Monday, September 04, 2006

Once Upon A Time . . .

... this is how people thought about and responded to Shakespeare's plays.

Reading some of the 'out of copyright' criticism increasingly available on the web can be rewarding, in a perverse sort of way. I find the Historical Perspective fascinating as much as for what it reveals about the thoughts and ideas of the time of writing as for what it says about the plays themselves. That is not to say that the best of them is without insight - good criticism lasts through the ages as well as good play texts.

However, most of the reviews and opinions I have read from the past function more as a goad to stimulate my own response - and as a warning that contemporary views are as 'time-embedded' as those of previous generations.

This extract on A Midsummer Nights Dream from "The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol 13' of 1906, for example:

Reading the first two paragraphs reminds us that this now very popular and respected play was held in less regard in Times Past. The author felt the need to justify giving the same dignity to The Dream as was given to The Tempest.

He (I assume, given the date, a he) links the two plays as, 'both under the influence of a wonderful world of spirits' - which is in itself, quite telling.

Would I describe the likes of Oberon and Titania as spirits?

I think not.

To me it seems the compounding of the (Super) Natural world of The Dream with the artifice-book-magic world of The Tempest is to make a fundamental mistake.

Oberon and Titania are powerful embodiments of forces in Nature - their arguments lead to massive shifts in the balance of the seasons, causing untold (if hinted at) harm to the lives of ordinary people. Their 'stage' is the whole world - shifting from India to Ancient Athens, and then on around the Globe. They are under the control of no man - but condescend to bless the mortal marriage beds. Part of Titania's punishment is to be enthralled to that basest of creatures, the common working man.

In contrast, the spirits (and here I think the word is appropriate) in The Tempest , principally Ariel, are much weaker, superficial stuff. They create illusions through theatrical trickery requiring the use of book, props and costume - much more ciphers from an allegory than characters. They are bound to a human magician of dubious morality whose 'art' is barely strong enough to control a small Mediterranean island.

Shakespeare was not revisiting 'the wonderful world of spirits' when he wrote The Tempest, he was creating something very different from the elemental forces let loose in the earlier play.

The Dream is about imagination, a human talent: For the Elizabethans, God given.

The Tempest is about illusion - theatrical illusion principally, but also deceit and double dealing in the very real world, where it becomes a human failing.

In the third paragraph we really see what is, to my eyes, limiting our Victorian commentator.

Here, he uses some very interesting words to conjure up the 'fairy world'. His talk is of 'colours...of clear transparency'; 'variegated fabric...blown away with a breath'; elegant pieces of arabesque'; 'little genii'. The stuff of wallpaper and interior decoration.

This is the sweet cloying vision of 'Tinkerbelle' from Peter Pan, of photographs of lace winged fairies at the bottom of the garden, the Romantic Fairies of Celtic Revival, and modern garden furniture - Only one step away from moony pulling garden gnomes.

Sentimental, not fearsome. Amusing, but without any depth.

At worst, these are naughty children, with the innocent jealousies of those 'tender' in years.

After all, they 'sport childishly,' don't they?

Their passions are only, 'ideal dreams,' aren't they?

And this vision of spirits and naughty innocence is taken on wholeheartedly - to the extent that the very structure of the play becomes an 'ingenious and lucky accident'. and everything is, 'lightly and happily interwoven'.

Make no mistake, it is a potent vision: In countless junior school classrooms all over England, A Midsummer Nights Dream is still given this 'light' treatment, and is used to introduce Shakespeare to children far too inexperienced to see through it.

I am tempted to say it is the worst crime perpetrated against any piece of literature in the whole sorry history of the well intentioned ignorance we call, 'Getting an Education'.

Another part of the problem originates in the standards, expectations and limitations of theatrical productions of the time.

In the popular theatre, the Proscenium Arch dominated; design was driven by the two dimensional, framed, stage picture - and realism was 'God'. No wonder then that The Tempest found favour - thriving on illusion - whilst The Dream was relegated to a sub-sublime, if not standard, entertainment - the play requires an audience to use its imagination, and that is not the audience's prerogative any longer.

To give 'life' to Victorian fairies, you needed small people - children, preferably female, and able to do a few steps of ballet - in pretty dresses, with lace wings on wire frames. Whole forests needed to appear on stage, real rabbits needed to hop between the trees.

It is The Dream with Mendelssohn's music, and all imagination stripped away.

Fantasy as entertainment and distraction. Look at the illusion, forget the words.

How different from the bare stage, all male productions of the Globe Theatre: Words create here; the texts 'work on your imaginary forces' to bring the forest, the city, the magic itself into that home of dreams, your own mind.

And it is a text which, to the Elizabethan audience, in this most entertaining of plays, raises serious issues: What is the importance of harmony in marriage, in society, in life? What role does our imagination play in the search for truth? If we 'sleep on it', how do our dreams operate to make the morning, 'wiser than the night'?

But this is not our theatrical Fairy World either - bare stages have returned, via Brecht, and the 'serious' theatrical is once again more word orientated.

Our dreams though are constructed in a post-Freudian, post-Jungian mish-mash of sub-consciousness and symbolism. Sex is once more released, and Shakespeare has become our contemporary.

Fairies are no more real to us than to the Victorians - they are a theatrical device. And marriages are not expected to last, divorce is the norm, and extra-marital relations mere entertainments.

But our fairies have regained and are regaining more of their power - climate change and balance in Nature is an issue.

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