The Actors Who Are Dying to Play Yorick in Hamlet
One of the most time-honored theater traditions is also one of the most morbid. Sometimes, when actors or very serious Shakespeare fans take their final bows, they bequeath their skulls to an acting company to be used as the skull of Yorick, the target of Hamlet's "Alas, poor Yorick" monologue.
Though it's hard to pinpoint exactly when and where the tradition began, it likely goes back to at least the early 1800s, when famed Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth reportedly found himself on the receiving end of an unexpected gift. The story goes that Booth once befriended a man he shared a jail cell with, but while Booth was released, his friend was eventually hanged. The man told his jailers that his head should be sent to Booth and used in Hamlet. The Players Club in New York City, which Booth's son Edwin (brother of John Wilkes Booth) once owned, still has the skull said to have belonged to Junius Booth's unfortunate friend. (While it's clear that a real skull passed from Junius Booth to his son and was used in Hamlet, it's difficult to prove the original owner was Booth's cellmate.) The skull now bears the handwritten legend, "And the rest is silence."
Another early documented instance is that of John “Pop” Reed, a stagehand at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. After more than half a century working at the Walnut, Reed had developed a love for the Bard and stated in his will that he wanted to live on as Hamlet’s deceased jester. The Walnut granted his wish, and Reed's remains reside there to this day.
But the most famous Yorick is probably André Tchaikowsky, the Polish composer and pianist. When he died in 1982, the performer added his name to the list of people wanting to act from beyond the grave. A passionate Shakespeare fan who was often moved by Royal Shakespeare Company performances, Tchaikowsky willed his dome to the company. They stuck it on a roof for two years to dry and bleach it, then began using it in rehearsals. Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) rehearsed with it, but the RSC eventually felt the skull was inappropriate to use in an actual performance; a cast was used instead.
Don't worry: Tchaikowsky’s mortal remains did get their moment in the spotlight. In 2008, actor David Tennant held the composer’s skull aloft in his 22 performances as Hamlet at the Courtyard Theatre in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Though it was originally reported that a fake was used, director Gregory Doran later explained that he didn’t want the skull’s story to become the focus of the production, and so had fibbed a little.
Sadly, not all those who ask are able to serve as Yorick. Comedian Del Close left his noggin to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre when he died in 1999, but his widow was unable to find anyone willing to clean it, and Close’s wish went unanswered. In 1995, an actor who dreamed of performing onstage with the Royal Shakespeare Company—yet who had been repeatedly rejected—figured he would audition from the afterlife by bequeathing his skull to the company. He told The Independent, "I may not know what my next job will be, but I want to ensure I know what my last job will be." Alas, the RSC declined him once again.