If you look up Polish composer and pianist André Tchaikowsky online, you will find something unique in his Wikipedia entry. Between Life and Career and Bibliography,there is a section simply titled Skull. What is notable is not his actual skull, but what he wanted done with it after he died. In 1982, at the age of 46, Tchaikowsky died of colon cancer and left his body to medical research, but he requested his skull be donated to the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was the pianist’s final wish that it be used as a prop, specifically as Yorick’s skull, in future productions of Hamlet. In 2008, David Tennant—a Scottish actor famous to me for being the reason my friend keeps begging me to watch Dr. Who—held Tchaikowsky’s skull in the RSC’s critically acclaimed Hamlet performed at Stratford-Upon-Avon.
I don’t know what prompted a number of my friends to post an article about Tchaikowsky’s skull on Facebook recently, commenting on how awesome the story was, and showing off by out-Shakespeare-quoting each other. When I read it, hunched over my keyboard, my iced coffee making condensation rings on the manuscript I was supposed to be reviewing, I thought about how, once upon a time, my daily routine included packing a human skull in and out of a small traveling box.
I’d gone to Shakespeare & Company, a theater company located in western Massachusetts, nestled in the lush Berkshires, for a summer internship and never left. A buffer between college and what the hell am I supposed to do now, my immediate life plan was to hide out in the woods at Shakespeare camp for as long as possible, freeing my natural voice and rolling down my spine. So, when Kevin Coleman, a former Jesuit priest-in-training who found an even higher calling running Shake & Co’s Education Program, and my newfound spiritual leader, pulled me aside and invited me to join the 2000 Spring Tour of Hamlet as Ophelia, it was a true princess moment. A would-be princess who goes crazy and drowns herself, but I was good with that.
I’d always thought of Ophelia as the pale, blue-eyed, wispy girl with blond ringlets depicted on the cover of my high school copy of Hamlet. I was not that girl. In fact, not only was I taller than the guy Kevin cast as Hamlet, but I’m pretty sure I outweighed him, too…by a lot.
The Spring Tour was composed of seven of us travelling to schools all over New England, performing a 90-minute version of Hamlet and doing performance workshops with the kids. If you ever want to experience true tragedy, wake up at 5 a.m. on a March morning in New England, force yourself into a freezing van with six other cold and crabby people, unload and assemble a complete theater set consisting mainly of heavy wooden arches, and perform Hamlet at 9 a.m. for a group of equally crabby middle schoolers in a cafegymatorium.
At twenty-two, I firmly believed good acting meant emotionally browbeating myself into crying my eyes out as Ophelia. As you can imagine, I was a delight to tour with. We were also our own running crew, and my job was props. Repurposing any flat surface into a makeshift props table, I would lay out Claudius and Gertrude’s golden goblets and the poisoned pearl. “Stay, give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is thine.” God how I detested that stupid single pearl! The little bugger was forever rolling under things. There was also Hamlet and Laertes’ rapiers, the gravedigger’s shovel, and, snugly packed in its small square padded box, a real human skull. Yorick’s skull. Each day, I pulled the skull out and then packed it away again. With no jawbone, its one long jagged front tooth made creepy little grooves in the foam padding as if it was trying to chew its way out.
One morning, when “Big Dig” traffic made us late to a school, I was rushing around backstage frantically setting up the props and, quickly jabbing two fingers inside its eye sockets, I plucked the skull out of its travel box like a boney bowling ball. Then I stopped, horrified. He was, after all, a person once. “Alas, poor Bob! I never knew him, Horatio…”
That’s when I named the skull Bob. He wasn’t Yorick, he may not even have been a he, but from that moment on, to me, he was Bob. No one knew why Kevin owned a real human skull or where it had come from. I can’t imagine Bob’s final wish was for his skull to be used as a prop for an educational tour of Hamlet. Where instead of being held by a cool Dr. Who Hamlet, Bob’s mopey Dane was a scrawny guy with psoriasis, who had smoker’s breath, and butchered his lines. “Now matter, what’s the mother?”
“No-chin up, Bob,” I joked, “at least you don’t have to kiss him. Then again, you can’t smell anything anymore, can you? Lucky.”
That’s when I started talking to Bob. Sleep-deprived and worn down by the unending puerile demands of six very dramatic people, I found it comforting to hang out backstage with Bob. I’d sit there, perfectly regal in my soft baby-blue dress, with white capped sleeves and two flowing veils that clipped on my back like gossamer wings, waiting to go mad as Ophelia. No matter how tiring the tour got, when I put that dress on I was transformed. I was “that girl.” My Ophelia transformation came complete with a special kind of crazy as I vented my daily sufferings to the one soul who I knew would listen.
“Hamlet totally threw me under the bus during the nunnery scene. Again. How the hell can I ‘Get thee to a nunnery!’ if he never says the god damn line?”
Bob agreed that it was totally unacceptable, but what are you going to do?
“You know I adore Claudius, but he keeps checking out my ass when he’s zipping up my dress and it creeps me out. Today, he requested I wear thongs more often. Really?”
Aided by a few quick flicks of my wrist, Bob shook his head in disbelief.
“I swear Gertrude likes making us wait for her. I mean would it kill her to do a courtesy jog when she can plainly see the rest of us are already in the van? Speaking of the van, Laertes keeps ragging on me for always falling asleep when we’re on the road, ‘What are you like, narcoleptic or something?’ No, maybe I just need a break from your stupid face.”
I wasn’t crazy enough to think a skull could smile, but you know how sometimes a dog looks like he’s smiling when really he’s just a dog…
“I’m telling you, if Horatio makes us eat at fucking Friendly’s one more time, I’m going to punch him in the throat. Why does he always get to pick, anyway? How’s that fair?”
Bob didn’t think it was fair at all.
We bonded over Bob’s big scene. After Hamlet held him up as Yorick’s skull, “To what base uses we may return, Horatio!” I would enter, shrouded in a sheet as my own corpse, leading Ophelia’s funeral procession. Snow-blind under the white shroud, I’d awkwardly grope around for the bench where I was supposed to lie down, dead. Then Hamlet would come over to my body and, with one final bad-breath kiss, place his hand lovingly on my forehead. When Laertes entered, Hamlet—forgetting I was a living person under the sheet and not just the bench—would boost himself up, off my head, to confront him. As if my skull was simply another piece of scenery. “I think nothing, my lord.” Eventually, I told Hamlet to quit boosting off my head and he apologized, completely unaware he was doing it, and promised he’d stop. He didn’t.
Being on tour with six other people, and only a skull to confide in, is incredibly lonely. About half-way through the run, we spent a long snowy weekend back in the Berkshires. The company house where I was staying had been so full of life during the summer season, but now it was just me, our Stage Manager/Rosencrantz/Gravedigger, and some mice. Saturday night, I paced the creaky floorboards of my bedroom, bored. I wanted to go out, but had no desire to see anyone else from the tour. Growing increasingly restless in the dark drafty house, I tossed my closet and unearthed a green crushed velvet dress a summer actress gave me before she left. It was a little small, the full-length skirt hitting me at about mid-calf, but would have to do. Wriggling into some tights, I slicked back my short hair and, rooting through the house’s abandoned bedrooms, found a shade of lipstick a little sultrier than what I’d been wearing as Ophelia. Looking in the mirror, I wasn’t royalty, but I was transformed.
I left the house at around 10 o’clock, which in the Berkshires is more like 2 a.m., and drove to the one place I knew would be open: a fancy wine bar named Zinc. Outside, the deserted snow-covered streets of the small New England town were straight out of a Stephen King novel. Inside, it was New York City. Zinc was packed with the ritzy revelry of out-of-towners on ski vacations.
What was I doing here, alone, in this ill-fitting hippy dress? I was here to pick someone up. Sitting at the end of the bar, slowly nursing glass after glass of red wine, I had no clue how to do that. I’d never been in a bar by myself before and, feeling increasingly stupid, I decided to go.
Then Jonah sat down on the stool next to me. “You aren’t leaving, are you?” he asked. “I finished my drink,” I replied. Queen of the obvious, I motioned to my empty wine glass. Jonah nodded at the bartender and he immediately refilled my glass. Picking up Jonah was tumbling down a padded well, all bumps were softened, but the fall was dizzying. A short guy, in his early twenties, with freckles and a shock of curly red hair, he was Zinc’s sous-chef and reeked of the pot he smoked to take the edge off the night. When we got to his apartment, conveniently located within walking distance of the bar, I was surprised by how cozy it was inside, an explosion of throw pillows and scented candles. Then he explained he was subletting from a friend’s girlfriend.
Undressing the moment we got in the door, Jonah stood before me in his orangy long-johns and wild red hair. Instead of a prince, I’d bagged a horny Rumpelstiltskin. When he stripped off his long-johns, dancing a quick jig, I laughed. When he pushed me down on the big marshmallow bed covered in poufy pillows, I sold-out true desire for momentary comfort. When he yanked the green velvet dress up over my head, I marveled at how easily I’d accomplished my goal. I was “this girl,” too. Let in the maid that out a maid, Never departed more, my inner Ophelia sang. Still, I slept soundly, warmer than I’d been in weeks.
I went to Jonah’s a few more times, whenever we were back in the Berkshires. He’d call me, late, after his shift and invite me over. One night he asked for a favor, “Could you pick up some cigarettes on your way? Oh, and grab some condoms, too. I’ll pay you back.” He didn’t. When I walked in, he grabbed the bag out of my hands and pulled me down to kiss him.
“Thank god you’re here,” he mumbled between kisses, “my buddy gave me some Viagra, you know, just to try, and I took it before I thought to check if you were around…” Not wanting to think about what he would have done if I hadn’t been here, I fished the condoms out of the bag and steered Jonah towards what I was really there for, the marshmallow bed. Afterwards, I burrowed under a pile of pillows, but Jonah stretched out, a naked happy Rumpelstiltskin, and dreamily muttered, “We should take a trip. Go to New York City for the weekend. We’ll get, like, a cheap hotel and lay in bed all day eating cheese and crackers. What do you think of that?” I wasn’t sure what anyone would think of that. So, I answered, “Sure. Sounds nice.”
When I woke up in the middle of the night, Jonah’s face was pressed close to mine, his smoky breath making my eyes water. Mouth hanging open, one long jagged front tooth glinted at me from inside a skull that might as well be hollow. In his sleep, Jonah had scratched at a scabbed-over zit on his face. Staring at the blob of blood welling up on his cheek, I knew with a cold certainty I was never going to come here again. I never did. We went back on the road for three weeks, and I used that as an excuse to fade away and never returned Jonah’s messages. I never mentioned my few-night stand with Zinc’s sous-chef to my tour mates. In fact, I never told anyone else about the night I picked up Jonah, except Bob. And I never told anybody about Bob, except you.
According to Wikipedia, after the use of Tchaikowsky’s skull was revealed in the press, RSC’s Hamlet transferred to the West End, where it was announced that his skull would no longer be used since it was, “too distracting for the audience.” However, this was a deception; in fact, his skull was used throughout the production’s West End run and in a subsequent television adaptation. Director Gregory Doran said,
“André Tchaikowsky’s skull was a very important part of our production of Hamlet, and despite all the hype about him, he meant a great deal to the company.”
Ditto Bob, whoever you are, ditto.
Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons is a writer, teacher, and storyteller. Earning her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University, she combined her love for theater and writing to create the “switched-up” storytelling series, No, YOU Tell It! Each NYTI storyteller writes a true-life tale and then flips scripts with a partner to present each other’s story. More info and podcast at noyoutellit.com. Follow her on Twitter @KJ_Fitzsimmons.