Since my first (and most recent) interview featured award-winning playwright Caridad Svich, I thought it would be both timely and appropriate to review the play that introduced me to her body of work. Twelve Ophelias: A Play with Broken Songs is the first play I read after I decided to utilize the character of Ophelia (from Hamlet) in my own playwriting project, a one-act entitled Drowning Ophelia. (I’m sensing a theme…) Twelve Ophelias was pivotal to my writing journey, not only for my play, but for my MFA paper as well, which focused on the Ophelia as she appears in modern playwriting (and Medea as well…but that’s another story). Therefore, it is with gratitude and humble appreciation that I submit this review of Caridad Svich’s Twelve Ophelias: A Play with Broken Songs, taken from my MFA thesis, Maidens and Monsters: Manifestations of Ophelia and Medea in Modern Playwriting.
In the unique and thought-provoking Twelve Ophelias: A Play with Broken Songs, Caridad Svich asks if Ophelia escaped Elsinore to live again, would the essence of her character force her back into the same destructive pattern.
At the beginning of Svich’s play, “Ophelia rises up out of the water” (“Twelve Ophelias” 6) and into a new world that is quite different from – but frighteningly similar to – the world from whence she came. The piece first comes across as a communication of regret; Ophelia is thrust into an entirely new world, an entirely new play, and all she can do is think about what she lost before arriving. Hamlet reappears as Rude Boy, Gertrude is no longer a queen but the operator of a brothel, and Ophelia finds herself tripping down along the same path as before, one in which she does what she’s told, falls for the same lines over and over again, and wakes up the morning after to desolation and rejection.
In a unique twist, this version of Ophelia’s tale begins with her drowning rather than ending with it; the world of the play is a place to which Ophelia travels after her death. Svich’s Ophelia is, as in so many other reinterpretations, more aware in this piece and recognizes what has happened to her. “I was my mother’s child. And my father’s child. And my brother’s too. And when they were dead, I was my lover’s child, and he hurt me true. This is my riddle, what I carry inside me. Un-riddle me from this. And give me another life” (Svich, “Twelve Ophelias” 86).
In this other life, Ophelia sees Hamlet – or Rude Boy – as he is, a wounded boy who focuses his aggression on the woman he claims to love. She sees her lack of definition outside of the relationships that surround her. She recognizes that she left behind a pattern of poor choices in her former life and could very well follow that road again. In the end, she chooses to leave it behind, not through death, but by simply walking away. “She is on the road,” read the stage directions, “she walks for miles. She releases her clothes and leaves all remnants of her past behind, as Rude Boy watches her, unable to move” (Svich “Twelve Ophelias” 88).
Svich’s Ophelia is stronger, but not until the second time around, not until her life in Shakespeare’s play is over and her new life holds the shadows of her past mistakes. This Ophelia begins to find definition in herself rather than in others. She moves toward becoming a character whose past gives birth to new life rather than death.
This piece also reveals Ophelia as a universal female character, something that is missing from Shakespeare’s portrayal. More than just the character from Hamlet reborn, Svich’s Ophelia is a woman hurt and yet made strong. She is so many women and Svich provides a chorus of Ophelias to emphasize that point. In this piece, Ophelia represents an idea of how some women respond to life, love, betrayal, and the influence of the men and women in their lives. Svich takes Hamlet’s Ophelia and makes her an everywoman, destined to compare and contrast the path taken versus the path that could be trod.
Footnotes: Svich, Caridad. Twelve Ophelias: A Play with Broken Songs. New York: NoPassport Press, 2008.
Photos courtesy of Trap Door Theatre, Chicago, Ill.