a Classic. London: Faber & Faber.
  • Rüping, Christopher. Interview with the author (2017).

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