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Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth (1979)

par Tom Stoppard

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Dogg’s Hamlet: A group of school children prepare for an awards assembly and performance of an abridged Hamlet.
Cahoot’s Macbeth: Designed for private performance, written as a tribute to Pavel Kohout, banned theatre maker and vocal opponent of the oppressive Normalisation in 1970s Czechoslovakia.
If I may quote from the program notes by the director, Paul Knox.

When Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Investigations was finally published in 1953 it was the culmination of a lifelong obsession with language – its origins, construction, logic and usage. In it he proposed a ‘language-game’ in which a builder calls for various pieces he needs to build a platform, say, planks, slabs, blocks and cubes. Wittgenstein proposed that the builder may use those words to call for specific items, but his helper, delivering the pieces, may understand plank to mean ‘ready’, slab to mean ‘ok’, block to mean ‘next’ and cube to mean ‘thank you’. To a neutral observer, so long as the right pieces are delivered, the language-game works regardless of whether they speak the same language or, in fact, ever truly understand each other. Language is, after all, based on a series of assumptions, inaccuracies and allowances we make for each other.

Inspired by this, Tom Stoppard creates Wittgenstein’s hypothetical language and gave it a name: Dogg. Written for the Dogg’s Troupe in 1971 and later revised to be performed with Cahoot’s Macbeth, Dogg’s Hamlet seeks to divorce words from actions and intention, revelling in misunderstanding and feeling out the boundaries of how useful language can really be. Stoppard writes that this is a ‘modest attempt’ to teach an audience the language in which the play is written; the combination of this with a condensed version of Hamlet presents an opportunity to discover how quickly they might be able to switch back to English for Shakespeare’s classic. It is my hope that after 15 minutes of Dogg, Elizabethan English verse will seem simple.


The audience, thus, is part of an experiment, and, well….it felt like it. I still don’t altogether understand the idea of watching a terrible performance of an extremely abridged Hamlet. Oh sorry, I’m not allowed to call it ‘terrible’, I imagine. It was being acted by people pretending to be children. They were probably acting badly really, really well….But.

Cahoot’s Macbeth is brilliant and Dogg’s Hamlet is necessary to it, I might add. Unlike his Rock 'n' Roll A New Play, which deals with the same issues of popular culture in Czechoslovakia in this period of persecution, it manages to be both funny and chilling. (I mean this to be no criticism of Rock 'n' Roll.

The important reason for reading Fford’s The Eyre Affair is that it explains (in the funniest of ways) how marginalised culture is in our free, democratic society. It’s sort of like voting. We see our right to ignore it, rather than our duty to partake of it. When you watch Czechoslovakians fighting to the death for their rights to access popular culture, whether it be Shakespeare or pop music, it should shame all of us. Stoppard really gets this across. So whereas in general I find playwrights and novelists who get involved in political themes do so because they are dry of ideas, that they are filling up space because their story isn’t good enough to do it, Stoppard’s work doesn’t feel like that for one moment. You don’t come out thinking, God, another political message. You come out thrillingly charged and determined to live your soft, easy life in a better way.

( )
  bringbackbooks | Jun 16, 2020 |
Wordplay: Stoppard's two-in-one play Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth is a dazzling display of the Englishman's wit and linguistic ability. Dogg's Hamlet is a play about meaning and words and the possible lack of relation between the two. Perhaps a commentary on society in general or only an observation on criticism on the plays of Shakespeare, Dogg's presents a world in which people speak to each other and accomplish tasks, but without their vocabulary signifying the same thing. Stoppard cleverly uses this linguistic anomaly as a bridge to a unique adaptation on Hamlet, quickly turning his usual play on words to words on plays. Cahoot's Macbeth, in turn, consists of an underground performance of Macbeth, but where the outside world, ie the audience, is in fact part of the play and the struggle. An underground performance of Macbeth in Soviet territory prompts detectives to interfer in the shortened production, thus continuing the theme of the meaning of words in relation to Shakespeare and the events described. Macbeth is in fact a description of what is happening while it is happening because of the play. Again, Stoppard presents readers with a witty, comical, and smart piece.
  iayork | Aug 9, 2009 |
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