SURVIVOR AT THE PALACE
“What motivated him, I’m not sure.”
- Innocent bystander speaking of Prince Hamlet
“The twinkle in the author’s eye as he notes the imbecile drooping of a murderer’s underlip... is what punishes your man more surely than the pistol of a tiptoeing conspirator.”
- V. Nabokov, “The Art of Literature and Commonsense,” in Lectures on Literature, p.376.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
THE KRONBERG. As they said in town, the road to the palace was just wide enough for two tanks. Just two years old and already a labyrinth of outmoded taste in the middle of nowhere. Only a minor embarassment compared to its temporary inhabitants. The largest structure of its kind, there were no funds remaining for the royal furniture. Having ascended only recently, the Hamlets were pretenders with armies, but not armoires. Surrounded by vast and equally empty moors, Kronberg was the drafty display case, then, of divinely-ordained dictators, puppet princes, and self-styled usurpers. Everyone wanted it - so they could sell it.
KING CLAUDIUS. Suddenly proclaimed king “in accordance with the law, custom, and usage relating to the succession to the throne” while he was conveniently out of town, he would like to play it down, at least on weekends. The most hatred man in the kingdom, it was only logical he was appointed its ruler. A man with an ear for intrigue, a limp, and a truss, he was by far the most suspicious player at the palace. His greatest enemy was his heir.
PRINCE HAMLET. The love-struck Crown Prince. Son to the late, nephew to the present, ruler, he was Prince for a day. For this, he won a dryer. Harvard-educated, and he knew it. Mustachioed, fat, balding, middle-aged even in youth, he was a sloppy dresser as well. For instance, leg warmers for socks. Really. If Armani oft proclaims the man, god knows what leg warmers said about him. Someday his kingdom would come. If kingdom come didn’t come first. Gentle, self-indulgent, he would be the last person to gun the family down. But not the first. What he knew today, everyone would know by Monday. Not that it was necessarily true.
THE GHOST. Only a few minutes ago, he had been having dinner. Much-beloved, he ate at MacDonald’s incognito, even after his death. Virtually unrecognizable
I except for his fifty-man bodyguard, mysteriously absent tonight. They claimed they were bowling.
POLONIUS. Foreign minister to the former, advisor to the new king, he was sitting on a family secret bigger than the throne. But as he was fond of saying, thrones only exist to be overthrown. Life at court was dirty business, and he was tired of cleaning up. Still, one slip, and it was curtains. His plan to film a TV game at the new palace was asking for trouble.
HORATIO. Friend to Prince Hamlet since that Buddhist brothel, he was looking forward to summer vacation at the palace.
A man without a background, he had a very nice future. A smooth guest without any apparent motive for murder, he was always at the wrong place at the right time. He arrived just in time for dinner, for instance. And the food was awful. This alone was suspicious. But maybe that would change. How could that change? Someone was obviously insane. And insanity was Horatio’s major at Harvard. Maybe his dinner invitation was no accident. Although very few people dined at the palace by choice. Maybe he was just an actor following Polonius’s script.
PRINCE PARIGI. Son to the new king, he had murder up his sleeve. Annoying and evil-looking, he nevertheless looked good in sleeves. Discharging firearms in public places his sport, hit-and-run his hobby, he was predictably unpopular among the people. Perennially protected from prosecution by his father, he had a double-edged reason for carrying two guns, at least one of them with blanks. Suddenly, the throne would be his, if he could trust his father. To die. Of course, he was only kidding.
QUEEN GERTRUDE. Widow to and wife of kings, based on who was currently ruling, it was generally assumed she hadn’t looked. Childishly obsessed with
shiny things, she failed to notice how badly cooked the meals were. Unfazed by the disappearance of her dinner guests, she was the perfect hostess. It was her strange behavior to Ophelia, however, which started more than a few people thinking.
OPHELIA. An ingénue, she talked like an angel with Tourette’s syndrome. Big hair and a killer smile, gorgeous beyond possibility, makeup was involved. The only thing she had to lose was her life. Or maybe her unborn baby. If only she could focus. She was determined to get kings. If they didn’t get her first. Possibly the only person in the palace to die by her own hand. At least that’s the rumor.
PLAYERS. As if royals weren’t enough, Polonius had hired certain people as pretend courtiers. Disgruntled by their lack of authenticity, they would have their revenge off camera. Who were they really, Horatio’s brothel buddies, Polonius’s TV stooges, or even Norwegians? Whoever they were, they were assassins of more than character.
VOLTEMAND and CORNELIUS. Court lackies mysteriously absent during tragedies, everyone at the palace was playing right into their hands. And the price was right. It might be no accident that the country was surrounded.
TWO GRAVEDIGGERS. They had a ringside seat, so they knew too much. But the graves they dug might be their own. The family skeletons they unearthed were too close to the bone for comfort. Covered with d
Lirt, they looked a lot like gameshow hosts.
BARNARDO and MARCELLUS. They had trouble seeing it. But what you donÕt see is always what you get. Simple men, they shot first and never asked any questions. Later they would become Norwegians.
FORTINBRAS. Mysteriously sulking about the palace set after having lost the Norwegian throne to his uncle, no one noticed the coincidence. He would be king - but not of Norway. He planned to be the final Survivor. Only three people stood in his way: one possibly dead, one just missing, and one a ghost. How could he get rid of people he couldn’t find?
A WEEKEND AT THE PALACE
Prince Hamlet has a problem. Someone has murdered his father. Although the new king has described it as ‘accidental.’ The gun exploded, all by itself. Spontaneous combustion with bullets. Very accurate bullets.
Which seem to have accidentally killed Hamlet’s sister, his father’s sisters, their husbands, and his cousins. But there are stories going around. For instance, King Hamlet has been seen trying on armor after death. Which makes sense in a culture that worships salmon.
After all, it’s only a parlor game: ‘Survivor at the Palace,’ a publicity stunt of the new regime meant to humanize the monarchy. A weekend romp pitting royal against royal in a tasteless way sure to win the affections and interest of their subjects, who are known to spend 75% of their time watching TV. Because of this, there is 65% unemployment, and even the employed only show up for demonstrations.
But maybe someone is playing the game for real. And maybe not. It’s hard to take anyone called Polonius seriously. Even if he is working the camera. Maybe he has hired a real killer to spice up the ratings.
According to Polonius’s clever scenario, Prince Hamlet is not only the victim of his father’s death. He is possibly the perpetrator. After all, he has the most to gain (not to mention the GE washer and dryer set if he wins the game). While Polonius’s mock investigation renders Hamlet temporarily unkingable, his uncle has taken the throne as pretend regent for a day. Hamlet suspects that he may have less than a day to find out the truth. But he’s been away at college, and his old childhood friends won’t play any reindeer games. Besides, he hates TV. He thinks Survivor is the worst thing he’s ever seen. He’s an intellectual. And he’s been up all night and he’s fat. He needs help badly, but the doctors are off on weekends. So who can he trust?
For instance, what is his uncle’s relationship to Ophelia, Hamlet’s ambitious dark-eyed former date, currently a floating corpse? The guards sent to recover her body are too embarrassed to admit that Ophelia, even in death, was too quick for them. If, of course, her death is not just another of her father’s sick inventions.
And this is just what happens on Survivor Saturday.
But there is more to the weekend. King Hamlet has a brother, Claudius, now on the throne briefly, as part of Polonius’s ‘treatment.’ According to the script, Prince Hamlet has two days to be cleared of suspicion - or to die. Unless the game ends first.
Or unless the game is for real. The palace, ugly as it is, is the newest building in Denmark, and everyone there has a reason to want it. And not just for the furniture.
But there is more.
Claudius also has a son, Prince Parigi, named after his parents’ unusual honeymoon destination. In Polonius’s script, he is supposed to encourage Prince Hamlet, get him drunk, hand him guns, and open the door to the dining room for him. The final part annoys Parigi. He has to let his cousin have all the fun.
And what about Parigi’s close friendship with Ophelia? Who is the real father of that baby? And how desperate can a script get?
And what does the new King Claudius think of his chances to win that GE combo? If his son Parigi has calmly taken to eliminating kings, following Polonius’s schedule, isn’t his father now a royal target? Maybe the nouveau heir apparent must take his assignment one little step further. Maybe he must murder his past to ensure his future. Because his father is planning to frame him for the murders. The press conference is set for Sunday afternoon, to trump anyone else’s attempts at favorable TV coverage. But perhaps his father must go further, also. He, like his son, must kill or be killed.
So maybe they both have to die. It’s a game of chess where checkmate isn’t enough. Or is it a game at all? ‘Survivor at the Palace’ ends Sunday at midnight. Whoever is still alive wins not just the kitchen set, but, according to Polonius, the undying envy of his public, and high Nielsen ratings for his otherwise unmarketable policies.
This is what happens Sunday.
But maybe it doesn’t happen this way at all. The official bulletin says that Prince Hamlet comes out in a camouflage suit no one has ever seen before and just opens fire, kiiling everyone at once and winning the game. Then everyone gives a joint interview and goes home. But when it happens, the only eyewitnesses seem to shake suspiciously on TV. And they all have seem to have something to lose. Something more than the game. And their pants are too shiny, and their breath is bad. And they are all, in real life, relatives.
By Monday morning the results of the game will be discovered. Where does that leave Horatio? Last man standing or dead man walking?
Time is running out. He must come up with a winning plan - or an alibi. In the three nights Polonius has given him. And Horatio is no Sherlock Holmes. He is just out of college. If he ever went. He must unravel theatricals that are no longer amateur before things get out of hand. And things are pretty rotten to begin with.
WHAT YOU DO NOT KNOW
Polonius, the new Secretary of Foreign Affairs, is a Norwegian, whose family was recently deposed by the old King Hamlet. And Polonius has a plan. Organize murder games at the palace and, under cover of play, disguise the real murder he plans to commit. His daughter Ophelia has another idea. It is her plan to sleep with kings, fake her own death for the TV audience, and watch the fun. Marry the Survivor, survivor, become Queen for a day, and release the pretend Game scenario, which describes Hamlet as the killer, to pay his parents back for their blocking her engagement to the prince.
Hamlet calls Ophelia before the game starts, and tells her, in slurred words, Good night, sweet Ophelia. Not the behavior of a mass murderer. The palace guards supply him with too many drugs. They in turn are supplied by Prince Parigi. Ophelia suspects a plan to ruin Hamlet’s chances at the game, and, hiding behind her father’s large white reflecting light screen, eavesdrops heavily on the show as it progresses.
The first attempt at one-ups-manship happens almost immediately. Prince Parigi kills Hamlet’s father. The King tries to defend himself, but the Queen’s sister has removed the cartridge from his gun ‘by mistake.’
The teleplay by this time has been leaked in town as the ‘mousetrap’ and has created a frenzy. Having no idea it is actually infotainment for their viewing pleasure, the Maoists leave their sets and begin burning trucks. Although they have been demonstrating against the palace for ten years, they now cry out against the King’s death. The rumor is that it is Hamlet himself who has pulled the trigger. He certainly would have a double motive. He must never be kinged, the crowds roar. He must be kinged, other crowds roar.
As a compromise, Parigi’s father, King Claudius, ascends the throne. For a day.
Saturday is spent with Prince Hamlet trying to clear his name by unearthing the real killer. He believes it to be Ophelia, proof that he is insane, but, before he can muirder her, she drowns herself. After all, Hamlet’s parents disapproved of their engagement (knowing she is Norwegian).
Just as Hamlet begins to suspect he was wrong about Ophelia, Parigi appears and challenges Hamlet to a duel over Ophelia. This is the culmination of ‘Survivor: The Royal Game.’ The palace guards are too busy dumping drugs to show up. Too much attention has been focused on the palace.
Parigi offers Hamlet the gun with the blanks. Hamlet switches guns and kills Claudius, then dies of his wounds from Parigi. Someone, à la Bruce Lee’s son, has put real bullets in the gun. Parigi, thinking it is Polonius, shoots him behind his white klieg llight reflector screen.
On Sunday, Parigi ascends the throne. The cameraman turns out to be Ophelia. Parigi marries her to revenge himself on his father, Claudius, who was having an affair with her. Ophelia becomes Queen of Denmark only two days after her supposed death. She poisons Parigi at the wedding party, and gives the throne to her brother, Fortinbras, Prince of Norway (disguised as Osric), to avenge their parents, who were slaughtered by the Hamlets. But Fortinbras tries to kill Opehlia, so she decides to release the TV special to the network and then kill herself. Of course, resurrection is her specialty. The video narrative becomes her confession. That she has been behind the camera makes her final exposure as the very real murderess all the more shocking.
The action takes place over a weekend.
“Murder Weekend at Elsinore - Discover the Killer(s), Win a new GE Washer/Dryer Combo Set.” This was Polonius’s idea: ingratiate the monarchy with the common folk. Invite ordinary people to play parlor games with royalty at the palace. Film the result and offer it up to the country as a variation on ‘Survivor.’
Polonius was the new Secretary for Foreign Affairs, an old man with an annoyingly wordy manner, whose age and experience lent him respect, however, in a brand new kingdom with brand new plumbing and a brand new royal family, which had just eliminated the former usurpers in the basement a few days ago, usurpers who had themselves eliminated the predecessors of the new royals in the same basement thirty years before.
Friday dinner. Someone has killed King Hamlet right after dinner. The rumor is that it’s Prince Hamlet, in a fight over Ophelia, who has killed herself when Hamlet’s parents rejected their marriage..
Friday midnight. Horatio, as always, is late, and has missed dinner, despite an invitation to….
Horatio is filled in by the night guards on the murder of old Hamlet. Of course, this is part of the game. They seem to be on drugs. Horatio mentions he is from Würtemberg, not Wittenberg.
Saturday 1 AM. The narrator meets the King, but thinks it is just Prince Hamlet. They both look alike.
Horatio, playing his part as the civilian guest, explains to the guards that King Hamlet had just thrown Norway off the Danish throne, and maybe has been killed in vengeance. But by whom? Who is suspicious at the palace? Who might work for Norway? In a word - everyone. Only the dead are beyond challenge. Except that there are ghosts. Even Ophelia has been seen shopping after death. Mobs are rioting in the streets. The guerillas, after ten years of seeking its overthrow, come out in favor of the royal family, now that it is missing. Everyone shaves their heads in mourning, providing a great windfall for barbers, but no future, as now no one
needs a haircut.
Interviews are given by strangers. Here is Charles the schoolteacher: “Oh, I remember the old king when he was only a boy, and this gang was goping to beat me up, but he stood in front of me, and they left me alone. I saved by a king’s intercession.” A story Charles has told every day of his life. The king might have stood in the way of armies, but to Charles, his greatest work was that ten second playground interlude: the meaningless details that rise to the fore during great tragedies.
Everywhere there is the sound of hammering, boats beingn built, armor being forged, cannons being pounded into familiar shape. The country is going to war.
But in the palace, where strategies might have been under consideration, all hell was breaking loose.
CHAPTER ONE. INVITATION TO A SLAUGHTER.
Thisn hammering is driving me mad. The country is on the verge of war, etc. Etc., etc. Truth comes and goes. But rumors last forever. For two hundred bucks, you can hire two thousand gossips in this place. For two hundred bucks, you can populate the bars with lies for a month. It makes you wonder, when you’re in a bar, who’s paying for the small talk? One night everybody’s a communist, the next night they all just partied with Parigi. The Killer Prince. But it doesn’t matter really. In a country like this, where the truth is unimaginable, only the lies are worth listening to.
“It wasn’t Prince Hamlet who was to blame. It was the Queen. She was jealous of the girl Ophelia. She opened fire right after the dessert course, and then she was picked up on the roof by a Norwegian helicopter. That’s what really happened, according to high-placed government sources.”
This an actual TV broadcast. It’s very frustrating when you’ve been somewhere and then you see it on TV. It’s all lies, but you believe it, even if you were there, because it’s on TV. The actors are better looking, the plots make sense, and the lighting is brighter. And you can always tape it and replay it.
So here I am, out of breath, with bed hair, to contradict the easy, photogenic TV anchor men. The confidential military sources. I’m talking about the dust, the little footprints crimes leave behind them, the drifting dirt that clings magnetically to the TV screen, through which you see shiny shopping channel bracelets and army parades, while the real thing is staring you in the face.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It isn’t easy meeting royalty. You have to keep some pretty cheap company. And it isn’t easy being friends with them. You have to overlook a lot.
Seinfeld says, “I’ll just go out and check the hall.”
Insane laughter for two minutes.
Did I miss something? Being friends with royalty is like being on Seinfeld, and having to pretend it’s funny.
So when the Prince would look up drunk from his beer and say, ‘go to,’ or ‘I loved you not,’ I suppose it was easy to laugh like the afternoon audience on a Times Square TV show, because it wasn’t funny at all, and that I always find especially funny.
But, anyhow, this isn’t what you want to know, and I’m running out of time. Certain people of the confidential variety want me dead. They don’t want me to write this, maybe for reasons you might have guessed already.
This whole insane thing of course didn’t happen in reality. No. It’s all a product of my deranged mind, my lawyers want me to be careful to stress. I am told I must be careful to say that things like this never happen for real. Nor does anything you will encounter here bear any similarity to Danish kings, living or dead. Especially dead. And no royal persons were harmed in the hasty unfolding of this story. Although let me tell you, this is an ambulance chaser’s dream. Even now, lawyers are sniffing around the cloakroom. In a palace, there are actually cloaks in the cloakroom. Just a small, irrelevant detail. In any case, the lawyers will find nothing. The commission will rubber stamp the official version.
What really happened Friday night? And what right have I to tell you about it? I’m not the one who was born to pull the tablecloth out from under the dishes, leaving dinner delicately balanced on the edge, let me say for a start. The people who were born for that are all dead.
So here it is, this haunted moonless shard of rock ripped out of the stark seacliffs of this ghastly desolate wasteland, not a light in sight except the flames gutting from party torches on the ballustrade.
I really didn’t even like the prince. Either of the princes. It was just so weird, it happened so fast.
I was worried I wasn’t going to get the soup, some kind of punishment for having made fun of it to Hamlet, soup and its silver wasteland, so many mines and miners and factories and smelters and servants to make you forget it’s just soup.
Hamlet (the junior variety) used to mock me out for such insultingly democratic ways, but the truth is simply that I was embarrassed not to have grown up surrounded by soup courses and cheese trolleys and the simultaneous lifting of silver covers off steaming roasts and such. Although my parents had.
“You mock the soup you sip.”
A royal proverb, maybe, from Denmark’s inexaustible stores. I’m being ironic here. Hamlet spoke with a vaguely foolish accent, as if he were translating from a dead language, which he was. Dead language. How prophetic. Anyhow, history has not smiled on my retort.
Very ironic, as I’m now all the history left.
So here I was, making my way soupwards up the surprisingly dark double staircase - I have to say I was only making my way up one side of it, although the temptation definitely existed to go the other way, up the exactly similar version xeroxed on the other, flip side, and the debate over the merits of one side versus its equally endowed twin caused me a few seconds of debate, time that in retrospect might have been better spent in screaming or something.
OVERHEARS MARCELLUS AND BERNARDO as they tell Horatio about Palace and Ghost. Then meets ghost, as he goes in for soup.
rewrite below : OPHELIA AT DINNER
And here is my friend, fat Johnny Deep, come to greet me at exactly the right moment, around 8:45, just before I was in sight of the room. “We have saved you the soup, Mr. Ray. Although I believe the entire meal was catered tonight by a funeral home.” Johnny had a weird sense of humor. I told you I didn’t like him. But in I went, steeling myself for the humiliating choice of implements while making small talk like, I imagined, “Nice tiara. Really.”
Or maybe you could talk about the weather, things like, “Beautifully bleak tonight, isn’t it?” or “Blowing bitter cold, right?” And then I realized I was in one of those downward spirals where I was going to disgrace myself no matter what I said. I only wanted to say outlandishly stupidly or insensitive things. I get like that. Too much time sleeping under the family car as a kid.
So up comes fat Johnny and sticks out his hand. I have this sense of social disaster. Didn’t I just see him outside? Maybe I didn’t recognize him anymore. Then I look around, and they all look like fat Johnny. Small, chubby, swarthy, with the same weird outdated moustache, that kind that only people in old Fu Manchu movies have.
“Prince Deep wanted me especially to take you right to your soup. He told me you would be delighted we saved it for you.”
“Enchanted,” I cough. This is the only way to talk to royalty, believe me. They only understand very positive words.
“I am Prince Paris, cousin to the Prince.” Good god. Everyone is called Prince around here. The Prince currently known as Paris. I know people name their kids things like King so they’ll always be important. Of course, nobody names anybody Baron anymore. They name the dog Baron.
“So you’re named after the city?”
“No, the city is name from very dead relative.”
Is he kidding? He stresses the ‘dead’ part.
“Didn’t I just see you on the terrace?” I squint.
The Prince thinks I am an idiot. Or a misfit. He gives me a cagey look, as if I’d just offered him a tire iron.
“But is right here am I, surely.”
Younger than springtime am I. This could be a musical, if I had more time. Talent, you can rent.
“But don’t you look sort of just like -“
“Oh, of course but, you mistaken for Deep Prince my face. We have big hair same.”
And the same exploding balloon suits over the deep fat, vests straining at their unusually large buttons. It’s like a Weight Watchers convention in 1860. Or a family of walruses in Ralph Lauren. The whole royal family has the exact same mustache. Fifteen people are gazing up at me with glassy eyes and they’re all dressed the same. Black jackets with white vests. Invasion of the head waiters. I swear, they should be clapping their hands together and honking, or whatever walruses do. I cannot get this out of my head.
Although I do see there is a difference. Deep’s sneer is more like Elvis’s. Paris’s sneer looks like he’s figuring out whether to kill me now or later. Paris must have learned English in France. Just an impression.
I know you are expecting the drunken Prince Deep to burst in about now wearing ghostly camouflage, spraying the room with automatic weapons from the spirit world. But it’s not in the cards. Here was just a family of domesticated walruses gnawing away at their moustaches, and a rotund Prince shaking away at my hand like a grumpy water pump.
“You will please be meet the King, mine uncle.”
I laugh with hastily feigned delight to cover up the more obvious roots of my snorting. So far, English is the only thing being murdered.
Now I would say that King Bend is the spitting image of both Princes, except that he is older and even more spherical.