Saturday, June 14, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream - Pwca

Time to pucker up,

John, thinking about Puck who is sent to put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes, speculates if this image is stimulated by Elizabethan commerce, that force which changes the paradigm of Shakespeare’s world, regularly bringing back wonders to the English shores. I have recently read Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes which traces the three voyages (1768-1780) of Capt. Cook, who carries with him an ornithologist and a botanist charged with just such collections. My favorite such wonder from the 17th Century is the brilliantly plumed Bird of Paradise. Exploration voyages lasted as much as a year, so transportation of specimens was difficult. In the case of birds the solution was skins. As legs were not the crucial part, they were discarded. Thus, into seventeenth-century London was introduced the most gorgeously plumed bird in the world, sans legs. An explanation was back-formed: this most magnificent of God’s creatures had no need of legs because, on birth, it took to the sky and spent its entire life flying close to heaven. Please don’t ask me for more detail, such as where the birth nest might be, etc. What I do know, is this image of a life close to heaven appears in at least three poems in the 17th Century.

What I see of Puck is three-fold: a) Robin Goodfellow whose mischief is proverbial, b) Oberon’s servant/slave Puck who is instrumental in the romantic revolutions of both mortals and the Fairy Queen, and c) one among Dream’s spirit world, provoking our thoughts about the relation of illusion to reality, without which the play would be not much more than a “realistic” romantic comedy. Finally, in epilogue or post script, Puck/ Robin first evokes the groaning spirits of the night (I can’t spell Walpurgisnacht) so Oberon and Titania can replace them with song and dance to bless the fertility of all the nuptial coupling going on, and then Puck finishes the play as a metatheatrical shadow, asking us for forgiveness and applause for our “dream.”

This is a play about fairies or, Harley Granville Barker asks “is it not all meant to appear only as the fierce vexation of a dream?” Oberon and Titania are outside the realm of Athens, outside time, outside space. They are supernatural (and their ‘unrealistic’ nature crippled productions for 250 years,’ devolving into opera, ballet, dozens of children with tiny lights, and, of course, those live rabbits). I have a map of Dream showing Athens in hard-edged neoclassic lines and the woods as leafy, gauzy indeterminacy. The dispute between Titania and Oberon over the Indian changeling boy has caused the seasons themselves to loop out of orbit:

“The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world
By their increase, now knows not which is which.” (II.i.111-114)

The little folk—Cobweb, Peaseblossom, etc.—are part of this infinite [not finite] world. But Puck, alone in the woodland realm, brings about actions relative to the mortals (Bottom is drawn into the dream world). When the First Fairy catalogues the attributes of “the shrewd and knavish sprite/ Called Robin Goodfellow,” he really is that Warwickshire hobgoblin, the trickster responsible for domestic mishaps, you all have unearthed: the explanation for spilled milk, a fall from a three-foot stool or even responsible for good luck.

However, when the jealousy between the King and Queen of the Fairies accelerates, vengeful Oberon, patronizing yet protective, commands Puck as his servant to fetch the magic ‘love-in-idleness” flower, to which Puck responds with “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth/ In forty minutes!” (II.i.175). Thence, Puck is no longer Robin Goodfellow, the joint-stool tipper. Oberon directs him to anoint the eyes of a disdainful Athenian who has cruelly threatened an innocent maiden: “Thou shalt know the man/ By the Athenian garments he hath on” (II.i.264-65), and Puck responds “Your servant shall do so.” Puck is anxious to serve and finds a mortal youth: “Weeds of Athens he doth wear:/ This is he my master said.” He acts as Cupid, though with bad aim, and off we go in a comedy of errors more complicated than that of the Antipholi, because Lysander and, later, Demetrius, act under a magic spell and nonetheless behave like adolescent guys, mixing love, and hate, and lust, and cocksure arrogance beyond reason.

Puck earns my human sympathy when Oberon castigates him for anointing the “wrong” Athenian youth (though of course Puck has followed his King’s directions exactly) and sends Puck to dazzle and confuse the two young men, to keep them from fighting and finally to exhaust them enough to sleep so Lysander can be doused with the antidote. Puck mimics their voices in the night and fog, Goodfellow-with-a-purpose, but allows himself a cogent observation: “Lord what fools these [adolescent] mortals be!”, and offers a self-description as the perfect audience for comedy: “And those things do best please me/ That befall prepost’rously” (III.ii.120-21), things that illustrate the follies and vices of human behavior.

[Etymological aside: doesn’t ‘preposterous’—pre (before) + post (after)—translate to ‘posterior enters first’?]

Puck is an eiron. So, Puck is the most active ingredient in the fierce vexation of the dream which transforms the Athenian world. I suppose the final out of role “Puck” calls forth the gloomy spirits of the night (modern technology might dispense with his ‘it-is-night’ lines and introduce the fairies with tiny lights Ernst saw in Regent’s Park) to set the conditions for Oberon and Titania to demonstrate the restoration of harmony. They dance for purification and blessing, as a comedy must, seasons back in ‘natural’ order, the ‘tradgic’ aftermath of “Pyramus and Thisbe” resolved in laughter and forgiveness, and all is well.

Some notes:

Puck was a female part throughout the nineteenth century until at least 1924.

In a Denver Center production I saw in 1994, Philostrate and Puck were double cast, making a certain amount of sense about the roles of “masters of revels.” Peter Brook doubled them in 1970 and cast circus performer Angela Laurier, on trapezes to ‘create the atmosphere of magic.’

I often thought of Peter Pan as I worked with this, Mary Martin on a trapeze.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was often broken up: operas, The Fairy Queen (music by Henry Purcell) in 1692 and The Fairies (John Christopher Smith) in 1755; ballet (music of Mendelssohn) 1853 and beyond; parody/masques, Pyramus and Thisbe in 1716 and 1745; and Dudley Carleton refers to seeing ‘a play of Robin goode-fellow’ at court in January 1604, but we don’t know if it was extracted from MND.

Time to get the Puck outta here, and yet…won’t we get an essential spirit {c) above} in Ariel in The Tempest?


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