TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE: Hamburger says he wouldn’t have guessed “in a million years” that this play would be his last at the Dallas Theater Center.
photography by Tadd Myers
Why did Richard Hamburger re-sign last August as artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center? With the DTC poised to move into the new Wyly Theatre in the Dallas Center for Performing Arts in a year or two, he could have had major new opportunities and major media attention nationwide, as Karen Stone will at The Dallas Opera. Why step down now, with this month’s production of The Taming of the Shrew?

Hamburger says that he was not forced out. He says, convincingly, that being the artistic director is like being an intern in a hospital: one is always on call. He says that the magic others see is never magic in fact but excruciatingly hard work, and that it pulls one away eventually from what one loves about the theater. He tells a story about being in New York shortly after Christmas, where he saw The Vertical Hour on Broadway. At a crucial point toward the end of the play (which centers on contending views on the war in Iraq), someone’s cell phone went off. Buried down in a handbag somewhere, it rang—playing some tune like “La Marseillaise”—for a full minute. The actors onstage tried to ignore it, but they finally had to stop and wait for the poor offender to find it and turn it off. The point of his story isn’t to warn people to turn off their cell phones and pagers, though; it’s what the interruption revealed to him.

“It was like when you’re coming out of a deep, deep sleep and you’re trying to retain a wonderful dream,” he says. “We were ripped out of something that was so precious, that sense of being one with the actors. I was those people. There was no separation between me and them. So I had to backtrack and find my inner life again. In some ways, I had forgotten what that experience was like and how important it is—that we get out of ourselves and into the lives of others. All is well if the theater can do that.”

When I talked to him in a rehearsal hall of the DTC’s administration building in late January, the main thing I wanted to know was why he had picked The Taming of the Shrew to be his last play at the DTC. Did he have something pointed in mind, I wondered?

“I don’t think I ever in a million years would have chosen Taming of the Shrew as my final play,” he says. Obviously, that means he didn’t plan to leave when he picked it. Something happened in the meantime, some clash, but he won’t say what. He’s very protective of the Dallas Theater Center.

Is there some evidence in his work that suggests he’s leaving? Unlike Bill Parcells, he has no win-loss record for his respectable 15-year tenure by which he can be measured, but he had his hits and misses. His production of South Pacific won national attention, for example, as a virtual reinvention of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. To my mind, his Twelfth Night several years ago in the old Arts District Theater (now razed) resurrected the magic of that comedy. Other productions—Joe Egg, The Illusion—have not been as much to my taste, but I have never seen a play he’s directed that struck me as falling short of high professional standards, regardless of whether or not I admired it. I’m not a fan of Tennessee Williams, but Cat on a Hot Tin Roof this past fall was a brilliant fusion of a spectacular set and an overpowering performance by Dakin Matthews as Big Daddy.

It’s tempting to analyze the recent selections for clues about his state of mind, but it’s a play he staged several years ago that strikes me as providing the best answer—his Hamlet in fall 2003. That production, following upon the invasion of Iraq in March of that year, contained what I thought was an unconscionable politicization of the ending. After the excruciatingly introspective and self-critical Hamlet finally comes to terms with his own responsibility to act and confronts Claudius, all the principals of the play, you’ll recall, die of stabbing or poisoning or both. In Shakespeare, young Fortinbras—a man of action—comes in and takes over, honoring the dead and hearing the story. In Hamburger’s production, Fortinbras took over Denmark with an absolute indifference to what had just happened there. A cold fascist, he had no interest in Horatio, who was hustled offstage and shot. All the dead—Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude — were piled up without distinction and doused with gasoline. The last image, just as the lights went out, was a match being thrown on the corpses.

Dramatic, yes, but not Shakespeare. I thought that it was far too heavy-handed, flattening the subtleties of Shakespeare’s characters toward caricature. I suspected then, and I believe now with more awareness of the context, that Hamburger changed Shakespeare’s ending to expose the kind of cultural indifference he saw in the Bush administration’s desire to go to war. I think Hamburger saw the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz political world as continuous with the bottom-line thinking he also encountered in Dallas—at its worst, contemptuous of thoughtfulness and especially scornful of the artist.

It’s important, then, to understand how this political context has affected Hamburger. But what if the key to understanding his departure is driving a car? He talks about the transition to Dallas from running a theater in Portland, Oregon, where he walked, biked, or took cabs everywhere.

“They really knew me, the cabdrivers in Portland,” he says, “and they told me what people were saying about plays, because people took cabs there. It’s the southern tip of a large rural state where people moved to Portland because the services for people who don’t have much money are superb. That and Burlington, Vermont—the sidewalks, the health care. I loved Portland personally, but I wasn’t sure I was really part of America. If you’re doing plays, you want a certain amount of conflict, and Dallas seemed like it was on the cusp. I was a very, very late driver. When I moved down here, I still didn’t know how to drive, so I was really paralyzed.”

Wait. He didn’t know how to drive, or he didn’t have a car?

“I learned to drive in Dallas,” he repeats.

Picture it: the highly civilized New Yorker, brought up on Mahler and Chekhov, never having to acquire the skill that a Southern boy, urban or rural, couldn’t get past the age of 15 without needing to master. For Hamburger, it was an adventure, like a 19th-century Boston Brahmin in Wyoming learning to shoot.

“You have to realize that for me—born and raised in Manhattan—to be a pioneer meant to move away. Melissa and I wanted to try something new, not Midwestern”—as in Minneapolis, a city he admires—“not New England. There was something about the personalities in Texas that seemed very refreshing with regard to running a theater,” he says, “larger than life, kind of ‘Let’s try that.’ The spirit of adventure is pretty wonderful here.”

Coming to Dallas, he ventured into the frontier, at least on a personal level—a place where everyone valued football, but where all but a few had to be argued into the idea that it made good business sense to promote the arts even if you didn’t like them. For him, coming to Dallas was a daring thing to undertake. But at a certain point, I suspect (based on his Hamlet), buying into the spirit of adventure became more and more morally troubling to him. What if the Dallas Theater Center and the Bush administration had the very same backers?

He says none of this directly. These are my inferences from asking him what he would imagine as a play paradigmatic of Dallas, like A Streetcar Named Desire and New Orleans. At first he drolly imagines a farce with separate conventions of Democrats and Republicans booked into the same hotel. But the thought of politics makes him serious.

“I’m very affected right now by the war in Iraq,” he says. “That a piece of the war in Iraq comes in a sense from Texas—this is the president’s home state, his chosen state. Halliburton is in North Dallas. Many of the president’s closest friends and chief supporters are Texans, and I think that’s a very interesting topic to be explored by someone. These attitudes of a certain kind of arrogance—of ‘We know what’s best,’ of not really studying something, not recognizing really other cultures—come from something very dominating and ruthless. I think that’s true of all cultures, but particularly true of the way America was settled.”

The way America was settled. There’s the telling cluster of associations: the frontier, the gunslinger ethos, the wars with Mexico and the Indians, the wildcatters. Cars, big oil, big corporations, George W. Bush, and the war in Iraq.

Learning to drive put him right in the middle of a city where, let’s say, Fortinbras makes the rules. Maybe Fortinbras got tired of his liberal guilt and introspection; or maybe Fortinbras’ indifference to anything that didn’t make money killed the point of doing theater for Hamburger.

I’m guessing the reasons. His next project, a production of The Sound of Music with the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, will bring the city’s Nazi past before it in a new light. After that, who knows?
What’s certain is that there came a point—and let’s accept that it was his decision—when his old job wasn’t worth it.