Tesfaye Gessesse, hailed as one of the important Ethiopian stage actors of his time, died on December 16, 2020. The performer was remembered for the great theatre roles staged during the pre and post-1974 revolution. Late in his career, he achieved an even wider popularity for his roles in scriptwriting, directing, and teaching.
One of his early performances on stage was Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin’s translation of Hamlet, which had its premiere on 19 April 1967, which was one of the most popular and well-known plays in the Addis Ababa theatrical repertoire. This is a reprint of the commentary written by Baalu Girma entitled, “Ethiopianized Hamlet,” that came out on Menen magazine, Vol. nine. No. 5-6 (1967): 30- 32.
“This is the time of test by alien traditions and it is the duty of this generation to revive and invigorate our traditions. Unless this consciousness is created before it is too late the vacuum will be so tremendous that our grandchildren will know only very little or none of us”. So saying, playwright Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin announced the staging of an Ethiopianized version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Ato Tsegaye has so far translated into Amharic three of Shakespeare’s great tragedies-Othello, Macbeth, and most recently Hamlet. The play was performed by an amateur theatrical club, which is the first of its kind in Ethiopia. Members of the club came together voluntarily as organized revivalists of culture, an idea which seems to obsess the playwright, who was recipient of the 1996 Haile Selassie I Prize Trust Award for Amharic Literature.
In the translation, the sacred texts of Shakespeare did not suffer badly. Tsegaye has no doubt proved his control over the Amharic language and his understanding of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with its complex characters.
In its Ethiopianized form, the great tragedy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet turned out to be something like a three-and-half-hour long tragic-comedy. The translator’s choice of Amharic words and his Ethiopianizations of Elizabethan scenes, sarcasm, and conflicts made the audience concentrate on the insignificant and the superficial rather than on the thought-provoking soliloquies of Hamlet, the nerve-shattering scenes of ghosts, and the character conflicts of the protagonists. Had Tsegaye taken into consideration the sense of humor of his audience, he could have succeeded in raising the play to the height of Shakespeare’s tragedy of Hamlet. Or it may have been simply the misconception of the audience.
Much of the show was dominated by the conflicts between Ophelia (Wefeyila) and her father, the grave-digger scene, and the trembling of watchmen at the sight of ghosts.
The amateur actors, handpicked by Tsegaye, did their level best because most of them have been familiar with Shaksperan tragedies. The actresses were inaudible and inconspicuous. Tesfaye Gessesse as Hamlet was palatable except for his high-pitched voice.
The translator, producer, and director Tsegaye has done quite a job for the one man, no doubt. With dues respect to his knowledge of stage-craft, he may have done a bit more with a little tip on direction, setting, and scenery..
Baalu Girma, “Ethiopianized Hamlet,” Menen 9.5-6 (1967): 30- 32.
Main image: Hamlet and Horatio (Sebhat Gebre G. Egziabher) are amused by the wit of the grave-digger (Wubshet W. Alemahu).