For some reason, I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the time Hamlet broke his finger.
I should probably back up here and put this incident in context, given that I never personally knew Hamlet. (Indeed, no one really did.) But there was a time from about 1996 to 2000 when I did a lot of work in the theatre, and one of the shows we put on was, of course, Hamlet. I’m surprised when I peruse the archives to see how little I discuss this period, since the theatre pretty much was my entire life for four years. Hamlet’s finger is merely one among many strange incidents from this period I can recall, so maybe I’ll start telling a theatre story now and then.
At any rate, I happened to be assistant stage managing this particular Hamlet, as well as standing in briefly on stage in a few filler roles. (Acting was never really for me.) We had a few strong Equity actors (including one in the title role), and it was a fun production. We even took it on tour on the train (which is a story for another day), and to the Gardens, and to a winery (which is also another story for another day).
One night around midway through the run, Hamlet’s finger was broken in the final fight scene, because he wasn’t holding his sword properly and his finger got caught on the outside of the guard. He duly fell to the floor, attempting to mask his agony, and managed to whisper to Laertes that his finger was broken, and I think he figured that there were only a few minutes left, so he’d be able to make it.
And the thing is, he probably would have, except that something went horribly awry with the lighting, and the lights never went down after the final scene. The actors all duly froze on stage, waiting patiently in place for the lights to go down so that they could exit, but they didn’t. The house lights went on and off a couple of times, and there were ominous thumpings and scutterings about as we tried to figure out what in the heck was going on, but the lights obstinantly remained on.
The audience clearly thought that this was some part of the performance, so they sat quietly in their seats, waiting to see what happened next. Eventually, things did start happening, as the lights began flashing on and off wildly, and cycling through a bizarre series of maneuverings which would have paralyzed an epileptic. Finally, we concluded that whatever was going on would not be fixable, and I was forced to troupe onstage and say “the end,” before scuttling off again.
The actors duly walked off stage, and the audience started applauding, so they came back on.
Hamlet, unfortunately, was between Gertrude and Ophelia in the curtain call, and neither of them was aware that he had broken his finger. So Tim (the actor) grimaced through the bow as Susan (Gertrude) tightly clasped his hand, and then they all walked off stage, and he fled to the dressing room to nurse his wounds (and apprise me of the situation, since the stage manager was still trapped in the booth).
Alas, poor Hamlet. The audience clearly felt exuberant because of the lighting excitement, and it was clear that they were not going to stop applauding. The decision to make a second call was made, and everyone except Hamlet ran onstage. The audience, however, wasn’t satisfied, and they started chanting “HAMLET! HAMLET!” and stomping on the risers, forcing poor Tim out from the dressing room in wild-eyed dishabille to bow, yet again.
Tim finally got to escape to the emergency room, where his finger was indeed diagnosed as broken, and we spent much of the next afternoon rechoreographing his fight scenes and adjusting a few other bits of blocking to address the finger issue.
The finger story wasn’t over, however.
A few weeks later, I ran into a friend who mentioned that she had seen a performance, and I duly asked her what I thought, and she said she liked it, but she was confused by the ending. “Oh,” I said politely. “Yeah,” she said. “It was really weird, right after he died, I swear to God I heard him say ‘my finger! You broke my fucking finger!’ to Laertes.”