Tchaikowsky's Skull

Tennant as Hamlet and Tchaikowsky as Yorick

Yes, that’s The Doctor himself getting up close and personal with…Tchaikowsky’s skull!

Say what!?

That esteemed noggin, from the BBC2 production of Hamlet starring David Tennant, once belonged to twentieth century Polish pianist and composer André Tchaikowsky (not to be convused with the more famous nineteenth century Russian composer and conductor Piotr Ilyich Tchaikowsky or, commonly in English, Tchaikovsky — who is no relation).

Mr. Tchaikowsky, who was born in 1935 and fled Poland to escape the Holocaust, was a Shakespeare fan. He adapted the Bard’s Seven Sonnets for voice and piano. But he had even greater aspirations for the stage.

When he died of colon cancer in England in 1982 at the age of 46, Tchaikowsky donated his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company, hoping it would be used as the skull of Yorick in Hamlet. If you’ll allow me, here’s where things get weird.

Tchaikowsky’s Wikipedia page says:

For many years, no actor or director felt comfortable using a real skull in performances, although it was occasionally used in rehearsals.

…That’s until in 2008, David Tennant played Hamlet at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and used Tchaikowsky’s skull, per its prior owner’s wishes. But, says the Wikipedia article, as that caused some press attention to be lavished upon poor Yorick, it’s claimed the RSC then traded the real skull for a fake one.

Here’s what Tchaikowsky’s website says, rather proudly:

From July to November, 2008, the skull used in the graveyard scene in the Stratford Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Hamlet was that of André Tchaikowsky, but the use of the skull was a secret. When the production moved to London in December, 2008, the secret got out and the RSC announced they would not use the skull for the London run. However, this was not the case and the RSC continued to use André’s skull right through to the last performance on January 10, 2009. Thus, André had his time on stage and was returned to a box in the RSC prop room, but for only for a short while because the BBC decided to make a TV dramatisation of the RSC production with David Tennant, and to once again use André’s skull.

Then, as an update, the site adds:

January, 2010 – The DVD was released of Hamlet featuring the skull of André Tchaikowsky, used in Act 5, Scene 1 (graveyard scene). You can view this scene and scene text using the links below. Be prepared – the opening of Act 5, Scene 1 shows André’s skull in close up.

Ghoulishly, Tchaikowsky’s site then has not only twin YouTube links of both parts of the scene (Part 1 here and Part 2 here), along with downloadable clips of the scene. Is it just me, or is that going a little too far? I mean, when I’m gone, feel free to pimp my body parts, but Mr. Tchaikowsky’s skull seems to be going a little overboard here.

Oh, hell, why not? I can be ghoulish, too, and I’m not even related to the guy:


Anyway, the Wikipedia article claims actors were uncomfortable using a real skull as Yorick, and this BBC article says the RSC’s director removed the skull because it was too distracting to the audience to have a real skull up there. (That article, incidentally, even has a “timeline of the skull.”)

But in fact, this 2009 BBC article says that for the original performance in Stratford-Upon-Avon, a permit for Tchaikowsky’s skull was needed from the UK’s Human Tissues Authority, so a different human skull was used. (Just how many skulls does the Royal Shakespeare Company have, anyway?) More:

Mark Rylance used a cast of Tchaikowsky’s skull 20 years ago after initially practising his performance with the real thing. The musician’s remains then went back to a box until the skull was used by Tennant.

It had to be given a special licence for use and a stand-in had to be used until permission was given.

Doran said: ”When the Human Tissues Authority (HTA) licence had not arrived by the evening of the Dress rehearsal in Stratford last July, and we had to place André back in his box, our Theatre Collections Curator, David Howells, allowed us to use another skull he had in the collection, which as it was more than 100 years old, did not come under the jurisdiction of the HTA.

”It was the skull used as Yorick by Edmund Kean in 1813. A piece of theatre history happened that night on the Stratford stage as David Tennant, a 21st century Hamlet, stared into the empty eye sockets that a nineteenth century Hamlet had used. For those of us watching, a little shiver of connection occurred.”

Doran, who is also chief associate director of the RSC, added: ”I suspect André would have been amused by the fact that his cranium became a question on Have I got News for You?, but his bequest to the RSC was deeply sincere.

”I hope other productions may, with the greatest respect for André, use the skull as he intended it to be used, for precisely this purpose.”

That article was from before the BBC2 production, incidentally. Apparently, by the time the cameras rolled, André Tchaikowski was ready for his closeup. Perhaps the Human Tissues Authority had seen the light…or perhaps some government regulator had been visited in the night by a mysterious, shadowy figure…

This wee bit of stage history, by the way, comes to me via Stephen Fry’s QI, a “game show” that is less like watching TV than it is like hanging out with interesting relatives with buzzers. Want to know all sorts of shit that nobody but you and your friends really cares about? Fry’s your man!


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