Alas, Poor Yorick! The Composer Whose Skull Became a Real Human Stage Prop

Andre-Tchaikowsky-skull-Yorick (Image: lisby1, cc-nc-sa-3.0)

In life André Tchaikowsky was a celebrated Polish composer and pianist. But after his death at the age of 46, he was to achieve a different kind of artistic fame. Tchaikowsky left his body to medical research, but trusted his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company in the hope that it would be used as a stage prop.

Tchaikowsky, who died of colon cancer in Oxford in 1982, wanted his skull to be cast as that of Yorick in productions of Hamlet. But for years actors felt uncomfortable using a real human skull in performances, limiting its application to rehearsals.

Finally, in 2008, David Tennant’s Hamlet held Tchaikowsky’s skull (top) at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, after which the production moved to the West End. Sensing the skull would be too distracting for audiences, the RSC announced that it would no longer be using the real human prop.

Andre-Tchaikowsky-Yorick (Images: chopin.nifc.plLibrary of Congress; public domain)

But this turned out to be deception, and Tchaikowsky’s skull played Yorick throughout the West End production and later starred in the BBC2 television adaptation. (Above, right: photo of André Tchaikowsky.)

Director Gregory Doran said, “Andre Tchaikowsky’s skull was a very important part of our production of Hamlet, and despite all the hype about him, he meant a great deal to the company.”

Speaking to the Telegraph, he added: “You can’t hold a real human skull in your hand and not be moved by the realisation that your own skull sits just beneath your skin, that you will be reduced to that state at some stage.

“That is what Yorick’s skull does to Hamlet. It reminds him of the very real presence of Death in Life. Andre’s skull was a profound momento mori, which perhaps no prop skull could quite provide.”

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