Author's Notes

You think it’s easy to write a play, and you’re right, it is. It’s easy to do brain surgery, too, especially if the patient is already dead, or otherwise indifferent to the results. I have written a hundred plays, many of them based on my own life:

Act I, Scene 1. An enormous lawyer, bent over his computer keyboard, fires up his PC. He types a few words, stops, considers. He strokes his beard; runs his hand through his thinning hair. (In some versions: runs his right hand through his thinning hair.) It is eight o’clock in the morning, and he is sweating lightly. Suddenly, a realization hits him: it is time for coffee. He straightens up, and stands, full of resolution. He begins his march to the elevator and, from there, to the coffee shop.

But: theater is not life, as Gary Prevost so memorably observed, it’s life’s greatest hits. So I, whose life all told does not have enough greatest hits to add up to a single play, am forced to improvise.

At the coffee shop, he spies FIDEL CASTRO. Going over to CASTRO, he says:
LAWYER: Aha, old enemy, you are mine at last.

No, no, no. Theater is not life, plus a fantasy. It’s a projection, based on observable reality, of what could happen – and how it effects us.

O.K., you’re Hamlet. Here’s your story: you’re the Prince of Denmark. And your father has died mysteriously, and now your Uncle has married Mom. And, somehow, you’re not King – Unc is. Moreover, your dad has appeared in as a ghost, and told you that your Uncle killed him. And that you should avenge his death.

Has anything like that happened to you? If so, Hamlet is automatically a sympathetic character. If not, the playwright – in this case, Bill Shakespeare – has to work.

He does so by breaking his character down into more digestible parts. All right, Hamlet is the Prince of ghost-ridden, death-drunk Denmark – but he’s also a young man, full of a young man’s insecurities and burst sensitivities. He is, first of all, a man in mourning for his father: readily recognizable and instantly sympathetic. Secondly, he is a person who mourns alone. All around him are gay and frivolous, with his father not six months in the grave. Who has not felt something like this – a lost pet, a lost love, a disappointment at work that no one seems to take seriously? Thirdly, he is a person with some endearing traits – love of wordplay, loyalty to his friends, a gift for introspection. Finally, he is a man in love. And these very human traits conspire to make him, not the Prince of Denmark, but Hamlet, the man.

Is that how I wrote Murder in Elsinore? Not on your life. That’s how Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, arguably the greatest play in the English language. Murder in Elsinore is a mystery, a farce, and an interactive play. Its evolution was a little more prosaic.
ME: How did you like the play?
MANAGEMENT: It was great. It could use some changes, though.
ME: Such as what?
MANAGEMENT: It should be a hundred pages long.
ME: Sort of like Angels in America, eh? About six hours?
MANAGEMENT: And put in this speech from Richard III.
ME: Why would we want something from Richard III? The play is about actors doing Hamlet.
MANAGEMENT: I like the speech.

We were able to drift away from 100-page scripts with speeches from extraneous plays and proceed with a play about murder during a rehearsal of Hamlet. But the spirit of improvisation was upon the cast. At first I was horrified. But one day one of the actors came to me with a written list of his improvisations. I looked at them. By God, they were funny. And then a thought seized me: even though he thought them up, if I put them in the script I’ll get the credit!

“Let’s do them all,” I said.

Adjustments continued throughout the run. We sent our actors out between Acts I and II to mingle with the audience and spread clues and confusion. One night our Oberon Dome was particularly effecting. It was his mistake. When he returned he wordlessly rolled up his trousers. His legs were full of bruises and welts. “It was the five-year-olds,” he explained. “They were kicking me.”

So we improvised our stage directions: any actor under direct assault between acts may return to the dressing room. And we didn’t even need a union to get that rule passed!

At another venue, the wine flowed freely with dinner. Between acts, one of our more comely actresses found herself confronted by one of the more bibulous patrons. He zinged her with a bunch of questions: where do you live? Where did you go to college? How do you like to spend your free time? Our actress soon realized that the customer wasn’t asking questions about her character, he was asking questions about her. “I have to get back to the dressing room,” she explained, remembering improvisation #1. Her interrogator nearly followed her back in the room before the Producer providently interposed herself. That gave rise to improvisation #2: where booze is served, comely actresses (i.e., all actresses) travel in pairs.

Early in the run, one of the actresses got a paying gig and, with no time for more auditions, I stepped in for her. (A man or a woman could play the role.) Once I started acting in the play it became a lot more fun. It was fun for the other actors, too. We got to play to the audience, make stuff up and, between the second and third Acts, troll through the audience reports to see if they sussed out the identity of the real killer (and they never got it right.) We had a blast and, if the truth be known, we made a ton of money as well.

And then, in Act III, I went back to the office and drank my coffee.

 

 

last updated July 1, 2003.
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