There is a certain kind of drama which ends in a positively final way, where everybody dies. Not necessarily all at once: for every hero's final speech — 'O true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die'; 'I am dying, Egypt, dying' — there are also intermediate villains who expire with some deatnbed confession, or now-unnecessary mentors who breathe their last assuring the hero that he can manage on his own now. Still, all of the characters are gone by the end. The final act at Elsinore is the definitive example of this: in Radio 4's frivolous sequel Hamlet II, the main characters have to be Fortinbras, the soldier who walks on to deliver the final line of what I guess we should now call Hamlet I, and the castle librarian. This wholesale slaughter of fictional characters is unfashionable today. We tend to see cheap on-screen tragedy, of minor characters expiring in throwaway melodrama, as cheap. Besides, where would our long-form TV shows and cinematic-universe movie franchises be if the characters kept being bumped off?
But for much of the history of theatre, audiences not only expected but wanted mortality to be performed and made vivid for them. They were highly sensitive to the plight of the three-dimensional, physically present men and women in front of them. And as Jess Goodman's new collective volume points out — Last Scene of All: Representing Death on the Western Stage — the audience of a play can so to speak have it both ways. They can come back night after night and watch the same actor die again, or reflect that she did it better as Cleopatra than as Lady Macbeth. Blurring with their characters, the actors are both gone and not gone at all, and of course the great dramatists all understood this.
Last Scene of All: Representing Death on the Western Stage is due out in late 2021.