Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

March 6, 1997

For kids' sake, theatre staff member takes a big knife to 'Hamlet'

Susan Merriman fears that when she some- day shuffles off this mortal coil, William Shakespeare — and not St. Peter — will be guarding the gates of heaven.

"And he'll ask me, 'What did you do to my play?'" Merriman says, imitating a bilious Bard.

At a time when the Irish actor-director Kenneth Branagh is scoring points with critics (and, conceivably, with St. Will the Gatekeeper) by splashing the whole of "Hamlet" across the screen in a new, four-hour film version, Merriman has taken to heart that line about brevity being the soul of wit.

Merriman, who is a playwright and musician in addition to being department administrator in theatre arts, has distilled the epic tragedy of the Procrastinatin' Dane into a 45-minute production for her department's Shakespeare in the Schools program.

Since January, a cast of Pitt M.F.A. acting students has been performing Merriman's "Hamlet," along with an 80-minute adaptation by Shakespeare in the Schools artistic director Bryn Jameson, at schools in western Pennsylvania and Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia. Jameson directed both productions.

The longer version follows the original play's scene order and is completely Shakespearean text. By Shakespeare in the Schools standards, it is intended for mature audiences (middle school and high school students), whereas Merriman's 45-minute adaptation is aimed at elementary school students and is told in a series of flashbacks, narrated by Horatio.

Merriman was both a borrower and a lender in forging these narrative links. Some incorporate Shakespeare's text, but Merriman wrote other passages herself.

The 45-minute show begins at the end of Shakespeare's script, with the climactic duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Once the stage has been heaped with the corpses of Hamlet, Laertes, King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, Horatio steps forward with his lines: "These bodies High on a stage be placed to the view; And let me speak to the yet unknowing world How these things came about…" Quickly, the action cuts to Elsinore Castle and the traditional opening scene between the guards and the ghost of Hamlet's father.

"I started with the sword fight and with all of those characters dying, in order to get kids interested right from the beginning," Merriman says. "Then the production goes straight into the ghost scene, which they also tend to like. Hopefully, from that point on they're hooked." Merriman continues: "When Bryn [Jameson] approached me last summer about writing this adaptation, we agreed the goal would be to capture the essence of the play — the basic plot, using Shakespeare's words as much as possible rather than doing a takeoff or my own version. The emphasis was also on including the major soliloquies and the famous quotes like 'To be or not to be' and 'The lady doth protest too much' and 'Alas, poor Yorick.' 'Hamlet' has more sound bites than any other play." ("Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" devotes 10 pages to "Hamlet," or about half as many lines as there are in Merriman's script.) Initially, Merriman had an easy time cutting "Hamlet" down to size. She eliminated subplots. Like the melancholy prince himself, she ruthlessly dispatched secondary characters such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. She trimmed Ophelia's mad scene and a few other high-octane segments that could have overwhelmed scenes that are less powerful but equally vital to the plot.

But then the cutting grew painful. "One of the last things to go was the scene in which Hamlet pretends to mistake Polonius for a fishmonger. That was really rough," Merriman recalls, wincing.

During rehearsals and early performances, the seven cast members occasionally conspired to draw out the production beyond its allotted 45-50 minutes. That's because they had performed last fall in Pitt's full-length productions of "Hamlet" and Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," which the theatre department staged in repertory. Instead of forgetting and skipping lines, these actors tended to add lines when they made mistakes, Merriman explains.

To help make the play accessible to children, Merriman substituted synonyms for a few words — "poisoned" in place of "envenomed," for example, to make sure young audiences understand that Laertes's sword-tip is deadly. After one school principal complained of "swear words" in the show, Merriman and director Jameson cut several "damns," "hells" and one "ass." "Nearly all of the words were used in a religious context, in terms of characters' souls being damned to hell and so on," Jameson points out. "We didn't want to cut them at first, but eventually Susan and I agreed that we wouldn't be compromising our artistic integrity too much if we changed a few words here and there. The problem is, words like 'damn' and 'hell' are trigger words. Children may hear them out of context no matter how you present them. And our purpose is to introduce young people to Shakespeare, with the hope that they will want to meet him again when they get older. I'm more concerned about that than with staying 100 percent true to the text." Jameson says she approached Merriman about creating the 45-minute show "because I needed an experienced playwright, and I don't have that much experience as a playwright. She's a graduate of our program, she's a trained playwright, and it seemed silly to keep her in her administrative function when she was a really good fit for this project." Developing the 80-minute production was a matter of "chopping the play to bits but retaining the basic structure," Jameson says, modestly, whereas the 45-minute version required structural changes and original lines.

Merriman's previous stage works include a musical comedy, "You Don't Buy My Ginger Ale," a drama, "Look to the Eastward Sky," and a farce, "We the Jury." She has been a theatre manager, musical director and designer for theatre companies in New York and Pittsburgh.

For the last 12 years, Merriman has worked full-time as a staff employee at Pitt, starting with a five-year stint in the Graduate School of Public Health. Then she worked for five years in the Treasurer's office. She joined the theatre arts staff two and a half years ago, as she was finishing her Pitt M.A. in dramatic literature, history and criticism. "It took me seven years to finish my degree, going part-time," she says.

Merriman also teaches playwriting and theatre survey courses for the department. "At one time, when I was starting work as department administrator, I was a staff member, a faculty member and a student here, all at the same time." She has in her time played many parts, indeed.

Performances of the Shake-speare in the Schools "Hamlet" production continue through early May. By that time, an estimated 20,000 students will have seen the 45- and 80-minute productions, according to Jameson. Grown-ups who want to see the show, with or without young escorts, might consider attending performances on March 15 and 22, beginning at 11 a.m., at The Carnegie lecture hall. Admission is $5 for members, $6 for non-members.

— Bruce Steele

Leave a Reply