Themes of Art and Faith in "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Why is it that Shakespeare’s plays continue to be performed so many centuries after his death? One reason is that his characters and storylines portray such realistic depictions of human suffering, frailty, and sin in ways that recognize how these are deeply intertwined with redemption and grace. Here, one might wonder how to help audiences discover such connections in fresh, vivid, and meaningful ways. Should we direct cast members to linger on lines that reference biblical texts? Include commentary in the playbill? Hold community discussions after each performance? It's hard to imagine trying any of these options without coming off as pedantic or moralistic.
Theater director Stephanie Sandberg believes that context can be a key to getting us to see something new. “Shakespeare is reinvented every time we perform one of his plays in a modern context. Each new setting brings out a different aspect of various characters’ personalities while emphasizing or downplaying not only personal strengths or foibles but the societal roles that he or she might represent.” For a recent production of Midsummer by the Calvin Theater Company, she chose “1968, the moment when the world is about to be transformed by multiple revolutions – sex, gender, civil rights, and global revolutions that would throw off colonial power. There was a hope of transformation and peace at this moment; a moment that we still long for. One in which the new rock ‘n roll stylings of the Beatles and the Stones made sense – and we were stripped of our industrial identities by the freedom of music… the freedom to fully express ourselves, no matter what class, race or nationality we are from. The goal of this collaboration – my asking David Fuentes to write Act V as a rock opera – is to meld the revolutionary sounds of the music of 1968 with Shakespeare’s revolutionary character creations of the rude mechanicals, and as a result, these amateur working-class musicians are transformed and liberated as they are given an opportunity to sing.”
In a typical (spoken) production, the Mechanicals come off as buffoons. This rock opera gives them voice. Yes, they’re still hams, but their story (the ancient love tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe) hits the heart more
deeply through song than it ever can in words, and we the audience are moved. Even Bottom, the unintentional butt of his own jokes, becomes more credible when he sings; more fully human. In fact, it turns out that adding the fearless, child-like music of the ‘60s brings to the fore a theme that is rarely explored in the play: Who and what do we take seriously?
Not only is Bottom redeemed in this telling, but so are the arts, especially their value in helping us see what is otherwise opaque. At the very beginning of Act V (before the music begins), Theseus argues that not only is art a trivial waste of time, it’s downright dangerous – a view held by both hardcore rationalists and fundamentalist religions:
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold. …
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination.
Then later, after the mechanicals have finished their musical story, Puck picks up this line of thought in a closing postlude that (insincerely) apologizes for any “offense” the gentle audience may have suffered during the past hours. Music and theater frequently “offend” protected sensibilities – challenging us to reconsider our views on history, sociology, politics, religion, and moral virtue, while they demonstrate their undeniable inter-connectedness. After this thoroughly psychedelic reworking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we leave the theater with imaginations stirred, humming, and with the recognition that people become more human and more lovable once we truly hear what they have to tell us.