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

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

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."


(Shakespearean Criticism)

"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...

(The entire section is 850 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1782 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 458 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

"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...

(The entire section is 1047 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2535 words.)