Philaletheis, a Vassar student theater organization, will soon be producing the five-act play Hydriotaphia, or The Death of Dr. Browne, a modern-day farce loosely based on the life of Sir Thomas Browne, a 17th-century writer, scientist and capitalist. In drama, a farce is a comedic performance that strives to entertain its audiences through the use of hyperbolic scenarios and exorbiance. The plot of a farce is often convoluted, and therefore highly unrealistic.
The title of Tony Kushner’s show is taken from Browne’s essay of the same title in which he argues that God does not grant mankind immortality, an idea that Kushner uses as a creative springboard. The play runs from Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Susan Stein Shiva Theater.
“Sir Thomas Browne is an intelligent, ambitious writer who is facing the prospect of his own death,” wrote Derek Butterton ’15 in an emailed statement. “He’s wronged a great many people in his life, and his actions are finally coming back to haunt him.”
The play is set during the Restoration, referring to the restoration of the English monarchy by Charles II. “The show uses the economic conditions of the Restoration to ask about why the gap between rich and poor is so severe and so enduring. And it shows the emotional damage of accumulating wealth does to everyone involved,” wrote Butteron. Browne sits in bed, awaiting death, accompanied by a preacher, witches, a gravedigger and eventually an embodiment of his soul and death herself, who help make up the cast of 15.
Each visitor is intently focused on her or his goals, and is able to transcend the divides between heaven and Earth. As the story takes place during the Restoration, it explores themes of transition and how society manages large shifts in political and economic systems. Ultimately, Browne suffers an ironic death, the result of conspicuous consumption and disregard for others. “The show raises questions about the fear of death, the nature of love, and the seductive power of wealth. Also, it’s pretty funny!” explained Butterton in an emailed statement.
According to Kushner, it is a tale that sweeps beyond the mundane and into the ethereal world and is deeply fascinated by death. The play features a vernacular that draws from Brooklyn and Yorkshire dialects and from the language of Krazy Kat, an American comic strip by cartoonist George Herriman, all of which aims to further complicate the narrative.
“One of the most relevant themes in the play is that of primitive capital accumulation, a Marxist term that refers to the act of accumulating recklessly without concern for all the people you throw under the bus along the way. Critiquing capitalism is huge at Vassar and growing around the country, and with socialist leaders like Kshama Sawant gaining political power and local socialist organizations gaining stronger ties with students on campus, these politics are only becoming more relevant,” said director Tyler Fultz ’15.
Samantha Guss ’17, an actor in the play, spoke to the novelty of putting on this show at the College. “I play Dr. Thomas Browne’s Soul, and spend 4 of the 5 acts chained to his bed,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “[Vassar students will have] the opportunity to see a unique and rarely performed piece of theater. Hydriotaphia is a failed attempt at a masterpiece, but there’s a lot of genius in it if you know where to look. I’ve seen the play performed (because I’m literally chained to it) 20ish times, and I discover something new during every run.”
While Hydriotaphia focuses on capitalism and overconsumption, it also deals with more universal themes, including ableism, fear of mortality, religion and overcoming past indiscretions. The play is a true intellectual journey, prompting audiences to both laugh and ponder deep philosophical and societal issues.
Fultz is excited about the experience of putting the play together, and said, “Every time that we all sit down to talk about our discoveries of the play, we constantly discover new things, leading one of our actors to even say that we shouldn’t talk about the play anymore because the breadth of discoveries that we have made thus far have started to scare him. There are several well-developed storylines throughout this show, which only serves to make the play…epic. Anyone that comes to see it will have a ton of fun.” Fultz expressed another reason to come see the play. “While there is tons of theater done on this campus every semester, it has been rare in my three years at Vassar to see a farce produced on campus, particularly modern farces.”
He continued, “Philaletheis is dedicated to providing a space and opportunity for all sorts of theater to be produced on campus, and this opportunity will allow audiences to see that farce is an underestimated and amazing means to get across very important messages.” In the play, life and death are but a farce.
Fultz discussed his personal assessment of the show, saying, “Hydriotaphia is a weird show. I mean, it is actually the weirdest thing. The play may start normal enough, but it very clearly dwindles out of control in the most entertaining of ways. It is super high energy and over the top, and the writing of the play is absolutely brilliant.”
Butterton is excited to see how audiences react to the show. “Everyone working on the show is absolutely fantastic! I couldn’t have asked for a better group. I hope you have as much fun seeing the show as we had making it!” he wrote.