Ophelia, by Douglas Huff

Mark Z. Muggli, Luther College


Douglas Huff's Ophelia, expertly staged by Theaterwork (Santa Fe, New Mexico) and its artistic director David Olson, is an effective new play that explores Reformation questions about free will, grace, and the education of women. Ophelia gains a great deal of resonance from Hamlet. But like most adaptations of Shakespeare, a large part of Ophelia's appeal lies in its attempt to clarify and improve on its Shakespearean original.

Theaterwork, Santa Fe, New Mexico, November 5-21, 2004. Director/Set Designer, David Olson. Lighting/Sound, Jack Sherman. Costumes, Feleicia Martin. Properties, Richard Gonzales.

In the opening scene of Douglas Huff's Ophelia, the young Ophelia and Hamlet imagine the pan-European kingdom that they will someday rule: "Truth and justice shall reign everywhere. . . . Camelot will finally exist."
Hamlet shall be its King Arthur, Ophelia its Guinevere, and because the play has a theme-shaping Reformation setting, this Camelot will be "greater than the Holy Roman Empire — but without a pope."
The author, Douglas Huff, is a college philosophy professor who has had nine of his plays performed, primarily in the Midwest. Huff believes that he has written a tragedy in the Greek mode — rather than the Senecan or Shakespearean — because he emphasizes the interplay among character, situation, and choice, although I find these themes in Seneca and Shakespeare as well. But Ophelia also incorporates specifically Reformation questions about free will, grace, and forgiveness. In addition, its mixed comic/tragic tone and scenic structure are remarkably Shakespearean.
Whatever its lineage, Ophelia gains resonance from and comments on Shakespeare's Hamlet. But as the above quotations and comments suggest, Ophelia is also a new work with its own emphases. The play raises ethical questions about parent-child relations, the relative value of honesty and expediency in politics, and the varied motivations embedded in individual choice. It also concentrates on women's social roles and education. Huff's Ophelia reads widely in political theorists such as Aristotle, tries to guide a despairing, violence-driven, and sometimes laconic Hamlet, and directs her befuddled, comic father Polonius on statecraft and war. (She has concluded that "Agriculture is the key." Polonius responds that no one is interested in agriculture: "Farmers aren't even interested.")
The first half of Huff's play imagines scenes only hinted at in Hamlet. Two lengthy Wittenberg scenes mix joking references to Erasmus, Lutheranism, and rosaries with collegiate horseplay (including some very funny bawdy focused on the "petard," which the characters allude to as a stiff, hoist-like device).
Sarah Salazar, Alex Reifarth, and Elizabeth Page
Sarah Salazar, Alex Reifarth, and Elizabeth Page
King Hamlet and Yorick, a skilled soldier and political tactician known at court as a "jester," discuss political marriages and the invasion of Europe. The German-born Gertrude has an imaginary conversation with her dead father — thus adding one more father-child relationship to the Hamlet story — in which she discusses the arranged marriage that brought her to the Danish throne. Her father, threatened by Danish power, had consoled her by predicting that her warlord husband would soon be killed. Alas, this medieval King Hamlet has proven to be the best soldier in Europe, so this Renaissance Gertrude finds herself trapped inside a sexless, loveless marriage while she is still young and beautiful. Gertrude fills the idle hours attending to her rich wardrobe, receiving the attentions of a courtly, civilian Claudius, and teaching Ophelia the "womanly arts" of sewing and politics. In the second half of Ophelia, Huff depends more on scenes from Hamlet, although he radically cuts and rewrites them to highlight his chosen themes. Huff's play ends with Ophelia's death, but hints at a future, final carnage like that in Hamlet.
Beyond filling in gaps in Hamlet's plot and rewriting existing scenes, Ophelia's central concern is to explore the impact of small, morally wrong choices on the individual and community.
Ophelia's Death (Angela Janda)
Ophelia's Death (Angela Janda)
Ophelia, who exhibits a deep, mystical commitment to Hamlet even as a young girl, compromises herself by agreeing to Claudius's and Polonius's spying. She recognizes that Polonius pressures her unfairly to betray Hamlet. But in Huff's view, her complicity with Polonius and Claudius represents a bad ethical choice that leads directly to her isolation, her moral self-recognition, and her death. As she says in a lengthy final soliloquy, "Our lives are ruined by pebbles in the road. Our virtue deserts us for a flimsy excuse. Our love becomes an apparition. And we die." In Huff's script, Ophelia's death is clearly a suicide. (His stage direction reads: "She spreads her arms wide and falls backwards into the well.") In Olson's production, Ophelia's end, a timeless entrapment in thin bars of light on a dark stage, is more ambiguous and even luminous.
Ophelia is unlikely to receive a better production anytime soon. Santa Fe, New Mexico — second in the U.S. only to New York in the dollar volume of its art sales — does not support much theater.
Dan Friedman as Polonius and Angela Janda as Ophelia
Dan Friedman as Polonius and Angela Janda as Ophelia
But over the last decade, Theaterwork has filled most of the seats for its sixty-plus productions of both classics and world premieres. (See http://www.theaterwork.org for a recent performance history and selected photos.) The Theaterwork Ophelia was performed in a strongly blocked, visually driven style on a simple, expressionistic stage that alluded to the sea and stone of a late medieval Denmark. The performance was grounded in nuanced, atmospheric lighting, sumptuous period costumes, and highly artful props (figure-encrusted mirrors and perfume bottles for Gertrude, and colorful Greek-lettered botanical charts and an operational small-scale water wheel that Ophelia presumably used for her agricultural studies). Especially prominent were the beautifully designed books that distinguish the intellectuals, such as Ophelia, Yorick, and Horatio, from non-readers like King Hamlet and Claudius. In sharp contrast to the Romantic view that Prince Hamlet's deep intellect causes his inaction, Huff's Prince is subject to impulsive action and despair precisely because he wants to be an intellectual, but cannot quite focus on the intricate pathways of complex ideas.
In a newspaper interview, Huff has insisted that he did not intend to "improve" on Shakespeare. But many of the responses that I heard in my role as Ophelia dramaturg suggested that a modern adaptation of Shakespeare is often perceived to be in competition with the original, and that in many cases the adaptation wins precisely because it is clearer. A sampling of comments:
  • "Ophelia explains some things that Shakespeare leaves muddy."— an Ophelia actor;
  • "Ophelia provides the back-story that Shakespeare's plays seldom include, especially for women characters." — a retired actress at a public discussion;
  • "If ever a character was underdeveloped in a play and left to kill herself with little motivation, it's Ophelia in Hamlet." — a Santa Fe New Mexican reviewer;
  • "Everyone thinks of Hamlet as one of Shakespeare's greatest plays, but construction-wise it has a lot of problems."— the same Santa Fe New Mexican reviewer, in an interview with the dramatist;
  • "[Shakespeare's] Ophelia is an interesting character, but she is so dramatically underwritten in Shakespeare's play." — the author Douglas Huff, in an interview with the Santa Fe New Mexican;
  • "I've never liked Hamlet because it is too long and too confusing. Ophelia made sense." — a participant in a College of Santa Fe mini-course for senior citizens.
In Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt argues that one of Shakespeare's distinctive achievements was "a new technique of radical excision. . . . The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity" (Greenblatt 2004, 323-24). Tom Stoppard's brilliant move in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was intentionally to add opacity to one element of Shakespeare's play. Like all good art, Ophelia also creates its own new complexities.1 But finally, the greatest pleasure that Ophelia offers is — to reverse Greenblatt's phrase — "strategic clarity," through its presentation of a consistent, fully realized dramatic portrait of what is, in Shakespeare's Danish house of strings, a secondary, sometimes shadowy figure.


1.   I have not read the two-dozen published and unpublished plays centered on Ophelia, but it is a fair guess that most of them have similar aims. (For what is probably a partial listing of other "Ophelia" plays, see Thomas Larque's bibliography.)


Greenblatt, Stephen. 2004. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: Norton.

Nott, Robert. 2004a. "And in other news, in Denmark . . . " Review of Ophelia, by Douglas Huff, performed by Theaterwork. Pasatiempo: The [Santa Fe] New Mexican's Weekly Magazine of Arts, Entertainment & Culture. November 12-18, 12.

Nott, Robert. 2004b. "Woe is he, to write what he wrote." Interview with Douglas Huff. Pasatiempo: The [Santa Fe] New Mexican's Weekly Magazine of Arts, Entertainment & Culture. November 5-11, 44-46.

Online Resources

Thomas Larque, Ophelia Bibliography [accessed 25 May, 2005]. Available online at http://shakespearean.org.uk/ophbib1.htm

Theaterwork Web site [accessed 25 May, 2005]. Available online at http://www.theaterwork.org


Photographs of the Theaterwork production of Douglas Huff's Ophelia reproduced by permission of Theaterwork.

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