Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Stage: Additional Notes

For the sake of brevity (and word count) in the review I refer to the folks who play the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude as “commoners” but they are more specific than that. They are workers (the Plays in the Park production shows them in overalls; this photo is from an Old Vic production) of a specific kind: a weaver, a joiner, etc. In other words, craftsmen or skilled workers. In Shakespeare’s time they were called “mechanicals.”

 Shakespeare wrote his midsummer play within a year or two of Romeo and Juliet, and this playlet is its comically absurd version.

Commentator Harold Bloom writes that this play was composed in the winter of 1595-96, and that Romeo and Juliet was written in 1595. Scholar A.D. Nuttall agrees that both plays were written in roughly these years but concedes that it can’t be proven that “either play preceded the other.” But he feels it is unlikely that Shakespeare would have parodied Romeo and Juliet in The Pyramus and Thisbe interlude before he had written it.  He considers other resemblances--and direct opposites--of the two plays.  The Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe of course predates A Midsummer Night's Dream, which in other respects seems to have no prior play or story as a model, a rarity in Shakespeare.

 Director Evan Needham makes some apt and inventive theatrical choices for troublesome moments...

 For instance, in an early scene the duke speaks a line that suggests his betrothed is not happy about how he handled the conflict involving the irate father and his daughter. Often this is performed as a throwaway, or her displeasure is muted. Needham had Kim Haile stalk out of the scene in anger. So the duke’s “What cheer?” not only made sense, it got a laugh.

 Some features of it probably were part of the original: fairies played by children, a dog (Elizabethans loved a dog)...

A dog act of some kind was a frequent feature of stage plays, including Shakespeare, although Elizabethan tastes in animal acts was also less benign: various cruel forms of bear-baiting and fighting were very popular shows. (Not to worry--the dog in the Plays in the Park is cute and may even get his tummy tickled.)

 But fondness for a dog on stage continued in subsequent centuries to the point that there was an actual version called “Dog’s Hamlet,” in which Hamlet spoke his soliloquies to his dog. This probably is a punning reference in Tom Stoppard’s short play “Dogg’s Hamlet,” in which players speak in an artificial language called “dogg.” Stoppard also made fun of the Elizabethan taste for dogs in Shakespeare’s plays several times in his script for Shakespeare in Love.

 ...Shakespeare’s psychologically acute explorations of conscious and unconscious, dream and reality are readily available in the words. 

Several commentators on this play point out how remarkably well Shakespeare anticipated Freud and Jung. I noticed a couple of examples at Plays in the Park. When Puck douses the eyes of one of the sleeping male lovers with a potion that causes him to fall in love with the first woman he sees when he awakes, and that is not the woman he actually loves but another, he immediately begins to argue in terms of reason why he’s suddenly changed his mind and now loves another. This is precisely how the unconscious works, according to Jung (and maybe Freud, I don’t know, I’ve read much more Jung.) We immediately rationalize impulses from the unconscious, and often actually believe we’ve made a reasoned choice when we’re operating from denial, projection, etc.

 I noticed also an example of the interpenetrating worlds of dream and reality is reflected in Bottom’s mixing of the senses. Awaking from his spell—his dream—he speaks of eyes hearing and ears seeing. But he does so again, in character during the Pyramus and Thisbe playlet.

The opposites that interpenetrate include spirits and mortals (there’s suggestion of a sexual interpenetration among the royals of each world), day and night, light and dark. The place where light and dark meet is the moon, and where reality and dream meet is the imagination. (The moon as a symbol of the imagination runs throughout literature, notably in the 20th century poet Wallace Stevens.)

 In this play there is a lot of moon imagery (noted in detail by literary critic Northrop Frye), including luna-tic. Late in the play, the duke makes a speech about the imagination in relation to madness and poetry that apart from the instant quotations (“What fools these mortals be,” “The course of true love never did run smooth,” etc.) is the play’s most famous speech. Unfortunately, in the Plays in the Park performance, that speech is mostly eliminated, as is at least one earlier reference to the moon as cold and lifeless.

The key lines in the play that unite the theme of love with the psychological and other oppositions belongs to Bottom, responding to the fairy queen when she first professes her love.  "Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that: And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays: The more the pity, that some honest neighbors will not make them friends." 

On Plays in the Park...

This is just the second year for Arcata Plays in the Park in the current incarnation.  There are lots of ways to do plays in parks in the summer, and mindful of this, especially for those unfamiliar with attending plays in these circumstances, I included more description than usual of the premises and conditions, so potential audience members have a better idea of what to expect.  I could have added a few more details: prepare for nighttime chill, bring something to cushion the metal bleacher seats and most particularly to this venue, bring a flashlight to get back to your car.  When it's dark in Redwood Park, it's really dark.

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