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The Folger Spotlight

Louis Butelli: Introducing Gravedigger’s Tale

Louis Butelli

Louis Butelli

Hello, dear readers of the Folger Production Diary! This is your friend Louis Butelli writing you once again. How’ve you been?

The reason for this entry is to proudly announce a brand new collaboration between myself, director Robert Richmond, Folger Theatre, and Folger Shakespeare Library’s upcoming traveling exhibition, First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare.

In 2016, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the original 1623 First Folio – the first published collection of the 36 plays – will travel to all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico. Tour locations include 23 museums, 20 universities, five public libraries, three historical societies, and a theater.

For the First Folio! tour, the rare book will be displayed open to one of the most quoted lines in the world, “to be or not to be” from Hamlet.

Taking inspiration from this, and from our deep and profound love of the play, Robert and I have devised a brand new solo performance piece called Gravedigger’s Tale to accompany the First Folio in its travels. In Act V, scene 1 of Hamlet, Hamlet and Horatio come across a gravedigger at work on the grounds of the palace.

Graham Hamilton as Hamlet, Folger Theatre 2010. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Graham Hamilton as Hamlet, Folger Theatre 2010. Photo by Carol Pratt.

He sings a song as he goes about his business and, through the course of his conversation with Hamlet, he produces Yorick’s skull which he hands to Hamlet, providing one of the most iconic images in the history of the theater. Click here for more on the gravedigger in the Folger collection. 

Robert and I have great love for this cheerful gravedigger and we wanted to build a show for him. Our conceit is that those who work in service positions in great households often know quite a bit about the comings and goings of the household than one might suppose. What if, we wondered, many years after the events of the play, the gravedigger decided to tell us the story of the Danish prince.

Taking the format of a “question and answer” session with the audience, Gravedigger’s Tale uses language from Hamlet to tell the story through the gravedigger’s eyes. In 50 minutes, audiences are taken on a whirlwind tour of the play, and hear language from the Ghost, the Player King, Queen Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, Horatio, the Gravedigger and, of course, Hamlet himself. We’ve built an interactive piece:  audiences are asked to participate in a variety of warm-spirited and often hysterically funny ways as you can see in the video below.

Additionally, since the tour will inevitably visit some places that don’t necessarily have a theater space on-site, we recently conducted an experiment in “pop-up” theater where our piece performed in some, shall we say, unconventional venues.

In collaboration with the excellent White Heron Theater, I visited Nantucket, MA for a week to present five performances of Gravedigger’s Tale. The reactions were fantastic when I performed at the Samuel Owen Gallery downtown, in the lush dining room at the Westmoor Country Club, in a greenhouse for a farm-to-table dinner at Bartlett’s Farm, and on a beautiful patch of lawn behind gourmet sandwich shop Something Natural.

Our show is truly big-hearted. It is a valentine to Hamlet and to William Shakespeare. Folks have reported to me that they laughed along with the jokes and the audience interaction, but that they also were brought to tears by, for instance, the speech in which Ophelia’s death is recounted. Most important to me, is that it gets people talking.

My hope is that you will follow along on this adventure: I will be posting updates here periodically, along with pictures and video so you can follow the gravedigger across the country.

Louis with

Louis with “For the Love of God” by Damien Hirst at Samuel Owen.

If you have questions about the piece, whether you are a presenter, a lover of Shakespeare, or someone who has seen me perform in the past, I encourage you to leave a comment below, or get in touch with Beth Emelson at or 202.675.0388.

I’ll leave you for now with the lyrics to the gravedigger’s song, which I perform live with ukulele accompaniment in the show. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s very sweet and a little bit sad, much like Gravedigger’s Tale itself:

In youth when I did love, did love / Methought it was very sweet / To contract, O, the time for a my behove,/ O, methought there a was nothing a meet. / But age with his stealing steps / Hath caught me in his clutch / And hath shipped me until the land / As if I had never been such. / A pickax and a spade, a spade / For and a shrouding sheet, / O, a pit of clay for to be made / For such a guest is meet.

Until next time! And feel free to follow me on Twitter: @louisbutelli