Kilts on the ramparts of Elsinore
NOT everybody has acted in a Shakespearean play, so I suppose my single success rightfully belongs in the record. This was back in the '30s and in the town of Brunswick, where the hovering academic influence of Bowdoin College kept the peripheral provincials of the community on their toes. Bowdoin College did bring lecturers and string quartets to edify -- the posters always said the public was invited -- but the troupe of Shakespeareans that came that year was not so sponsored. Brunswick was but a small town then, and barnstormers would not expect the place to yield like Portland and Bangor, but perhaps the snob appeal of ``Hamlet'' would help the box office. ``Hamlet'' was billed, and ``Hamlet'' came. I was the choreboy and hack for the weekly Brunswick Record, so the advance man came in to hand me a couple of passes, take a small advertisement, and give me poop sheets on the actors. He affected a Dickens manner, something W. C. Fields was to do better as Mr. Micawber, and told me to be sure and put in the story that this company liked to encourage hometown talent and would use a few Brunswick folks as walk-ons. I told him I'd like to try that, and thus became a thespian.
I well knew about Bill Nye and the time he reviewed a production of ``Hamlet'' in Laramie, Wyo. He said everybody in the theater was pleased that Hamlet got killed in the last act, but they were sore at Laertes because he beat them to it. Nothing like that would ever get written for the couth and sedate Brunswick readership, so I smiled to myself and did the little weekly squibs that led up to the big event. I went to the railroad station when the traveling players arrived, and was a bit disappointed that none looked like Mr. Micawber, Sir Henry Irving, or even like John Barrymore. They were just people. Their manager pointed across the way at the Eagle Hotel, and as the company walked over to it he went to the baggage room. This company was ready to do some 10 or 12 Shakespeare plays on tour, and had all the costumes and properties in boxes and trunks. Only the ``Hamlet'' effects would be needed in Brunswick, so he checked all the other boxes and trunks until time came to move on.
``Hamlet'' did draw a good attendance. The old Brunswick town hall, since demolished, had a fair stage, and as I walked over that evening people were already coming to go in. Some of the Bowdoin professors had suggested their students might well embrace this chance to see The Bard as he warbled his native woodnotes wild on the well-trod boards, anon, and some of them were bringing their books so they could follow along. I went to the rear door of the town hall and climbed the stairs to backstage.
Thus it was, and as I arrived I heard the wild shriek of bagpipes and looked up to see a Highlander in plaidie and kilt brandishing a claymore that would fell a moose. Nobody else backstage knew, but I saw instantly that a big mistake was afoot. ``Hamlet'' had been billed and everybody had come to see ``Hamlet,'' but here was the cast all ready to do ``Macbeth.'' Backstage, it didn't really matter. In that troupe everybody played many parts, and he who was Hamlet could also be Macduff. Gertrude by times was Desdemona, Juliet, Portia, and shrewish Kate. The first gravedigger was also the porter, and Osric could be Iago. When I reminded the stage manager that ``Hamlet'' was expected, he passed the word along and started for the railroad station to fetch the ``Hamlet'' trunks.
To give him time to get back, the cast made the opening scene of ``Hamlet,'' which is 175 lines of text, last 45 minutes. The scene takes place at midnight on a parapet lighted only by sentries' lanterns, but for this performance the lanterns were omitted. Bernardo, Francisco, Marcellus, and Horatio all spoke from total darkness, and all were wearing kilts on the ramparts of Elsinore. I saw the bagpiper stripped to his shorts in the dressing room, waiting for the costume that would turn him into Guildenstern. By the time the midnight parapet had become the royal throne room, Claudius was no longer Duncan but a convincing King of Denmark.
I was in the play. I was one of the three who made up the rabble that broke the door down and came in with Laertes to find his father. That is, I just missed being a soldier invited by Malcolm to Scone.