"What Do I Do Now?" Directing A Midsummer
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."
"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...
(The entire section is 7,587 words.)