- Our Moonlight Revels: A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Theatre
In Our Moonlight Revels: A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Theatre, Gary Jay Williams provides a fascinating account of the “many lives” of Shakespeare’s play “in the Western theatre over these [End Page 92] four centuries and the ways in which theatre artists have brought to bear on the play the culture’s negotiations of gender, class, sexuality, love, the supernatural, and even national identity” (1). This may sound like a tall order, and it is: Williams assumes an audience familiar with the play and with the main lines of its reception in literary studies over the past two decades, and focuses his attention principally on the play’s production in England, and to a lesser extent in America and Germany. Of course, several productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream have become exemplary of the synergy between interpretive practice, stage design, and performance: the lavish naturalism of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s 1900 production; Max Reinhardt’s series of indoor and outdoor spectacles of the 1920s and 1930s, culminating in the 1935 film; the circus-inspired stage magic of Peter Brook’s white-box production of 1970. It is perhaps not surprising that Williams’s careful rereading of these productions often brings new, and surprising detail into play (Tree added his famous rabbits to the 1911 revival); more remarkable is the intricate involvement of music and dance in the play’s performance history, a story that Williams tells gracefully and clearly.
The story begins, perhaps fittingly, in the realm of legend and mythmaking. Though the first productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were not recorded, a long tradition—dating from Ludwig Tieck—has seen the play as occasional, written to celebrate an aristocratic marriage. In a lucid consideration of the evidence (he supplies a handy appendix of putative wedding-sources and scholarship about them), Williams makes quick work of this hypothesis: the circumstances of the proposed weddings, the character of aristocratic weddings in general (formal plays do not seem to have been performed at them, though masques were), and the practices of Shakespeare’s company (which did not write new plays for court performance, or perform plays at court prior to public performance) finally locate the play’s origin in the public theatre.
Williams then traces how the “insipid ridiculous play” that Pepys saw in 1662 was dismembered and reanimated in a variety of performance genres: as droll, as opera, and as musical drama (40). From Henry Purcell’s “idealizing celebration of royal power” (41) in The Fairy Queen, an Opera of 1692 through the performances of the early twentieth century, A Midsummer Night’s Dream became a pretext for elaborate music and dance, while efforts to restore Shakespeare’s language and dramaturgy frequently met with the public’s derision. Indeed, what Williams’s study demonstrates is that such traditions were the play. By 1755, when David Garrick successfully adapted the play as The Fairies, it was as an operatic afterpiece: the dialogue was entirely sung, and while it made some use of Shakespeare’s text (keeping 560 of 2134 lines), The Fairies dispensed with entire sections of the plot (all of act 5), incorporating much new material into its twenty-eight songs. More to the point, when the Lambs came to write their Tales from Shakespeare (1807), they took their narrative at least as much from Garrick’s story as from Shakespeare’s.
In this sense, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a fully theatrical commodity whose stagings resonated in complex ways with popular attitudes and prejudices. The musical tradition found expression in Frederick Reynolds and Sir Henry Rowley Bishop’s 1816 opera; this production was the first to set Theseus’ Athens as an imperial court, claiming a parallel between England’s imperial destiny after Waterloo and its appropriation of a “classical” past (the Elgin marbles, echoed in the production’s design, were first displayed to...