When the spotlight illuminates the stage for Act 3, Scene 1, I am in the front row, ready. My coat is in my lap, and my gun is underneath.
These are the Fairfield Community Players, and Fairfield’s finest actor, the program tells me, is Dr. Jerry Whitesides, an orthodontist, who is playing the role of Claudius. His wife and receptionist, Betty, is playing Ophelia. They are exactly as good in their roles as you would expect.
Not many community theatres have the guts to try Hamlet. Some plays are beyond what a bunch of amateurs can attempt without seeming ridiculous. It always comes down to this: Is the lead role beyond the abilities of their best actor? This is why community theatres never do Death of a Salesman. They don’t have anybody who can handle Willy Loman, so they do The Crucible instead.
Bottom line: put Dr. Jerry on stage as Hamlet, and summer stock becomes laughing stock. So the guy playing Hamlet is a ringer. His name is Blanford Plantain, and he is a theatre professor at the state college twenty miles down the road. While his performance for the first two acts has been merely adequate, he has nevertheless made this production possible. Upside: the Fairfield Community Players have someone who can (barely) pull off the role of Hamlet. Small downside: the Fairfield Community Players have an actual actor performing next to Dr. Jerry, and the contrast hurts to see. Huge downside: while my fellow American playwrights and I continue to produce quality new work every year, the Fairfield Community Players have gone out of their way to produce a British play that is more than four-hundred years old.
This is why Blanford Plantain must die. He has made this possible. I have no idea how much the Fairfield Community Players are paying him, but he should have said no. He should have said, “The world doesn’t need another production of Hamlet! People are still writing plays, you know.” But he didn’t say that, so it has fallen to me to bring this message to the people.
Professor Plantain steps into the spotlight. “To be . . .” His voice trails away, an overly long dramatic pause teasing the soliloquy to come. Very amateurish of him. He knows better. A few audience members giggle. Maybe Professor Plantain is mocking them? “. . . or not to be, that is the question.”
And that’s also my cue. I stand up, point my gun at Hamlet, and put six bullets into the goddamn Prince of Denmark. I didn’t plan it, but I jump onto the stage and shout, “Sic semper Shakespeare!” Later, some news reports will mock my Latin, but just like they say, there really is no bad publicity in this business.
I run for the exit, stage right. One of the stagehands tries to stab me with a plastic sword as I go by. Other than this, I meet no resistance. I’m out the door and into the night.
The next day, television news shows are blaring about the SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDY, but none of the talking heads have any clue about my motivation. Most of these people, of course, couldn’t name a playwright other than Shakespeare. For now they are just wondering why someone would want to kill poor Blanford Plantain, who, according to his colleagues, students, and nextdoor neighbors, was such a nice guy.
That night, two states away from the Fairfield Community Players, the Elderwood College Department of Theatre is staging its own production of Hamlet, and I am not surprised when they dedicate the show to the memory of Blanford Plantain. When Act 3, Scene 1, begins, I can feel everyone get tense, which is why I wait until the end of the play to kill Hamlet. When he says, “O, I die, Horatio,” I hit him with a rifle shot from the balcony, and he does, in fact, die. Commotion ensues, and once again my escape is easy.
Now I am ready to declare my motives. I send my manifesto—“Declaration of the Liberation of the American Theatre”—to the New York Times, along with my credentials for being the killer: original programs from both productions of Hamlet.
The next day, well before my manifesto reaches the Times, theatres all over the country announce they are cancelling productions of Hamlet. The problem, it turns out, is even worse than I supposed. There are more Hamlets in production in the United States than I would have imagined possible.
Then, after the Times publishes my manifesto, hundreds of theatres across the country either close or bring in metal detectors and armed guards. I know that I may have to lay low for a long time, but only two weeks after the death of Blanford Plantain, a miracle happens. In London, someone murders a Hamlet! And then it happens in Bulgaria! And Ukraine! Now productions of Hamlet are being cancelled all over the world. One month after the death of Blanford Plantain, the Times reports that there are currently no productions of Hamlet taking place anywhere in the world!
I’m leading a movement now, which is wonderful, but all these dead Hamlets suggest that my acolytes are missing the point. Do they read the Times in Bulgaria and Ukraine? My manifesto makes clear that Hamlet is merely a symbol of the disease that infects American theatre — and, as I am now learning, world theatre. We will never win this war if we kill only Hamlets.
Clearly, we must take the battle to new fronts, and my path ahead is clear. Tomorrow, I will kill my first Lear. Next week, I will machine-gun my first production of Our Town.
About the author:
David Rachels is co-editor of the publishing imprint Staccato Crime, which resurrects forgotten noir and true crime classics from 1899-1939. As well, he has edited four volumes of short stories by the classic noir writer Gil Brewer.