Nigel Maister will read selections from Hyam Plutzik’s Horatio on Monday, March 26th, at 5:00pm in the Welles-Brown Room, Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester. Free and open to the public. Click here for more information.
A few weeks after Hyam Plutzik died, his friends and colleagues at the University of Rochester (where he had been teaching for 17 years) gathered in the Welles-Brown Room of Rush Rhees Library to present a reading of his long poem Horatio. This was fifty years ago today—March 21, 1962. Robert Hinman, who had delivered a eulogy to Plutzik a few weeks earlier, read the introduction to the reading, part of which is below, from a typescript found in the Hyam Plutzik Papers at UR:
Archie Miller read the role of Horatio; Richard Gollin, the role of Carlus; Everett Hafner, the role of Faustus; David Hadas, the role of the Shepherd; and Philip Graham, the role of the Ostler.
[…] It is our sorrow that this reading of Horatio has become a memorial as well as a tribute, but it is our joy and our good fortune that Hyam Plutzik has left to us so significant a monument. He worked upon it for over fifteen years, and some of us had the privilege of looking in upon it from time to time, of watching it grow, of hearing him read from it. We were struck then, as we are stuck now, by the boldness of his conception, by his daring to do what only a true poet can hope to succeed in doing, to build upon the work of a great predecessor without being derivative.
At the end of Hamlet, Horatio finds himself doomed to live on. His beloved friend enjoins him: “Absent thee from felicity awhile / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story.” Horatio must confront the task of living and explaining. But no critic or student of the play Hamlet can have any knowledge of that Horatio’s explanation. To the critic, Shakespeare’s Horatio has no existence outside Shakespeare’s play, where Horatio speaks perhaps 250 lines. However, a true poet can give a post-Hamlet Horatio existence by creating a universe for him to inhabit.
The Welles-Brown Room is cozily dim, wood-paneled, with marble columns at either end, shelves stuffed with oversized books, and an array of the library’s finest couches for napping between classes. It’s a perfect room for listening to poetry, modest and grandiose at once, intimate and regal.
I graduated from Rochester in 2010, an English major, and I could usually be found in the audience at the Plutzik Readings. It was not until last summer, however, that I began to know Hyam Plutzik himself, through his poems and letters. I was initially attracted to Horatio because of its unusual blend of poetic and dramatic characteristics, both in its own right and in its relationship to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I explored some of these characteristics in an essay, but the theory, that there is something theatrical about the poem Horatio, has remained, for me, untested, as I have not yet experienced any performance of Horatio. This Monday, however, I will have my chance.
Theatre is an event which depends on the coordination of three basic elements: a space, a performer, and an audience. Voice, movement, a script, props and so on are just the performer’s tools; imagination and attention are the audience’s tools. The event which results is a transformation, a bringing to life of inanimate things, perhaps, or a merging of many separate bodies into one, or the multiplication of one body into many. In Plutzik’s long poem, Horatio has the potential to become in turn each of the speakers whose voices he recollects. But will it be so? To find out whether Horatio is truly theatrical, it needs to be performed for an audience who has the will and the imagination to transform with the performer. If the audience, performer, and any of their tools (including the text) are thus transformed in a way not possible by any other means, then theatre has been achieved.
Hinman et al conducted such a test, and they seem to have believed the theory; the typescript quoted above refers to the characters as “roles,” after all, and casts them as one might a play. Next Monday, we’ll be able to hear another take on the experiment. This time, one performer, Nigel Maister, will read as Horatio, playing his cast of memory-figures. I can’t wait to see and hear the kinds of transformations that take place.
Phillip A. Witte