Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Who But ...?

To absent friends,

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is indeed a wonderful play. Ernst has asked which characters “speak” most clearly to us at this moment. Let me take “this moment” literally and thus choose to choose Hippolyta, though my other choices would be Helena and Puck. For Hippolyta, who has thirty-five lines, perhaps I’m just continuing my whimsical attraction to minor characters. I’ve told my students I would try out for Rosaline in Romeo and Juliet to introduce the fact of boy actors in women’s roles, but then I’d confess the real reason is there are so few lines (none) to memorize. Once I was asked by an examining committee who was the “hero” of Hamlet, and I blurted out Voltemand, imagining it was a question like “who is buried in Grant’s tomb,” then I had to give a rationale for my choice. Well, if Branagh can cast Gerard Depardieu as Renaldo…

Ah, Hippolyta, bride-to-be of Theseus. Theseus opens with

Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in
Another mood; but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires,
Like to a stepdame, or a dowager,
Long withering out a young man’s revenue. (I.i.1-6)

Promising coda, no? There is the plot: “the nuptial hour,” which animates all four couples in the narrative which follows. It introduces “the moon,” which will be a major player until it is manifest by a physical appearance, resembling Starvling, during the performance of “Pyramus and Thisby.” And Theseus confesses his sexual tension, premarital desire, which animates so much of the following action. Ernst explores the speeches, rich in dark, dignified sounds and lovely drawn out metaphors. But I would like to isolate Hippolyta alone here:

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities. (I.1.7-11)

Note the difference in Theseus’s simile (like to a stepdame withering out a young man’s revenue) and Hippolyta’s metaphor (days and nights personified, immersed, and the moon likened to an image of a bow drawn afresh). How no-nonsense, how material Theseus’s image is, a young man calculating the sheckles diminishing in his inheritance because his widowed mother insists on living a few more days, whereas Chipolata’s images are rich in nature, in imagination, and introduce the gap between “real” time and lovers’ time. She trumps Theseus’s “lingers” with her “steep” and “dream away.”

Theseus instructs his Master of Revels, Philostrate, to design entertainments, then explains to

Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword,
And won thy love doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling. (I.i.16-19)

Already, I suspect a predatory lover here. “I won thee doing thee injuries”—the queen of the Amazons, similar to Achilles’s Briesies, is merely a trophy won in battle. Notice there is no response, though Hippolyta remains present as the Duke turns his attention to business, Egeus’s petition that Theseus enforce the law of Athens, that daughter Hernia be put to death if she refuses to marry her father’s choice (a bit creepy in that we recently had the trial of Warren Jeffs, the high authority of the Fundamental schism of the Mormon church, for commanding the bedding of fourteen-year-old girls to his religious followers). Despite a courageous appeal by Hermia, Theseus hides behind the law:

For you, fair Hermia, look you arm yourself
To fit your fancies to your father’s will;
Or else the law of Athens yields you up
(Which by no means we may extenuate)
To death, or to a vow of single life. (I.i 117-121)

(Anticipate how much this immutable law will be so easily eroded by lovers’ time and the alternate universe of the imagination.) After Theseus rules, as he passes this sentence of death on young Hermia—another of those absolute grim laws which so many comedies open with, The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, for instance—he turns from the business and says “Come, my Hippolyta; what cheer, my love?” Stage this? After Theseus (“my love”?!?) has ruled Hermia merely a chattel to her father and has deemed betrothal to a man she despises, how do we see Hippolyta react? Surely the common sense Hippolyta doesn’t like this disposition of the young woman at all. Can we visualize her visible disgust? Indeed Theseus must ask “what cheer.”

Then, into the woods we go, elopement, pursuit, the night, the moon, the shadows, the faeries, delusions and illusions. At dawn, the sleeping lovers, all, except Demetrius, restored to natural affection, wake to the sound of hounds and hunting horns. Enter Theseus and Hippolyta (remember her?). Theseus tries to impress her, loosing his hounds up to the mountain top for “musical confusion/ Of hounds and echo in conjunction” but, as in the opening images, Hippolyta tops him:

I was with Hercules and Cadmus once [among the immortals],
When in a wood of Crete they bay’d the bear
With hounds of Sparta….
… I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder. (IV. i.112-114, 117-118)

Theseus blathers about the superiority of his dogs, trying to impress the Queen of the Amazons, but Hugh Richmond tells us to be skeptical of a warrior who marries his enemy and trains his hunting dogs so they are unfit for tracking. The dogs do discover the lovers, sleeping, after the mistakes of the night, and they tell their stories and, over Egeus’s insistence on that immutable Athenian law, Theseus acknowledges natural law (though he will have one more rejection of love and imagination) and heralds that “nuptial hour.” “Three and three,/ We’ll hold a feast in great solemnity./ Come, Hippolyta,” (IV.i.184-186).

I would direct Hippolyta as open-mouthed with astonishment and soon she remarks “’Tis strange, my Theseus, [what] these lovers speak of,” which provokes the Duke’s dismissal of lunatics, lovers, and poets, “of imagination all compact.” Theseus is regularly quoted out of context as a description of Shakespeare’s notions about poetry, dreams, romantic love, and other lunacies, but as my Hippolyta has demonstrated Theseus is the figure who is deficient in these qualities. Hippolyta is shrewder and less defensive than Theseus:

But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds tranfigur’s so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable. (V.i.23-27)

Something has happened to the lovers, whatever their stories, a creative transformation into a higher consciousness (as opposed to downward metamorphoses we read about in Ovid).

After this, the rude mechanicals perform “Pyramus and Thisbe,” and Hippolyta, again, is judicious: “I love not to see wretchedness o’ercharged,/ And duty in his service perishing.” As the travesty unfolds, she may seem to be among the snobbish derision the aristocrats heap on the guildsmen, but, to me, the most interesting line is her “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.” Does she mean “Pyramus and Thisbe” itself and its romantic glop or the performance or possibly the jeering by Theseus and Demetrius, though that is not yet as vicious as it will soon be. But when Theseus plays critic and says “The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend it,” Hippolyta again clarifies imagination: “It must be your imagination then, and not theirs.”

Theseus, who has scorned antic fables and fairy toys, lunatics, lovers, and poets, finally is himself transformed and acknowledges “’tis almost fairy time,” And so to bed, Hippolyta inevitably with him. But I have seen Hippolyta double cast with Titania, and I have judged her superior to the pompous (see I.i.19) bureaucrat Theseus, superior in reason, nature, and the imagination. If there were a sixth act, can one imagine Theseus with ass’s ears?

Notes to Ernst’s other starters:

1. (cont.) Ernst, in September, invited us to choose a character “speaking” to us at this moment in the world. I hope I haven’t merely deconstructed Hippolyta, and I hope Ernst still remembers why he nominated Theseus back then so we can rassle. If not, I may try also to account for my connection to Helena (starting with a wonderful B. Iden Payne production in which Helena had a lisp and doomed me to refer to “Dimetweus” in front of my students) and of Puck (starting with me being cast as Puck, chosen over Richard Chamberlain in open audition). But that for another time. I notice Ernst’s first character is Bottom. Tempting. Cindy—can you make an argument for why Bottom is the only mortal in the play to see the faeries. That’s you, isn’t it, or did I hear it from our friend and colleague Dick Henze?

2. Great parallel between the openings of Richard II and Midsummer Night's Dream.

4. Bottom. Henry Myers has a little piece on Romeo and Bottom

5. Fairyland. I like the way Oberon gets hooked on the richness of describing nature.

6. Double casting in production. And there is a gaudy, but unexceptional film directed by Michael Hoffman with a memorable melancholy, contemplative Kevin Kline as Bottom. Calista Flockhart’s bare breast pale in comparison to those of Judi Dench as Titania in Peter Hall’s version.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Shakespeare's Blues


I'm sitting in a plantation-era shack in Clarksdale, Mississippi, about a mile from the legendary crossroads where Robert Johnson is supposed to have died of strychnine poisoning in 1938. And perhaps a little further on down the road, near Dockery Plantation if you believe the legend, he sold his soul to the devil for the ability to become the greatest bluesman ever. So I am surrounded by vibrant symbols of poverty, power, poetry, and the supernatural, all elements of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. Johnson's scant history suggests he was the son of itinerant field workers, an agrarian life not too far from the shepherds or cowherds depicted in pastoral (except for the nasty and brutish part that tended to come with picking cotton). Johnson, however, turned out to be something of a poet, and the 24 recordings we have from his mere five days of recording sessions in 1936 and 1937 include such lyrics as:

"You better come on
in my kitchen,
baby, it's goin' to be rainin'
Winter time's comin'
hit's gon' be slow;
you can't make the winter, babe,
that's dry long so." ("Come On In My Kitchen")

This last line may refer to Fate, suggesting that since the woman can't do anything about the coming winter rains, she should just hang out with him in his kitchen. Oh, the rain it raineth every day!

Johnson also concluded a song, from his final recording session, this way:

"When the train, it left the station
with two lights on behind
When the train, it left the station
with two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues
and the red light was my mind
All my love's in vain" ("Love in Vain")

I'd say this would be a good song for Berowne in Love's Labor's Lost, only trains didn't exist yet and Johnson's a better poet than Berowne. My roundabout point here is that if the pastoral still existed, tragically dead Robert Johnson might be its American standard bearer, and that makes communing with his ghost, as I am this chilly moonlit night in northern Mississippi, appropriate for a discussion of pastoral in Midsummer Night's Dream.

In his opening remarks, Ernst pointed out Midsummer Night's Dream's "earmarks of a pastoral romance" and John qualified the reference, stating "the couples certainly escape the strictures of urban life to the freedom and magical, mischievous, but ultimately healing and benign, influence of the wild wood." I seem to be forever finding Shakespeare turning things on their head, but I do not see the playwright cozying up easily to this tradition; in fact I see some gentle mockery of it. But perhaps I misunderstand the genre, and you can set me straight with what I get wrong. My introduction to the pastoral came in college with John Milton's "Lycidas," a poem that reminds us of the Greek origins of the form and displays its key conventions while, if I remember, attacking church corruption. What I remember most about the form is the elevation of simple shepherds to idyllic literary geniuses. Yet in both Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, the simple country folk are the worst poets. Take Bottom's extemporaneous poesy:

"The raging rocks
And shivering shocks
Shall break the locks
Of prison gates;
And Phibbus' car
Shall shine from far
And make and mar
The foolish fates.
This was lofty!" (1.2.29-37)

Funny, but doggerel. (And as an interesting comparison, note that Shakespeare's jest anticipates Milton's "Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew / Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme" ("Lycidas" 10-11). I could further annotate the less-than-accomplished talents of the uncouth swains in both plays, but I don't want to belabor the point … with Orlando's tortured rhymes to Rosalind, or Quince's lumbering prologue to "Pyramis and Thisbe." Now, both these guys are outsiders, city-dwellers, not trained shepherd-poets, but I do think Shakesepare is making fun. City people commune with nature, and it turns them into fools.

This point is made again as Shakespeare takes on the convention, if I remember it right, that the simplicity of rural life makes it idyllic. Midsummer Night's Dream gives us anything but idyllic life. Four city folk enter the woods, and they are nearly driven insane. They become enamored of the wrong people, they fight with their friends, they become lost and disoriented, and even after all is set right they can't tell what reality is (Demetrius concludes: "Are you sure / That we are awake? It seems to me / That yet we sleep, we dream."). Even the representatives of Nature are not at peace in Nature – Titania and Oberon are at war, making each other's lives (and the lives of the poor mortals around them) very complicated indeed.

As an interesting side note, Jonathan Miller, in his 1981 BBC production of the play, really plays up an anti-pastoral take on the text. He first has the fairies persistently standing in pools of murky water, Puck consistently hauling his head out of said pools before he speaks his lines, and the lovers emphatically ending up rolling in muddy water at the ends of their various confrontations. It's a decidedly messy and humiliating set of depictions, and it's what first got me looking at and becoming skeptical about the attitude toward the pastoral in the play.

I'm not supporting it very well, but my contention here is that Shakespeare specifically mocks pastoral conventions (as I thought he was specifically mocking epic conventions in Taming of the Shrew). So what say you? What important conventions am I missing? What hommage to pastoral does the play support? Or do you agree that Shakespeare might be tweaking pastoral in that way that he seems happy to tweak all established forms as he remakes them?

Okay. Tomorrow I'm off to New Orleans, so I'll be out of touch for a few days. Look forward to your Midsummer thoughts when I get back. Or, in the words of Robert Johnson:

"When I leave this town I will bid you fare farewell.
When I leave this town I will bid you fare farewell.
And when I return again, you'll have a great long story to tell." ("From Four 'Til Late")


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

RE: Midsummer Night's Dream - Solemnities

Just to keep the ball that Randall has again set in motion rolling, I'm going to quickly post random responses rattling around in my brain now in no very coherent form, with plans to return with a more polished piece.

First, Ernst notes, rightly I think, that this play reveals a more mature Shakespeare. It seems to me that there is a marked qualitative shift in this play that I can't completely articulate. But this seems much more like the work that we praise as a product of the great Bard than most of the earlier works we read. Did something happen?

On a different tack, I've been thinking about Puck recently. Theseus sends him half way around the world to procure a desired flower with special properties. Now I'm no specialist in Elizabethan commercial history, but as I recall at the time, the English navy and commercial special interests were spreading around the world and regularly bringing back wonders to the English shores. Would it be too much to say that Puck partly represents a wonderment at the growing ability of people with means to obtain undreamed of exotic products from undreamed of farthest reaches of the world?

And what is our Puck today? Is it not the undying "person" with fairy-like super power to procure for us undreamed of goods from the farthest reaches, that is the corporation? While this fantastic entity can serve our desires, our modern Puck has also come to shape those desires, as well as controlling our government.

Sorry if I'm drifting into something perhaps resembling Marxist criticism here. Watching what looks like the beginning of the collapse of world capitalism this week has my mind walking down strange paths, perhaps.

I like the connection of this play to the pastoral tradition, not something I had thought of before. The couples certainly escape the strictures of urban life to the freedom and magical, mischievous, but ultimately healing and benign influence of the wild wood. Sounds like the dream that helped create the blight of suburbia across much of the land.

OK, enough random provocation for now. More later.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Solemnities

As bears through the long winter hibernate,
nestled in their dark caves, breathing slowly,
body temperature low, body fat
supplying life-giving warmth, sustenance,
and protection from the cold, but all the
while inanimate to the outside world;
then stir, their reduced metabolic rate
recovering, their torpor shaken off;
So we William Shakespeare Experians
shed months of listless inactivity
and amble forward to the spring of our
continued dramatic conversation.

Ernst has posed a number of challenging prompts in his post. I am intrigued by the question about pastoral romance, mostly because I don't really know much about it. So I'm thinking I'll do something on that, and I may look to you all to fill in where I don't get it.

In the meantime, I'll start here: Ernst writes of Act 1, scene 1 that Midsummer Night's Dream begins with "speeches rich in dark, dignified sounds." I agree, but ask: what is a "dark" sound? Examples? Is it the 'd's: "draws," "days," "desires," "dream"? Is it vowels? John, is there a linguistic definition of a "dark" sound?

The idea of darkness, though, got me thinking. The most epiphanic moment of Shakespeare-going I ever had came back in 1985. I saw Liviu Ciulei's production of Midsummer Night's Dream at the Guthrie, the design of which was dominated by a huge, intimidating, blood-red, plastic wall. (Ciulei, a Romanian, was Artistic Director of the Guthrie from 1980 until 1985.) Before a single line of the text was spoken, the audience saw a striking African-American woman with an aggressive Grace Jones flat-top haircut and camouflage battle fatigues hauled out, in chains, to the center of the stage by two be-toga'ed white men with short swords. They threw her down, removed her chains, her clothes (I remember her wearing an olive-drab bikini), and wrapped her in white Athenian garb, before presenting her, with armed guards, to Theseus, who strode onto the stage, looked her over and said: "Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace." Solemnities, indeed!

Three things happened for me. First, what I conventionally expected to be a light, comic discourse on "seriousness and frivolity" or any of those other themes that Ernst lists became something else entirely -- a dark, at times disturbing, reflection on the power, confrontation, and sexual violence lurking below the tension between genders. Ciulei's wordless prologue reframed the play, and no line, character, or scene that followed went unaffected by it.

Second, this was my first introduction to this technique of recasting an audience's expectations through the use of an aggressive reimagination. Ciulei's was seamless, coming both from the play and outside of it at the same time. I am wondering if any of you have had similar experiences -- familiar Shakespeare texts reshaped by some thought-provoking exposition, or a particularly apt but unexpected reading of a line or speech, or a particular characterization (when we get to Twelfth Night remind me to review Mark Rylance's Olivia)?

Third, given that Ciulei is taking Theseus at his word here ("I wooed thee with my sword...") and that he is treating her as the spoils of war, listen to what happens to the lines that follow. Theseus's "fair" in the first line becomes ironic. Her "fairness" is applied, as she has been metaphorically stripped of her culture and dressed in Athenian fashion. In addition, the casting of an African-American as Amazon against whites as Athenians recycles the postcolonial dynamic behind words like "fair" – not "fair" as in beautiful, but "fair" as in light-skinned, which she is not. Instead, Hippolyta is made fair in her acquisition by Greece. Next, Theseus's comment that the moon "lingers my desires / Like to a stepdame or a dowager / Long withering out a young man's revenue," takes on a more economic tone. The simile becomes less frivolous, as the moon (time) stands between Theseus and his rightful but unconsummated property.

Hippolyta's lines are no less affected. "Four days will quickly steep themselves in night," she says. Her transition from Theseus's "days" (line 2) to "nights," from light to dark, becomes significant because of the racial tension enforced by the scene. And Hippolyta matches Theseus's moon simile with one of her own, but here it becomes war-like, as befitting her warrior status: "And then the moon, like to a silver bow / New bent in heaven, shall behold the night / Of our solemnities." Is this a threat?

Through all of this Hippolyta does not look pleased, which may explain Theseus's mollifying words that bring the short scene to a close: "Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword / And won thy love doing thee injuries, / But I will wed thee in another key, / With pomp, with triumph, and with reveling." The male chauvinism that Ernst points to in Oberon is certainly here in Theseus (played by different actors in the Guthrie production). Triumph? How is she supposed to take that? As this scene dissolved into Egeus's interruptive complaint about Hermia and Lysander, the tone was set – power and the battle of the sexes would be presented in dark relief. And Puck's final concern – "If we shadows have offended" – became real.

I often am distressed about how little of live theater remains in my head, so many unremembered quality moments and images. It does not surprise me that film has surpassed theater in the 20th century as a dominant art form because of theater's fleeting and unretainable nature, especially in a society that consistently seeks to own experiences (thus, the cliché image of the tourist replacing true experience with picture-taking). What I love and respect about the opening five minutes of Ciulei's Midsummer Night's Dream is that they immediately became, for me, indelible.

So what am I asking that we do here? Ernst alluded to the difficulty of discussing this play because so much has been written and said about it already. I offer the memory of production, because I think we have probably all seen one, as a unique tool for processing the key moments and themes (enumerated by Ernst) of the play.