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"What Do I Do Now?" Directing A Midsummer
Night's Dream

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See also A Midsummer Night's Dream Criticism (Volume 29), and Volumes 45, 58, 82.

Sidney Homann, University of Florida

"What do I do now?" my Hippolyta asked me, the first day of rehearsals for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream I was directing for the Florida Theatre.1 "After those first four lines, I've got nothing until act 4—and that's after intermission. So, do I just stand there like an idiot while Theseus talks to Hermia? Waiting around for my exit?" She was right about the lines—as far as the character of Hippolyta was concerned—for, like any actor, the moment she got her part and was handed the script she had highlighted Hippolyta's lines and knew that they were precious few Besides 1.1. and 4.1 (the conversation with Theseus about hunting dogs), there is Hippolyta's observation at the start of the last act (" 'Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of) that sends Theseus into a twenty-one-line harangue against poets, lovers, and madmen, after which she contends that, nevertheless, their stories "grow to great constancy," until the lovers' arrival halts the debate. Finally, during the performance of Pyramus and Thisby Hippolyta makes a few cynical observations about the actors before retiring to consummate the marriage.

Actually, my Hippolyta had more lines than this, for, like many other modern directors, I had doubled her part with Titania's—and, for good measure, doubled those of Theseus and Oberon, and old Egeus and Puck. This was part of a larger reading of the play, the "director's concept," that underscores the irony of Theseus, who has no sympathy for anything beyond the pale of his Athenian reason, having a doppel-gänger in the King of the Fairies. Hippolyta's problems with the Duke echo on a cosmic scale the quarrel Titania has with Oberon. Like the doubling, that concept suggested that the play itself, our own imaginative collaboration with the playwright, whether as actor, director, or audience, unites the seeming opposites of its comic world: court / forest, left brain / right brain, reason / imagination, male / female, reality / illusion, homo sapiens / homo ludens. Peter Brook, to be sure, was just over my shoulder here.

So my Hippolyta was not confined to Hippolyta's lines, and her small part in that opening scene notwithstanding, she would appear moments later in 2.1, charging Oberon with unfound jealousies and swearing to forswear "his bed and company" (62). Still, my experience has been that actors, even when playing double roles, focus on the character at hand, on how to make him or her live and breathe, to be something each moment. Valuable to set and lighting designers and to the costumer, the director's concept—that larger reading of the play most resembling the sweeping, after-the-fact interpretations of Shakespeareans—may be a subject for conversation in some Brechtian discussion with the cast after rehearsals, but it is generally avoided by actors. As an actor-friend, who is also a fine Shakespearean scholar, once told me, "When I'm onstage, I'm just trying to make it to the next line. To win the moment both as a character, with a distinct view of the situation, and as an actor aware of the audience just offstage."


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"What should you do?" I asked.

"Yeah, you've got me downstage-left with Theseus, the court upstage, and here comes five new characters, with a complaint that Theseus has to solve—and I've got nothing else to say."

"We'll find the motivation to move you in those opening lines."

I had, of course, my own reading of that ten-line interchange between Theseus and Hippolyta, yet I knew enough to wait for my Theseus and Hippolyta, to see what they would come up with. Now, I must admit at the first read-through with the cast to having colored their approach to some degree by a series of questions I had raised. Hippolyta has been a queen, leader of a band of warrior women in Brazil, bonding with her sisters and not needing the company of men. Theseus brings her back to Athens as his Duchess, but the decision was his, not hers: "Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love, doing thee injuries" (1.1.16-17). How does she feel about this? For her, is going to Athens a step up—or down?

Hippolyta empathizes with the lovers, finding their story "strange" (as in "wondrous"). Theseus feels the need to correct her; his "strange" means "absurd" or "irrational." But after his harangue, she still finds the story "admirable," and while he dismisses the lovers' accounts of the night, all of which agree, despite the fantastic events of which they tell, she insists that the combined stories grow "to something of great constancy" (5.1.1-27). If she agrees with his sense of "strange," she quickly adds her own "admirable." The conversation—debate? would we want to hear more of it? could Theseus stand anymore?—is abruptly halted with the entry of the lovers. So, how harmonious is this couple? To what degree is Hippolyta arguing with, resisting Theseus and his view of what is real or rational? And, more important, if she is resisting, then why?

In act 4 she recalls hunting in the woods of Crete with Hercules and Cadmus, "with hounds of Sparta." Theseus has just proposed to go to the mountaintop and there listen to his own dogs barking in the valley below, their sound one of "musical confusion" (4.1.112-30). With the anticipated consummation on his mind—indeed, on his mind for four days now—Theseus sees the outing as a way to pass the time. But might it also be taken as self-congratulatory? He is proud of having picked his brace of dogs with care, their distinct barks forming a perfect chord on the scale, a chord to be amplified by the echoing hills. He may take Hippolyta's reference to Hercules and Cadmus as name-dropping, her pointed reference to Sparta—famous for its hounds—as competitive. Quick to assert that his hounds are also "bred out of the Spartan kind," he goes on to brag of how low to the ground they run, right on the scent, how they are powerfully built like Thessalian bulls, careful or dogged in pursuit ("slow"). He even expands on the quality of their barking: they are "matched in mouth like bells," and no cry "more tunable" has ever been heard "in Crete, in Sparta, or in Thessaly."

To make this passage something more than scene-painting, or references to hunting that will drive the editor into copious footnotes, to make the passage live onstage, actors will need to find the characters' objects here, their motivations. What are they after? Could it be that Theseus and Hippolyta have two very different objects? Perhaps she relishes her past, life before Theseus came to Brazil, that time when the dogs' barking seemed to link "the groves, / The skies, the fountains, every region near" (118-21) so that nature itself became "all one mutual cry," a moment when opposites were united: "So musical a discord, such sweet thunder."

In effect, here Hippolyta seems at one with the play itself, where dichotomy gives way to unity, where opposites dissolve. For a time the lowly Bottom becomes a fairy queen's lover; youthful, irrational lovers have a mystical experience denied more sober, rational adults like Theseus. And a potential Romeo and Juliet (Hermia = Juliet = Thisby; Lysander = Romeo = Pyramus; Old Egeus = Old Capulet) is at once saved by a comic ending in which three couples are married even as it dissolves into an unintentionally funny, poorly acted melodrama staged before the Duke. Theseus' object, again, may be that of asserting his status as a hunter, as a man, annoyed as he is when a woman he has conquered brings up her own days as a huntress. His dogs attest his status. How solid, therefore, is the union of Theseus and Hippolyta? To be sure, Hippolyta is on his turf; yet how cowed is she? As with the debate about the stories in the final scene, the conversation here is aborted when Theseus spies the sleeping Athenians.

How does Theseus view women? Hippolyta? Does he think she "owes" him something for the decision to marry, rather than execute her in Brazil? Does she have any reservations about being here, about giving up her former life?


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Not so much armed with these questions as being willing to entertain them, the three of us (two actors and a director), after an hour or so of "table work" (or discussion before taking the stage), decided to try—for rehearsals are periods of experimentation, as signaled by the well-worn phrase "the rehearsal process"—the following objectives in the play's opening moment.

Theseus is dying to consummate the marriage; his first word "Now" rides a subtext something like: "I want you now, not four days from now. I deserve your body; you owe me that much for 1 could have left you dead in Brazil." He alternates between exposing his private desires and being socially discrete. So, one second the sexual act he yearns for is euphemized as a "nuptial hour," the next as a slow horse drawing on "apace." The moon—feminine, the goddess of chastity, Hippolyta's former symbol—bears the brunt of his anger born out of frustration: while four "happy days" will bring in the new moon of the marriage night, the fact is that tonight's moon wanes too slowly. The mutual "nuptial act" of the first line shrinks to "my desires," as if only Theseus' own sexual satisfaction were now at issue. Most telling is the clumsy metaphor with which he describes his condition. He is the young man, living with a maiden aunt, waiting for the old lady to die so he can collect his inheritance, yet she goes on living and living, and with each passing day uses up the money he thinks rightfully his for having endured life with a "stepdame, or a dowager."

A director-friend wryly observes, "Any actor can say lines. The real test is what to do onstage when you aren't speaking." As Theseus speaks, Hippolyta—at least in our construction of the moment, with the caveat that our option is just one of many—thinks to herself subtextually: "I gave up Brazil for this? This isn't that handsome would-be conqueror-turned-lover who swept me off my feet. Here's a self-centered MCP, concerned about his glands, his sexual satisfaction. As if 1 didn't exist! As if I, a woman, had no desires, no needs of my own! Well, I can't go back to Brazil. Here's a world where males have all the power. I'm a survivor. I'm stuck here. Let's see what I can do to soften this self-absorbed lover."

As we staged it, Hippolyta moved toward Theseus with "Four days will quickly steep themselves in night," saying, in effect: "It's only four days, not twelve, not twenty, and so the time will pass relatively quickly for both of us. Don't forget, it's four days for me as well." She gets no response from Theseus, even though she appeals to his accountant's mentality with "four days." Self-centered, Theseus has turned away from her on "young man's revenue." His visual, gestural subtext is a crude, petulant one: "If I have to wait too much longer, if these four days continue to pass so slowly, to draw on 'apace,' I'll become old with frustration, withered, impotent." The fact is that Hippolyta also looks forward to the consummation or—to be more accurate—was looking forward to it, yet her first concern here is Theseus. She ups the stakes, this time putting a consoling, almost maternal hand on his shoulder as she doubles her reassurance to him: "Four nights will quickly dream away the time." But Theseus is not to be consoled, and, somewhat irritated by him, in part giving up, she crosses downstage-right to find some space of her own, as she unleashes her own metaphor of the sexual act, as expansive, as beautiful, as "poetic" as Theseus' was constrictive, mundane, "un-poetic." For Hippolyta, the wished-for wedding night is not something owed, or her right, but, as she returns to her roots as a huntress, one where the male is the silver bow, bent and about to discharge, the consummation (their "solemnities") taking place under the moon's watchful eye.

Does he hear her own erotic hymn to the marriage night? Does she even care at this point? All that we know is that Theseus, rather than responding to her, barks out orders to Philostrate. My Theseus linked the moon and, by implication, Hippolyta's serene, cosmic picture with melancholy. He'll have none of this "pale companion," but wants, instead, a public celebration. Thinking Hippolyta is still at his side, not having noticed that she had left his presence after he rejected her attempts to console him, he turns around, expecting to find her on his right. She, instead, has now strolled to far downstage-right, with the results that his "I wooed thee . . . with reveling," spoken over a void, lacks intimacy. My Theseus added the following subtext to his paradox of war's turning to love, the initial plan to do "injuries" to a wedding "in another key": "I'm not sure just why you left my side. Is something bothering you? I can't imagine what. Surely, I've done nothing. If anything, you owe me your constant presence. I'll have to handle this later because here come Egeus and the lovers—I know he's going to insist that I support Demetrius for Hermia's hand."

Thus, by working with the two actors, by allowing them to establish this dark cloud in the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta, one that would not dissolve until four days later when, Theseus' anxieties gone, they could enjoy a play together before going to bed, we had found the motivation for Hippolyta's cross, getting her out of the way in time for Egeus' angry entrance. She would have no more lines—that is true—but now, in her own "space" downstage-right, she could observe Theseus, assess him, sympathizing with her "sister" Hermia, as Theseus, supporting her crabbed father, delivers the ultimatum: either marry the man of your father's choice, or be sent to a nunnery or—worse yet—your death. Careful not to upstage the actors to her left, she could still "speak" with her face, her posture, a slight gesture or two. Her expressions implied: "So this is what Athens is like, this world where males have all the power? From what I see, Helena looks like a perfectly fine woman. (Hippolyta would even exchange glances with both Helena and Hermia.) Why would Demetrius reject her? Lysander and Demetrius look like generic, eligible young men, handsome, intelligent, equal in every way. Why can't Egeus be content with Lysander?"

With his frail body plagued by arthritis, unsteady on his feet, our Egeus brought onstage an enormous large black law book, so large that it dwarfed him and he had great difficult carrying it. On "And, my gracious Duke" (38), he managed to unload the volume on Theseus, who later, on "Either to die the death, or to abjure" (65), turned to the specific section where these harsh edicts were inscribed. I suggested that halfway through the conversation between the Duke and Hermia, Hippolyta cross to stage-left and, while the Duke was talking to Hermia on the left, take the volume from him, crossing back with it to her downstage-right position. She chose Theseus' "For disobedience to your father's will" (87) for that cross. Absorbed in his conversation with Hermia, Theseus could still feel her lift the book from his right arm, would catch her in the periphery of his eye and, distracted by Hippolyta, falter a bit on his next line. His subtext here was something like: "I'm not sure why you interrupted me the middle of my talk with Hermia. Why would you, a woman, want to look at a law book? Well, I can't deal with this now; we'll talk about it later—in private." As our stage manager suggested, Theseus has something of the E. F. Hutton mentality: when he speaks, everyone listens. Now back in her space downstage-right, Hippolyta could thumb through the law book, reading there a confirmation of her suspicions about Theseus' supposedly brave new world. Every once in awhile she would look up from her reading, sympathizing with her sisters, feeling for Lysander, looking contemptuously at Egeus and Demetrius, and—most certainly—showing increasing doubts about the man who, at the top of the scene, had reminded her of the consummation four days away.

One day in rehearsal Hippolyta accidentally slammed the law book shut on Theseus' "Or else the law of Athens yields you up" (119), making a sound that, given the size of the book, boomed across the stage. Startled, the actor playing Theseus looked in her direction, and I promptly suggested that he deliver the next line to Hippolyta (they were twenty-five feet apart): "Which by no means we may extenuate." With the line said to Hippolyta rather than Hermia, Theseus' subtext was: "Why did you slam that book, right in the middle of my speech? Why did you take it in the first place? Don't you understand that I'm just doing my job. 1 can't ignore or water down ('extenuate') the law. I'm the Duke. It's my job to enforce the laws in that book you're reading. What I personally think about the law is not relevant. We'll speak about this later."

He crossed stage-right to Hippolyta on "Come, my Hippolyta" (122); his line to her, "What cheer, my love?" had the modern sense of: "Why so glum? Why out of spirits?" After his final four lines, where he promises to confer with Egeus and Demetrius on "something nearly that concerns" them, Theseus, facing upstage with his profile to stage-right, offered his left arm to Hippolyta, his eyes saying: "It's time to go, and I need to discuss this strange behavior of yours as soon as we are in private quarters." Turning toward him, her profile to stage-left, Hippolyta, instead of linking her arm with his as he expected, put the law book in Theseus' left hand, the action speaking loudly: "Snuggle up with that tonight, honey." He glared at her, angry that she was embarrassing him in front of the courtiers, who were now whispering among themselves on stage-left. Then she glanced down at whatever women were in the front row's audience left—we added this Brechtian touch the second week of rehearsals—as if addressing them: "Sisters, this male will wait an eternity for me until I give him my right arm [Theseus had since passed the book to his right arm and was conspicuously holding his left arm open in invitation]. What do you think I should do? What would you do, if you were I?" Then, much to Theseus' relief but, by the delay, asserting her integrity and such power as a woman could have in this-patriarchal world, she gave him her arm so they could exit.


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Not coming out of a vacuum, still, my actress's "What do I do now?" had been the first in a chain of events, options, experiments that, taken together, pushed our A Midsummer Night's Dream toward a feminist concept, or statement (in critical terms). Here the women, especially Hippolyta and Titania, were at the play's imaginative center, able to entertain the idea of a world beginning with but expanding far beyond Athens, a world where dichotomies of the genders, of reason and imagination, reality and illusion, were dissolved. Earlier scholarship on the play had stressed the conflict between reason and passion. It saw the play as a debate, the rational Theseus as the center of value, Bottom with his ass's head representing the absurd depth to which man sinks when he abandons Athens.2 In the 1960s Jan Kott would challenge that judgment: Athens and Theseus are the establishment, a constraint on our imagination; the trip into the forest, far from being a step down, as earlier readings would hold, is a step up. For Kott, Theseus' kingdom represents the "censorship of the day," the forest "the erotic madness liberated by night."3 There, in the darkness, however fleeting on this summer solstice, men and women discover their true selves. Without negating either of these readings, our production offered another option—just another option and nothing more: a single, expansive world, embracing dichotomies, constructed of both reason and the imagination, merging them into a whole greater than the sum of its two parts.

But I stress, again, that word "option," for the theater as I see it, does not argue, let alone prove; it explores, tests out possibilities, stages and includes rather than argues against or excludes. Even as Shakespeare played on such sources as he had for A Midsummer Night's Dream, the director and actors play on Shakespeare, and their performance is in turn played out before an audience, who come to it with their own agendas, their own needs and idiosyncrasies.4

The option we had chosen shaped the rest of the production. That area downstage-right soon became a "woman's place," a retreat from the male world, an area of imagination or introspection occupied only by the women. With its own special lighting, no male in the cast was allowed to occupy it.


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Given the doubling, the tension between Theseus and Hippolyta, as we had staged it in the opening scene, returned in 2.1 as the quarrel over the changeling boy between Oberon and Titania (118-43). His three and a half lines demanding that she hand over the boy offer the actor, if not the scholar, a wonderful 'challenge. Oberon's strategy here changes from demanding the boy for no other reason than that women, in his view, do whatever men tell them to do ("Do you amend it, then; it lies in you"), to a rather childish question expressing his shock that a woman would behave so unwomanly ("Why should Titania cross her Oberon?"), to what must seem to Oberon a compromising of his demand with a justification: he isn't asking for the moon but only for "a little changeling boy." Like his other half, Theseus, Oberon speaks here with the posture of male superiority, but he cannot know how much, and why, Titania values the changeling boy. her "Set your heart at rest" had something of the blue-collar television character Archie Bunker's "Stifle it!" With "The fairy land buys not the child of me" our Titania rose and started to cross to that woman's spot downstage-right. As she did, we took the lights off Oberon center-stage, so that the ensuing speech became something of a soliloquy, an introspective moment Titania shared directly with the audience, especially any women on audience-left. She would not cross back to Oberon—nor would full stage lighting return—until the speech's coda: "And for her sake do I rear up her boy, / And for her sake I will not part with him." The equation she makes between a ship, its hold full of cargo, its sails puffed out by "the wanton wind" looking like a pregnant woman, with a pregnant woman who resembles a ship "rich with merchandise" was at one with that union of seeming dichotomies informing our production, from the doubling of roles to the questions raised in Theseus' character about the limits of reason and the significance of the imagination. Like that of Hippolyta in 4.1, Titania's vision is one of union, "all one mutual cry," as the inanimate ship is linked with the doubly animate pregnant woman. No less, Titania recalls an exquisite moment when two women bonded, one mortal and heavy with child, the other supernatural. The changeling boy is the sign of that bonding, and, Titania's explanation completed, Oberon's reply must be, for her, tawdry and grating: "How long within this wood intend you stay?" A businessman, like Theseus with his "young man's revenue," Oberon focuses only on schedules and time allotment! He has heard nothing she has said; little wonder that he cannot understand the boy's true value and meaning.


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"A court scene at the start and the end, surrounding the main set in the forest"—this was the set designer's pithy assessment of his task. And he was right. In our production, the play began in a rigid, unimaginative male world, where cranky fathers, backed up by authority figures who, being lovers as well, ought to know better, control their daughters—a revisiting of Romeo and Juliet, which Shakespeare's company was possibly performing around the same time (1595). The intervening forest world, what Helen Gardner would call "a green world,"5 is neither male nor female but one of dissolutions and mergings, fluidity, rich confusion, a world that Bottom struggles to recall and in his failure recalls eloquently, however unintentionally: an indistinct place, a dream "past the wit of man to say what dream it was," where eyes can hear and ears see, a place profound "because it hath no. bottom" (4.1.298-309). It is, above all, a world where opposites, antitheses, categories, hierarchies—all are abolished: the lowly, half-ass Bottom is loved by the Queen of the Fairies; the rejected Helena is for a time pursued by two men; compounds such as Peaseblossom and Mustardseed take animate form while humans in turn are reduced to a kind of arithmetic where "two of both kind makes up four" (3.2.438). It can be a magical world for men as well as for women, or rather for the man who, recognizing the "woman" in him, celebrates his own feelings and intuition, and even the irrational—a world for the male lover that Theseus himself is, when he isn't playing the patriarchal tyrant. Appropriately, Bottom, who gains entrance to this world, specializes, as he tells us, in playing both lovers and tyrants—though his preference is for the tyrant.

When the court world returns in the final act, it too is changed, transformed by our mutual journey—whether we be actor, character, or audience—through that intervening forest world. Our lighting designer signaled the change with a subdued, more suggestive atmosphere, as did the costume designer who replaced the sterile, Star Trek-like uniforms of the opening scene with multicolored, softer evening attire.

In 4.1 Egeus demands "The law, the law upon [Lysander's] head" for having robbed Demetrius of a bride and himself of the right to dispose of his daughter (4.1.157-62). But it is a gentler, kinder Theseus who now dismisses the old man, whose character has not changed, with a simple, "Egeus, I will overbear your will." Theseus, and Hippolyta no less, can be cynical and condescending about the actor's performance, yet the Duke has also mellowed somewhat, suggesting that "If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men" (5.1.216-17). His anxieties of four days ago replaced by thoughts of the imminent consummation, concerns with his own needs or more serious matters now diverted by the amateur production, Theseus is—in a phrase—more human, less the tyrant who earlier could not extenuate the laws of Athens. Now he is just another lover, one among five lovers, watching a poorly staged play about tragic lovers that reminds us, if not its onstage aristocratic audience, of the Romeo and Juliet that A Midsummer Night's Dream would have become if it had not been for the forest. Theseus' other half, Oberon, has also reconciled with his Titania; the initial source of their contention, the changeling boy, is now his, without any explanation from playwright or character. In that final scene our Hippolyta had no problem with her lines or with her stage position. There would be no quarrelsome old men or frustrated lovers to rush on and upstage her. In her own words, "I like Theseus a little better in the final act."

I did give her one unvoiced "line" in the closing moments. Holding what well may be "Bottom's Dream," the epilogue, as told to Quince, he promised to deliver at Thisby's death "peradventure to make it the more gracious" (4.1.221-22), Bottom steps out of his role as Pyramus to ask the Duke if he would like "to see the epilogue" (again, as in 4.1, confusing eyes and ears). Eager to get to bed, joking with his fellow aristocrats about the wretched performance that is beyond excuse—though the thick-witted Bottom takes the barbs as compliments—Theseus has no time for an epilogue. Then, he suddenly reverses himself by taking Bottom's second choice, a Bergomask dance. Why, we asked, would he do this? After all, he is eager to consummate the marriage, has been eager for four days, and the dance will take at least as much time as an epilogue. The Duke, once again, is being selfish. In our production, Hippolyta, noticing how eager Bottom is to honor theatrical tradition by adding an epilogue or a dance, as a sort of aesthetic "chaser" to the performance, crossed to her husband. More sensitive to the feelings of others than the Duke, however mellow he may be at this point, Hippolyta whispered something in her husband's ear, to the effect: "Look at that poor man. He wants to add something. Be kind. If you don't want the epilogue, at least let him dance." Eager to please his wife, acknowledging this small display of her power or rights, he concedes, first asking for the Bergomask and then, saving face, adding "Let your epilogue alone."

Perhaps a hopeful sign that Hippolyta will continue to assert herself, is in scenes beyond what Shakespeare has given us? Still, it is unfortunate that Theseus declined the epilogue, because if it did chart Bottom's "translation" in the forest and if—a big "if" here—Theseus were attentive and willing to consider its message, then he would have heard—or, rather, "seen"—an account of that larger imaginative reality, dwarfing his own Athens, which would have radically altered his attitude toward everything from reason to the imagination. But this is to speak of a play we do not have. It is enough that Theseus, perhaps at his wife's urging (the option chosen in our production), is willing for a few minutes to forego his own pleasure, his desires that have been "lingered" since the opening scene, to watch a dance by actors—fellow actors, if he only knew the truth of his own imaginative reality.


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My actress's "What do I do now?" came back to haunt me in the staging of Pyramus and Thisby. This time I was the one delivering that line, and yet once again a seeming problem became a challenge that, in turn, both affected and was at one with the concept of the production. The producer had told us in no uncertain terms that hc could afford only eight Equity actors for the production. "You'll have to double or eliminate parts, or do whatever you can—just keep it to eight." This was fine with me since I had wanted to show the rational Theseus' other, magical side in Oberon, as well as the irony of having a single actor play both the imaginative Puck and that legalist Egeus, who can think of no other reason for Hermia's choice than Lysander's having bewitched "her fantasy" with everything from "feigning voice" to "knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats, [and] messengers" (1.1.28-34).

Besides, doubling Hippolyta and Titania would give focus to the feminist motif of the production. In a larger sense, doubling would call attention to the play's insistent metadramatics that underscored multiple role-playing, the limits of realism and the virtues of imagination, and the presence of the stage (even if it be parodied in the Quince-Bottom production). In the final scene we watch Puck and Oberon watch Theseus and his court watch a wretched production of Pyramus and Thisby. Secure in his realism, condescending to attend a stage performance that for him serves only "to ease the anguish of a torturing hour" (5.1.37), Theseus cannot know that he himself owes his life to the theater.6 Like Bottom's confusion of the five senses, the rustics' inability to separate stage and reality—they fear the ladies will confuse Snug with a real lion, and they bring on a character to designate moonshine as an aid to the audience's imagination—is also a virtue, when compared to Theseus' own rigid distinction between the two.

Only Bottom (Pyramus in the inner-play) could not effectively be doubled with any other character. However, besides the doubling of Theseus and Oberon, Hippolyta and Titania, Egeus would be Puck and Snug (Lion in the inner-play); Lysander, Flute (Thisby in the inner-play) and Cobweb; Hermia, Robin Starveling (Moonshine in the inner-play); Helena, Tom Snout (Wall in the inner-play) and Mustardseed; and Demetrius, Quince (Prologue in the inner-play). We deleted Moth and gave Philostrate's lines to Egeus in the final scene.7 We could not afford the luxury of "Other Fairies attending their King and Queen" or "Attendants on Theseus and Hippolyta." To stress the multiple role playing, and the larger fact, as Bert O. States suggests,8 that an audience responds both to the story and its enactment, both to theme and the actor's craft, we made little attempt to disguise characters. Indeed, when Theseus came onstage shortly after Oberon's exit in 4.1, Oberon simply froze in position, without leaving the stage, while a stagehand brought in the "Theseus robe," which was then, in full view of the audience, exchanged for the "Oberon robe."

In the final scene there were only Theseus and Hippolyta to constitute the onstage audience, since Hermia, Helena, Lysander, Demetrius, and Egeus would join Bottom in Pyramus and Thisby. Curiously, Hermia and Helena have no lines in this scene; I reassigned those of Lysander and Demetrius to that "audience" of two. Egeus (or Philostrate) makes no commentary during the performance. To preserve some sense of illusion, we had planned to have Egeus (assuming Philostrate's lines) exit with Theseus' "Go, bring them in; and take your places, ladies" (84). He would not return; we deleted Philostrate's line on his re-entrance, "So please your Grace, the Prologue is addressed" (106), and changed Theseus' "Let him approach" to "I see the Prologue approaches." This, of course, allowed Egeus to go backstage and change into Snug's Lion costume. Demetrius stood close to the upstage-right exit and during Theseus' long speech before the Prologue enters ("The kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing" [106]), he would exit and change into Quince's Prologue costume. As he emerged from stage-left for his "If we offend, it is with our good will" (108), stage-right would be darkened, allowing Hermia, Helena, and Lysander to exit unseen, change into the costumes of Moonshine, Wall, and Thisby, and be ready, with time to spare, for their stage-left entrances. (I should add that since Snug, doubled with Puck, has no lines in the rehearsal scene, which Puck interrupts, I simply did not bring him onstage in 3.1.) At the end of Pyramus and Thisby, Theseus and Hippolyta could cross to the lit stage-left side for his "No epilogue, I pray you" (including her "whispered" line that he should at least let the actors do a Bergomask dance). His call to the other two couples ("Sweet friends, to bed" [307]) would only imply that Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius, and Helena were still on stage-right. Theseus and Hippolyta would exist stage-left, as did the actors after the Bergomask dance, with Snug's (formerly Egeus) having just enough time to change into his Puck costume and re-emerge stage-right for "Now the hungry lion roars" (373). That speech would in turn allow Theseus and Hippolyta to be recostumed as Oberon and Titania, with Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Cobweb returning for the "song and dance" promised by the now united King and Queen of the fairies.

In a production eschewing illusion or, conversely, calling attention to the art of the theater through its obvious doubling, our one moment of illusion here in the final scene depended, therefore, on darkening stage-right to the degree that two actors would be able to represent an audience of seven. The darkened stage was also essential since, with the exception of the "hunting scene" (4.1), here within a single scene actors would need to make unseen exits as one character and visible entrances as another.

We had rehearsed for four weeks in a hall some blocks from the Florida Theatre; because of other productions, we would not be able to rehearse on its stage until three days before opening night. The lighting director had been assured that the facilities were "top-notch," the board itself "almost state-of-the-art." The day we moved to the main stage, however, he told us the bad news. Mounted on the high ceiling above the house were five lights, relics of the theater's vaudeville days, that were essential for our basic stage lighting but which could not be adjusted during a production so that half the stage would be dark. Given the lights' primitive state, it was all or nothing with them. The real audience would therefore be able to see that our onstage audience excluded the four young lovers and Egeus; nor would darkness conceal their exits to reappear in Pyramus and Thisby. Our one attempt at full-blown illusion—"stage magic," to invoke the cliché—was doomed.

Having launched our voyage now rich with theatrical "discoveries"—a word dear to actors and directors, signaling that moment when some combination of thought, emotion, accident, and necessity suggests a new slant on a character or the delivery of a line—our Hippolyta came to the rescue. "You know, we haven't done much to pull the wool over their [the audience's] eyes; why worry now?" She was right. Not trying to use costumes as a disguise, rejoicing in multiple roleplaying, celebrating that blurred line between onstage and off, allowing actors to address the audience directly in that special "woman's spot" downstage-right—hadn't we been doing everything possible to include the audience in the production, to make them collaborators in such illusion as our meager stage and small cast could afford? Why worry now? Why not ask the audience to make the ultimate in imaginative collaborations with the actor and director—to believe in an invisible audience (shades of Ionesco's The Chairs!), to "allow" five actors to change characters before their eyes?

Therefore, we would not darken stage-right—a conscious decision that usurped whatever necessity had forced on us. The actors would not go backstage to change into rustic actors; instead, they would cross to stage-left and change costumes in full view of the audience. After all, we had set a precedent in the onstage costume changes of Oberon/Theseus and Titania/Hippolyta in 4.1.

Denying the illusion of an aristocratic audience watching a production by their social inferiors would, paradoxically, only underscore the potency of the theater. What we know is an illusion, a fraud, is still significant, for the change from frustrated to requited love is a wished-for event in our own reality, where patriarchs, a rigid legal system, or conflicts between reason and the heart are all too common. Confessing the patent unreality of the stage, as we would be doing, only made of it an "honest woman" or "man." The titles of Shakespeare's plays themselves beg us to dismiss them as of no or little consequence, a mere Midsummer Night's Dream, something As You Like It or What You Will little more than a Winter's Tale told by the fire. For Genet, such theatrical honesty distinguishes the stage from life; for the latter, which is nothing but role playing, mistakenly assumes that it is real and thereby superior to the theater.9 The confession of illusion is inseparable from the theater's celebration of its own significance, for the stage characters have been enacted by fellow humans, with their own life stories, needs, and desires. Taking place in space and time, the production is witnessed, ratified by fellow humans in the house, occupying precisely that same space and time. In this sense, the theater is the most real, the most tangible and literal of the arts. However impoverished, Pyramus and Thisby only reminds us of what would have been the lovers' fate—what is often our own fate—in a world without dreams, where there is no forest of transformation or potentiality. Theater itself is a two-way process, where the audience as well as the actor have a vital role. Or, as I tell my own actors, to be onstage speaking lines with no audience in the house is to be in rehearsal only, not in a production. Their presence validates ours; the ascription works both ways.

By design, by necessity, we had asked the audience to assist us in the production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Onstage, humans had acknowledged the presence of fellow humans offstage. Now, with an audience in the house watching an audience onstage watch a performance, we were pushing that collaboration to the limits. I believe it worked. Or, as one audience member said to me, "Watching that actor who played Demetrius rush across that stage and become Quince . . . well, you know, you made me feel that we were all in it together. If you were willing to make believe, so were we." Another audience member put it more succinctly: "I felt that I was a part of the performance."

"What do I do now?" The actress's question, for me, describes the mutual role of actor and audience. For the actor portrays a character who, not knowing the story, must live and breathe line by line, can know only the "now" as he or she pushes his or her object through dialogue with fellow characters. Likewise, the audience, even if they know the story, know how the play turns out, nevertheless abandon such omniscience—at least, in a production that captures their interest—and respond beat by beat with that illusory character onstage who, a fraud, mere words, words, words, reminds them of and, in a more profound way, represents themselves. I have asked myself that same question—"What do I do now?"—in all of the plays, Shakespearean and otherwise, I have directed since A Midsummer Night's Dream.


1A Midsummer Night's Dream was produced by the Fable Factory in Gainesville, Florida, in February 1985. By a lucky coincidence I also co-directed a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Hippodrome State Theatre the next month, and thus had the experience of being involved with two plays which, most likely, Shakespeare's own company had staged—perhaps back to back—in 1595. The text for A Midsummer Night's Dream is edited by Wolfgang Clemen in The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, gen. ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt, 1972).

2 For studies celebrating Theseus and his reason over the imaginative forest see Paul Olson, "A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Meaning of Court Marriage," English Literary History 24 (1957): 113; Peter F. Fisher, "The Argument of A Midsummer Night's Dream," Shakespeare Quarterly 8 (1957): 307-10; and E. C. Pettet, Shakespeare and the Romance Tradition (London and New York: Staples Press, 1949), 234.

3 Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday), 234.

4 Marvin Rosenberg's books on Shakespeare's four great tragedies, besides proving invaluable to people working in the theater as each traces the play's onstage history, also remind us of a very basic distinction between actual theater practice and literary criticism of Shakespeare. Too much of dramatic criticism seems caught up in "search-and-destroy" syndrome, the assumption being that there is a single "mystery" at the heart of each play which, despite efforts of past critics, the present critic can best solve. Put another way, the assumption is that the world of the play, as reconstructed by a particular critical approach—an approach, I should add, that usually treats the play as literature rather than as something meant for enactment in a theater—is somehow more significant than worlds fashioned by other methods, especially those no longer in fashion. However, as Rosenberg records and comments on the numerous options that directors, over the centuries, have exercised in the staging of the plays, and the choices made by actors challenged with giving that illusory theatrical "life" to characters who are otherwise just words on the page, he shows us, instead, how theater practice is a collaborative art, one involving playwright, director, actor, and—ultimately—the audience. Here, rather than asserting a single meaning, or the superiority of a particular critical method, the focus is on options, choices, process, and discoveries, both in rehearsal and performance.

5 Helen Gardner, "As You Like It, " in More Talking of Shakespeare, ed. John W. P. Garrett (London: Longmans, 1959), 17-32.

6 I think the best discussion of the play's theatrical commentary and of the division between reason and imagination remain David Young's Something of Great Constancy: The Art of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966); and James Calderwood's Shakespearean Metadrama: The Argument of the Play in "Titus Andronicus, " "Love's Labour's Lost, " "Romeo and Juliet, " "A Midsummer Night's Dream, " and "Richard II" (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971).

7 See Philip McGuire's discussion of Egeus' presence in the play, particularly in the final act, in "Intentions, Options, and Greatness: An Example from A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Shakespeare and the Triple Play: From Study to Stage to Classroom, ed. Sidney Homan (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1988), 177-89.

8 Bert O. States, Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

9 Jean Genet, Reflections on the Theater, and Other Writings, trans. Richard Sever (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 79.

Source: " 'What Do I Do Now?' Directing A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Shakespearean Illuminations: Essays in Honor of Marvin Rosenberg, edited by Jay L. Halio and Hugh Richmond, University of Delaware Press, 1998, pp. 279-96.

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