Poor Murderer by Pavel Kohout
Translated by Herbert Berghof and Laurence Luckinbill.
This play has been compared to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead but I think that is unfair. Both plays borrow from Shakespeare's Hamlet which I think is responsible for the comparison, but while R&GAD uses Hamlet to ponder the nature of fiction, theatre, and mortality, Poor Murderer uses it a a device to explore madness, and none of the characters are actually drawn from Hamlet. Poor Murderer was written in the early 70's by a dissident Czech playwright, Pavel Kohout, about whom I know nothing more. The play was never produced in Czechoslovakia. The English language version was produced in New York in 1975 before moving to Broadway in 1976.
The play is a presented as a play within a play. One has the sense that it begins in an asylum as there are many orderlies in white coats on stage. There is a stage on the stage, costumes, props and even chairs for an audience. Anton Ignatyevich Kerzhentsev, an actor who is apparently one of the inmates, is going to present a play for the head of the asylum, Professor Dezhenbitsky. This performance will prove that he is not insane and that his actions were justified. (That, by the way, is the last time I attempt to write anyone's name. One of the annoying things about this play are the Russian names all of which are too long, too hard too pronounce and everyone calls each other by nicknames anyway.)
What were Anton's actions? It takes a bit to establish this. His performance first presents his life story. We see his uncaring and abusive father, his father's lover, his discovery of his unfeeling, cold, sociopathic nature. The other characters are played by actors who have been invited to facilitate Anton's performance. Throughout the first act one has the sense that things are not as they seem and one is not mistaken. There are layers and layers of theatricality in this play that become more interesting to me the more I mull them over.
Anton becomes a famous and accomplished actor under the tutelage of Savelyov, another famous actor who recognizes his gifts. Anton then decides to kill his mentor. Why? Because Tatyana, an actress in his company, spurned his advances and married Savelyov. This murder is the action he was trying to justify.
As I said, things are not as they seem and there are a number of plot twists that I could go into but I'd hate to ruin it for anyone who might want to try and find it and read it. Hamlet is the play being performed when the murder takes place. Anton is playing Hamlet, Savelyov playing Polonius, and Tatyana, Gertrude. This gives some allegorical weight to the play, but in my opinion, that is not where the meat of this play lies.
That meat is "Madness", and here is where the choice of Hamlet as the play wherein the murder happens, takes on greater significance. Hamlet, the character, is playing mad, his "antic disposition", but so is Anton, or is he? He is clearly manipulating someone. Who it is and who is sane and who is not are not clear at all until the very last line, which causes one to re-think everything that went on before.
I like this play. I'd like to see it produced. My biggest problem is that the female characters are shallowly written. They are there mostly to be sex objects, except Tatyana, but she has the problem of being too much of a Madonna-like character. It helps if one considers that the play takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1900, a time not known for it's feminist achievements. I think this play would benefit from repeated viewings. Then one could see the the actors playing the events that are yet to be revealed. That may mean it would make a good film.
Ok. First play done. We'll see what comes next tomorrow.