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.


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