Love Changes Everything
Director’s Notes by Chris Abraham
The Roman poet Ovid was one of Shakespeare’s principal sources for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In his epic poem Metamorphoses, Ovid is interested in love and how it changes us. The varied stories of the Metamorphoses chronicle forbidden loves and, sometimes, “the course of true love” not running so smoothly. In Ovid’s winding mythological narrative, lovers end up transformed into flowers or heavenly constellations. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare is clearly drawing inspiration from Ovid’s depiction of love as a catalyst for transformation, but he is also fundamentally interested in righting the course of true love.
His choice of “Pyramus and Thisbe” (which also appears in the Metamorphoses) as the source material for the mechanicals’ performance is no accident. This story of two young people who are willing to risk everything to be with the one they love, to avoid “choosing love by another’s eye,” is inspired. Unfortunately, their end is a sad one, but it throws into relief the happy outcome of the marriages that end the play. I’m struck by the subtle but undeniable way in which freedom of choice in love is thwarted or complicated throughout and then magically restored or bestowed by the play’s conclusion.
It moves me to see how one of the world’s oldest love stories has gone on to have such a powerful impact on the world. “Pyramus and Thisbe” was written around 8 AD but is in fact much older. It is a source not only for this play but also for Romeo and Juliet. It is also the prototype for many others. In looking at the play now, I see a powerful connection between this “source” about forbidden love and the tremendous and ongoing transformation of our society to one that embraces freedom of choice in love. I’m struck by how much has changed since Shakespeare’s day, even though lovers around the world still face tremendous obstacles to be with and marry those they love.
This prompted me to think about the struggle for equal rights for same-sex couples. In this struggle I saw a powerful and living connection between Shakespeare’s time and our own, embodied in a long line of those who have persevered against all odds to be with the ones they love.
I wanted to celebrate this struggle and its transformative power. I also wanted to celebrate a new normal – one that is increasingly, well, normal. I choose to believe that Shakespeare would have it no other way and that he is here (in spirit) celebrating love and its transformations with us.
Additional Notes by Chris Abraham
In this production, I wanted to forge a sense of family and community as central to the play’s setting, and for this community to be inclusive, varied and diverse. Quite late in the process, I expanded my vision to include a deaf character: Hermia’s father, Egeus.
Since at that point the production was already cast, actors who are not deaf had to learn a new language: American Sign Language. We also became keenly interested in understanding, and grappling with, the challenges of translating Shakespeare into ASL.
We have been incredibly lucky to have gifted teachers from the deaf community as our extraordinarily generous and patient guides in this endeavour. I am very grateful for the opportunity to celebrate this language, and for the richness it adds to the vision of humanity represented in the play.
A Dream Gift
Toby Malone – Dramaturge on A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Sometimes, a play or a role will be considered such a joyous challenge for a theatre artist that they might refer to the opportunity as a ‘gift:’ something to be cherished and savoured. In Chris Abraham’s new vision for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the piece literally is a gift, framed within the context of a wedding celebration at which the guests gift a version of Shakespeare’s loved comedy to the happy couple. A performance as a wedding gift is, of course, the climax of Shakespeare’s play: the Rude Mechanicals’ hapless Pyramus and Thisbe to celebrate Theseus’s and Hippolyta’s union is a much-loved capper to the antics of the lovers in the woods. Abraham frames the wedding celebrations of the Athenian duke with yet another marriage – this time between two members of the Stratford Company, feted by their contemporaries – to ask bold questions about the play’s treatment of love through what’s become known as metatheatre. Metatheatre is a term that has just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary: theorist Lionel Abel coined the expression in his 1963 study Tragedy and Metatheatre: Essays on Dramatic Form to define storytelling that draws attention to its own structure through multiple levels of interpretation. This ‘play within a play’ device recalls Shakespeare’s own varied use of the technique, and highlights themes of love, theatricality, and madness in layers which render the play more than simple entertainment. When Bottom steps out of character and addresses the Duke and Duchess, he does so as both Bottom and Pyramus, and the audience is invited into the gap between actor and character; when Hamlet commissions The Mousetrap, he does so with the express purpose of watching the watcher, complicated by the audience’s role in watching the watcher watch! These layers remind us that we are viewing a heightened fiction and underline the transformative power of the live theatre.
This version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers new layers right from the start: it begins with a celebration, something most Dreams traditionally only end with. Usually, we enjoy the exuberance and relief of the wedding reception only after we have navigated Shakespeare’s four-night adventure in the Athenian woods. Here, Shakespeare’s comedy is immediately framed with the familiar trappings of a wedding reception – mingling, gifts, reunions, joy – an intimate celebration to which we in the audience are invited. As we join the wedding party, we gain access behind the scenes of the play in all its preparation, jitters, improvisations, warm-ups, and other usually hidden, insightful elements to establish the memorable ‘gift performance.’
Such a gift is nothing new: European courts featured the very command performances that Bottom and Peter Quince offer in Shakespeare’s play. These entertainments, known as Court Masques, often thematically linked to the event they were attached to (a bridal-themed Masque to celebrate a wedding, for example), and featured music, song, dance, and poetry for the entertainment of the aristocratic attendees. It has been suggested that A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself was first performed at the 1595 wedding celebration for aristocratic couple Elizabeth Carey and Sir Thomas Berkeley, wherein the reception was mirrored in the play’s final act. Masques found favour in the courts of the Tudor monarchs, and reached their popular zenith through the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, with particular support from King James I, a great lover of the lively arts. In this fashion, Shakespeare’s Athenian Duke – the warrior Theseus of antiquity – asks Philostrate, his “manager of mirth,” to offer a list of “what sports are ripe” “To wear away this long age of three hours / Between our after-supper and bed-time.” Philostrate offers a series of options which may be purposefully ridiculous (“The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals / Tearing the Thracian singer in their rage” is an old favourite), but also illustrate the breadth of amusements that may have been standing by and malleable to the ruler’s whim. The fact that Philostrate is so anxious to dissuade Theseus from the Pyramus scene suggests, too, that not all offerings available in this wide-ranging buffet were of similar quality!
In Chris Abraham’s vision for this A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the couple who receive the gift of performance do not choose from a buffet: this play is a gift of content familiar to all participants. This shared familiarity allows us to relax into the narrative and what is to come, with the added piquancy of seeing a familiar work lovingly adapted to fit an occasion. A wedding day is a day of celebration: the married couple at the centre, with each element of entertainment directed towards them for their enjoyment, as per the Court Masque tradition. In this collective gift, wedding guests pitch in wherever they can, even if, like the hapless, bearded Francis Flute in his dismay at playing the ladylike Thisbe, the role does not always ‘fit.’ In this sense, the gift is heightened still by guests sometimes performing against their own gender, age, or race, as they offer talents and skills perhaps not exactly inspired by the script: given in love, and accepted with grace. Above all, the shared gesture of affection means all participants may gather around after they have offered their own contributions to revel in the loving gift they share in. By play’s end, we as Stratford patrons are just one of four audiences, in addition to the married couple who frames this version of the work, the actors who sit at the periphery and look on as they await their own cues, and the noblemen and women who enjoy Pyramus and Thisbe in Shakespeare’s original construction. Metatheatre offers the joy of reflection: the pleasure of witnessing people witness something wonderful. After all, Shakespeare put the watching Theseus, Hippolyta and the lovers in full view during Act V to remind us that this play exists within another context, and that we should not forget what it frames. To expound on that reflex, the additional frame offered this season at Stratford affords the extraordinary pleasure of witnessing the endowment of a gift: the overwhelming sense of privilege that comes from being honoured and surprised by loved ones.
Most importantly, however, is a choice within the framing world built around this production. Demonstrating a canny sense of love’s true test is the decision to offer A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a play which features as much of love’s turmoil as its ecstasy – as a means of celebrating a newly unified couple. A brief internet search will turn up hundreds of artistic gifts recorded for posterity, nearly all dedicated to the highest of highs in love: an understandable gesture given the tenor of the day. By choosing A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a wedding gift – as opposed to the heightened love-poetry of Petrarch – nothing is sugar-coated. For every “How I love thee! How I dote on thee,” there is a counter-balancing “The course of true love never did run smooth,” all of which grounds the wedded journey in both its highs and lows. As a very familiar comedy, we know that “all things shall be peace” by play’s end. What’s remarkable about this rendition is the frame around the celebrated relationship, where, much like in the earliest performing traditions, where drama cast a light on the audience’s own lives, in witnessing others we may learn something about ourselves. As Puck notes, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Perhaps: but we’re fools for love. And that’s our gift to you.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Equity and Inclusive Education
This season’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Chris Abraham, offers teachers and students a perfect opportunity to reflect on, discuss and promote issues of equity, social justice and inclusion. Issues of inequality, sexism, classism and bullying/harassment are all located in this play. In addition to the obvious themes addressing “the course of true love never did run smooth,” the comic mischief perpetrated by Puck in the forest and the hilarity of the mechanicals’ rehearsal and presentation of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” the play also opens up questions of male power and patriarchy, parental disapproval, male fickleness, infidelity and classism in the contemptuous treatment of the mechanicals by the court in Act 5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is far more than a lighthearted comedy with young people and fairies romping about in the woods (although it is that too). Through the uneven balance of power held by the men (Theseus conquered Hippolyta in battle and took her, captive, as his wife; the laws of Athens condemn Hermia to death or to life in a convent if she doesn’t marry the man of her father’s choosing; Oberon uses magic to manipulate and humiliate Titania) and other issues of exclusion mentioned above, it is much more nuanced and full of important critical-thinking opportunities than it may at first appear. Like all Shakespearean drama (and the best drama generally) it has no single narrative voice, allowing an investigation into multiple perspectives, voices and points of view and presents the working out of genuine human conflicts for which there are no clear solutions.
Ontario curriculum documents state that “It is essential that learning activities and materials used to support the curriculum reflect the diversity of Ontario society” (Social Sciences & Humanities, Grades 9 – 12). In addition to the issues of equity, inclusion and social justice brought out in the text itself, this season’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be set in the contemporary context of the backyard wedding of a same-sex couple. The guests at the wedding present their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the happy grooms as a wedding gift (much as the Mechanicals in the play present their production of “Pyramus and Thisbe” to the happy couples at the end of Shakespeare’s play). In the director’s own words, it will offer a “joyous, uproarious and contemporary celebration of the joy and heartache of love and marriage.” In accordance with this idea of a performance spontaneously assembled in a spirit of love, not all of the wedding guests will be obvious matches to their roles; their production will be eclectic in style, including a certain amount of cross-gender casting, role-switching and even a character communicating in ASL. Such playful ambiguity will not only give the audience an authentic sense of being in the midst of a circle of loving friends but will also point them towards what Mr. Abraham sees as a central idea of the play: that “love sees not with the eyes, but with the mind.” It’s an approach that explores issues of inclusivity, discrimination, free choice, gender bias and equality, even as it delights us with its sheer sense of fun.
Contextualizing the play within this framework therefore underscores and highlights some of the equity issues inherent in the text and also provides teachers with a perfect opportunity to provide students with an opportunity to learn about diversity, different perspectives and see themselves and their families and communities reflected in the curriculum.
The goals and outcomes outlined in Ontario’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy as well as those in the documents relating to Safe Schools, Accepting Schools, the Provincial Code of Conduct, Bill 13, Finding Common Ground: Character Development In Ontario Schools, K – 12, Antiracism and Ethnocultural Equity in School Boards and in the curriculum documents themselves (particularly those documents relating to Social Studies and Social Sciences and the Humanities) are all supported through this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and provide teachers with prime opportunities to cultivate culturally responsive pedagogy and reflect social justice and equity awareness in their teaching.