A Play in Parts:
Material Metatheatrics in
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
It has long been a commonplace that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a metatheatrical play, a commentary on its staged nature and the making of plays. It contains startling and hilarious examples of permeating the “membrane… between our consciousness of the events portrayed and our consciousness of the actual theatrical events that convey the story” (Booth 103). The first scene, two hundred fifty-one lines long, gives no hint that the audience will be reminded of where they sit and how the actors play; then scene two surprises the spectator with:
QUINCE Is all our company here?The mere mention of a script onstage serves to awaken the audience’s awareness of theatre as such. Critics have spent much time discussing the self-consciousness of Pyramus and Thisbe as an interpretive device within Dream that mirrors, distorts, commends, and condemns the actions of the play proper (i.e., Holland, Griffiths, Williams). What is not as frequently discussed is the influence, even the reflection, of the precise material conditions of play-wrighting on and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Much remains to be said about Dream as an acted piece about acting and a written script about writing plays. The mechanics of company, casting, doubling choices, rehearsal, cues, and actors’ parts are instructive interpretive devices for scholars, students, actors, and directors alike. The purpose of this paper is to examine these technical aspects of Elizabethan play-making and to draw interpretive conclusions from the facts such a discussion brings to light.
BOTTOM You were best to call them generally, man by
man, according to the scrip.
[Here I talk about who migh have played whom in the original production--maybe Shakespeare played Quince?--how each player learned his own part without having the whole script available, how cues worked as a result, and how each actor thought the play was all about himself, since all he saw on the page were his lines. Shakespeare uses all of these in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as commentaries on how plays are made.]
The partitioned nature of plays is so far from modern readers’ and play-goers’ experience that they may wonder if Shakespeare had all these details in mind. I believe he did: Griffiths (speaking not about parts but about how to represent tiny fairies) writes, “In view of the play’s stress on relativity of perception… and the metatheatrical elements… it seems entirely possible that Shakespeare, who was after all a practical man of the theatre, was deliberately exploiting the clear physical impossibility of any theatrical representation offering truly diminutive fairies” (Griffiths 5; emphasis mine). Or, in view of his long experience as author, actor, and (possibly) prompter’s boy, it seems perfectly plausible that he was pointing up the relativity of perception that results from study in parts.
Finally, the over-arching structure of the play reflects both that relativity of perception and the importance of metatheatrics—embodied by the mechanicals—to the play as a whole. They, though they have “never laboured in their minds till now,” fortuitously appear to rehearse and prepare for their performance in the second scene, the central scene (III.1), and the second-to-last scene (IV.2). Bottom’s transformation, making him the only mortal to cross fully into fairyland, occurs very near the middle of the play (III.1.107). If his colleagues doubled the four fairies, they would be the only actors to see him in both realms. If the duke and duchess doubled the fairy king and queen, they would bring three realms together. Then the last scene, the performance of Pyramus & Thisbe, would bring all four realms together: Kemp, playing the only character to see both fairies and mortals; a royal couple, reconciled in both worlds; four hired men who do not know the play, but have acted and re-acted inside and outside the woods; four lovers, whose close shaves with tragedy are parodied in serious but farcical sorrow on a stage-upon-a-stage. And perhaps Shakespeare, as Quince, laughing at all of them and at himself. For each actor is a main character in his fantasy; each is a minor character in the play. Maybe A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a cast’s dream-come-true; maybe it is their nightmare. But for the modern director, it is a dreamy opportunity for creative casting/doubling choices, and a delightful play about the technical aspects of Elizabethan play-making.
So, there's a little bit of it. I find it facsinating stuff. Hope you do, too.