Pre-Paper Part Four: Main Action and Theme

April 15, 2006

These are two of the big ones, on which all else depends. I've already talked a lot about the Main Action, but it always bears repeating. One of the chief tasks facing the director — in rehearsals and design meetings, and also press interviews and so forth — is to constantly articulate ideas, and the Main Action is the central idea of the production. The more I talk about it, and the more I write about it in this blog, the better able I'll be to articulate it and everything that flows from it in rehearsal. When I'm directing a production without writing a blog about it, I drive my wife and friends crazy just trying to practice talking it all through. (Okay, maybe I'm doing that now anyway…)

I haven't talked as much about Theme. There are many ways to define Theme, and most plays worth talking about have multiple themes that could be seen as central. Just as I find it useful to narrow the Main Action down to one simple sentence, I also find it useful to choose one Theme to bring to the forefront in each production. Different productions of the same play might choose different themes (though secondary themes in each production don't need to be ignored or suppressed). The Theme, for these purposes, is a simple statement of the moral or lesson implied by the story of the play. It can be instructive, cynical, optimistic, or mind-blowing — it can be anything, so long as it is what you understand to be the message of the play, inherent in the text. I like to look at it as the result of the Main Action: if you perform this action, this will be the result. Often this is accomplished with a twist, in that the result of the Main Action is the opposite of what you would expect or what the main character intended.

One more point before I get to it. The pre-paper outline asks for three examples of lines from the text that best illustrate the Theme (it asks a similar question for each Character). This is incredibly useful for a director. If you know the three most important moments in the play for the theme, plus the three most important moments in the play for the plot (the turning points), and the three most important moments of the play for each character (and so on like this), you know how to stage the play. Put those important moments into focus: set them off from every other moment by giving them unique and interesting staging or by suddenly changing the rhythm. (Also be sure the set is designed to give you opportunities for staging these important moments.) That's where all this analysis turns into something tangible and effective on stage.

5. Main action or spine of the play in one succinct sentence.

To deny change.

Hamlet's task is to take revenge, and it would be tempting to use revenge as the main action of the play. But the play is very much about the delay — Shakespeare has carefully highlighted the contrast between Hamlet's slow revenge and Laertes' quick one, and between Hamlet's vow for swift revenge and his later admissions that he does not know why he hasn't yet done the deed. When we first see Hamlet, he is being told in very explicit language to let go of his dead father. He refuses completely, and a picture is painted of a man who is sunk into melancholy because of his refusal to accept the changes implied by his father's death and his mother's marriage. Throughout the play, Hamlet berates people for changing and for accepting change. He offers a couple of weak reasons for his delay (the ghost may be a devil, he wants to be sure Claudius' soul goes to hell and not heaven), but these are clearly at best only a small part of the picture. Ultimately, what Hamlet really wants — what he really attempts to do over the course of the play — is to deny change. Taking revenge would be a reaction to his father's death, and thus on some level an acceptance of it. Deciding not to take revenge at all would likewise (and more obviously) imply acceptance. Hamlet delays because that is his way of taking action to deny change.

6. Theme: what is this play about? How is the theme connected to the main action? What are the three most important beats of the play in regard to theme? Include three or four lines of text that best reveal theme.

The result of the main action reveals the theme — if you try to deny change, you will bring down disaster upon yourself. In other words, you can't deny change. Hamlet's attempt to deny change manifests as the delay, and the delay directly leads him to stab Polonius instead of Claudius. This in turn leads to the deaths of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, Laertes, Gertrude, and Hamlet himself. Had he accepted change earlier — by making a choice between taking revenge and not taking revenge — all of these deaths would have been avoided.

The chief image of change in this play is, of course, death. And the chief change that Hamlet tries to deny is the death of his father. This is something that everyone who has lost someone they love can relate to — we have all tried to deny change, and we all continually need to learn to let go, to accept.

Here are the three most important beats in regard to theme:

Act One, Scene 2, lines 64 to 120. Gertrude and Claudius try to get Hamlet to let go of his father's death.

…you must know your father lost a father,
That father lost, lost his…

…But to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness, 'tis unmanly grief…

Act Five, Scene 1, lines 178 to 235. Hamlet considers Yorick's skull and waxes philosophic on the dust of Alexander, only to be immediately confronted with Ophelia's funeral and the realization that he caused her death. Just as he begins to come to terms with death, he realizes he's waited too long.

I knew him, Horatio…

…may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till a find it stopping a bung-hole?

…Who is this they follow?
And with such maimed rights? This doth betoken
The corse they follow did with desp'rate hand
Fordo it own life…

What, the fair Ophelia!

Act Five, Scene 2, lines 215 to 220: Hamlet, despite having an uneasy feeling about it, agrees to the fencing match with Laertes. Horatio urges Hamlet to reconsider — to continue to delay. Hamlet refuses, saying:

There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all…

Hamlet has learned the lesson implied by the theme and the main action. Fortunately for dramatic irony and the effectiveness of tragedy — and unfortunately for Hamlet and most of the rest of the cast of characters — he learned his lesson too late.


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