Commentary Magazine


Shakespeare and Beckett

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the few plays by Shakespeare that appear to have no definite source. No known Roman text, Italian narrative, native chronicle, or earlier play provides the basis for this mixture of English rusticity and Greek myth. Indeed, if the play is a dream, it is the dream of a mind that has an outlandish originality where place and time are concerned, a mind that can as easily put an ancient hero in the Forest of Arden as it can a Warwickshire joiner in the court of Theseus. True, a few snatches of the common stuff of an Elizabethan education are mixed among the unique caprices of the dream, but there is nothing of such definite shape as might suggest that the dreamer is doing anything more than making a gentle appropriation of a heroic name or two, perhaps, as some believe, with the intention of celebrating an important contemporary marriage by thus blessing it with both humor and the literary pomp of classical allusion.

Like The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is almost a definition of what we mean in English by the word “fanciful,” and the problem of mounting it on the stage is the formidable one of giving pure imagination a dramatic “habitation and a name,” of making certain that a balance is kept between the lyric mysteries of Shakespeare’s forest and the rough shenanigans of his comedy. Peter Brook’s recent production makes a good attempt at striking such a balance. He has, first of all, decided to entrust the evocation of a woodland summer night to Shakespeare’s language and to eschew the traditional technical gadgetry that the modern theater has on hand to effect visual aids for its audiences. Happily, Brook has seen fit to give us no mists, moonbeams, animated foliage, or sequined fairies; and if he does use a trapeze bar or two to get the play’s ethereal characters air-bound, this is at least preferable to having them whisked about on guide-ropes through the chiaroscuro of a set designer’s notion of fairyland quaintness. Oberon, Titania, Helena, Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius, Bottom, Puck—all those characters who are “ill met by moonlight” are placed upon a walled-in, bare, white stage that is drenched in a fierce, clear light. On top of the walls is a runway, made accessible by two ladders on either side of the set, which the actors use for their chases and acrobatic squabbles. There are the aforementioned trapeze bars and an occasional bit of coiled wire meant to simulate a vivacious bush or tree. However, apart from these artifacts, Brook keeps his stage unencumbered and allows his actors to fill up the open space with vigorous, well-timed movements that have no need of pastoral clutter to make them seem the result of a night’s bewitchment in Oberon’s forest.

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Except for the set’s gymnasium-like appearance, little else about the production could be called radical. There is, as I have said, a more modest approach to the dress and appearance of Oberon, Titania, and their attendant fairies than one has come to expect after seeing productions in which the King and Queen of Night are smothered in brocades, velvets, and gossamer gowns, and in which Pease-Blossom and company sprout antennae, transparent wings, and other articles designed to turn them into whimsical bugs. In Brook’s view, it is enough that Oberon and his mistress dress in light, brightly-colored robes, while his fairies are attired in loose-fitting sweat-suits and have about them a terrene quality that may unsettle those who demand that a woodland sprite appear at least poetically capable of sleeping in an acorn shell. (I must admit that I, too, was somewhat perplexed at seeing Mustard-seed weighing in at a good two hundred pounds and sporting a thick beard. I can understand wanting to scale down preciousness in a democratic age, but when Titania’s fairies seem as much the “hempen homespuns” as do Quince, Bottom, and the other clowns, then perhaps aesthetic egalitarianism has gone a bit too far.)

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The subject of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is, of course, love—or, more specifically, the type of passion that leads to a permanent union between a man and a woman. Shakespeare gives us three examples of such joinings. First, there is that of Oberon and Titania, spirits with a sex, who, although they quarrel through the better part of the play over the possession of a beautiful boy, spend most of their aeons in lightly sensual revels, creating for each other momentary diversions in the courteous manner of two people who know that it is a sin against nature to be bored. Then, descending into mortal passions, we have Theseus and Hippolyta, both of whom prepare for their nuptials with the courtly affection that befits the coupling of two noble houses and two aristocratic bodies. Finally, of course, there are the four lovers, the foolish mortals of the play who are all athrob with yearning and desire, and who, in the intensity of their passions, will commit any excess of rhetoric or endure any indignity of courtship in order to consummate their love.

It is the main excellence of Brook’s production that these modes of love are subtly colored and distinguished. Oberon and Titania, when the latter was not bewitched, had just the proper amount of melancholy over their existence in a perpetual night of magic and mischief to make all their antic intrigues seem simply loving ways of passing time. And when the same actor and actress turned to the roles of Theseus and Hippolyta, they made that regal couple appear ready for all the formal demands of a political marriage that may or may not have a little love mixed in among its expediency. There is, for example, a moment in the last scene, when Theseus is patiently trying to make his future bride accept with some grace and gratitude the rough entertainment of Peter Quince and his players, that was acted with just enough pleasant vapid graciousness to make us realize that a mortal marriage, even for a Theseus, will prove to be something less than perpetual bliss and wonder.

As to the young lovers, Brook has decided that their aspects should be less than those of perfect princes and ladies. He gives them to us as ordinary, homely young people who are buffeted about by passions and spells and who are made to seem as comical as their loves are capricious and extreme. It may be objected that ebullient, youthful desire is made to seem too clownish by Brook and his actors, but it would be, I think, wrong to deny the play any of the humor that such febrile behavior occasions in our unromantic age.

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And then the clowns, Quince, Bottom, Snout, Flute, Starveling, and Snug—those redoubtable amateur actors who, through all the high and low passions of the play, resolutely work at putting together their own dramatic homage to love. Perhaps their efforts to bring to life a playlet about the tragic end of Pyramus and Thisbe is meant only as subplot buffoonery, as a joke about rustic bumpkins trying to fathom a style and emotion far above their stations. But the satire cannot help but work both ways, and in the troupe’s bumbling efforts to make common speech and sense serve the needs of heroic love, some blows are delivered to romantic convention and its poetry from which they are hard put to recover. I, for one, have never been able to watch a lover’s or a hero’s suicide on stage without remembering Bottom’s lines in the role of Pyramus:

Come tears, confound;
    Out sword, and wound
The pap of Pyramus;
      Ay, that left pap,
    Where heart doth hop;
Thus die I, thus, thus, thus.

In this production, Quince and his company wear modern work clothes and obviously fill jobs at the lowest levels of an industrial society. Their old occupations have indeed vanished from the world, and there is probably no longer any forest nearby to which they might steal for a secret rehearsal of a freshly-written tragedy. I felt, watching them in overalls and undershirts, that their sensibilities must have changed too, that, even though the actions depicting them were faithful to Shakespeare’s conception of country “mechanicals,” they nevertheless seemed, in the raiment of modern workingmen with unions and years of a dignity-of-labor philosophy behind them, less comic when trying to satisfy the aristocratic taste of Theseus’s court than would their class-clogged ancestors. For this reason, I would have preferred to see them dressed in garments that didn’t bring such extrinsic considerations to a play that can bear almost any meaning except that of social pointedness.

But this is perhaps only a subjective cavil. On the whole, Brook has been fresh and vigorous in his interpretation, insisting that we listen to the language and allow it to create rich visions against the backdrop of three white walls. In the end, Puck makes his famous plea for our indulgence and then he and the rest of the actors, taking their cue from a rather literal interpretation of the text, walk among the audience shaking hands. It is a simple conclusion to an evening that offers one many ways of viewing all the deep and various hoppings of the heart.

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The heart of Waiting for Godot is still beating at a steady, even pace. In the current excellent revival directed by Alan Schneider, Beckett’s tramps are caught on the same bleak terrain as they were fifteen years ago when Bert Lahr gave his classic performance and his producers took newspaper ads calling for, I believe, eighty thousand intellectuals to come to the support of their playwright’s debut in New York. Indeed, there is little room for scenic interpretation within the landscape prescribed for Waiting for Godot. A desolate plain and a stunted tree. That is that ! Hamlet’s Elsinore may alter from era to era; Uncle Vanya’s furniture may be rearranged to suit a directional mood; but the setting for Estragon’s and Vladimir’s parable of stasis will go through the future unaltered, a dry reminder of as absolute a depreciation of human existence as any artist has had the genius to sustain.

Watching the play performed in 1971, it is hard to believe that its bleak estimate of human teleology and its “absurd”—how long has it been since that word had its vogue—universe could have once been so popular. And by popular, I do not mean that Beckett’s world simply suited the taste of a number of important intellectuals and artists of the time. On the contrary, its despairing conclusions almost became a philosophy for the middle class, a sort of solid bourgeois virtue in Europe and a ready-made justification for a generation of more or less cultivated Americans to have little hope for a personal salvation and none at all for a political one. My reaction when I saw Godot as a student was something like, “Well, someone has finally found a way to say it. Verebar Godot ne veniret.” (In those days, whenever I peeked into the fashionable void, I always fortified myself with a little Latin, thereby taking the sting out of the encounter and making it, through classical allusion, just one more literary moment to be savored.)

Well, in the intervening years I hope I’ve become a bit less callow about Godot’s meaning. It still, however, seems to me an extraordinary work. Excepting Beckett’s own later plays, there is simply nothing like it in our history. Eliot’s Waste Land at least allowed one to remember a former beauty and purpose inherent in life, but with Beckett, the past, present, and future are all bracketed behind a negation sign, and sighing for the golden age is as out of order as building for either a natural or a supernatural paradise. And this most general conclusion about life is not delivered to us in vague, moral jeremiads, but in a dramatic prose that seems to encompass all the modes of speech in our language. From the play of contradictory hypotheses down to the most gritty, concrete images of human functions, the words swirl about, embracing all the nuances of existence and making them add up to a universal nullity. Waiting for Godot is a morality play without capitalized names, a searingly specific deduction from a dark premise about life, which many dramatists have entertained but which none has ever followed to such a precise conclusion.

Gogo and Didi, and even Pozzo and Lucky, the archetypal master and slave, have been given the details of art, and it is these details that infuse Waiting for Godot with theatrical life and humor. It may be a bad joke that has been played on man, but it is nevertheless a joke, and there is some laughter to be had from it. As bewildered and tattered as Gogo and Didi are, they still have their full share of questions to ask, hates to be accounted for, hungers to be satisfied, and cruelties to be forgiven. They possess, with human tenacity, existences palpable enough to touch and amuse us even while we are watching ourselves being absorbed into their bleak fate. Gogo and Didi may be futilely waiting for Godot to keep his appointment with them, but their lives are not without incident, and those who dismiss Beckett’s representation of life because it does not take into account the complex, delusive ways in which man really passes his time should remember that Gogo and Didi, too, try on hats, philosophize, give and receive affection, and fret over their bodies’ inadequacies. In short, in the deepest human sense, they live richly, and it is because, in existential extremis, they worry over the condition of their feet and bladders that we let them stand as our temporary deputies on a barren stage festooned only with a stunted tree.

Temporary because, in the end, we cannot accept the implications of their destiny, with or without Godot. Most of us are really Pozzos, dashing on without any particular purpose, but dashing with an abundance of energy and a necessary sense of self-importance. With a mind trained to babble consolations of philosophy not quite so incoherent as Lucky’s, we will pass again and again through Gogo’s and Didi’s desolate place of rendezvous, and each time we will be worn away just a little more. But we do keep moving: Beckett on to other plays, and I to the end of this short tribute to him.

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