Ghosts in Edinburgh

(This essay, written by Duane Kelly, was originally published July, 2023 by AdamSmithWorks as part of its Speaking of Smith series. Reprinted by permission. Photo is of Kelly at Adam Smith's grave in Edinburgh in 2022.)While travelling in Denmark some years back, I spent an afternoon indulging my passion for theatre by visiting Elsinore Castle. For those rusty on their Shakespeare, Elsinore was home to a certain melancholy prince who had trouble making up his mind. The castle is indeed real; Shakespeare did not have to make it up. The plot – a prince agonizing over the murder of his father the king, who returns as a ghost to urge vengeance – has roots in Scandinavian folklore. What I did not know is that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is occasionally staged at the castle. One such production in 1937 starred Laurence Olivier as Hamlet and Vivien Leigh as Ophelia.

My long-ago visit to Elsinore castle was recently brought to mind by a remarkable confluence of circumstances surrounding the world premiere of my play Enquiry Concerning Hereafter, about the dear friendship between Adam Smith and David Hume. (In Enquiry, Smith actually does cite a line from Hamlet.)

In August 2019 l traveled to the Edinburgh Fringe, the world’s largest theatre festival. Among the plays I saw was one about Adam Smith, presented at Panmure House, Smith’s residence in his later years. That building has been painstakingly restored by Edinburgh Business School, which has made it an international center for economic and social thought. Following the play I happened to meet in the lobby Caroline Howitt, Panmure House’s Programme Director. When she learned I was working on a play about Smith and Hume, she asked to see the script when it was ready. In due course a script appeared, I sent it to Caroline, she warmed to it at once, and committed to produce it. Now in rehearsals, Enquiry Concerning Hereafter opens Aug. 4, 2023 at Panmure House for 21 performances.

My play draws on many details from Hume and Smith’s lives. They grieve because old age and disease are separating them. Charon arrives to ferry them across the river Styx. Smith’s actual grave lies in Canongate churchyard, just a few steps away from Panmure House. An early inspiration for my play was Dennis Rasmussen’s fine book, The Infidel and the Professor: The Friendship of Adam Smith and David Hume, which includes an account of their final days.

Few playwrights ever have the privilege I will enjoy as I sit among audiences this August. I will be watching an actor embody my fictional version of a giant of the Enlightenment, and enact his death on a stage in the very building where the real Smith lived his last twelve years, and where he departed this world. I will be asking Smith and Hume’s forbearance if I briefly experience what we might call, in our modern vernacular, a whoo-whoo moment. 

True to the Enlightenment, Smith and even moreso Hume disdained superstition and avowals of the supernatural. That is not to say they did not enjoy imaginative flights of fancy such as we find in literature, folktales and opera – so long as they are recognized as fancy and not presented as accounts of reality. As for that line from Hamlet that Smith cites in Enquiry? It’s when on the castle ramparts Horatio, Hamlet’s dearest friend, shouts to the ghost of Hamlet’s father: “Stay, illusion!”

The confluence of remarkable circumstances does not stop with events at Panmure House. Another play of mine, Visiting Cezanne, was produced at last year’s Fringe. Our venue was Hill Street Theatre (19 Hill Street) in the New Town neighborhood. I learned that the building only houses a theatre one month a year, during the Festival. For the other eleven months it is Mary’s Chapel, one of the world’s oldest Masonic lodges (some claim the oldest). Smith scholars may perk up at the mention of Mary’s Chapel. In his biography of Smith, Ian Simpson Ross writes: “We do not know where Smith’s lectures [in Edinburgh, on rhetoric] were given, though one possibility is the Edinburgh masonic meeting-place, Mary’s Chapel, off the High Street” (pg. 86). The plot continues to thicken. Ross suggests that one of those Edinburgh lectures is where Hume and Smith first met. So it is quite possible that characters I invented for a different play, one about artists in 1900 Provence, were being brought to life in a building where Adam Smith and David Hume spent time together.

I wonder, What If Hamlet had actually been performed at the real Elsinore castle during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the Bard had gotten wind of it? I can imagine him being tempted to cross the Channel and hitch a carriage ride to Denmark in order to enjoy actors performing his creation – destined to become one of the greatest works of dramatic literature – in the real place where he had set it. And where, I might add, many of his characters perish; by the end of Hamlet the stage is littered with dead bodies. This fictional scenario that I imagine Shakespeare enjoying is the experience I will soon be treated to at Panmure House

Can’t visit Edinburgh this August? AdamSmithWorks has produced a radio play version of Enquiry Concerning Hereafter, directed by Michelle Blackmon. The radio play was released on the AdamSmithWorks website in July, 2023. Listen here.

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