A few weeks ago I went to see a play that I cannot get out of my head. “Wittenberg,” by David Davalos, considers Hamlet before things go terribly wrong–before his father has been murdered, before his slutty mother marries his corrupt uncle, before Ophelia has sipped the Kool-Aid and started taking orders from men besides Hamlet. You know, in the days when everything was going his way, and he could flirt with tennis scores and vows of chastity, the time when anything and everything was game because nothing really bad had happened. At least not yet.
“Wittenberg” is set where Hamlet went to college, and the two professors vying for his attention and intellectual fealty are none other than Dr. Faustus and Martin Luther. Dr. Faustus is witty and imaginative. He plays the guitar, he reels you in. Martin Luther is preachy, but I bet you already knew that.
Let me tell you, I was totally distracted at first, and for reasons that cannot be blamed on Mr. Davalos. I had bought all sorts of tickets for my students for the production at Stages Theater in Houston, and my students were bailing like crazy for really good reasons, like “Hey, Dr. Wilson, it’s Thursday.” And I am not sure if it was the darkest evening of the year, but the traffic was horrendous, and Stages has the smallest sign in Texas to direct the wanna-be-cultured to their venue. Also, I had a friend who was supposed to meet me, but he was sick, and sending me emails like “I hope you are not too upset with me,” as if it is my big dream to be all mad at sick people or something, and this was swimming in my head, and honestly, forget Merlot, it was enough to make me as stupid as a stone.
But then most of the students showed up, and the lights went down, and this is one of the best plays I have seen in a long time.
I want to tell you a lot of work went into this play–this is no sitcom, and not only were the allusions flying from Hamlet, but also from Lear, The Tempest, the sonnets. This is no small feat. When Faust talks to Hamlet, he is feeding the lines that will go into his head, and thus into Shakespeare’s tragedy. When Faust utters the words, “Words, words, words,” the audience is suddenly given a wholly new imaginative context to the lines in Shakespeare’s drama, and it is utterly delicious that Hamlet’s particular strain of smart-mouth was learned, of all places, at school.
Luther is so effective in persuading Hamlet of his Protestant beliefs that Hamlet almost becomes a Catholic monk. Faust is so effective in persuading Hamlet that the individual imagination is so important that Hamlet almost becomes a Catholic monk.
This is the inevitable tragedy of teaching: it goes awry. You are leading people out of something, and away from yourself. This phenomenon is exactly how you know you have succeeded: your students think independently, and have left you in the dust. But it feels terrible, like a break up, and makes you want to lead a cult so that people will do what you say, believe what comes out of your mouth, and nod obediently while they do your xeroxing for you and input your grades into some kind of electronic grade book that does miraculous things like averaging. I have no idea what this might be like, but I have heard about it, and in moments of Bovaryism, I am not really having an affair, but I definitely have a student worker who can file and retrieve scholarly articles without forgetting the full citation. I know: sad.
Okay, so I am at this brilliant play, and I can see the looks on my students’ faces: they know it is brilliant too. They see what is going on, this is a prequel to Hamlet, they catch the allusions like butterflies in a silk net, they are smart, they are happy that they read Shakespeare and not Sparks notes, I am reeling for them, this is happiness. I see everything: Faust really just wants to get married, the most conventional of desires, yet when thwarted, he must overcompensate in some way, and we all know the rest of that story. Luther, the Forrest Gump of history, was so subversive while thinking he was just being good and honest. An unintentional radical–the best kind. In other words, people who do not know what they are doing are teaching your kids. Oh well. That is what happens when people have an impressive vocabulary in an interview.
I am so compelled by this play that I email Mr. Davalos’s website. I think I am emailing “his people” because why would I think otherwise? I email him and tell him my students loved his play, we were intoxicated by the allusions, some of them even went back to see it again. This play is really original, even if it derives from Hamlet. It makes you rethink Hamlet, and that sure does not happen everyday.
And then I realize my students have their own devils and angels on their shoulders, telling them how things are, telling them what to think, how to read, how to live. No wonder Hamlet wanted to kill himself. Forget his father’s ghost: who wouldn’t want to silence all of those competing voices?
So my students have their theologians and their creative writing professors, and people like me who ruin their weekends making them read super long books, and for a brief glimmering moment I feel sorry for them, because it is so confusing listening to such contradictory voices, and I want to simplify things for them, calm their nerves. I want to tell them: I am right. Forget the others. I know best.
Mr. Davalos fires his personal assistant and answers my email himself. There is hope for this world. I tell him I am teaching Paradise Lost and that I hope I get lucky and Houston will put on his play that glosses on that epic poem: it is called Darkfall, and I have fallen for it right at the title. I am not that organized; it is completely epic that I have emailed a playwright, and he asks me if I have seen Daniel Day-Lewis’s SAG award speech, which was apparently fantastic, and I want to write: no, I am not that organized, and it is completely epic that I emailed a playwright, and I am blonde and I miss important things and I am so sorry that I did not see that speech so that I could say something about it, but alas, I cannot.
I tell him I realize that Paradise Lost is great, that I teach it in Great Texts, for heaven’s sake, but it is hard, hard on my students, but they are working with me. Sometimes I am teaching it and it is too much to read out loud, Satan is too much for me, he is so committed. I tell him that sometimes Paradise Lost makes me absolutely crazy, and that reading his play Darkfall is so exciting that it will absolutely prevent me from sticking my head into an oven. There, I said it: literature saves lives.
I tell him he should do a play on Madame Bovary and call it “Bovaryism” or “The Province of Emma” or “Arsenic 101” and I do mean it, as that is his trajectory, to write great plays that make us rethink great works. I say he should do this, a contemporary treatment of Emma Bovary, because my goodness, what a brat. Someone should do something about her. No one else does.
Even Hamlet had his homework, and “Wittenberg” forces us to think of the forces hitting our students at light speed each and every day. He had professors that wanted a piece of him, and that piece was his mind. But never fear. There will always be something bigger looming than that really long book assigned, with all those allusions, all those pages, all that angst. There is more wit in “Wittenberg” than I can address here, but it will stay with me for a very long time. It is a new play about an old play that makes the old play seem new again. Hamlet could not make up his mind at times, and “Wittenberg” helps us know why.