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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The play-within-the-episode really IS “the thing” in Frasier to delight our minds and hearts

There are two very long running TV shows, as to which my wife and I have seen pretty much every single episode, many of them twice, and some multiple times: Law & Order: SVU and Frasier. So I was surprised the other night while we watched Frasier reruns on Hallmark Channel, and we saw a couple of episodes we had somehow missed –it was a rare pleasure to, in effect, watch some “new” Frasier!

Beyond the astonishingly consistently high level of comedy that the show maintained for over a decade, one of the many smaller joys of Frasier is its sly erudition. A number of episodes are peppered with subtle allusions of all kinds, erudition which the show never flaunts (after all, the great running joke of the show is snobbery!), but which are there all the same for those who might notice and enjoy them.

Say, for example, the periodic popping up of Shakespeare. Most hardcore Frasier aficionados hear that name, and think of Season 8, Episode 12: ‘The Show Must Go Off”, which aired in February 2001. In it, the Crane brothers try to revive the career of an aging actor whom they long before saw perform Hamlet.  But when they see him perform again, it is quickly clear that he has lost it --what I instantly recall is that the genuinely great Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi was perfect in the part.

Other fans may recall Episode 10 Season 5: “Where Every Bloke Knows Your Name”, with a groanworthy pun when the young Frasier and Niles literally trade childish snobberies over lunch at school:

Young Niles: This lunch is a culinary Hindenberg.
Young Frasier: Niles, have you ever considered that our food may be payback for your recent editorial, "Cafeteria Of Shame"?
Young Niles: Well, they can't intimidate me.  They'll never silence my pen.  I could write an exposé on their baked goods alone.
Young Frasier: [knocks bread roll off the table] Yes, this is the hardest roll since Hamlet!
Young Niles: Good one, Frasier.  May I use it?
Young Frasier: But of course.

And the title of Season 7 Episode 20 was an overt wink at Hamlet: “To Thine Own Self Be True”.

But one of the episodes which my wife and I watched the other night, which reminded me of Shakespeare in a much more comprehensive way than the above, was Season 3, Episode 14: “The Show Where Diane Comes Back”, which first aired in 1996. It requires no further explanation than that Diane Chambers (of course played by Shelley Long in Cheers, the show which gave birth to the character of Frasier Crane) shows up without warning in Seattle, and much frantic Frasierish hilarity, with a strong dose of television nostalgia, ensues.

Now, before I get into the Shakespearean weeds, I want first to orient you as to one important real life backstory that was very unusual about this episode, as per the following summary at a Frasier fansite, and which turns out to be extremely relevant to the rest of this post:

“This episode is a favorite with Kelsey Grammer and the Frasier writing staff, because it put to rest some real demons as well as the fictional ones. When Kelsey Grammer first started to appear on Cheers, Shelley Long campaigned strongly to get him and his character removed from the show. The producers disagreed and Frasier Crane soon became a regular, but there was bad blood between Grammer and Long for a very long time.  This episode not only allowed Frasier and Diane to have closure with each other, but also allowed Grammer and Long to demonstrate that there were no more hard feelings.”

And so clearly this episode (written by Christopher Lloyd --- NOT the same gent who played Doc in Back to the Future as well as the wild man in another long running TV comedy, Taxi), coming near the end of seven seasons of Frasier (which by then had long since established itself as an enormous critical and popular success), was clearly fraught with great emotional significance for everyone on the Frasier team, and so perhaps for that reason it received extra loving attention in its conception and execution.

Which finally brings me to Shakespeare—or, to be more specific, Shakespeare’s most famous play, and perhaps the most famous and influential work of literature in the past millennium in Western culture, a play which I’ve already mentioned--- Hamlet .The episode was nearly over, and my wife and I nearing that agreeable smiling doziness which is one of the gifts of late night Frasier watching, when I caught on to the sly game being played, and so I got out my DVD today and watched the episode again, so that I could point out to you all the winks at Hamlet hidden in plain sight in the episode, as I will now walk you through:

In the first scene, Diane’s unexpectedly showing up at the KACL studio as Frasier is signing off is played curiously like…the Ghost of Hamlet’s father suddenly appearing on the ramparts at midnight at Elsinore, which scares the guards (and then Horatio and finally Hamlet) half to death!:

ROZ: Frasier, that was security.  Some woman insisted on seeing you, she just blew right past them.
FRASIER: Oh, don't panic, Roz — probably just one of my more ardent fans.
Diane appears in the window and knocks on the glass. 
Frasier turns around.  She smiles and waves at him.
FRASIER (with eyes popping and mouth wide open, screams): "AAAAHHHH!!"

Then in the second scene in Niles’s psychiatry office, we hear this sly replay of Horatio responding to Bernardo about the ghost’s initial appearances.

NILES: Well?
FRASIER: She's back — the scourge of my existence.
NILES: Strange, I usually get some sign when Lilith is in town — dogs forming into packs, blood weeping down the wall.
FRASIER: I'm talking about . . . Diane Chambers.
Niles on his intercom.
NILES: Lucille, send Mr. Carr home.
FRASIER: She just showed up at the station today.  Apparently some play she wrote is being produced here in town.  I admit, I just sort of panicked when I saw her, but I think I covered it masterfully….

Of course the dogs and blood are a comic version of Horatio’s ominous catalog:

And what was that about Diane writing a play being produced in Seattle? Read on…..  Niles goes on to help Frasier acknowledge his lingering desire for revenge against Diane, for her having left him at the altar, which is comparable to the ghost’s inciting Hamlet’s desire for revenge against Claudius:

FRASIER: Well, I can't just tell Diane how awful she made me feel now!  It's a distant memory for her.  I'd feel weak!
NILES: You have no reason to feel weak.  You've moved on in your life too.  You have a new career, new wealth, new success. You simply need closure in this one area.
FRASIER: You know, what you just said made a lot of sense.
NILES: You're going to get closure.
FRASIER: No, that business about my success!  I tuned you out after that.  I'm going to invite Diane over for dinner tonight, and I'm really gonna flaunt my success, really rub her nose in it!  That'll prove I'm not just some cast-aside that never got over her.  Niles, I know it's not psychologically sound.  But we're still human.  We have to do what feels good sometimes, don't we?

Then, in the next scene, we have Frasier about to meet Diane at his apartment, just as Hamlet finally encounters the ghost of his dead father after the guards and Horatio have alerted him:

The doorbell rings.
FRASIER: She's a one-time Boston barmaid who had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a sanitarium, where I met her, fell for her, and then was so mercilessly rejected by her that to this day there is a sucking chest wound where once there dwelled a heart!

Of course the report about Diane’s nervous breakdown is a wink at Hamlet’s madness, both real and pretended, which is the central theme and mystery of Hamlet!  And then, after we hear this exchange, as they both fall over themselves to impress each other. We get three more winks at Hamlet—can you spot them?:

DIANE: So, there I was, on the balcony of my Malibu beachhouse, when a pod of whales passed by.  I knew I had to commune with these gentle giants, so like a flash, I was on the beach, scrambling to my kayak.  But cruel fortune interceded, when, not twenty yards offshore, I suddenly discovered myself entangled in an enormous bed of-of, um—
NILES: Sea kelp?
DIANE: Exactly right, sea kelp!
MARTIN: Oh, that's funny—I thought he said "seek help."
DAPHNE: So, you haven't told us how you've come to be in Seattle.
DIANE: Oh, a small theater group has decided to produce a play I've written.
FRASIER: Which one?
DIANE: Oh, my most recent work.  It's a sort of feminist odyssey, experimental in places, in tone akin to Saroyan, with a soupcon of Gide, and a hearty nod to Clifford Odets!
FRASIER: I meant which theater?
DIANE: Oh!  The Roundabout.
MARTIN: That seems appropriate.

Here are the three hints:

First, Diane’s noticing a pod of WHALES passing by as she observes them from a distance is a wink at this:

POLONIUS  My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
HAMLET  Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
LORD POLONIUS  By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
HAMLET  Methinks it is like a weasel.
LORD POLONIUS  It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET  Or like a WHALE?

Second, of course Diane, like Hamlet, enlists a small theater group to put on a play he chooses and rewrites in such a way as to confront Claudius with an enactment of the murder the ghost told Hamlet that Claudius committed. And just wait till the end of this episode to see how that plays out!

And third, even though there is indeed a Seattle theater called “The Roundabout”, what makes that name seem especially appropriate for Diane’s play is of course that Shakespeare’s Globe was the quintessential theater in the round!

Fast forward now to the second half of the episode, and we have a long manic monolog by Frasier about Diane, in which Niles sits and listens and doesn’t say a word – which is the slyest sendup imaginable of one of Hamlet’s manic monologues spoken to his confidant, Horatio, who after Act 1 only speaks to agree with everything Hamlet says, no matter how crazy!:

And then, skipping still further ahead, we cut to the chase, the leadup to a comic version of Hamlet’s staging of the Mousetrap:

DIANE: Frasier, these past few weeks, you've given so much of yourself to me.  I want to give the one gift I have to bestow.  I want you to be the first person to see my play. Will you come to dress rehearsal tonight?
FRASIER: Diane, I'd be honored?
DIANE: Oh, wonderful, wonderful!
FRASIER: Are you sure you're ready for this?
DIANE: Oh yes, it's time.  Tonight, I bare myself to you.
FRASIER: Big step, Diane.
DIANE: Oh well, I have to say I'm a little nervous about it.  But, barring any lighting or prop problems, the whole thing will be over in a couple of hours.

Of course, speaking of “lighting problems”, when Claudius freaks out and cuts off the performance of the Mousetrap, we hear this:

CLAUDIUS  Give me some light: away!

And that brings us to the play within the episode which is what first alerted me to search out all the above Hamlet subtext:

Frasier sits alone in a small theater, as Diane addresses him
DIANE: Well, the stage is set, my players are prepared.  So, without further ado, I give you Rhapsody and Requiem, a play by Diane Chambers.
When the curtain opens, we see a replica of Cheers, with look-alikes of all characters.
“SAM”: Boy, it sure is great having Mary-Ann back. Just wasn't the same when she was gone.
“CLIFF”: Yeah, well, you know, uh, recent studies at John Hopkins University revealed that the expression "absence makes the heart grow fonder," is in actuality rooted in scientific bedrock.
“CARLA”: Yeah, so's your head.
“SAM”: Ease up there, Carla.
“NORM”: Evenin', everybody.
“SAM”: Hey there, Norm.  What would you say to a beer?
“NORM”: What's a nice beer like you doing in a face like this?
Diane laughs offstage at her own joke. Then his own look alike enters
“DR. CRANE”: Salutations, all.
 “SAM”: Hey there, Doc.  What can I get you?
“DR. CRANE”: Ooh, a prickly choice, Sam.  It reminds me of the one the 18th-century wit John Wilkes faced when asked by the Earl of Sandwich whether he expected to die on the gallows or of the pox.  "That depends, sir," he said, "on whether I choose to embrace your principles or your mistress."
Diane look-alike enters.

So, it’s obvious that the above is an extended, bravura riff on the Mousetrap scene in Hamlet, with Diane, as Hamlet, confronting Frasier, as Claudius, with a reenactment of their past, and then her motive becomes apparent:

“DIANE”: Forgive me.  I suppose that was a tad inconsiderate.
“DR. CRANE”: Quite all right.  A loving spirit like yours can't be bridled.
“DIANE”: But I did leave you at the altar.
“DR. CRANE”: No, you know I hold no ill-will toward you for that.
Frasier getting agitated.
“DR. CRANE”: Could we just stop for a second?  This whole getting-left-at-the-altar thing—I just don't know what I'm supposed to be feeling.
Frasier stands up and interrupts the show:
FRASIER: I may be able to illuminate that for you! [gets up and storms onstage] What you are feeling is that this woman has reached into your chest, plucked out your heart, and thrown it to her hell-hounds for a chew toy!  And it's not the last time either!  Because that's what this woman is!  She is the devil!  There's no use running away from her, because no matter how far you go, no matter how many years you let pass, you will never be completely out of reach of those bony fingers!  So, drink hearty, Franklin, and laugh!  Because you have made a pact with Beelzebub! And her name is Mary Ann!
Frasier storms out of the theater.  The rest of the cast members break into applause.  Diane stands there, mortified.

And so there we have Frasier, like Claudius, finding not his conscience, but his desire for revenge, being caught by what he has just watched onstage; but because Frasier is a comedy, and not a tragedy like Hamlet, the ending is one of mutual forgiveness and moving on, rather than a stage littered with corpses!
When Frasier and Diane see each other in the next scene, she is making notes on her play script (again, like Hamlet amending the Mousetrap), and as they speak, we get one last giant wink at Hamlet:

DIANE: Well, at the very least I obviously owe you an apology for the first time that things went awry between us.
FRASIER: Oh, it's all right.
DIANE: No, it was a time in my life when—
FRASIER: No, Diane, it isn't necessary.  The things I said . . . well, they just needed saying.  Besides, I don't really feel all that harshly—and in retrospect, I'm reasonably sure that you are not the devil . . . although he does have the power to assume pleasing shapes.
DIANE: Well, you should know I've decided to go back to Los Angeles.  Watching the play tonight through fresh eyes,  I—well, I just don't think it's ready.
FRASIER: I'm sure things'll work out fine.  Well, I think I've said what I came to say…..

Of course, there we have Frasier slyly paraphrasing one of Hamlet’s most memorable lines, when the melancholy Dane struggles with the question of whether he can trust the honesty and good intentions of the ghost he has seen and listened to, and then comes up with the idea for the Mousetrap as a solution:

So, in conclusion, how lovely that the Ghost of Diane which has haunted Frasier for years is finally laid to peaceful rest by the end of the episode, just as (per the interview I quoted at the top) the real life Kelsey Grammer and Shelley Long apparently made their peace many years after things got pretty rotten in the state of Cheers!

Cheers (all puns intended), ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Unknown said...

How do you possibly find time to write such an excellent blog? Pure genius. I too was a great fan of Frazier...loving the subtle intellectual references, while still garnering ratings and laughs from the general public. I missed many references, of course. In more recent years I've greatly enjoyed David Hyde Pierce on Broadway. In May he's starring in Hello Dolly with Bette Midler & people expect that he'll be nominated for a Tony.

Arnie Perlstein said...

Hi Molly! I am terribly sorry for not replying sooner to your lovely comment -- I don't get notifications of comments, and I have not checked for them in many a moon --- So glad you also loved Frasier, I am sure you've heard that KG may be coming back for a final turn as Frasier?