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.

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