Law & Order – Keystone Kops Style

May 27, 2010 at 10:48 pm (Film Adaptations, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , )

I had a flashback to tenth grade—falling asleep in class during an endless, boring movie. I’ve had the flashback over and over again over the past couple weeks. Here’s the thing. I want to like Joseph Papp’s 1973 New York Shakespeare Festival production of Much Ado About Nothing. I really want to like it. I know I should like it. It keeps putting me to sleep.

It’s 2.5 hours long, and (yawn) I just never get through more than about 30 minutes in a sitting. I’ve watched it twice so far. Reader Tue says I need to watch it again after I read the text, so I’ll put that on my agenda (I’ll block a week for it). Just kidding. It’s not that bad. It does put me to sleep.

This production was originally done in Central Park and then moved to the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway before being filmed for television. Televising it was the kiss of death for the stage production. According to the Internet Shakespeare Editions website, the TV broadcast killed ticket sales and the Broadway show closed nine days later.

I like the actors. I think Sam Waterston does a nice job with Benedick and I like Kathleen Widdoes as Beatrice (she was nominated for a Tony for the stage role). It’s fun to see these two actors in their youth. But it’s also hard not to compare them to their present, 37-year-later TV selves (Waterston on Law & Order, Widdoes on As the World Turns).

This production is set in turn-of-the-century America, with soldiers returning from Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. The sets are a bit hokey; I kept worrying that a shaky balcony might come tumbling down. The costumes are fine, although I find Leonardo’s (played by Mark Hammer) wig and false beard distracting.

I like this Dogberry (Barnard Hughes) better than the strange Michael Keaton version in the Kenneth Branagh production. Here, Dogberry and his watchmen are portrayed as the Keystone Kops, and it’s very slapstick and silly. He’s an ass. He’s an ass. Yes, he’s really an ass.

Yawn. It’s making me tired even writing about it. I want to like it, but this movie is just long and kind of cheesy and boring to me. There is a lot of loony fast-action running around with madcap music to match… sort of an Edwardian/Benny Hill thing going on. Odd!

Maybe it will all come together for me after I read the text. I guess I need to get reading!

By the way, I added a page Play by Play so you can easily find all my posts on a given play. I’m only on the third play, so it’s not unwieldy yet, but I thought this might help as I get further in.

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Sigh No More, Ladies

May 20, 2010 at 1:35 am (Film Adaptations, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , )

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny nonny.

These lines from Balthasar’s song in Much Ado About Nothing have always cracked me up. Kenneth Branagh’s wonderful 1993 film adaptation begins with Beatrice (played by Emma Thompson) reading these lines to her picnicking friends on a sun-drenched Tuscan hillside. Why can’t I be there? After several chilly, rainy spring days here, there is nothing much that looks better than drinking wine on a sunny Tuscan hill while listening to someone read silly poetry. Yes, please.

I have to make do with living vicariously through film. It’s okay. This film is so much fun. It’s light, it’s playful, it’s full of wit and charm. I love this movie. The backdrop is no small part of the charm here… seriously beautiful landscape in every direction. Fantastic gardens and a wonderful Italian villa—the perfect locale for flirtations and intrigue. Why can’t I live there?

It’s beautifully acted, for the most part. There’s witty chemistry between Beatrice and Benedick (Thompson and Branagh were married at the time this movie was filmed). Hero (Kate Beckinsale) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) are a sweet young couple. Denzel Washington is good as Don Pedro. I also enjoy the small, but pivotal, part of Margaret (played by Imelda Staunton, who keeps showing up in great roles in these films… the nurse in Shakespeare in Love, Polly in Shakespeare Retold’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). I also enjoy glimpses of Emma Thompson’s future face (her mother Phyllida Law plays the small part of Ursula, and I think the two look exactly alike).

I’m not a fan of Michael Keaton’s weird Dogberry character. He’s so gross. Funny, yes, with the silly mannerisms and pretend horses clopping away. But he’s too over the top for me. I also dislike Don John, as played by Keanu Reeves, but that’s my personal issue; Reeves is permanently typecast in my mind as Ted on an Excellent Adventure. He always seems uncomfortable with his lines and well, unable to act. It’s just my personal issue with him.

You know what really surprises me? This film received no Oscar nominations and very few awards of any kind (nominated for a Golden Globe… oh and Reeves was nominated for a Razzie for Worst Supporting Actor—I guess I’m not alone!). It’s too bad it was overlooked for awards; I think it’s really well done.

Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream provided me with many film adaptations, but I’m afraid the pickins are getting slimmer as I move through the reading list. I have only a handful of film versions of Much Ado About Nothing to watch. Actually, two versions I’d really like to see seem to be unavailable. If anyone knows how to get the original (maybe unreleased?) BBC version with Michael York as Benedick, I would love to see that. Ditto Zeffirelli’s version with Maggie Smith as Beatrice?

I plan to watch Branagh’s version again after I read the text. Of course, it has nothing to do with wanting to look at the Tuscan countryside some more. Why can’t I be there?

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Finally, Bliss

May 15, 2010 at 12:23 am (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

I finally watched the 1990 New York City Opera performance of A Little Night Music (from Live at Lincoln Center). I promised myself this treat after watching the dismal 1978 movie with Elizabeth Taylor. It’s so much better.

The cast is great; I enjoyed all the acting and singing. Frederick (George Lee Andrews) and Desiree (Sally Ann Howes, who I will always think of as Truly Scrumptious from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) have great chemistry and are charming and witty together. I really enjoy the give and take between them. 

Beverly Lambert plays Frederick’s virginal wife Anne as a complete airbrain, which fits the part. Desiree’s lover/dragoon Carl-Magnus Malcolm (played by Michael Maguire) really seems to have a brain the size of a pea, as Desiree describes him to Frederick. I also enjoy Petra, the lusty maid (played by Susan Terry) and Desiree’s worldly and insightful mother, Madame Arnfeldt, played by Regina Resnik.

Ironically, a weak spot for me in this production is the “Send in the Clowns” scene. During the intermission, there is an interview with Stephen Sondheim explaining that song. He did not originally include it in the score. When the production was in rehearsal (for the 1973 original Broadway show), director Hal Prince called Sondheim and asked him to write a song for Desiree. Sondheim did not want to because he felt that particular scene belonged to Frederick. Prince explained his reasoning, talked it over with Sondheim, and Sondheim wrote the song in two days. Sondheim explains:

“It was never meant to be a soaring ballad. It’s a song of regret. It’s a song of a lady who is too upset and too angry to speak (meaning to sing) for a very long time. She is furious, but she doesn’t want to make a scene in front of Frederick because she recognizes that his obsession with his 18-year-old wife is unbreakable. So she gives up. So it’s a song of regret and anger.”

Then the video shows Sally Ann Howes working on phrasing with musical director Paul Gemignani. You get the feeling that she really understands the purpose of the lyrics and how to make it work.

So, when the scene between Frederick and Desiree comes up in the second act, I have some expectations. Howes lets me down. She sings it with a beautiful voice. But it’s too much about the beauty of her voice and not enough about the emotion of the scene. I want pain and anguish, sadness and anger there. I want her to be about to cry and barely able to spit out the words. That sounds awful, but that’s what the song needs. The lyric “Isn’t it bliss?” is filled with bitter irony. I think that Judi Dench does it right… the catch in her voice, the sadness.

Anyway, that’s the only thing that didn’t work for me in this production. This is a really enjoyable version of A Little Night Music; the show works well on the stage and it’s much better than the Elizabeth Taylor movie version. Unfortunately, the 1990 Lincoln Center production is not on Netflix. There are DVDs available, or you can watch it in pieces on YouTube.

As I explained in my earlier posts, this show is not directly Shakespearean. It is a musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s wonderful film Smiles of a Summer Night. Bergman was inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream and there are shared themes. Smiles of a Summer Night also inspired Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.

If you want my viewing suggestions, watch Bergman’s film first, then the 1990 musical, think about skipping Woody Allen, and don’t even consider the Elizabeth Taylor movie.

I think this will be my final post related to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unless someone has another movie suggestion or comment from the text, I’m about ready to move on to Much Ado About Nothing. Read it with me!

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Taking Two for the Team

May 11, 2010 at 7:57 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

I guess this proves I will do almost anything for this blog. I watched both, yes BOTH, High School Musical and High School Musical 2. I read that the first one is based on Romeo and Juliet and the second one is inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Blech. I mean, I guess there is Shakespeare drowning somewhere deep in all the treacle, but it’s really hard for me to identify.

Let’s start with the first movie. It’s boy (Troy, played by Zac Efron) meets girl (Gabriella, played by Vanessa Hudgens). They meet at New Years at a ski resort. They make beautiful (karaoke) music together. Girl disappears. Girl reappears at boy’s high school the following week.

Girl is smart; boy is athlete. She has smart friends on the school’s quiz show team; he has athletic friends on the basketball team. I think this serves as the Capulet/Montague structure. How can a smart girl be friends with an athletic boy? The mere thought threatens the foundation of the cosmos. So, I guess that makes them star-crossed.

Then they try out for a school musical together. I guess boy sings to girl on her balcony (I might have slept through that, but I saw a reference to it somewhere). And ummm, yep, I think that’s all I can say regarding Shakespearean parallels there.

And then on to HSM2. It’s summer vacation and everyone is working at the country club. Everyone plays Bottom. Right? I think that’s the connection to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Alack, alack, alack.

If I am forced to find parallels here, I think it must be that Sharpay (played by Ashley Tisdale) is pining for Troy, making her Helena and him Demetrius. Except that Troy actually is dating Gabriella, so that makes him Lysander if she is Hermia. So, we’ll call him Demander.

And then a little money/college scholarships are waved in front of Troy/Demander’s nose, and that serves as the love juice and he is temporarily sucked into Sharpay’s vortex. But then he wanders around the woods of his own mind, duels with himself, and the real Troy/Lysander comes back to sing beautiful music with Gabriella. Yay!

Really, I am so sorry for anyone who has children who watch this over and over again. It is mind numbing and I think you must be earning extra karma points wherever those things are tracked. 

HSM is (mercifully) not popular in my own home. When I asked my second grader if he wanted to watch it, he looked stricken and said “No! Why?!” And that was the end of that. Now, excuse me while my head explodes.

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A Glowing Review

May 10, 2010 at 12:45 am (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , , , )

It’s been many years since I’ve seen a ballet performed live. They can be poorly staged, or shaky and out-of-sync dancers can distract.

Or a ballet can be perfectly beautiful, glowing, entrancing, and magical—with sumptuous costumes, lavish sets, beautiful music, gorgeous dancing. That kind of experience reminds me that humans can create great beauty.

That’s what I think while watching the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s performance of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, filmed in 1999 at London’s Sadler Wells Theater. Wow. Just wow.

The story starts in the forest, bypassing the opening scene with Theseus, Hippolyta and Egeus. From there, it follows Shakespeare’s narrative pretty closely.

I enjoy watching the interplay between the four lovers. It is well done—the loving dance between Lysander (Ross Yearsley) and Hermia (Julie Tobiason) and then the cold Demetrius (Jeffrey Stanton) pushing away the distraught Helena (Lisa Apple). The love-juice-inspired confusion, Lysander lusting after Helena and spurning Hermia, the dueling and confusion in the foggy forest (beautiful sets!).

I enjoy the fairies, as well. Oberon (Paul Gibson) is regal and in control. Puck (Seth Belliston) is an amazing mime. Titania (Patricia Barker) is absolutely lovely. The set for her bower is gorgeous and her fairy entourage is magical.

I love it all. It is hilarious to see this nymph, this ethereal beauty, this Queen of the Fairies, dancing with the ass-headed Bottom.

The second act has little to do with Shakespeare (no mechanicals, no Pyramus and Thisby). There is the courtly wedding (including the ubiquitous Mendelssohn wedding march) and then an extended series of beautiful dances. This is grand entertainment: gorgeous dancing, beautiful sets, fantastic costumes (I love that Hippolyta actually looks like an Amazon queen!). Watching this makes me really long to see a beautiful ballet presented live.


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A Rant and a Rave

May 8, 2010 at 7:32 am (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

First the rant. Rant is strong language; this just was not my thing at all. Netflix has xxxHOLiC the Movie: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it got a lot of stars, so I gave it a try. I admit to sleeping through a good part of it (which was on fast play anyway). This movie has absolutely nothing to do with Shakespeare. I didn’t see any references at all. It’s a Japanese cartoon about a sorceress who solves mysteries with some teenagers helping her. The user reviews in IMDB pretty much say it all. It was not of interest to me. (Note that there is nothing adult about the content of this cartoon, even though the title has the x’s. The sorceress wears a low-cut dress, but that’s about it. I have no idea what the x’s signify. If my kids had been awake, they probably would have liked this.)

Now the rave, which was a surprise to me! I really kind of enjoyed A Midsummer Night’s Rave. It’s only about 80 minutes long, so I just watched it again on fast play. There is no accounting for my taste in movies, but I thought this was pretty watchable. I guess I like quirky indie movies, and this fits the bill.

It’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a rave party. It makes me laugh just typing that sentence. It is a nutty idea, and yet it’s really funny, it’s pretty darn Shakespearean, and I found it enjoyable all the way around.

It doesn’t start well (from my perspective). Really, I’d suggest skipping the first 10-15 minutes of the movie. There is a non-Shakespearean subplot involving a drug dealer looking for his money. In the director’s comments, Gil Cates, Jr. says this subplot was added to appeal to the “ravers” who are the target audience of the film; he wanted to make it more edgy for them. So there’s a gun waved around, there’s a little punching, there’s a very brief fast-speed sex scene. To me, the film starts with the wrong tone.

And then the rest of the movie settles into enjoyable Shakespeare-inspired stuff. There are the four lovers (Xander, Mia, Elena, and Damon). Their love quadrangle doesn’t operate exactly like Shakespeare’s, but the idea is similar. 

I thought Lauren German did a good job with the Elena/Helena role. Carrie Fisher makes a pretty funny cameo appearance as Mia/Hermia’s high society mother (playing an Egeus-like part of urging Mia to date Damon/Demetrius). It looks like Andrew Keegan, who plays Xander/Lysander, has made a mini-career out of these modern Shakespeare takeoffs—he was also in 10 Things I Hate About You and O.

Puck (Glen Badyna) and O.B. John/Oberon (Jason Carter) are great characters in this movie. O.B. John speaks in mysterious poetry (some of it Shakespearean) and Puck is the sparkly fairy pill dispenser at the rave and in charge of the love pills. 

My favorite character is Xander’s cousin Nick/Bottom (Chad Lindberg), the ass-headed ass. He plays in a donkey costume at kids’ birthday parties, but he loses that job. During the rave, he hallucinates that he has the asshead on and he’s convinced that he’s really an ass. It’s really pretty funny. I guess you had to be there. What’s even funnier… (SPOILER ALERT)  he leaves the party with the gorgeous Britt/Titania (Nichole Hiltz)!

The sylvan setting for the rave is pretty cool. There are a lot of quirks. There is a toilet paper fairy and other fairies hanging around the porta potty. There’s a bubble-chair filled chill room for people who want to connect in quiet. It’s all very cute and playful and good-humored.

Okay, it’s not for little kids. The whole thing takes place in a rave with casual pill popping and everyone flying pretty high.  There’s a gay twist to the plot. I didn’t find any of it offensive, but others might.

To be honest, both of these films were throw-aways for me; I wasn’t expecting much out of either of them, so I was pleasantly surprised with Rave.

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Bits and Pieces

May 6, 2010 at 10:11 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Analysis and Discussion, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

I am winding down on my posts about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here are a few things I’ve been thinking about.

Pyramus and Thisby : Romeo and Juliet
Pyramus and Thisby, the play-within-the-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is pure farce the way it’s presented by the “rude mechanicals.” But the story itself is of two star-crossed lovers whose families keep them apart and who end up tragically committing suicide at a tomb.

Sound familiar? Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare around the same time, so I’m sure there are parallels if we look for them. It seems like Shakespeare had some fun making fun of R&J by presenting a very similar story in P&T in such a silly way—bringing comedy to the tragedy.

Another similarity that strikes me is the sexual puns. They are a constant in R&J, but they are absent (or at least pass right by me) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, except for in P&T. The note in my edition puts it this way: “… a network of obscene jokes running through the mechanicals’ play.” There are puns on words like “chink” and “hole” and “stones” in the wall, etc.

So Bottom is an obscene punner like our old friend from R&J, Mercutio. Maybe there are other comparisons to make between the two characters? One thing I notice is their use of words. Mercutio has a razor-sharp wit and his words and puns are excessively pointed. Bottom is an extreme contrast to Mercutio: he’s a silly ass and his language is full of malapropisms and verbal mistakes. 

More on P&T
The wedding party makes many witty and snobby comments while watching P&T, but I wonder if they appreciate the sexual jokes. I wonder if Peter Quince wrote them into the script on purpose, as appropriate for a pre-wedding night entertainment!

The other thing I wonder about P&T is how and why it seems to change so much over time. When the mechanicals originally meet and Quince gives out roles, he includes both parents of Thisby and casts himself as Pyramus’s father. Later, when they meet in the woods to rehearse, they discuss someone needing to play Wall and Moonlight, so I guess Quince rewrites the play to get rid of all the parents, give lines to Wall and Moonlight and take himself out of the play except for reading the prologue. And the lines Pyramus and Thisby rehearse when Bottom is turned into an ass by Puck are not present in the final version of P&T performed for the wedding party. There is probably no need to analyze any of this, but it occurred to me that the changes might mean something. Or maybe not.

I have a few random questions lingering in my mind as I wrap things up.

Why does Oberon want the Indian boy? It seems like his anger with Titania amounts to a temper tantrum for not getting his way. Titania doesn’t obey; Titania must pay.

Why does Egeus want Demetrius to marry Hermia? Since his daughter loves another man (Lysander) and Lysander claims to be of as high rank or better than Demetrius, it seems odd that Egeus is more willing to have Hermia die than marry a man she loves. Hermia does not obey; Hermia must pay (with her life).

I don’t mean to overplay the misogyny card. My edition’s notes point out that the standard (misogynist) view of women during the Elizabethan period stereotyped them as the ones likely to stray romantically. So Hermia and Helena’s constancy throughout the play (neither for a minute doubting her own love for her wayward man) earns the audience’s sympathy, while Lysander and Demetrius appear ridiculous with their sudden shifts in affection.

Why does Demetrius want to marry Hermia? What caused him to lose love for Helena? There are no answers given in the play. The questions linger in my mind. Love, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is all rather ephemeral and senseless. Maybe that is the point! Lord, what fools these mortals be, as Puck says.

Favorite Quotes
There are some great lines and beautiful imagery in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here are a couple of lines that I love.

I love when Oberon and Titania meet and Oberon says:

Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania. (II.1.60)

Isn’t that a great way to greet someone you’re quarrelling with?!

I also love Lysander’s smart aleck line to Demetrius in the opening scene:

You have her father’s love, Demetrius,
Let me have Hermia’s: do you marry him.

It cracks me up every time. He’s saying: you and her father love each other so much, why don’t you marry him! Cracks me up; it’s such a typical teenage wisecrack.

Lastly, I get a big kick out of P&T. The whole thing is so ridiculous. Every time I hear the following lines I start laughing. Pyramus goes to the tomb to meet Thisby and instead finds her bloodied scarf and (wrongly) thinks she’s dead:

    But stay: O spite!
    But mark, poor knight,
What dreadful dole is here?
    Eyes, do you see?
    How can it be?
O dainty duck, O dear!

It’s just so “mechanical” and silly! 

Okay, I think that’s about all I have to say about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Please let me know if you have any comments, things you are thinking about the play or anything you’d like me to think about. I’d be happy to hear from you. I have a couple more film adaptations to watch, and then I will move on to the next play: Much Ado About Nothing.

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Einstein in Fairyland and Horton Hears a Who

May 4, 2010 at 11:41 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Analysis and Discussion, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

Thanks to reader Tue for commenting about Shakespeare’s vision of understanding the Truth through science. I want to mention a couple of things I’ve been thinking about.

Four Days
The play opens with Theseus telling Hippolyta it will be four days until their wedding day.

Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon

Theseus tells Hermia she has until his wedding day to decide whether she will marry Demetrius, die, or become a nun.

Take time to pause; and, by the next new moon–
The sealing-day betwixt my love and me,
For everlasting bond of fellowship–
Upon that day either prepare to die
For disobedience to your father’s will,
Or else to wed Demetrius, as he would;
Or on Diana’s altar to protest
For aye austerity and single life.

Then, all the play’s action in the forest occurs (the Midsummer Night’s Dream). It seems to take up a single night. On the morning of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, the hunting party finds the four young lovers asleep in the forest.

But speak, Egeus; is not this the day
That Hermia should give answer of her choice?

So, somehow, four days (and four, or maybe even five nights) have past.

And yet, I can only account for two nights, not four. In the opening scene, Lysander tells Hermia to meet her in the forest the following night.

                                          If thou lovest me then,
Steal forth thy father’s house to-morrow night;
And in the wood, a league without the town,
Where I did meet thee once with Helena,
To do observance to a morn of May,
There will I stay for thee.

It’s really a minor detail when you watch the play, but I keep thinking about it. Were the kids wandering around in the woods for two days and two nights (or more)? The forest and fairyland seem like a different world, so maybe time works differently there.

I keep thinking of Einstein; it’s as if the Athenian lovers enter some kind of space/time continuum… like a wormhole.

Unseen Forces
Because Dr. Seuss is never far from my thoughts, I find myself thinking about Horton the Elephant while reading and watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Horton faintly hears a tiny voice coming from a speck of dust on a flower, and realizes that there is a whole planet with a town called Whoville with lots of Whos living on that speck. The Whos’ reality is shaped in part by the unseen influence of things in Horton’s world. So, when the flower holding the dust speck containing the Whos is stolen by an evil eagle and dropped into a field of identical flowers, the Whos suffer cataclysmic damage to the infrastructure on their world. Says the mayor of Whoville:

“We’ve really had trouble! Much more than our share.
When that black-bottomed birdie let go and we dropped,
We landed so hard that our clocks have all stopped.
Our tea pots are broken. Our rocking-chairs are smashed.
And our bicycle tires all blew up when we crashed.
So, Horton, Please!” pleaded that voice of the Mayor’s,
“Will you stick by us Whos while we’re making repairs?”

I see a parallel to the influence of fairyland on the mortal world in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Arguments between Titania and Oberon cause natural disasters in the mortal world. Titania describes the mayhem that their fighting causes:

These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer’s spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

Beyond that, Oberon and Puck choose to influence individual mortals directly via the love juice and pranks like turning Bottom into an ass. Dr. Seuss’s Whos are somehow aware of the source of the unseen force that causes mayhem in their world; they realize there is a world beyond and encompassing their own. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the force (the fairies) are invisible and mortals are unaware that their reality is shaped and changed by the actions of fairies.

This also seems Einsteinian to me (not that I know much about Einstein’s theories)… like layers of an onion with each containing a different world—separate, yet interrelated. I also think of this when I read the introduction in my Pelican Shakespeare edition. It says:

Shakespeare’s comic assault on the proud and their smug conceptions of order and truth contributes to his larger challenge to conventional notions of ontology—to our sense, in other words, of who we are and what constitutes reality. If Puck’s proud narration of the havoc he creates in the mortal world—causing spills, knocking old ladies off stools—troubles our sense of causality and human control, his own mistake in anointing the wrong Athenian’s eyes might provoke further speculation. Perhaps yet another unseen agent causes Puck to err for the amusement of a higher god?

And then like my onion analogy, it goes on to say:

Shakespeare’s manipulation of perspective takes its most revelatory form in the arrangement of the play-within-the play. During the performance of “Pyramus and Thisby,” we may imagine the stage and the theater and the world as a series of concentric circles. At the very center are Bottom and Flute, playing tragic lovers. They are watched by actors playing the courtly lovers, characters whose experience might have paralleled that of the doomed Pyramus and Thisby but who fail to notice the similarity. They, in turn, are watched by the theater audience, spectators who laugh smugly at the smugness of the onstage audience. This set of symmetries implies that we may be mistaken in thinking of ourselves as the final audience. Isn’t it possible that we, too, are performing for unseen spectators, that our delight in the foolishness of what we see may itself be a brand of folly, and that the world we take to be real may be nothing more than a stage set for a divine audience?

Hmm, something to ponder there! 

A Dream Through a Jungian Lens
I’m glad I took the time to re-read the introduction (by Russ McDonald from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). It is fascinating. There is much discussion of the psychological “dream” aspects of the play. McDonald says:

At the risk of oversimplifying a symbolic relation explored with great subtlety, we may say that the fairy kingdom is to the natural world as the unconscious is to the conscious mind, or the imaginative to the logical faculty. This correspondence is thematically crucial, the relation to which all the other parallels and contrasts between the human and the fairy world contribute.

I am far from understanding, but there is much to think about here… physics, philosophy, psychology, oh my! And I was okay before with just the silliness of the situations and beauty of the words and images.

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A Dream Come True

May 2, 2010 at 8:05 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

I almost didn’t bother with Max Reinhardt’s 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I figured it would be dated and old-fashioned, not worth my time. Wow, I was wrong. I loved it. 

What’s to love? It’s visually stunning. There’s beautiful music (Mendelssohn) and fantastic ballet. Fairyland is wonderful—dazzling, sparkling, fantastic (in the sense of a fantasy!). The special effects (remember, this is 1935!) are amazing—the fairies fly and glide and dance and everything is magical and weird (in a good way). Oberon (Victor Jory) is definitely a king, not menacing, but with authority. Titania (played by Anita Louise) is all sweetness and light in the manner of Glinda the Good Witch, and it works well here. Mickey Rooney’s Puck took some getting used to, but grew on me. He’s strange—very mischievous and naughty and given to loud cackling.

James Cagney does a great Bottom. I still like Paul Rogers’ Bottom from the 1968 version better, but Cagney really brings out the fool in this foolish character. He’s fun to watch, and all the mechanicals are funny. I especially enjoyed Joe E. Brown’s performance of Thisby. Hysterical.

What’s not to love? They cut some of the speeches, yet the movie still ends up almost 2.5 hours long. It didn’t drag, but that’s a bit long for me. Aside from the length, I would recommend this version for kids to watch. It’s beautiful and magical and there’s nothing too adult in it. That said, my kids weren’t particularly interested.

I don’t like their fussy costumes, but I otherwise enjoy the Athenian lovers. This is Olivia de Havilland’s screen debut (as Hermia). She is fine in the role, as are all the young lovers. I read most critics agreed that Dick Powell was miscast as Lysander, that he didn’t want the role and didn’t understand his lines. Still, I like his performance! He brings good humor and teenage smart-alecky eye-rolling to the role, which I find amusing. I think he gives Lysander some personality.

This beautiful film won Oscars for Best Cinematography (a write in!) and Best Editing. I think it’s well worth watching.

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The Course of True Love

May 1, 2010 at 10:28 am (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Analysis and Discussion, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

The course of true love never did run smooth.

This is one of the more famous lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lysander says this to Hermia as they bemoan their own problems and discuss various ways that love can go wrong. They hatch a plan to elope and when Helena wanders by, they tell her of their plan to meet in the woods and run away together where Athenian law can’t follow them.

Poor Helena. She is lovesick for Demetrius. She says, “The more I love, the more he hateth me” (I.1.199). She cannot wrap her mind around the switch in his affections to Hermia. Helena says:

As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured every where:
For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,
He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.

It’s at this moment that Helena thinks to tell Demetrius that Hermia and Lysander plan to run away to the woods. She then will follow him and throw herself at his feet in her desperation to win back his affection.

I’ve been thinking about Helena’s motivation here. This has been weighing on me since I watched Picture This. In screenplay writer and director John Fisk’s video about adapting a Shakespearean play he explains his reasoning for veering from a strictly Shakespearean storyline. One of his reasons has to do with what he sees as Helena’s selfish motives. He feels she deserves different consequences than Shakespeare provides (her apparently happily-ever-after marriage to the apparently permanently love-juice-influenced Demetrius). Fisk points out that true love cannot come from a place of selfish interests. Because Demetrius is drugged, Fisk says, it’s not true love. Picture This provides a different ending for this couple than Shakespeare.

John Fisk commented on my blog about this: “I know ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a comedy however when watching the play or a movie version of it I’m always struck by how Helena treats her friend Hermia. In writing screenplays, the theory goes that, it is really important to look at the choices which your characters make. This really defines the character. In other words the character is the choices that they make.”

I appreciate his point and I really appreciate him stopping by this blog and sharing his thoughts with us. I can see how he could interpret Helena’s actions as selfish. In the video, Fisk says one of the main questions for him in writing the screenplay was: “Can love that comes from a dark and selfish place lead to a true love of total selflessness?”

It’s a great question. I totally get what he did in the film Picture This and it makes a whole lot of sense if you’re coming from the viewpoint that Helena is selfish. I have thought about Helena’s motivation each time I’ve viewed a film adaptation or read the text since hearing this idea; I still don’t interpret her actions the same way as Fisk. (If he returns to read this, I hope he understands that I’m using his opinion as a point to ponder; he’s entitled to his viewpoint!).

I have a lot of empathy for Helena. She loved Demetrius with all her heart and he returned her love (this is prior to the play’s action, but it’s referred to by Lysander and Theseus in the opening scene).

Demetrius, I’ll avouch it to his head,
Made love to Nedar’s daughter, Helena,
And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes,
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,
Upon this spotted and inconstant man.

I must confess that I have heard so much,
And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof;
But, being over-full of self-affairs,
My mind did lose it.

We are not given an explanation for Demetrius’s switch from Helena to Hermia. All we know is that he has Egeus’s permission to marry Hermia. It’s not particularly clear to me that he loves Hermia. Maybe the betrothal was a business transaction between Demetrius and Egeus. Who knows? Hermia would have nothing to do with him; she loves Lysander. The strongest language Demetrius uses toward Hermia is:

O, why rebuke you him that loves you so?
Lay breath so bitter on your bitter foe.

It’s not that convincing to me. Still, why drop Helena if he loved her. Who knows?

Back to Helena’s motivation. She is a little conniving in her decision to tell Demetrius that Hermia and Lysander will be in the woods. However, her intention is not to hurt Hermia. She already knows Hermia has no feelings for Demetrius and is, in fact, eloping with Lysander and planning to leave Athens forever. If she did nothing, Hermia would be out of the picture and Helena could try her luck getting Demetrius back.

It seems to me that she’s just lovesick and not thinking clearly. She knows Demetrius will follow Hermia into the woods. She sees this as an opportunity for herself to follow Demetrius and throw herself at him. She is Desperate with a capital D. Who can blame her? She has loved Demetrius and has no idea why his love turned away. She thinks she can somehow win it back. She doesn’t seem selfish to me so much as confused and desperate. I don’t think she means any harm to anyone.

Hermia goes through a similar out-of-body experience when Lysander is under the spell of the love juice and claims to hate her. She can’t believe her ears:

You speak not as you think. It cannot be.

And then as Lysander continues, Hermia thinks he is joking. When she realizes it’s not a joke, she’s just confused:

Hate me! wherefore? O me! what news, my love!
Am not I Hermia? are not you Lysander?
I am as fair now as I was erewhile.
Since night you loved me; yet since night you left me.
Why, then you left me–O, the gods forbid!–
In earnest, shall I say?

At this point, Hermia reacts with anger toward Helena, assuming that Helena must have done something to cause Lysander’s eyes to wander.

To me, Helena’s quiet jealousy of Hermia and desperate offers to Demetrius are normal reactions, as are Hermia’s confusion and anger. Both women are behaving as you might expect under confusing circumstances where a once trusted and professed love is suddenly gone.

Selfish? Deserving consequences? I don’t see it that way. Sad and confused and desperately trying to make sense of altered reality… yes.

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