Shakespeare's Staging
Midsummer Night's Dream
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Saturday, 26 November 2005 06:00


A Midsummer Night's Dream: Mrs. Barsanti as Helena, 1776. The complexity of this 18th-c. lady's costume is hard to reconcile with the role of Helena: actresses sported the height of contemporary fashion on stage, whatever the role. HMR


This play is considered one of Shakespeare's most flawless achievements, unique in being almost without precedent. The blending of the different plots and groups is masterful: the tension between the supernatural icons of male and female, Oberon and Titania, matches the premarital strains hinted between Theseus and his battlefield captive Hippolyta, partly resulting from her negative reaction to the analogous tension between Hermia and her father over his patriarchal choice of her spouse, which is in conflict with her own preference. The intervention of Puck as a kind of cosmic agent of confusion merely objectifies the volatility of the lovers, whose ominous behavior is parodied in the climactic performance of Pyramus and Thisbe staged by the amateurish workmen to celebrate the final happy weddings. The vagaries of human aspiration are epitomized by the bizarre experiences of the egotistical Bottom, transformed to an ass during his attempt at enacting romantic love, yet briefly becoming the paramour of a fairy queen. The lightness and charm of the piece have made it a favorite introduction to Shakespeare, as in our modernized version (Gallery 1.3), but it has been visualized in a wide variety of ways, sometimes quite traditionally (6.2.6, 6.2.7), sometimes extravagantly, but recently often with quite provocative sexual explicitness, as Jan Kott has proposed (2.3.18; 3.2.30). However, it is almost impossible not to captivate audiences by the happy incompetence of the workmen's staging of Pyramus and Thisbe. HMR


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A Midsummer Night's Dream: Warner Brothers, 1935. Bottom: James Cagney; Quince: Frank Mchugh; Flute: Joe E. Brown; Starveling: J. Patrick; Snout: Hugh Herbert; Snug: Dewey Robinson. Hans Konekamp, Photographer; Max Reinhardt, Producer; W. Dieterle, Director. Copyright The Cleveland Memory Project.

The Diversionary Tactics of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Dream is considered one of Shakespeare's most elegantly crafted and effective plays. The alternation and interaction of several contrasting plots is remarkable: the frame story of the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta intersects with the debate before Theseus over the marriage choice of Hermia in the face of her father's opposition. The tension resulting from this conflict reinforces the implicit tyranny of Theseus' own imposing of marriage on his captive enemy Hippolyta. Such sexual polarization also matches the iconic quarrel between Oberon and Titania, who epitomize the male and female principles in nature generally, specifically in their confrontation over paternal or maternal domination in their familial relations to the adopted Indian boy. The workmen achieve the play's epitome in their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe which shows the volatility of love relationships, merely symbolized by the arbitrary effects of the juice of Oberon's magical flower. We have staged the young lovers' scenes on their own quite plausibly without the intervention of any magical flower or Puck.

These issues are cleverly managed to provide a highly diversified series of unpredictable scenes, including the astounding sexual seduction of Bottom by Titania, which reinforces the play's stress on the arbitrary and intimidating nature of sexuality. The importance of this deft fusion of characters, situations, and icons is that it provides a brilliantly diversified stage performance which is hypnotic to most audiences in its oscillation between aristocratic dignity, proletarian bluntness, amatory intensity, and allegorical icons, all further complicated by unexpected reversals of character and commitment. In the theatre any performance above minimal competence of these diverse effects briskly earns audience attention, and there are innumerable opportunities for varying interpretations of these contrasting characters, so that few productions seem repetitive.

The analysis of stage conventions and their audience affect in the workmen's rehearsals provides some of the best illumination of Shakespeare's awareness of audience involvement. These discussions come much nearer his own practices and those advocated by Lope de Vega's El arte nuevo de hacer comedias than the elitist aesthetics of Hamlet's supercilious address to the actors, which censures many of the bold effects that Dream exploits, such as Bottom's farcical overacting. Despite the voicing of occasional death threats, the play ends with universal happiness transcending even the basically positive conclusion posited by the conventions of tragicomedy. Ⓒ HMR

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