David Carl’s Celebrity One-Man Hamlet

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The first three shows I have reflected on for the City Desk 400
have been about America. The Q Brothers’ Othello: The Remix mapped Shakespeare’s tragedy onto the American hip hop industry, in order to raise questions simultaneously about Othello and this sector of contemporary music entertainment culture. Steppenwolf and Second City’s staged reading of The People vs Friar Laurence was American in form and content—it was a satire of Romeo and Juliet in the American tradition of the musical comedy, and it consistently mapped early modern figures and dates onto American counterparts. David Carl’s Celebrity One-Man Hamlet is about the rolef “celebrity” in American popular culture, but also more generally about what it means to “stick around”—something that Hamlet is also interested in.

Originally staged as part of the 2014 NY Fringe Festival, Carl’s one-man show about Gary Busey’s one-man Hamlet is at a surface level a joke about the place Busey has in American culture today. Especially his place as the Gary Busey of Donald Trump’s TV show, Celebrity Apprentice—this is present-day Busey, not Point Break Busey. Carl’s show opens with him entering in character as Busey, going straight into performing his one-man Hamlet. There’s no framing device for this—Carl-as-Busey doesn’t give us a pretense for why this show is happening, so Carl isn’t interested in situating it in that way, he doesn’t want to add a meta-layer of realism or at least backstory to this production of Hamlet.

So the show is more surreal for all of that. Busey moves back and forth between projection screen act and scene announcements, finger puppet shows, impersonations of various characters, pauses in the action for projection screen graphics of Busey-ism acronyms (made famous on Celebrity Apprentice), well-done famous monologues from Hamlet
including “To be or not to be,” and even a fight between Busey-as-Hamlet on stage and Busey-as-Laertes on the projection screen. Carl’s show launches into its action very much in the way that Busey himself will suddenly launch into one of his famous unpackings of an acronym that wasn’t already an acronym (FUN: Finally. Understanding. Nothing). There’s something kind of mad about this show that’s also what’s kind of mad about Gary Busey.

And there’s the rub. Or rather the rub that first got me thinking: why did Carl choose to bring these two things together, Gary Busey and Hamlet? I mentioned above that on the surface this show is a joke about Gary Busey. But there’s more to it than that. Busey and Hamlet are both famously “mad” characters, but further than this there’s a question with both of them of if and where there is method in’t. One of Hamlet’s basic driving questions is: if one is performing madness, is there any difference anymore between “acting” and “really” being mad? That’s the most famous question, but there’s an additional one that’s perhaps even more important/interesting: what political role can this performance of madness play? When enacted by one endowed with public, “celebrity” power as well? Is there anything meaningful this individual can accomplish?

There are famously two Gary Buseys, one that seemed sane as far as Hollywood stars go, and one that has seemed crazy. As with Hamlet, it gets complicated though. In 2011, Jezebel published a brief post entitled, “Is Gary Busey Just Pretending to Be Crazy?” The author of the post is essentially just raising the question, seemingly for the purpose of spurring on the comments section that followed. The debate in the comments section hashes out the broader questions that many of us in general who have followed Busey’s career have been asking (and in this, I may be David Carl’s perfect audience member: someone who is nearly as well versed in Gary Busey’s filmography as he is in Shakespeare’s oeuvre). The Jezebel post raises the possibility that Busey has just been performing his madness for the sake of keeping himself in the limelight, whereas several of the commenters suggest a well-known alternative theory: in 1989, Busey was famously involved in a motorcycle accident that nearly took his life, fractured his skull, required nearly two hours of neurosurgery, and may have left him with significant brain damage. The argument goes that this was the cause of his “madness,” but then Busey put in performances and made public appearances after this where he did not seem to be so mad. A more nuanced theory suggests that Busey may be improvising upon the kernel of madness his accident introduced into his life, amplifying and making use of it through performance. I do not know where the “facts” really lie here, but David Carl is usefully engaging with this general “popular” confusion about Busey’s sanity to not only make a joke but also some kind of point.

So if that’s the rub, what is the point? I didn’t used to like Hamlet. In fact, for a long time I didn’t like Shakespeare’s tragedies in general. The sense of affirmation I felt in the comedies spoke more to the dimensions of life I could relate to essentially up through college. I had to get out in the world and get beat up more by life—to learn how inexorably long rough and rougher patches or seemingly insoluble problems could be and what kind of sheer patience it takes to live through them—to see the truth in the tragic experience of life that plays like MacbethKing Lear, and Hamlet speak to. That in raising the tragic experience of life to its height on stage, we can see more clearly that there is a heroism simply in endurance, and a comfort in the notion that “time and the hour runs through the roughest day.” What I found I was able to like in Hamlet when I came back to it later in life was precisely this sense of endurance—Hamlet’s enduring madness both as an effect of an event that was out of his control (his father’s regicide by his uncle who then married his mother, the queen) and as an expedient for surviving the consequences of this event—perhaps even finding way to make a difference in its wake as well. Enduring this leads Hamlet ultimately to the realization, in the “To be or not to be” speech, that life in time involves, at least tacitly, a decision to remain. To stay, even if life and time in its most practical sense is making us crazy, and our only way to find some control is to embrace and perhaps outwardly perform, and so make use of, the madness of life.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone who was a fan of Gary Busey on Celebrity Apprentice express their admiration for him in these terms, but I do think that at some level it helps explain a deeper level of his enduring appeal, perhaps especially for older generations. The key moment in David Carl’s production comes when Busey is performing a revision of the “original script:” Busey has chosen in his one-man Hamlet to perform the part of Polonius when he is spying on Hamlet while he confronts Gertrude in Act 3, scene 4, showing us Hamlet’s stabbing of him from Polonius’s perspective. Carl-as-Busey-as-Polonius is moving in slow motion, reaching out his hand to grab the invisible dagger that is slowing pressing towards his chest, and just as Polonius’s hand is about to be pressed into his chest, Carl-as-Busey stops the show (the Busey show, not the Carl show), calls out to his imaginary (but maybe also the real) sound and light board operator to cut the sound and lights, and says he can’t play this moment tonight. Busey leans over panting, recovering himself, and there is a palpable, slightly awkward moment of silence before Busey rebounds and skips over this moment to go on with the rest of the action of Hamlet. This is the biggest break in the action and the biggest stand-out moment in the entire show. Busey is visibly distraught for a moment, with Carl just approaching and touching upon a level of sincerity in his overall show before we see Busey rush back into his zany Hamlet. This moment is the real point of contact between the joke and the point of this show.

If Hamlet is the condensation of all the issues I noted in Hamlet surrounding madness, endurance, and life in time, he is a young man first facing these truths. Polonius is in this sense an old man who has been living with these truths for a long time. If Hamlet is Gary Busey on, say, the day he woke up from his motorcycle accident, Polonius is Gary Busey today having lived with its consequences—and perhaps performed them—for a long time. Polonius is a lot of things in Hamlet—doddering, digressive, and meddling being a few of his worst offenses—but he certainly doesn’t deserve to die the way he does. In staging Polonius’s death from his perspective, Busey shows a sense of sympathy for this. The fact that he can’t bring himself to actually perform it in the moment shows how deep, and perhaps unacknowledged, that sympathy and ultimately identification goes.

Truly tragic events in life have an ability to seemingly wipe away our memories of what life was like before they happened. This is something Hamlet and Gary Busey both understand. When Hamlet’s father demands that he avenge his murder and remember him, the young Hamlet says that he will wipe his memory clean of all else. But he also in this moment suddenly experiences time’s attempt to make him old, that is, he suddenly feels his living in time:

O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell? O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart;
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter…

It’s an active decision here, but it performs the relation that tragic experiences and memory can have in life, including the break this relation introduces between youth and old age—it can threaten to make the sinews grow instantly old and erase from the book of the mind all “that youth and observation copied there.” I’ll leave you with a similar quote from Gary Busey on memory that might have a little more wisdom in it, or at least the benefit of time. Well into his Polonius phase, Busey appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live promoting a new book of his Busey-isms. Once again he makes an aphorism out of a word, “memory,” that wasn’t already an aphorism, but perhaps his understanding of memory also contains a lesson or revision in it for the young Hamlet. Quoting from his book, Busey says, “Memory. M.E.M.O.R.Y. Stands for: Making Exciting Moments On Remaining Yours. When you write from your mind, you write with an invisible pen called, Memory.”


Casey Caldwell is a doctoral candidate in English at Northwestern University, where he specializes in the ontology and sexuality of money in early modern drama and intellectual texts. He holds his MFA in Shakespeare and performance, with a concentration on directing, from Mary Baldwin College, an MA in philosophy from University of Auckland, and a BA in philosophy from University of Texas at Austin.