You call Hamlét Mignon a short play made up of four comic scenes retelling Shakespeare’s play from the point of view of minor characters. Tell us more about how you developed that idea.
I’m riffing off Tom Stoppard’s great play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are very minor, inconsequential characters in Hamlet. Stoppard’s play is an exceptionally fast-paced and witty retelling of the whole story that includes lines from the original Hamlet but that has other sections in modern language. My version is not as elaborate—for one thing it’s like a 40-minute play, but I include eight characters, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are fixed in one place in relationship to the action revolving around Hamlet. So this is about imagined scenes behind the scenes, from the point of view of these characters.
You use Stoppard in some of your literary adaptation courses.
Students have a lot of fun with Stoppard, adapting his voice to their own writing. I know a guy who works in Hollywood who did a show called Party Down—it only lasted two seasons on television but it was very funny. Party Down was the name of the catering company in the show. On each episode there are crazy scenarios like catering a “get out of jail” party for a mob boss who’s just been released from prison. In class we read Hamlet, we read Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, and we talk about all the devices we use as literary adapters. So the assignment is to take material from Hamlet and adapt it into an episode of Party Down—I call it “Party Down Elsinore.” Students don’t have to invent the characters but they need to have them interacting with characters in Hamlet in ways that make sense. Students always have fun with Stoppard’s voice—they love it because they realize there is something inherently absurd there. But it’s a great way to learn how to write dialogue.
You recently published a book Coming Too Late: Reflections on Freud and Belatedness. It seems like there are shadows of Hamlet in that work.
Everyone understands at some level that Freud is interested in the tension between the son and his father. The basic Oedipal concept is that this animosity is fueled by the son’s attachment to his mother and that the father is interfering with that, so this hostility derives from the father shutting the son off from his erotic attachments. Freud is really saying that in the modern world, this childhood impulse gets repressed. This tension between the son and father is something Freud is constantly coming back to, but a lot of times he completely abandons the question of some sort of erotic attachment to the mother—even though he keeps using language of the Oedipus complex, he’s not really talking about that anymore. He’s really talking about “belatedness”—what it means to live in the shadow of someone who has come before you. One of things that happens to Hamlet is that his father dies, but the ghost of his father comes back and imposes on him something he must do to satisfy the demands of the father. Hamlet refuses to do that, though he doesn’t understand why he’s refusing to doing it. Freud at once grasps and fails to grasp the nature of the son’s crisis of “coming after,” a duality marked in Freud’s readings and misreadings of texts like Hamlet, biblical texts, and a famous German short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann called “The Sandman.” Freud is really showing these tensions exist for different reasons. “Belatedness” is the description of the son looking back at the authority that the father imposes, and the dilemma presented when the son resists it.
So this is a pretty timeless and universal phenomenon.
Not that everyone faces this, but often when your parent dies, especially if it’s the parent of same sex as you, there is this hole in your life—not just because you miss them and not just because you’re sad that they died, but because their place in your life anchored your place in your own existence. Take them away, what is the nature of your existence when you are on your own? That’s what the book is about—the inherent dilemma of “Why do I have the life I have, even though it was given to me by my parents? I must define the life I have, but I didn’t choose it—it was chosen for me.” Hamlet is struggling to say to the ghost of his father: “I don’t need to live your life. That was your life. I need to live my life.”
-Contributions by Kevin Coburn