Links to Shakespeare 3
Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
by Gerard Charles, BalletMet Columbus
With its central theme of marriages and the inclusion of a royal wedding, it is thought that Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream in celebration of a particular wedding. Exactly whose wedding is the matter of scholarly debate, as is the exact date of the play’s writing and first performance. It is believed to come from Shakespeare’s lyric period of 1594-1596, due to the writing style and also to references in the play to events of that time. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are a reworking of an older play or a dramatization of a specific story already in print. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the few Shakespearean plays (others would be Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest) that has no single identifiable source and is indeed a skillful interplay of four stories in one. However, some of the characters are traceable to a variety of works that would have been a part of Shakespeare’s general reading: for example, Chaucer and Plutarch for Theseus, Huon of Bordeaux for Oberon, and common legends of man being turned into beast, as is Bottom. Specifically there is an example of an Ass’s head being placed on Midas in Theasaurus Romanae et Britannicae.
In all probability Shakespeare, informed by having been well read, wrote this as an original play. It was probably written just after Romeo and Juliet as there are many parallels between the two plays. Many have viewed the play as a mirror of the life inLondonat the time of writing: a bustling sophisticated metropolis, full of many different characters but tempered by the folk customs of the majority. There are many contrasting elements explored in the play: reality and illusion, waking and dreaming, true and false love, change and transformation. Only three seasons were recognized in Shakespeare’s day, autumn, winter and summer that began in March. Thus the play, taking place on the eve of May Day (May 1), can be explained as being “midsummer.” It was a time of year when spirits of the woods were thought to be out. Puck is seen as the gateway between the real world and the fairies.
Music was used extensively in the fairy scenes since their words are in free forms, which are suitable for singing. The play ends with a dance, in the typical Elizabethan finale. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first published in 1600 in a Quarto edition. The introduction to the Quarto states “It hath been sundry times publikey acted.” However, there are scant records of the play being performed much – save for January 1, 1604 for James I – before the closing of the theaters by the Puritans in 1642. When theaters re-opened under Charles II there was a performance of The Merry Conceited Humors of Bottom the Weaver in 1662, attested by Samuel Pepys in his diary. He did not care much for the play but found there to be “some good dancing and some handsome women.” It was probably quite a free adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. In 1692 Thomas Betterton produced an operatic version The Fairy Queen with music by Henry Purcell. The 18th Century was not generally kind to Shakespeare. David Garrick, who did much to restore Shakespeare’s plays, mounted A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1755 as a musical offering called The Fairies. In 1840 Madame Lucia Vestris restored much of Shakespeare’s text and introduced to London Mendelssohn’s full score for the play.
The overture had been written for an 1827 German production and had been heard inLondonin 1833. Madame Vestris cast herself as Oberon and another woman as Puck. The Vestris version served as the basis of the play until 1914 when Harley Granville-Barker presented an uncut version at the Savoy Theatre,London. He also used men to play the roles of Puck and Oberon and dispensed with Mendelssohn’s music in favor of English folk tunes. In other incarnations A Midsummer Night’s Dream saw the light of day in 1937 when Tyrone Guthrie produced in a balletic version of the play with dancer Robert Helpman as Oberon and Vivien Leigh as Titania. Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman produced Swingin’ the Dream in 1939 with a predominantly black cast. The setting wasNew Orleansin the late 19th century, and Armstrong played Bottom. Despite a talented group it played for only 13 performances. In 1960 Benjamin Britten composed an operatic version first performed at Aldeburgh, June 11. It used about half of Shakespeare’s text.
Versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a Ballet
by Gerard Charles, BalletMet Columbus
Shakespeare’s play has been transformed into a ballet on a number of occasions. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is represented by two very well known ballets, Balanchine’s full length A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the New York City Ballet, 1961 and The Dream, a one act ballet by Sir Frederick Ashton made for the Royal Ballet in 1964. Petipa’s Pas d’action was a miniature version of this story over a hundred years ago (1877). Mendelssohn’s music has been choreographed to by Fokine as Les Elfes, and Lichine as Nocturne. The earliest reference to a ballet on this theme seems to be Shakespeare or A Midsummer Night’s Dream at La Scala, Milan, January 27, 1855 choreographed by Giovani Corsati to music of Giorza.
George Balanchine (New York, January 1962, with Mendelssohn’s music) chose A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the subject for his first original full-length work. As a child of eight, Balanchine appeared as an elf in a production of Shakespeare’s play inSt. Petersburg. He divides his ballet into two acts and does away with Shakespeare’s idea of a play within a play. In addition to the Overture and Incidental Music written to accompany Shakespeare’s play, Balanchine used other works by Mendelssohn including Overtures to Athalie, Son and Stranger, and The Fair Melusine, Symphony No. 9 for Strings and The First Walpurgis Night. The ballet was chosen to open The New York City Ballet’s first season at the New York State Theater in April 1964.
Sir Frederick Ashton produced his The Dream for Shakespeare’s quatercentenary in 1964 as one of three ballets on the program honoring the bard. Ashton & Ninette de Valois had choreographed stagings for the play, but this was the first British ballet on the subject. Ashton disposes with Theseus and Hippolyta and begins the ballet with Oberon and Titania. His Bottom, portrayed by a male demi-character dancer, dances on pointe when transformed into a donkey.