Bottompost 2: the more things change . . .
One of the things I love the most about this play, and which I am so excited to get into, is the way Will has let us see a bit into the life of the actor in London in the 16th century. There are two of his plays which shine a light on acting styles, challenges, glories and follies: this one and Hamlet. Both plays contain a play within the play and a company of actors. In both, the “straight” characters comment on the acting on the players. But in Midsummer, we actually watch a play rehearsed. I know of no other document of this era in which the practices of a theatre group are on display.
Granted, it’s a lousy theatre group. But I sense that in all the fun Shakespeare is having with his band of rude mechanicals, he is letting us know that he himself had been a part of the kind of rehearsal process he’s making fun of. It’s good to remember how much of Will’s life was spent as an actor, and as a traveling actor at that. His first experience in the theatre was likely as a member of traveling company of players, and his appearance on the London stage represented the pinnacle of an actor’s trajectory at the time. It’s safe to say he had paid his dues in the “suburbs”.
In Midsummer we see an ego-centric actor kidnap the proceedings so that he can show off what he believes to be his expertise. We see a harried and nervous stage manager trying to keep everything organized. We see actors complain about playing parts they don’t want to play, and fret about costumes. We see an actor worry about memorization. And we see a troupe of working class men make glorious fools of themselves bringing to life a third-rate piece of doggerel. It is interesting to note that the modern director is nowhere to be seen. He didn’t arrive in the rehearsal room until the early 20th century.
As a person who has labored in rehearsals most of my life, and witnessed if not displayed all of the irritating behaviors Will is making fun of, this role speaks to my condition in a very sweet and personal way. I feel a direct connection not only to the rude mechanicals, but to Burbage, Henslowe, Kemp and Shakespeare himself. I feel the truth of this: we are doing just what they did.
And it’s astonishing how timeless the humor is. A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus
And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth, when performed with comic courage, is as close to a guaranteed laugh as we get in all of Shakespeare. It has been entertaining audiences for centuries, in part I think because each company of actors, who plays this company of actors, will bring their own unique craziness to it.
Look who I found on YouTube performing it: John, Paul, George and Ringo.
There’s so much I love about this, not the least of which is IT’S THE FREAKING BEATLES!!! But also how much back and forth there is with the audience. There is no “fourth wall”. And so I think this snippet of British video from the 1960s is showing us something about Shakespeare’s performance experience, because I think this video represents exactly what it would have been like to have seen this play at the Globe (or the Rose) in 1585, or whenever. The players would have had star quality, combined with a cheeky familiarity with their own audience, who knew that half the fun was shouting at the players and watching them deal with it. And the players would have had license to improvise with the audience, and very little “reverence” for the text. Notice how often the lads just make stuff up. This video made me love the Beatles and Shakespeare even more, which I didn’t think was possible.
In Hamlet, the power of actors has serious consequences: a murderer is revealed, and Hamlet is devastated by the emotional truth on display by the Player King (see Charlton Heston’s amazing performance of this in Branaugh’s film version). In Midsummer, I would argue that the play within the play has an equally important role, but in a comic vein. It’s importance is reveled to me in Theseus’ line: “For never anything can be amiss,
When simpleness and duty tender it”. As wonderfully “bad” as Peter Quince’s men are, they bend all their effort towards honoring the Duke on the occasion of his marriage, and so their play is an offering made with “simpleness and duty”. And the laughter their play engenders means that all is right in the world, again.
Today we really begin to get into it downtown. Can’t wait.