I recently downloaded an app called We Croak. Five times a day it sends alerts to subscribers saying:
Reminder: you’re going to die. Slide for a quote.
The idea behind it comes from Bhutan, where it’s believed contemplating death five times a day enables a person to better make use of their time among the living. The messages aren’t scheduled to a fixed time pattern, so you can’t pre-empt the 5pm mortality reminder. Some days you’ll go for hours without a death memo, and on others they come thick and fast, Reminder: you’re going to die, Reminder: you’re going to die, with barely 60 minutes in between. The quotes vary greatly, in source and in length. Anyway, on Friday morning as I sat finishing a review, I got my first one of the day. It read:
‘I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.’– Joan Didion.
Dead Centre’s Hamnet is an infinity mirror room of a play – like the one created by artist Lee Bul in the Hayward Gallery, just across the way from where Hamnet was performed on the bank holiday weekend. It reflects its own story back at itself as much as at the audience, its centre point the dead (Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son Hamnet) mourning the living as much as the living (Shakespeare) mourn the dead.
Briefly, it is about:
growing old and
the selfishness of artists and
the incompatibility of childcare with having the career you wanted and
the way we talk to children and
being a ‘great’ man and
being an ‘average’ man and
the sadness of all and everything, and
And because it is so full of these ‘themes’ (at times, almost too much) it inevitably reflects and refracts all manner of other things for the audience watching. For example, some very personal combination of your own absent daddy issues, or your own half-recognised inability to ever really know your own children, or your own smashed-up feelings of guilt and grief and fandom for Hamlet.
So what I’m saying is that, you, as the viewer, could pick any of Hamnet’s Themes and decide that’s what the play is really about. I choose this: after a week of seeing it, the line that stuck is this, spoken by Shakespeare to his son: ‘You need to stop haunting me.’
We see the world through Hamnet’s eyes for most of the piece – and rightly so, for many reasons. He’s the eleven-year-old kid abandoned by his father pursuing (of all the things to pursue) a career working in theatre in London. He’s the boy who fate screwed over by giving him a mortal disease at a cruelly young age. And he’s the child who got saddled with a rubbish name that was very likely rubbish even back in the day when he was given it. We shouldn’t have sympathy with Shakespeare because he’s the baddy here, the selfish errant father.
And yet, we do. Either because we recognise that sickening mixture of guilt at the terrible things we have done and grief for those we have lost. Or because we’re just so much better acquainted with the remorse those left alive feel, rather than the other way around (and we’re too proud to believe in ghosts, anyway). Is grief, in whatever form, ever not accompanied by some amount of regret and shame?
The only other work of art I can bring to mind that Hamnet slightly resembles, is George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, a story likewise told through fragments of unravelling text ripped from elsewhere. It’s similar because it’s a book about a boy who is too young and too good to be dead, and the unbearable monolithic grief of his father. There are also, in the story of Abraham Lincoln’s son’s death, threads of guilt: an ill-timed extravagant party thrown by the Lincolns whilst Willie is gravely unwell, and the realisation that, at the President’s bidding, other sons from all across the country are going off to die in the Civil War.
The problem with the kind of guilt the fictionalised Shakespeare and Lincoln feel is, however intensely they practice it each day, there comes a time when you have to stop. Does Shakespeare have a right to tell Hamnet to stop haunting him? I mean, on some level, doesn’t he deserve to be followed from place to place with a constant reminder of the ways he fucked up? Perhaps. But like Lincoln visiting the tomb to hold his son’s corpse, there’s a point at which it stops seeming penitent and devoted, and starts seeming like a desperate attempt to avoid the realities of life and death.
Which is where the Didion quote comes in, and why it was so apt when it fluttered on to the phone screen. The line I remember clearest from Chekhov’s First Play, the work Dead Centre made before Hamnet, is: ‘the hardest thing is to go on living.’ I recite this to myself like a mantra at times. The hardest thing is to go on living. The hardest thing is to go on living. It sounds depressing, but like We Croak reminders, it’s oddly edifying. Or at least, focusing.
It’s a sentiment buried within the ending of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, an acknowledgment that when bad things happen again and again, the simple act of continuing to exist can take one hell of a lot of effort. But it’s also the sentence I think about when I think about what it means to be alive when others I used to know are not. Grieving is being stuck in a great sticky vat of timelessness, so that when their time stopped, yours stopped too. Unsticking yourself takes effort. Herculean effort. Maybe it really is ‘the hardest’ thing to do. But it’s necessary. So when Shakespeare tells his son to stop haunting him he’s making a decision. To be.
To find out more about Hamnet, click here.