Beerbohm Trees 1900 production
"No Shakespearean comedy offers wider scope to the imagination of directors, designers, and actors."
– David Richman, Laughter, Pain, and Wonder: Shakespeare’s Comedies and the Audience in the Theater, 1990
A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers two major challenges to directors and producers. First, how to manage its three seemingly disconnected story lines (the Athenian lovers, the Mechanicals, and the fairies). They present a diffused focus, and directors have long struggled with which plot line to accentuate or how to blend the three into a cohesive whole. Second, how to translate a dream world on stage. As critic William Hazlitt pointed out in 1817, “That which is merely an airy shape, a dream, a passing thought, immediately becomes an unmanageable reality.” It is simple enough for us to mentally recall the mood of a dream or the image of a fairy, but how does one exhibit these ideas outside our private worlds of imagination on the stage before our eyes?
For the first 300 years of the play’s history, producers settled the question of focus by cutting the text extensively and relying upon ballet-style dance and music to conjure up images of fairies. A Midsummer Night’s Dream enjoyed a long history as a romantic pastoral play, often being presented as an opera.
Differences between productions tended to focus on cuts, treatment of the fairies, and theatrical devices, such as music and set, rather than on interpretation of what were once considered simple, two-dimensional comic characters. To please audiences, directors relied on huge spectacles, adding music, dancing, and elaborate processions.
Records of early performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are rare and scholars are uncertain when the first performance took place. The play was originally performed sometime between 1594 and 1596 when Shakespeare was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. There are records that point to the play’s performance at the Theatre, England’s first public theater (built in 1576), where members of London’s working class stood to watch the play, and only the actors and the wealthiest patrons had a roof over their heads.
Some scholars think that the play might first have been performed at a residence of the English nobility—possibly for a wedding celebration. If A Midsummer Night’s Dream was, in fact, performed for a private audience, then the production was likely quite different from one at the outdoor, public Theatre. When Shakespeare and his fellow actors staged a play for the nobility, they usually performed in a banquet hall, often as the after-dinner entertainment. Their audience might have remained seated at the table for the performance, and might even have been invited to join in the dance that Titania leads in the play’s last act.
Samuel Pepys (an avid theatergoer, whose personal diary survived into modern times, offering some of our earliest clues to Shakespeare’s plays in performance) saw a production on September 29, 1662 and wrote: “Then to the King’s Theater, where we saw Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.” Later in the Restoration period, there was a popular farcical skit performed, called “The Merry Conceited Humours of Bottom the Weaver,” the focus of which can be guessed from its title.
The play’s long operatic tradition began in 1692 with Thomas Betterton’s opera The Fairy Queen, which featured music by English Composer Henry Purcell. Betterton rearranged and cut Shakespeare’s text liberally and added a complete musical score. He cut Athens out of the play entirely and “modernized” much of Shakespeare’s speech. Betterton moved the play of “Pyramus and Thisbe” up into Act 3, before Bottom is changed into an ass. After Thisbe’s death, Puck scares away the players so that he can transform Bottom. Act 5 replaced a wedding and blessings by the fairies with a processional, including Juno in a peacock-pulled chariot, a Chinese garden, six monkeys on six moving pedestals, and six “China orange trees,” followed by a huge dance involving the whole cast. Other scenes were just as fantastic: following Act 3, two giant dragons made themselves into an arch that bridged a running river; through them the audience could see two swimming swans, which then turned into dancing fairies. Although the score was soon lost (and rediscovered in 1900), the production’s use of a musical score, elaborate set, and massive spectacle set a precedent for those that followed.
Frederic Reynolds’s 1816 production at Theatre Royal, Covent Gardens, epitomized these operatic spectacle productions. He filled his play with low comedy, songs, huge entrances, and other crowd-pleasers. He added a reassuring ending scene with a reconciliation between Egeus and Hermia, who begs her father’s forgiveness and receives in turn his consent to her marriage with Lysander. However, much of the young lovers’ other dialogue was cut, as well as Helena’s laments in Act 1. Reynolds followed Betterton’s lead and staged “Pyramus and Thisbe” in the forest, leaving Act 5 for a huge pageant of Theseus’s conquests; the program boasted the Cretans as well as the Athenians, the Amazons, the Centaurs, the Minotaur, Ariadne in the Labyrinth, the Mysterious Peplum or Veil of Minerva, the Ship Argos, and the Golden Fleece. The set was magnificent, too, with the playbill describing one scene: “Clouds, having ascended, the Sea is discovered. A Fairy Palace in the distance. Titania’s galley and other gallies in full sail. Dance, during which the Indian Boy is brought forward.” Many theatergoers loved the spectacle, the music and the dancing, but critic William Hazlitt wrote of the production: “All that is fine in the play is lost in the representation,” and called for an end to theater if it was to all be like this.
Fifty-two, gauze-clad ballerinas conjured up Shakespeare’s fairies when Madame Lucia Vestris performed the play at Covent Garden in 1840. They dressed in pure white gauze with white silk stockings, “darting from side to side, flying round and round, now here, now there, on the ground, in the air, waving their tiny lamps till the entire palace seems sparkling with the countless hues of light.” Playing Oberon herself, Vestris set the stage for many women who would play Oberon for years to come. She used new lighting techniques to create a moon that sank gradually throughout Act 3 and rose again as the sunrise while Bottom awakened. And Vestris was the first to use a new overture and complete score composed by Felix Mendelssohn, which has been used by many productions since; indeed, it has infiltrated our everyday life, as the “Wedding March” that accompanies many weddings to this day—“Here Comes the Bride.”
In 1914 Harley Granville-Barker changed the way audiences viewed A Midsummer Night’s Dream with his production at the Savoy Theatre in London. In a 1912 letter to the Daily Mail, he tossed aside Mendelssohn and a hundred years of spectacle and declared, “There is no Shakespearean tradition. We have the text to guide us, half a dozen stage directions, and that is all. I abide by the text and the demands of the text, and beyond that I claim freedom.” Granville-Barker valued Shakespeare’s poetry, used far less music, and made very few cuts to Shakespeare’s script. His set consisted of three simple, symbolic backdrops, which represented the court, the town and the woods with three different colors. Without huge processions or set pieces to move, the production was fast-paced and economical. Bottom and his friends were from the Warwickshire countryside and the dances were set to English folk music. Oberon and Puck’s roles were returned to adult male actors, and the stage returned to Shakespeare’s “apron-style” stage protruding out into the audience. It was Granville-Barker’s Eastern-inspired, gold-painted fairies, led by a Puck in a scarlet cloak and a wig with berries attached, that stunned and alarmed his audiences the most. Critics railed against the production and Granville-Barker never directed again, but the value of allowing Shakespeare’s text to shine had been demonstrated.
Dream has proved to be highly adaptable to more contemporary tastes as well. For example, in Swinging the Dream, created at the New York Center Theater at Rockefeller Center in 1939, the scene was New Orleans in the 1880s and the cast of 200 and three live bands were swinging to the sounds of jazz. Louis Armstrong played Bottom dressed as a fireman, the Dandridge Sisters played three of the fairies, Butterfly McQueen was Puck, and Benny Goodman’s big band joined them on stage. Maxine Sullivan as Titania performed sultry blues songs. The set was inspired by Disney, the forest was a “voodoo wood,” and Theseus’s palace was a Louisiana mayor’s summer mansion.
Throughout the years following Granville-Barker’s groundbreaking production, interpretations of A Dream grew darker and darker, focusing more on the play’s rampant sexuality and the scariness of the unfamiliar woods. The most influential of these performances came in 1970 when Peter Brook directed the play with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. Brook’s minimalist set consisted of no more than a three-sided, brilliantly lit white box. Brook wanted the amazement an audience feels at a magic show or circus to create the same awe that fairies might inspire. As he said in an interview, “Today we have no symbols that can conjure up fairy land and magic for a modern audience. [So] we’ve worked through a language of acrobats to find a new approach to magic.”
And indeed Brook had, as his actors were also circus performers, often on trapezes or running along the tops of the set’s walls. When Puck, wearing a yellow jumpsuit and blue skullcap, brought Oberon the flower, both were on trapezes. Carrying the flower on a spinning plate atop a thin transparent rod, Puck transferred plate and flower to a rod that Oberon carried. Bottom was both an ass and a circus clown with a big red nose. When Helena and Hermia fought, Hermia was lifted away into the air by another trapeze; while sleeping, the four lovers were suspended above the stage, floating. Brook inspired many other directors with his decision to double-cast Oberon and Theseus, Titania and Hippolyta, Puck and Philostrate, and Quince and Egeus. Sexual innuendo permeated the production. When Puck charmed Lysander, he awoke too quickly and grabbed Puck in the crotch. When Bottom was carried off to Titania’s bower, he was lifted onto the shoulders of fairies, a fisted hand protruding between his legs to represent a huge phallus.
Peter Brook’s production opened up a whole new way of looking at A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and recent productions continue to be influenced by and compared to his. Stagings over the past decade have continued to be wildly imaginative in design and boldly explicit in their sexual references.
Chicago’s Court Theatre in 1999 presented a frightening and dangerous vision of life in the wood. Strewn with fluffy green pillows, the forest floor looked like a giant bed to romp on. Puck wore tight leggings that left little to the imagination, and spent much of the play leering, groping, and even assaulting Titania’s barely clad fairies. It was a production that almost exclusively explored the darker, malevolent aspects of Shakespeare’s Dream.
Adrian Noble’s sex-filled interpretation at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1994 was another notable interpretation in this vein. Titania declared her love for Bottom while stroking his crotch with her foot; he later appeared outside her bower with his pants unzipped and his shirttail stuck through the opening, surrounded by leering fairies with phallic sticks between their legs. As he sent him to find the magic flower, Oberon kissed Puck full on the lips. Beyond its sexual explicitness, the production was visually striking and full of abstract symbols. The brilliantly colored set was a large red box, with yellow light bulbs hanging down from the ceiling. Four doors against the back wall provided a farcical chase scene for the arguing lovers, but later became locked against the fleeing Mechanicals. The players were double cast as Titania’s fairies and appeared at her bower, a giant, upside-down umbrella. Noble’s production was hugely popular and even featured Prince Charles on its program, declaring how much his children had enjoyed it. Critics of Noble who wanted something more theatrically radical railed against this popularity; somehow, it seems, even blatant sexuality and cynical, dark interpretations of the play had become passé.
Joe Dowling, who directed the full-length production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2000, had previously directed Dream at the Stratford Festival in Canada and at his own Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Dowling juxtaposed an uptight, fascist-like court, dressed in contemporary power suits (though Hippolyta’s was bright red, in contrast with the somber darkness of others) with a sexually-charged, brilliantly colored fairy world. Once the play moved from the severe corporate world of Theseus’s court, the stage was transformed, as a fantastical, abstract—and sexually suggestive—electric blue flower standing 18 feet tall and 24 feet wide took center stage. The scenic design by Hallinan Flood was strongly influenced by the paintings of medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch. Original songs and score by Keith Thomas—a combination of blues and 50s doo-wop with jazz and rock—created a production that was described by some as a “musical” or “rock concert.”
In 2004 the English director Tim Supple was commissioned by the British Council to create a touring show of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for India. Supple’s Dream combines the astonishing skills of 23 actors from across India and Sri Lanka—dancers, martial arts experts, musicians and street acrobats. This seminal production completed its North American tour at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2008. Performed in eight languages—half in English, half in the seven South Asian languages native to the actors, Supple sought to find a Dream that went beyond the clichés ingrained in the way we speak and hear Shakespeare. Among the stunning visual images conjured up by Supple’s Dream was a stage strung by Puck with elastic bands, in which the four young lovers become hopelessly entangled—as though caught in the fairies’ game of cat’s cradle—as they lose their sense of certainty in the woods. Supple saw in A Midsummer Night's Dream a play whose structure, story and characters naturally embrace the wide variety of performance traditions and cultures, which, in contrast to the West, create an affinity and understanding for the Dream—a tradition of arranged marriages, for example, along with the country’s extremes of class in society and a belief in the presence of the spirit world.
Reinhardt’s 1935 film
A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a long and varied film history, from the 30-minute animated shorts by HBO to Woody Allen’s adaptation, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Many movie directors have been inspired to make the play into film because it is so accessible to audiences and because video technology offers solutions to such technical challenges as the flight of fairies and turning Bottom into an ass. But film directors are still faced with many of the same questions as stage directors. They must decide what mood and interpretation they want to convey and then choose a design that reflects it. For example, in 1935, Max Reinhardt, who had staged several productions of the play, directed a film version with James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck. Reinhardt used hundreds of extras and spectacular effects to create hordes of fairies, performing lengthy ballets, flitting around the screen with haloes of sparkling lights. Very different were the muddy satyrs and earthy fairies of Michael Hoffman’s 1999 film, starring Michelle Pfieffer, Calista Flockhart and Kevin Kline, yet both directors used technology to create effects that could never be achieved on stage.
– Contributed by the CST Education Department
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