OK. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s last play, or at least the play most recently “discovered.” But before you write in defense of Henry VIII or The Tempest, let me chat a while.
As with most of Shakespeare’s plays there is hardly a surviving record or comment on contemporary productions: there is only Dudley Carleton’s reference to seeing “a play of Robin goode-fellow” at court in 1604, a reference in Edward Sharpham’s play, The Fleire (1607): “Faith like Thisbe in the play a [sic] has almost killed himself with the scabbard,” and the differences between the quartos and the Folio. Jay Halio asserts “we can infer that it was revived fairly often and therefore quite popular,” citing a Folio stage direction at V.i.125, ‘Tawyer with a Trumpet before them,’ referring to an actor who was not in the King’s Men until after the first quarto of 1600. But after the restoration of the closed theatres in 1660, Midsummer Night’s Dream is virtually absent. I have just read Jay Halio, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Shakespeare in Performance, Manchester, 1994, and Trevor R. Griffiths, “Introduction” to Shakespeare in Performance: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cambridge, 1996, and I’ll cherry pick some highlights without citation.
Midsummer Night's Dream, perhaps more than any other play, strayed or was detached from what we might consider the text as originally staged in 1595 or 1596 and more fully printed in the First Folio. There followed more than three hundred years of cutting, adaptation, editing, addition, bowdlerization (in Garrick and JC Smith’s opera, The Fairies in 1755, Puck gets Ariel’s line “Where the bee sucks, there lurk [sic] I” (what a relief for your students not to contemplate “suck” twice in one sentence, especially if they are aware of the printed long ‘s’ which sure looks like ‘f’), transformation into masques, opera and ballet (Mendelssohn’s overture was first used in 1833), much of it emphasizing spectacle (“a Chinese man and woman sing, six monkeys come from between the trees and dance, and two sopranos sing in parts a song summoning Hymen” in Elkanah Settle’s opera, The Fairy Queen, with music by Henry Purcell, 1692) or, in the 19th century, realism (worry about live rabbits in the woods for a moment). For most of these centuries, the fairies were played by children, with wings (I have an edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham (Grammercy Books, 1990) whose fairies have always formed my ‘default’ image). By Italian contralto Lucia Elizabeth Vestres’s production (1840), the fairies were winged, flying fairies and Madame Vestris played (sang?) the part of Oberon.
I see four obstacles evolving to prevent the realization of our wonderful play. Diffuse plotting with three or even four separate plots only partially intertwined created difficulties with dramatic coherence. Even a shadow of neoclassical Unities was threatened, and many of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century travesties reduced the play to The Fairy Queen (1692), A Fairy Tale (1763) or masques or afterpieces called Pyramus and Thisbe (1716, 1745). Our discussion of Puck showed that Shakespeare drew the fairies themselves from four different traditions.
Second, to oversimplify, after the Restoration we have the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and there was “a growing skepticism in the late 17th century about the intervention of supernatural beings in everyday life” (Griffiths), and a shift toward realism made representation of the supernatural somehow outside the scope of production. Thus, opera and later ballet offered unrealistic conventions which could accommodate the supernatural. Consider this a play about fairies or, Harley Granville-Barker asks “is it not all meant to appear only as the fierce vexation of a dream?" But a decline in belief in magic, a growth of skepticism and empirical science are factors which contributed to a hostile intellectual climate. How can one represent fairies (or dreams or spirits or magical projections of human nature, especially adolescent behavior) with real actors on a stage, especially as theatre size, ingenious machinery, scenery, costuming, and eventually lighting evolved. Anti-supernatural critics also scorn ghosts in Hamlet or Macbeth.
Then, in the Nineteenth Century, again to oversimplify, Romanticism pervades. There is Romantic anti-theatrical prejudice. Ever seem a Wordsworth or Byron play? I have, I’m sorry to say. “Poetry and the stage do not agree together,” dictated Hazlett. The gothic and fantastic reappear. Author originality—inspiration—regain credit. But this atmosphere also invited realism. When the scene shifts to night in the woods, productions gave us romantically realistic scenery or wild landscapes. Shakespeare’s lines call for fairies who can sleep in an acorn cap. So the fairies were cast smaller and smaller. I’m relieved Samuel Phelps, 1853-61, and Charles Kean, 1856-59, didn’t think of Munchkins. And in mid-century there was a demand for authenticity. Madam Vestris not only had a master machinist with experience of flying fairies, she had an antiquary, JR Planche, as advisor. Midsummer Night's Dream starts with Theseus, Duke of Athens. Swell, but Charles Kean’s archeological exactitude necessitated changes because Periclean Athens was not a duchy, so Theseus is referred to as ‘Prince,’ the painted scenery began to include the Parthenon, and costumes were Athenian rather than whatever. All productions between 1840 and 1926, with the exception of eclectic costuming for Granville-Barker in 1914, were Athenian.
The production history of A Midsummer Night’s Dream may at least trace evolving perceptions. Vestres played Oberon and a girl played Puck, a tradition that continued throughout the nineteenth century. London’s huge Covent Garden required spectacle, and scene painters provided a long perspective of temples with the Acropolis towering in the distance, and forest scenes where all is sylvan and visionary. For Puck’s first appearance he/she rises up from the center stage trap riding on a mushroom. In Charles Kean’s 1856 production, eight-year-old Ellen Terry, perhaps the preeminent actress of the nineteenth century, played Puck, though for Kean the rest of the fairies were full-grown adults, with a final spectacle of "some ninety fairies tripping up and down the stairs of Theseus’s palace, waving bell-like lanterns while the fairy chorus sang Mendelssohn’s 'Through this house give glimmering light’.” By Augustin Daly’s 1888 production, Isadora Duncan in paper-maché wings was one of the dancing fairies, and in a review of a 1895 Daly production Bernard Shaw was especially harsh on Lillian Swain as Puck and criticized Daly for his persistent illusionism, which destroys rather than complements the effect of Shakespeare’s verse.
Lastly, both the Eighteenth century and the Nineteenth were crabbed by decorum, propriety, concerns with “warm ideas.” For 150 years, Lysander’s suggestion of a little pre-marital coziness with Hermia, II.ii.47.-70, “One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth,” was edited or cut on grounds of ‘delicacy’ from Francis Gentleman [sic—ironically], 1764, until restored by Harley Granville-Barker, who, at last, in 1914, restored the full text. Notice: 1914! “The time was ripe, if not overripe, for reaction,” says Jay Halio.
The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries seem unable to trust the chorus of Henry V when he demands:
“let us…on your imaginary forces work…
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth;
For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,” (1.1.18, 19, 27-29)
as their productions embraced realism and spectacle. But the rebuttal to this is in our play. The Mechanicals gather in the wood to assign parts for “Pyramus and Thisbe,” and Quince notes that it will be hard to bring the moonlight into a chamber when Pyramus and Thisbe meet by moonlight. They immediately consult a calendar, an almanac, and find that indeed the moon shines the night of their performance, so they may leave a casement of the great chamber window open and the actual moon may shine in. But to assure the theatrical representation of moonshine, Robin Starveling, the Tailor, is assigned to come in with a thorn bush, a lantern, and a dog, to represent the man in the moon with his bush, dog, etc. And, of course, when “Pyramus and Thisby” is underway before the Athenian spectators and, ta da!, the theatre audience, too, Prologue says “By moonshine did these lovers think no scorn/ To meet at Ninus’ tomb, there, there to woo.” So how many moons are on the stage during the enactment of this little play? Give up? Three: the actual, literal, material moon shining in; the representational theatrical moon presented by the actor with his lantern, bush, and dog; and the metaphoric or archetypal moon evoked in the imagination of the audience. Archetypal? Everyone in the audience has myriad exposures to moonlight, and the language accesses this experience. The last is the most credible.
In Shakespeare the language evokes the images, until realistic scenes or costumes or, later, with film, the settings and scenes make the language redundant (the lush landscape in Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet filmed in Tuscany forces cuts in all those rich poetic descriptions of the scenes). So, if the Enlightenment actualists and the Romantic realists had just let themselves see the language, there would not have been a 300 year gap before A Midsummer Night’s Dream could emerge—revert?—to the wonderful balance among its three plots keeping dramatic tension between the rational and the irrational, the natural and the supernatural, time and timelessness, reality and illusion, the conscious and the dream, the forms of fairies and the nature of theatre.
In the Twentieth Century directors continued to use or be condemned for not using Mendelssohn and Athens or Elizabethan and folk, eclectic and new composition. In 1914 Granville-Barker directed the complete text (though he still had ballet); Bridges Adams mounted Midsummer Night's Dream eight times at Stratford and on tour between 1919 and 1934; Max Reinhardt made a glorious film (Mendelssohn, Jimmy Cagney as Bottom, Mickey Rooney screeching away as Puck, Victor Jory lurking disguised as a tree as Oberon); Tyrone Guthrie, a full-text, though Victorian, production at the Old Vic in 1937 (Ralph Richardson as Bottom); Peter Hall, in 1959, 62-63, staged in an Elizabethan great hall — all I suppose, evolving from Victorian, until Peter Brook blew it all open at Stratford, staging the play in a white box, with doors opening into space at the second level and musicians and fairies observing from a cat-walk at the top of the box. I have read detailed descriptions of the Brook, and it appears to be seminal, revolutionizing all subsequent Shakespeare production, creating "a blank page upon which imagination can play its tricks,” “allowing a concentration on the possibilities of the text where other more traditional stagings had been more limiting” (Griffiths, 69).
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