How now! a rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!
They say that one of the greatest tests of an actor is not the routine of the stage, of playing a role well and playing it well again and again, night after night, but what happens when things go wrong. How an actor adapts to an unexpected event. Some freeze. Some take it in stride. One never knows until it happens. Sometimes, an event is so monumental that the audience is bound to notice, and may applaud if an actor manages to cruise through, and groan if this is not the case.
There is really no way to prepare for these things. You can hear horror stories and imagine what you would do when they are going to happen, but you really can’t know until they happen. It’s impossible to predict every possible ludicrous thing that could possibly go wrong during a stage production. Generally, the bigger and more serious, the larger the potential for ridiculous events, because of course comedic pratfalls can never fall naturally during the production of a comedy or a good old fashioned French farce, where pieces of a railing falling down or what have you can become part of the show, instead of a silent embarrassment.
The production of Hamlet I worked on was plagued with incidents. One might almost suspect it of being cursed, except that’s reserved for productions of another Shakespeare play[1. Which, by the way, went off without a hitch when we produced it, even with things like actual fires on stage with the witches.]. Something about that production attracted misfortune like iron to a magnet, whether it was someone’s mother dying or people breaking bones on stage.
It was an odd summer. I remember that year pretty clearly, mainly because as repertory coordinator I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to keep four shows up and running simultaneously, and whenever there was a problem, it was always Hamlet. I didn’t even have to ask. It would be Hamlet. I practically cried when I found out we were taking the show on the road to not one but three outdoor venues, fearing rain, general chaos, and who knows what, but that is a story for another day.
Today is the story of Polonius and the arras. Shakespeare and plays of this era in general are full of arrases and people concealing themselves behind them. It appears to be a bit of an obsession, dare I say.
Act Three, Scene Four features the famous scene where Polonius conceals himself behind the arras, there to be stabbed by Hamlet[2. I assume I’m not really giving away any spoilers here…]. Our Polonius was a robust and rollicking sort of man, and he duly concluded his scene with Gertrude and whisked behind the curtain, only to discover that the curtain, artfully dilapidated by the set designer, had finally breathed its last. The curtain, and the supporting rods, came crashing down. There was nowhere else to hide, Gertrude’s bedroom being smack dab in the middle of the stage and the hangings on the bed being firmly pulled back. So, Polonius froze, in an attitude of a man hiding behind a curtain, and our Hamlet valiantly strode on stage, acting as though it was utterly unremarkable to see curtain material strewn across the stage (and artfully draped over Gertie’s head) and Polonius in plain sight against the wall.
He started the scene, duly proinked Polonius with his sword, and expressed shock and surprise when the ‘hidden’ watcher was revealed as Polonius. Monologues, strutting, beating of breasts, dragging away of Polonius, scuttling of set crew in black to whisk the fallen curtain away before the start of the next scene, life goes on. Obviously, this is the sort of thing an audience notices, and they applauded the set crew—I, of course, could not resist the opportunity to make a ceremonious bow while kicking away fragments of curtain rod.
That night, we duly fixed the curtain rod and located a new curtain and got it hung, although the actor who played Polonius made a point of checking it every night before curtain, just to be sure. I certainly didn’t blame him; I may have given it a superstitious tug now and then myself.
Of course, no one, including yours truly, thought to check the hangings on Gertrude’s bed. I should have, given that clearly the arras failed because the set designer wasn’t such a mean hand with construction, but I didn’t. Which is why I take full blame for the complete and utter collapse of the hangings on Gertrude’s bed that occurred one night, thankfully after the show, when people were, shall we say, utilising Gertrude’s bed[3. This became kind of a running joke/act of courage on this particular production, for reasons that remain mysterious to me. Of course, given that I was the one responsible for keeping the set in working order and I am known for being a stern martinet, I suspect in retrospect that the point may have been specifically to irk me, something people do seem to enjoy doing.].
I must say, I nobly resisted the temptation to mock the writhing occupants of the bed mercilessly when I emerged from the booth, where I was repairing a dimmer gone awry, to survey the damage and disentangle them from the hangings. They, of course, blustered out a series of delightful excuses about the need to check the hangings after what happened to the arras, &tc., but we all knew the truth of the matter.
I gather that the destruction of the bed became a bit of a legend (conveniently leaving out all the work it took for someone to put the damn bed back together), and numerous people laid claim to the honours, conveniently forgetting that there was a witness who knew full well who had been dallying amongst the fusty velvets of the Hamlet set. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) for the actual culprits, I’ve kept mum all these years about their identity, although I always made a point of telling a PG version of the story to interns learning set design: ‘Build sets,’ I would say, ‘like actors are on a mission to break them.’