Theater was my father’s religion, and Shakespeare’s works were his Bible. Using Hamlet or Othello or King Lear as a moral compass, Dad set me up with some precise ideas about how a person should behave in the world.
As a young man, my father studied at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. He came to New York at the height of the Depression, but within months he landed parts in daytime radio serials such as Myrt and Marge, Valiant Lady, and The Goldbergs. He was sometimes doing two or three live performances in a day, zipping across town from one studio to the next in taxis.
His dream was to perform on Broadway, and he would brim with emotion as he described the great stage actors he’d seen, such as the Lunts and a young Olivier. As for his radio work, that was just something he had to do to pay the bills.
By the time I was born, he had exited show business for a more stable career, but, as far as we kids knew, that was just a technicality. He would always be an actor at heart. Where other dads might sing in the shower, ours would recite from Hamlet. “What is Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?” he would declaim in his stage voice — big enough to carry to the cheap seats, but in this case echoing through our New York apartment and, if the bathroom window was open, into the courtyard as well. He was bigger than life.
At a young age, I decided that I, too, would become an actor. My first big performance was in a school play. Our fifth-grade class had spent the whole semester studying the ancient Greeks. We had read young-adult versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and now we were performing an adaptation of an Aristophanes play, in which a farmer travels to heaven astride a giant dung beetle to discuss the follies of war with, well, you know, the big guy, Zeus. I was the leader of the chorus, and one day during rehearsal I slipped and fell. Amazingly, this got a big laugh.
We performed the play for the entire school — parents, too. I mugged my way through my scenes and, for my big finale, I upended myself spectacularly to roars of laughter. I was hilarious!
Mom came backstage to give me a hug, but Dad had left the theater early. It wasn’t until I got home that I had any inkling there was a problem. Still aglow from my smashing success, I rushed into the living room, only to find him seated in his chair, wearing his reading glasses and holding a large volume on his lap. He didn’t look up when I came in. A frown creased his forehead.
“Sit down,” he ordered, beckoning me to a second chair he had pulled up beside him. Seems I had violated just about every code of conduct in the actor’s book, from scene stealing to shameless overacting. He opened up The Complete Works of Shakespeare and turned to Hamlet’s advice to the players, Shakespeare’s master class on the actor’s craft.
He began reading: “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. … O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters. … I would have such a fellow whipped.”
This, my friends, is the short version. The soliloquy actually goes on a bit. He read me the whole thing. Then he had me read it — the equivalent in our house of being taken to the woodshed. Finally he let me go.
I was deflated, but it was a lesson that would stick with me, and, as I would realize in later years, Shakespeare’s words apply not just to the stage, but to life. In short: Be funny, but don’t be a clown; be smart, but don’t be a smart aleck.
I can’t say I’ve always followed this wise counsel, but when I feel the urge to show off, Hamlet’s advice to the players is always right there on my bookshelf.
Steven Slon is the Post’s editorial director. Follow him on Twitter.
This article is featured in the May/June 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.