Monday, June 23, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Gods

Two weeks ago, we discussed some of the classical heroes present in the world of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This week we are going to take a look at some of the classical gods referenced in Midsummer, beginning with a pair of deities whose portfolios fully encompass the world of Shakespeare's Athens: the twins Apollo and Diana.

Apollo and Diana were twin brother and sister, the children of Jupiter (the king of the gods) and the Titan daughter Latona. When Latona became pregnant with the twins, Jupiter's jealous wife Juno sent a great monster called Python (hence the snake species) to chase Latona all over the world. Juno (as the goddess of childbirth) also forbade all the fixed lands of the Earth from receiving Latona's children. A loophole was found when Latona arrived at the isle of Delos, which, until that point, was a floating island drifting in the Aegean Sea. When the twins were born the island became rooted in the place.

Diana was the firstborn. She became the goddess of the moon. She was associated with nighttime, as her brother Apollo was associated with the daylight hours. On a more abstract level, Diana is associated with the wilderness and wild places. She was the patron of all hunters and the goddess of nature. Much like nature itself, she could be kind and nurturing or brutal and cruel depending on the circumstances. She was a virgin goddess (indeed she was the virgin goddess of classical mythology in that she actively choose to abstain from sexual interaction, whereas Minerva, having sprung from the brain of Jupiter, was a goddess of pure rationality with no baseline sex drive) When the young lover Hermia (played in our production by Emily Anne Childers) refuses to marry Demetrius, she faces a choice between being executed and spending the rest of her life as a virgin priestess. Indeed, there are little references to Hermia's reverence to Diana throughout the play: her insistence that Lysander not sleep with her in the woods (Diana's territory), her stubborn refusal to acquiesce to her father's demands for common social practices and, of course, her fiery temper when wronged.

Apollo was born second and became god of the sun. In opposition to his sister, Apollo is associated with civilization and culture. He was the patron of the fine arts and the god of the city. While his sister was a virgin, Apollo had many affairs and fell in love easily and often (symbolic of civilization's mutability in the face of nature's constancy).

In act 2, scene 1 of Midsummer, the young lover Helena (played in our show by Miranda Fisher), while in pursuit of her love Demetrius, exclaims, "Run when you will, the story shall be changed / Apollo flies and Daphne holds the chase." Daphne was a nymph daughter of a river god. One day Apollo saw her and immediately fell in love with her and pursued her. Realizing she could not escape the god, Daphne called to her father for aid. The river god turned Daphne into a laurel tree. Apollo broke off some branches from the tree and created a wreath which he wore forever after (the laurel was a symbol of achievement in Ancient Greece, presented to winners at the Olympics, hence the phrase "rest on your laurels").

Between the two of them, the children of Latona encompass the entirety of human existence with Apollo representing the structured, controlled elements of civilization and order and Diana representing wild chaotic  impulses and natural desires. The young lovers are at odd with the rules of the city and must flee into the wilderness in order to eventually find balance.

From a pair of siblings we move to a mother and son: Venus and Cupid.

Venus was the Roman goddess of passionate love and beauty. She was the most beautiful of the gods and reveled in bringing together people in love. Cupid was  traditionally considered to be her son and is often depicted as a young child with wings on his back and a bow and arrow. Anyone struck with Cupid's arrow would be instantly and permanently smitten with the first person he or she looked upon.

Shakespeare uses a variation of this trick in Midsummer when the fairy king Oberon uses a flower that had been struck with one of Cupid's arrows to enchant Titania and the young lovers. Cupid is usually portrayed as a trickster, using his arrows to stir up chaos. This is certainly apparent in A Midsummer Night's Dream when Cupid's power is used for hilarious effect. But there is a bit more depth to the Cupid figure than is commonly thought, especially if you consider one of the earlier creation myths of the ancient Greeks. Cupid was known as Eros to the Greeks (hence the word "erotic"), and he was a more serious figure. Several creation myths actually claim that he was the one of the first gods to ever come into existence.

In the beginning there was chaos, a great whirling nothingness. One day, inexorably a great egg rose from the  depths of the darkness. For a time the egg lay there, until one day it hatched and from it came Eros the god of love, and from him sprang all things.

I've always been fond of this myth. It's nice to believe that all things in this world ultimately spring from love. Love is the driving force in A Midsummer Night's Dream and certainly in our production, specifically. Every one of the characters in our play is driven by love in one way or another, be it romantic love, love of power, love of self, love of a child or love of mischief. Love is the great engine that drives the world, and it is what defines us as a people in our best moments. One ancient myth claims that humanity are the children of Love and Chaos. I can think of no more appropriate parents for us all. When you come to see the play (we have one last weekend June 26th - June 29th) we hope you will take a moment to consider the power of love, and how it affects every aspect of our lives. It is a wonderful thing.

Learning Never Ends.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – The Mechanicals

In his Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle discusses the three unities that he felt were essential for a proper drama:

Unity of Time: The play must take place in a single day.

Unity of Place: The play must occur in a single location.

Unity of Action: The play must have no sub-plots.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream flies in the face of the unities with multiple plot threads and constantly shifting locations. It’s easy to say the Aristotle was simply limited in his dramatic vision, but at Threepenny we never settle for the easy way out. The intended purpose of Aristotle’s unities is to create a sense of cohesion in the play, to make sure all aspects of the production are tied together tightly. Everything must be connected. It makes for a more engrossing performance.

One of the sub-plots of Midsummer concerns a group of men usually referred to as the Mechanicals. The Mechanicals are a rag-tag bunch of blue-collar workers who attempt to put on a play for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding. Their hope is that Theseus will enjoy it so much that he will give them a salary for life. Even in ancient Athens people wanted to make it big on the stage.

The chosen play is a brief scene depicting the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, originally taken from the Roman mythology of Ovid. In keeping with the larger themes of Midsummer, Pyramus and Thisbe concerns two young lovers who are kept apart from one another due to their parents’ prejudices. Forced to communicate in secret through a crack in a wall, they eventually decide to run away together, with tragic results.

Thisbe arrives at the arranged spot (the tomb of the nobleman Ninus) before Pyramus does, only to find a lion enjoying a fresh kill. Thisbe runs away in fright, dropping her veil in the process. Pyramus arrives shortly after, finds the veil, assumes the blood belongs to his love and, in grief, kills himself with his sword. Thisbe returns to find her love dead, picks up his sword and ends her life as well. It’s pretty severe stuff (and certainly a partial influence for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet).

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play of gentle mocking. One purpose of the Mechanicals is to mock the conventions of classical theatre while mirroring the larger narrative of the play, which concerns the young lovers’ flight from the repressive system of conventional marriage. Just as the lovers seek emotional freedom, the mechanicals seek economic freedom. Unfortunately for them (and fortunately for the audience), the mechanicals are none too bright, which makes for some truly inspired comedic moments.

The most well-known mechanical is Nick Bottom (played in our production by Christopher Tracy), a weaver by trade, with dreams of dramatic grandeur.

Bottom is the overblown actor who thinks himself much better than he actually is. His occupation as a weaver is appropriate since he is constantly weaving fantasies of his performances and eventual dramatic conquests. Upon learning that he is to undertake the role of Pyramus in the mechanicals’ play, Bottom asks "What is Pyramus? a lover or a tyrant?" The lover and the tyrant were two stock characters in classical theatre. The lover is pretty self-explanatory. It is a character whose primary motivation is there love for another person (Orpheus and his journey to the Underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice is the classic lovers' tale). Lovers are usually depicted as melancholy and wistful figures (Romeo at the beginning of R&J is a casebook example) who spend a great deal of time pining for their lady.

Bottom, however, claims that he is not a lover by nature, saying, "yet my chief humour is for a tyrant: I could play Ercles rarely, or a part to tear a cat in to make all split." Ercles is Hercules, the most famous hero of classical mythology, renowned for his colossal strength. The tyrant figure is any character whose primary motivation is to conquer: be it a monster, a battle, or a kingdom. They are aggressive and powerful figures: symbols of war, manhood and strength. They can be either good or evil, but they are always impressive. In wanting to portray a tyrant, Bottom is expressing a desire to step away from his daily routine. He wants to be something more than he is.It's a desire that actors almost universally share. He wants to be feared and respected as a man of importance.

As a side note: the phrase "to tear a cat in" has several possible references. There is a fairly popular belief that Elizabethan stage-hands would rip the tails off of live cats during performances to simulate off-stage death cries (a disgusting practice if true, but perhaps feasible from a culture that enjoyed bear-baiting). It may also be an allusion to the myth of Hercules and the Nemean Lion with Bottom implying he would prefer to battle the lion that appears in Pyramus and Thisbe. Additionally, "cat " was an  English slang word (derived from French) for a woman of loose morals (hence the word "cathouse"), suggesting Bottom isn't interested in plays about innocent lovers.

The Mechanicals come across as oafish and it seems that their part in Midsummer is merely a comedic distraction. I would respectfully disagree with this idea. Every part of a good play has a purpose, sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle. All elements must be connected, once scene builds on another to create an emotional whole. It is easy to see the Mechanicals as simply a joke, and indeed, there primary purpose is to entertain, but Bottom and company serve to illuminate one of the major themes of not only this play, but human life in general: that beneath the challenges and monotony of everyday life, there is a deeper desire for something more. We all want to live in a world of fairies and spirits where true love beats societal demands, where we are all heroes and the endings are always happy. We all want to live in that world between dreaming and waking, where anything is possible.

Upon waking in the woods the morning after his transformation and dalliance with the fairy queen Titania, Nick Bottom speaks one of my very favorite lines from one of my very favorite speeches in all of Shakespeare:

"Methought I was... and methought I had... but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had."

I consider this to be one of the most beautiful, moving and profound lines William Shakespeare ever wrote. The weaver had a moment that surpassed anything else in his life, and in the aftermath all that remains is wonder, memory, and the knowledge that life goes on. It's infinitely sad and very beautiful. It's so much in such a simple line.

Everyone has desires. Everyone has dreams and hopes and wishes and it is these things that drive us. It is these things that give passion and meaning to our lives. A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play about people chasing their heart's desire, and when you understand this, the play becomes as beautiful as it is funny.

And it is a very funny play.

Learning Never Ends.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Heroes of Classical Mythology

Threepenny is currently in rehearsals for a remount of our first show, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We have the entire original cast returning for three weekends in June. It’s going up this Friday at the Lab Theatre at the University of Memphis. I would say get your tickets now but we don’t have reservations. We sell them at the door, first come, first serve, Set-Your-Own-Admission for every… single… performance.

We truly are the best deal in town.

When considering any dramatic work, the first thing you need to be familiar with are the characters. Shakespeare adapted a large number of his plays from historical sources. Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans are the most well-known, but he also borrowed a good deal from classical mythology and legend.

The backdrop of A Midsummer Night’s Dream centers around the wedding of Theseus of Athens to Hippolyta of the Amazons. Theseus is one of the more famous heroes of classical mythology, most famous for killing the Minotaur inside the Labyrinth (Bowie was not involved, unfortunately). The Minotaur was a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull; a condition directly mirrored by Bottom’s transformation into a donkey-headed monstrosity in Midsummer. Theseus is also associated with the development of civic law over religious absolutism. The oldest surviving dramatic trilogy, the Oresteia of Aeschylus, concludes in Athens during the rule of Theseus with the first recorded trial by jury in the history of Western Literature. Theseus is almost always depicted as a voice of social reason and civic order, which makes the relationship with his betrothed very interesting.

Theseus’s betrothed is Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. In mythology, the Amazons were a tribe of warrior women renowned for their skill in martial combat (one especially gruesome legend says that Amazon women would burn off their right breast to make it easier to draw a bowstring). The Amazons were often referred to as daughters of Ares (the Greek god of war) and were treated as sort of bogeywomen for the patriarchal Hellenistic society, feared because they possessed qualities more commonly associated with men: aggression, violence, and a will to conquer. They were inversions of standard classical ideas of the role of women in society. Nowadays, such aggressive tendencies are not so feared in women, but for the classical Greeks, an empowered woman who wanted to act like a man was as scary as any bull-monster. Hippolyta is featured in several myths with Greek heroes (one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules was the retrieval of Hippolyta’s girdle, a symbol of her rule) and, with the possible exception of Atalanta, may be the most well-known mortal warrior woman in Greek mythology.

There is one other character that has some interesting classical implications. Egeus, the father of Hermia, shares a phonetic resemblance to Aegeus, the mythological father of Theseus. Aegeus was king of Athens before Theseus. When Theseus sailed off to the island of Crete to deal with the Minotaur, Aegeus gave him two sets of sails for his ship: one black and the other white. The black sails were to be hung for the voyage (since the Athenian youths were being sent off to be sacrificed), but if Theseus managed to triumph over the Minotaur, he was supposed to switch the sails over to white to symbolize his victory. Theseus triumphed over the Minotaur, but, due to a series of unfortunate events involving a Cretan princess and Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, forgot to change the sails. Aegeus, spying the black sails from the cliffs of Greece, was overcome with grief at the loss of his son and hurled himself into the sea, which forever after was known as the Aegean.


Of course, Egeus is not the father of Theseus in Midsummer, but Shakespeare had his reasons for choosing that name. Egeus is perhaps meant to represent all fathers. He is the great over-arching father figure of the play, representing entrenched societal values attempting to control and repress the chaotic, youthful power of love and passion represented by the couples. At worst he is an iron-clad embodiment of the Patriarchy, but at best he represents a loving parent who desires the best for his child, even if she doesn’t agree with his choices. You don’t throw yourself off a cliff in anger; you fall from the grief at having lost what you love.

The classical background of these characters helps to enrich the world of the play and enhance the performance of not only the actors playing those specific roles, but every actor playing opposite them. The knowledge can also enrich your, the viewer’s, appreciation of the piece. It is not a necessary ingredient, but we hope it adds a little extra kick to your experience.

Feel free to leave a question, comment, or outraged objection below.

Learning never ends.

Next Time: Lovers, Tyrants, Mechanicals and fun with cats.