Oberon, what visions I have seen! Methought I was enamoured of an ass!
— Titania, Act IV, Sc 1
In the dark of the wood, under moonlight, at midnight, anything can happen. That’s the premise of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and what makes it one of the greatest comedies ever written. Aside from making my case as to why this is so, let me also point out a few interesting facts about midsummer, good vs. disastrous Shakespeare, and how Midsummer has been interpreted.
Midsummer is long days and languid nights; fireflies or sparklers glowing while the sound of crickets or frogs echo above dark green trees, thick with foliage. Midsummer is a time for foolery, which is the perfect time to watch a play, especially outdoors. Shakespeare in the Park is popular worldwide in New York and Paris but also in small towns and local venues. Summer solstice-y traditions are also popular whether it’s official Scandinavian holidays like Sankthansaften in Denmark or Juhannus in Finland or even our backyard barbecues. There’s drinking and feasting, sometimes a naked sprint or some skinnydipping, and when the sun finally sets, there’s might be a giant community bonfire. In the dark of the night, in front of a fire, in shadows and in light, anything can happen.
Magic and the Just Desserts for the Snobbish
Lovers enter a dark forest, filled with mischief makers and aphrodisiacs. Local actors prepare a play and, like in Waiting for Guffman, simple actors act simply. A fairy queen and king are at odds, interesting shadows to the real queen and king, also at odds. Why does A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s plot work so well? Three reasons:
2. A Comeuppance
3. Bad Acting
As J.K. Rowling well knows, magic goes with everything. But this isn’t your scary, scholarly, destroy-the-fabric-of-the-known-universe magic. These are fairies, known for mischief and practical jokes, and who doesn’t like fairies? Our chief fairy, Puck, is known chiefly for turning invisible, yanking milking stools out from under old ladies, conjuring fog, and squeezing love potion onto the eyes of sleeping twenty-somethings. Not exactly He Who Will Not Be Named stuff. Puck is a goofball; he even applies to the love potion to the wrong guy — it’s a comedy, of course he does! Besides Puck, the other fairies with curious name like Peaseblossom and Mustardseed have plenty of opportunity to act outrageous. In the performance I saw last week, they kept breaking into silly songs. Fairies should break into song. We should all break into song, as often as possible.
HELENA: Dead or asleep? I see no blood, no wound.—
Lysander, if you live, good sir, awake!
LYSANDER: (waking) And run through fire I will for thy sweet sake.
–Act II, Sc 2
The Comeuppance is probably the most satisfying plot device, and particularly effective in a comedy (in a drama, it’s usually handled as Vengeance). When a character is especially snobbish or annoying at the beginning, we love to see them brought low or made foolish. Helena is especially whiny at the outset, as both men are chasing after her best friend, Hermia. We want to be sympathetic but Shakespeare doesn’t write her that way. When Hermia’s fiance, Lysander, is mistakenly given the love potion and wakes to immediate infatuation of Helen instead, she is horrified and finds it further reason to whine, and we’re amused rather than sympathetic. It’s especially funny when he springs from sleep with a rhyme!
Even better is Queen Titania, falling (temporarily) in love with the actor, Bottom, after he has been given donkey ears by Puck. Yes, I know, I prefer Titania to Oberon, too, and I, too, would rather see Oberon brought low. The reason for the royal feud is specious and Titania has the better argument. But Queen of the Fairies, in love with an ass! For Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary last year, 5’1″ 81-year old Judi Dench played a scene with Titania to a Bottom about a foot taller, with her grand English accent, reaching up to caress his donkey ears. It was magnificent.
Scraping the Bottom
The engine that drives the bus of Midsummer is definitely Bottom the actor. Apparently, they had ham actors back in Shakespeare’s time. Come to think of it, Odysseus is rather a ham actor, too, so overacting is clearly thousands of years old. It always works. In the play, the local acting group wants to put on a show for the Duke, shades of American Idol. Strike it rich and get out of their nine-to-five jobs as tinkers and weavers. They are terribly earnest from Snug the Joiner, who must play the Lion and is scared he won’t remember his “lines,” to the bellows-mender Francis, who doesn’t want to play the girl’s role, and then dives in full force. But Bottom is the king of this company and first has to be talked out of playing ALL the roles, which he acts out for the audience with heaping gobs of mustard. Then, he’s crowned with the donkey head and has his love scene with the great queen. The actor’s choice — to bray, or not to bray? Last but not least, he becomes the love-smitten Pyramus in front of the Duke, dying with a suicide speech that lasts and lasts and lasts…
Thus I die. Thus, thus, thus.
Now I am dead,
Now I am fled,
My soul is in the sky.
Tongue, lose thy light.
Moon take thy flight.
Now die, die, die, die.
–BOTTOM, Act V, Sc. 1
Remember, Shakespeare wrote just those words, but the director and the actor can insert anything they want. The best Bottom will get up off the ground at least four or five times between the “Die” and the “Dead” to re-insert the sword until the entire audience is laughing and mumbling under their breath, “just die already.” Every local group has the biggest ham actor, and this is a part just made for him. For four hundred years, at least. I wonder what the Egyptian hieroglyphic is for bad acting?
Bad Shakespeare/Better Shakespeare
There is no bad way to present A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I wrote that sentence and then I remembered – the 1999 movie version with Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline is a true disaster. The movie poster, shown at the top of this post, is perfection. But the film doesn’t work, and it’s a great example of how to make Shakespeare not work. The sets are overdone. The fairies are contorted and over-costumed. Kevin Kline is known for outstanding work in Central Park renditions of Shakespeare, so he gives his Bottom the full welly, but he almost takes it too seriously. Stanley Tucci’s Puck is fun but they keep using cinematic tricks to make him small or disappear; Tucci is actually funnier in The Hunger Games. But there’s too much foolery, too much music, too much.
Another bad version of Midsummer is embedded in a Canadian TV show about Shakespeare called Slings and Arrows (see your local library). The bad rendition of the play is used to illustrate how low a particular director at this festival has sunk in presenting bloated Shakespeare. You can hardly see the actors among the stage draped with encrusted forestry. Lines are delivered and declaimed rather than spoken. Puck is played by a scheming young woman trying to sleep her way into stardom. She must; as an actress, she’s awful. There is bad Shakespeare.
Good Shakespeare is not really so hard. The key is to play it straight — reading the speeches as if they are prose rather than stilted lines — trying to convey meaning with conversational pauses and appropriate gestures to the audience. One of the jokes in Slings and Arrows has a movie star assigned to play Hamlet looking for a “dialect coach” to learn the Shakespearean dialect. You don’t need a Shakespearean accent and, in fact, it’s better if you don’t try to sound like Laurence Olivier or Judi Dench.
The tragedies depend on the actor to wring the emotion from the lines, but the comedies depend as much on the director to add funny business. Actors can jump into the audience, fool with props, and put pauses in the lines; Shakespeare doesn’t say you can’t. One of the funniest bits from last week’s version was when Demetrius — about to battle Lysander over Helena — took off his shirt. That particular actor was so scrawny that Shakespeare must have been smiling from his grave.
Overall, the presentation should be simple. Some of the best versions I’ve seen were literally in a park, next to the swingsets and the bocce layout. Once, the actors were interrupted by a family barbecue only thirty feet away, and we all had to stop to sing Happy Birthday before continuing so that the lines could be heard. The Midsummer in 2011 by an all women’s troop in Berkeley had the best Puck — a biker type — a cross between Marga Gomez and a Hell’s Angel, leather clad and smart-assed. Troublemaker!
Midsummer is one of the most frequently performed comedies. Here in the San Francisco area, you can usually see it performed at least once every other year, both on stage and in the park. I also counted at least four movie versions on IMDB and two more have cropped up in my research, including a 1968 version with Judi Dench doing her Titania painted green, looking like the Orion dancer on Star Trek. Wonder if I can find that at the library…
Don’t bother with the Michelle Pfeiffer version. You might find the Jimmy Cagney (bottom) and Mickey Rooney (Puck) version from 1935 more interesting. In color, the sets were probably overdone, but in black and white they seem muted and the staging is straightforward. Director Julie Taymor produced a version in 2015; her work is always intriguing, if sometimes controversial. There are two movies that use the “making of Midsummer” as a backdrop, one about Hermia and Helena, and another set in Newton after the Sandy Hook tragedies. Last but not least, a new movie version directed by Casey Wilder Mott was released just this past month at the LA Film Festival. Reviews were positive; we may see it coming to cinemas, or perhaps video, soon.
I’ve seen Midsummer now either seven or eight times, if memory serves, though memory these days is not serving as well as it used to. Last week’s local troop was staged in theater in the round at a winery. Puck was tall and goofy, playing straight to kids in the seats; Bottom wore an orange wig and bellowed most outrageously. Before that, there was my punk Puck, and a gymnastic Puck played in another park, one in Detroit where the cast was all in sweatsuits, and the earliest in Canada with Maggie Smith as Titania. After the third time, I thought that was enough, but I was wrong. Now, it gets better. Now, Midsummer is like a cover of a great song. Everyone has a version of Summertime or Natural Woman. Every rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody is fun.
And what will they do with the fairies? Fairies in sweat pants? I’ve seen silly fairies, singing fairies, steampunk fairies, angry fairies, little kids as fairies, dancing fairies. What’s left? I’d love to see robot fairies — how about that? Alexa, anoint the eyes of that fellow with purple juice… and conjure a fog, while you’re at it.
If you haven’t viewed the play recently, give it a chance, and check your local listings — Midsummer might be playing somewhere and you just don’t know it. Or better yet… get a copy of the play from the internet or a library. Sit out on the patio with some friends at dusk with a glass of refreshment and let the first volunteer play Bottom. Just read Act I Scene 2 or Act III Scene 1, and take a drink every time someone says “audience” or “ladies.” Soon after, quick bright things will come to confusion.
As the bard would have wanted.