Go not to Wittenberg! So says Gertrude, queen of Denmark, who establishes her smarts as a judge of drama in the Play Scene of Hamlet with that withering zinger, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." But it would be critical malpractice of a high order to quote her out of context to skewer Wittenberg in italics, the new "Tragical-Comical-Historical in Two Acts" by David Davalos. if you love Tom Stoppard's melancholy Shakespeare-meets-Beckett caprice Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, chances are you surely have a soft spot for this scintillating new homage to Shakespeare and Stoppard and lots more besides.
As Davalos has noticed, the German university town of Wittenberg was home in its time to the legendary necromancer John Faustus (doctor of philosophy, law, medicine, and theology), Martin Luther, and Shakespeare's prince of Denmark before he went into mourning for his father. Suppose, Davalos asked himself, all three were there at the same time? And so they are, Faustus and Luther as professors vying for influence over the university's star student, major undecided. The Eternal Feminine puts in a quartet of appearances, too, in guises readers of Goethe, Marlowe, and Shakespeare will appreciate. A skull—not Yorick's—is a pivotal prop.
The year is 1517, when Luther posted the 95 theses that presaged his break with Rome. The fact that he did so on All Hallows' Eve, a/k/a Halloween, gives an opening for incidental whimsy of which Wittenberg takes sly advantage As if to thumb his nose at the eternal killjoys who will surely declare him too clever by half, Davalos wraps up with grace notes from Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, but to say how would spoil the fun. Even the stage directions are spiked with in-jokes.
Five years in the writing and already honored with numerous prizes, Wittenberg was first performed by the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia in 2008. In February of this year, London heard a reading at The Globe, with a staging to follow in late summer at The Gate, a vest-pocket theater of no little renown. The German premiere took place in March at the Vagranten Bühne in Berlin. Through April 17, New York is getting its first look at the play courtesy of the Pearl Theatre Company, a boutique showcase for the classics now ensconced at New York City Center Stage II, downstairs at 131 West 55th St. (Tickets available through CityTix®, 212-581-1212, or online at www.nycitycenter.org.) J. R. Sullivan, who directed the original production, once again does the honors.
Born in Alabama, raised in Texas, trained as an actor in Ohio, Davalos and his wife are veterans of the chancy New York theater scene. Today they make their home in Boulder with their five-year-old daughter, freelancing by day in corporate communications, very occasionally joining old friends in short-term stage projects. "The dollar goes further in Colorado," Davalos said recently between performances at the Pearl. "We wanted our daughter to grow up the way we did, with a yard to play in and stars in the sky." He hastened to complete Wittenberg before she was born, expecting minimal creative time thereafter. "These days, he said, "my daughter is my big creative project." Meanwhile, the play has been prospering very nicely on its own. The New York production is its ninth.
Would you rather hear Wittenberg praised for its learning or for its wit?
I suppose for its wit—but it's a close call, 51 to 49. When you're writing a comedy, you never know whether others will find funny what you find funny, so it's a great reward when a line you liked really lands. If I were more interested in learning, I would have submitted a doctoral thesis.
My impression is that the nonstop allusions aren't labored so much as simply available, and that the play cruises on its momentum whether you catch them or not.
It's like heroin to me the way you say that. That's what I'm hoping for. What I've told friends is that the play has Easter eggs in it. If you come from theater history or comparative literature or religious studies—and also if you're a pop-culture trivialist—you'll find things others won't.
I've heard Wittenberg characterized as a debate between faith, represented by Luther, and reason, represented by Faustus. That would turn Hamlet into Everyman, or Every Thinking Man, more or less, and thus the stand-in for the audience. But that seems too reductive, or is it? Might a debate between dogma and doubt be more like it?
Partly it's a matter of finding a way to say things simply. Faith vs. reason puts the matter in a nutshell, and yes, that's reductive. At the end of the play, you'll find Faustus praising Luther for his methodical application of reason in the 95 theses against the church, rather than arguing his points from faith. For Faustus, the problem is embracing the ineffable. It's his soul that's hungry, not his mind. Both he and Luther are looking for the thing that will make them whole.
How kosher, so to speak, are Luther's statements?
Pretty kosher. The bulk of my research on this play had to do with Luther and the Reformation. I wanted to move back and forth seamlessly, so you wouldn't necessarily be able to tell where the historic Luther is speaking, where I am speaking, and where Luther is perhaps quoting other sources. I was already pretty conversant with the Faustian themes, as anyone who loves theater would be. I don't think I'm quite as fair to Luther as Shaw would have been.
I like to think of Faustus as part Freud, part Timothy Leary, maybe with a touch of Bob Dylan.
He's starting to probe the mind, free association, the importance of dreams. I wanted him to feel very contemporary. The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who was also very much alive in 1517, doesn't appear in the play, yet his is a crucial presence, too.
As commentators on Shakespeare seldom tire of pointing out, his new image of the cosmos, with the earth moving around the sun, shook his contemporaries to the core. They literally didn't know where they stood anymore. Is Copernicus, in some sense, the ghost in your machine?
As a matter a fact, when the play was new, rather than have Hamlet narrate his experience with Copernicus, we had the actor who played Luther double as Copernicus. That created a stronger sense of parallel with other action in the play: Copernicus was giving Hamlet a secret to keep, as Luther later does with his 95 theses, and as a viewer will know the Ghost does in Shakespeare's play. As it is now, Copernicus haunts the play as a symbol of the intellectual foment beyond the particular town and university of Wittenberg.
Hamlet has been described as a play of questions, starting with "Who's there?," through "To be or not to be?," and beyond. Wittenberg is a play of questions, too—"To be or not to be?" "What if it isn't true?"—but even more, it seems a play of echoes…
I think of the play as hyperlinked. Faustus pre-echoes Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, as well as Freud and Timothy Leary, as we've mentioned. At times, the writing was like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Did you know that Denmark was the first country to adapt Lutheranism as the state religion? Get into this stuff and it's like falling down the rabbit hole. We stand on the shoulders of giants. One of my favorite authors is Umberto Eco, whose world is full of echoes and shadows—like in The Name of the Rose, where William of Baskerville is Sherlock Holmes avant la lettre… A secret goal of mine in Wittenberg was to mess up Hamlet for anyone who comes to it after seeing my play, to suggest that where Hamlet seems to be having profound epiphanies he's really just spouting stuff he heard from other people.
Shakespeare's Hamlet says he has bad dreams. You give him a speech, in blank verse, describing one. How much nerve did that take?
Once you've decided that Hamlet's going to be in your play, you've already jumped off the cliff. I could have gone in the opposite direction and made him an inarticulate Gen X'er. But blank verse echoes the human heart beat. It's a liberating form to write in. The meter provides a channel for the words to flow through.
And then his dream is straight out of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey!
It's nice when people catch that. My mother took me to see the film when I was three years old, and the only thing I remembered for years was the scene on the moon when the astronauts discovered the monolith. And what I thought back then was that that must be the place where God died. No place on earth would have been big enough. The more I tease things out now, the more I realize the threads of Wittenberg were all connected in my mind years ago.
You've invented, very usefully, the character of Lady Voltemand. Have you taken other "liberties"?
Lady Voltemand was born of battlefield triage. In Hamlet, there's an ambassador named Voltemand who runs errands for the King, so I thought why shouldn't there be a Lady Voltemand who runs errands for the Queen? But right up to the dress rehearsal in Philadelphia, the character in that scene was Hamlet's boon companion Horatio, who in Wittenberg was a woman disguised as a man. She was disguised as a man so that a) she could attend university, which was impossible for women at that time, and b) she could be close to Hamlet, who she was in love with, like the heroine of a Shakespeare comedy.
Where did that come from?
A production of Hamlet at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in which I played Rosencrantz years ago. It was an idea I liked, because it made sense of the love you feel between Horatio and Hamlet. I even wrote a sonnet which Horatio delivered in an aside to explain all this. But the scene just came too late in the play. It was a bridge too far.