A Daft, Marvelous Enterprise

Hamlet Globe to Globe.jpeg

Hamlet Globe to Globe

Two Years, 190,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play

By Dominic Dromgoole

Grove Press 2017

For a good long time while reading this book I didn’t know what to make of it. I grasped the subtitle's premise easily enough: Dromgoole, at the time the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, would chronicle the madcap adventure inherent in sending a group of actors to perform Hamlet in every possible country to which they could gain entry. As soon as I began reading, though, I realized the obvious: any such chronicle would quickly become maddeningly dull, a recitation with minor variants on “we came, we performed, we left.”

Relative to the cover copy, the book is thus a bit of a bait-and-switch. Dromgoole wisely gives us something other than what is promised. But what, exactly? Hamlet Globe to Globe is not a travelogue—indeed, Dromgoole did not accompany the players, only dropped in on them here and there during their journey. The players themselves are not characters in the book as one might expect, but rather lightly drawn, seemingly interchangeable personages who collectively make up the cast, and for whom Dromgoole has great affection, but who are not the point.

For the first several chapters I could not figure out what the author was doing. I kept reading because (not surprisingly, given that he works with Shakespeare’s words every day), he is an exceedingly good writer, able to turn an original phrase and craft an insightful and surprising paragraph or passage. This skill kept me reading desultorily until I began, finally. to grasp what Dromgoole is up to.

So what, exactly, is he up to? Frankly, I struggle to summarize. I come up with words like “pastiche” or the inelegant “mish-mash.” These are inadequate. The propulsive energy behind the book is the same as that behind the tour—it’s a daft, barmy idea, which the author maintains precisely why it should be done. That sentiment might seem predictably British, but the fact that we would think that thought shows how cramped too many of us have become in our imaginations. Toward the end of the book Dromgoole invokes (carefully, and with characteristic humility), the 1960s race to put a man on the moon, writing “That size of dreaming, which the space programme so eloquently exemplified, we seem to have lost, terrified by this tribe of begrudgers on the left and this bunch of exploiters on the right. We seem to have resigned big projects to the corporations who seem more intent on controlling the dreams we have than opening out new ones.”

To try—again—to sum this book up, I would tell you that it is about big, audacious things that might seem meaningless (like, say, retrieving a bit of moon rock) but are, in fact, the most meaningful of all. Things like the staging Hamlet in two countries a week for two years. Things like the ever-refreshed spring of relevance that we find in Shakespeare. Things like connecting human beings to other human beings through story and performance, and finding universal truth, and meaning, and surprise every single time. The more I read of this extraordinary book, the more charmed I became by the whole loony enterprise. Dromgoole eventually finds a rhythm, building chapters around a bit of the play's text that seems relevant in a particular locale, then exploring that connection of old words to current people and situations.

Perhaps most charming of all is the author’s own, clearly evident wonder, awe and delight at this creation—this tour, these people, these places and situations that they have encountered because they chose to try something—a slack-jawed perspective that only grows as the tour progresses. The whole enterprise is daft, and yet like so many seemingly nonsensical undertakings it is deeply, deeply human, miraculous in ways large and small. Dromgoole is profoundly humbled by the creature he helped birth, which is to say by the performers, the audiences, their reactions, and the unfathomable, enduring, multifarious humanity that he is so privileged to experience.

This book made the New York Times 100 list for 2017. It took me a while to realize why. Once I did, I was able to appreciate the marvelous, memorable work of an unconventional storyteller weaving orbs of wonder and fancy from something as simple, as magical, and as ludicrous as a play.