The following is a true report of the happenings of 24th June 2010 in Central Park, Rochester, Minnesota, in my interactions with various personages of the Words Players, a very young but accomplished group of players who make it their business to put on the works of William Shakespeare and other excellent productions.
During the intermission, I decided to go exploring to see if I could find any of those very lovely flowers that Honeysuckle (a small scampering fairy) and her kind were showering the audience with. I didn’t find any, but it occurred to me to put my pipe in my mouth and go wandering. First I offered some pizza to a wandering player, and Oberon himself wrinkled his nose at my offer of pizza. Then I spied Queen Titania and Bottom on a picnic blanket, attended by a couple of young fairies. I sat down with my pizza on the blanket.
“Is that one of your fairies?” asked Bottom, rolling his very well-endowed ears.
“No, she has pizza,” said Titania.
“Puck makes pizza,” said a fairy.
“Puck doesn’t make pizza, he just takes it,” said Titania wisely.
“Why don’t you like her?” a fairy asked Titania rather petulantly, motioning towards me.
“Well, she’s a woman,” said Titania. The fairy she addressed rolled her eyes at Bottom, who was sniffing at some M&Ms suspiciously.
“Don’t you like him?” I asked the nameless fairy, breaking my silence.
“There’s nothing wrong with him,” I said, reaching out to finger one of this fine, soft ears.
“I like her,” said Titania, smiling at me.
“No, there’s nothing wrong with him at all,” I said. “Your name is Bottom, right?” I asked.
“Yarh,” said Bottom. “What are these?” he asked Titania, holding up the M&Ms.
“They are M&Ms,” said Titania.
“Did you know, that if you held them in your hand, and held them very very very tight, and very very very hard, and very very very long, they would never melt?” I said.
“That’s amazing!” exclaimed Titania, “Magical, even.”
“That’s silly,” said Bottom. “Why’d anyone want to do that is beyond me. Anyone can see that these….M…. & M’s, they’re meant to be ate.” He popped one into his mouth.
“It’s Bottom, right?” I said. He nodded vigorously. “What’s the worst dream you’ve ever had, Bottom?”
“Well,” said Bottom, clearing his throat. “There was this one time I dreamed I was going down a river, and I saw the moon at the bottom,”
“The moon!” cried Titania. “Have you been to the moon?”
“You’ve been to the moon?” I asked.
“Why yes, every fairy does it. It’s a kind of rite of initiation or something.”
“Have I been to the moon?” asked a fairy.
“No, but I’ll send you next year when you’re ready,” said Titania.
“I’ve been to the moon,” said another fairy.
“Did you see the American flag on it?” I interjected. The fairy looked puzzled.
“She must be from the future,” said Titania. “America hasn’t been invented yet.”
“But America is still there,” I said. “The land was there. You must have seen the land.”
“Oh, right… that continent… the one with all the people running around in skins or something.”
“Well, yes,” I said.
“Queen Titania, may I ask you something?”
“Yes,” said Her Majesty.
“Did Hamlet ever love Ophelia?” for one of the scenes the players (very cleverly, I thought) had played for laughs was Hamlet telling Ophelia to get she to a nunnery.
Titania looked thoughtful. Then she said, “I’m not sure. And I can’t say, for I don’t think I’ve seen the end of that play.”
“I think…. I think….” said Bottom, furrowing his brow very deeply indeed.
“Oh, look, it’s starting again,” said Titania, motioning towards the players. And indeed, certain sounds were wafting our way from the clunky little stage.
“Oh, darn,” I said. “Why does it have to start again?” I asked, worried that my time with Titania and Bottom was drawing to an end. “That means it must end.”
“Wait, you mean it has to end?” asked Bottom.
“Yes,” I said. “All things have to come to an end, I’m afraid, which is a great pity.”
Bottom was still contemplating his dream. “Wait, is this a dream?” he asked Titania. “Are you a dream?”
“No! No! She’s not a dream,” I interjected.
“I’m not a dream,” said Titania. “I’m very real. You can’t hear or smell or taste in a dream,” she reasoned.
“Look, pinch yourself,” I suggested. Bottom yelped. “Now, if this were a dream you wouldn’t yell.”
“That’s true,” Bottom said, reflectively.
“But you might be in a play,” I said.
“A play?” asked Bottom.
“Yes, a play. You know, like the one you were in. The one where you play a lover?”
“Well, I don’t know what play I’m in, but whoever wrote it was a bloody genius,” said Bottom.
“Well, you know,” I said, looking at him quite seriously. “You wrote it, you know.”
Bottom looked at me.
“It’s called Bottom’s Dream. Remember? Remember you were going to get Peter Quince to write it? But he didn’t write it, so you’re going to have to do it all on your own.”
“Bottom’s Dream,” said Bottom, furrowing his considerably large brow even deeper. “I don’t know that I could write a play.”
We sat silent for a moment.
“But, I guess… I could dictate a play,” said Bottom brightly. “I could get Peter Quince to write it down, and I could dictate it! Couldn’t I dictate a play?” he looked at Titania.
“Just make sure you don’t become a dictator,” I said. “Remember you said you wanted to be a tyrant? At the start of the rehearsal?”
“Oh, but I would not really be a tyrant, really,” said Bottom reassuringly. “I would make a prologue that would say that I was not a tyrant, but only pretending to be one.”
“You are far too gentle a creature to be a tyrant,” I said, fingering his ear again. “And you’re playing a lover, for now. But you could be a playwright.”
“Let’s go for a walk,” said Titania decisively.
“But…. But….she was just telling me about this play…”
Titania grabbed Bottom from off the picnic mat, and hauled him to his ungainly feet. And they were on their way. I sat on the blanket by myself for a while, looking at Lysander stalking around in a forlorn, Hugh Grant sort of way, before loping off into the play. Then I decided I would go sit on the wagon, or at the foot of a tree next to the wagon, and watch the second half of the play unfold.
I was pleased to note that the players, rolling in on their homemade wagon stage, started the play with a passage from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are dead. It is a lovely passage, very mirthful and tragical, and affirming of the players’ craft. I was even more pleased when I got a close-up view of the contents of the wagon – and sitting at the foot of a tree right next to the wagon was the perfect vantage point for the keen observation of such artifacts as would have been found in such a mechanical contraption.
Of particular interest to me was a large paper sword tucked into the side of the wagon, as well as a small female puppet, as well as several small baskets hanging from the rafters. Then I noticed that one of the players, who most resembled Bottom and played Bottom in one of the short previews of the scenes to help such members of the audience as did not entirely know the play so well, was working at a piece of knitting, which I thought very fitting, since Bottom is a Weaver.
I set my heart upon getting ahold of that piece of knitting, and doing a few rows before the night was through. So I sat, pipe clenched between my teeth, picking at the ground and curling up a little bit of dried twig to put into it, and then I got a petal a fairy had showered me with and also stuffed it into the pipe. I cheered Lysander on, briefly running off to watch the fisticuffs, then returning with a certain amount of satisfaction to my place again.
It is extremely cathartic to laugh at the antics of poor Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius – to watch as the night devolves into a catfight, replete with hair-tearing and desperate men trying to separate the two girls, who were dear as sisters before the play began. It occurred to me that the only difference between tragedy and comedy (and the players very shrewdly included snatches of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies – Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Lady MacBeth, etc redone in a comic vein – helped along with a little cross-dressing, of course) – is timing. After all, if we were to stop the story of Hermia, Helena and Lysander before the intermission, it may well end in tragedy. But because it happens all in one night, it is incredibly funny.
But isn’t this just the very picture of romantic relations? No man is interested in a girl who follows him around like a spaniel. Lysander is a bit of a cad for asking Hermia to sleep with him before they’re married, but her refusal leaves him vulnerable to falling in love with another woman – the first one who comes around, in fact. Helena is just horrified that men can turn their vows from one woman to another so soon, but then she doesn’t understand men. She runs away, and this only inflames Lysander’s desire. Once Demetrius sees that Helena is pursued by his one-time rival (over Hermia), he starts valuing her again, and also gives chase. Helena, who had thought Hermia got the better deal because she had two men after her, now realizes that it is not fun at all, and accuses Hermia of orchestrating the whole thing for her humiliation. Hermia is mortified that the man she was in the process of eloping with now doesn’t want to have anything to do with her, and takes it out on Helena. Helena is infuriated and they start tearing at each other’s hair. Fast running out of weapons in their arsenal, they even resort to physical insults (all those tall/short jokes). What is wonderful about this particular production is that the actresses alternated playing Helena and Hermia, which I think underlines the point that really, like Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, they are interchangeable. There is nothing more lovable or beautiful about Hermia than Helena at all – it’s all a matter of their actions that determine their attractiveness, and therefore their fate. On the second night I cheered for Lysander, but really he’s just as bad as Demetrius, it’s just that he takes a little shorter to repent of his madness, but then that is the doing of Oberon, not himself.
When I was on my way back I noticed a small brood of fairies behind the wagon, and saw my opportunity. I asked a very lovely one to steal the knitting for me so I could do a couple rows. “I’ll be sitting under that tree,” I said. She nodded, and did my bidding. I took the knitting from her, and started a row, for all the world feeling like one of those old women knitting before the guillotine as Pyramus and Thisbe killed themselves up there. After all, when we can safely laugh at liebestod as ludicrous, we are in a good place, aren’t we? For what it was worth, I yelled at Thisbe, “It’s not worth it!” but there she was, already impaled on the sword. What’s a woman to do? You can’t live all their lives for them.
In any case, Bottom was up and about in no time, and as usual, when his friends thought he was dead, he really wasn’t. He’d just run off and lost his head for a little while, running around in a different realm. He wasn’t dead at all, he’d just been having dreams and visions. Now Bottom is a bit of an egotistical beast, and he would have you think that he’s the central character in the play. In my own special opinion he is, because he paraphrases St Paul in that wonderful speech he gives upon waking. “I have had a most rare vision!” he cries. And he goes beyond Paul into the strange realm of synesthesia, for can the tongue conceive? Can the heart report? Certainly I hope mine does!
But Bottom is no tyrant, and no lover (or at least, a very tragically inept one!) but beware, beware! his flashing eyes, his floating hair! weave a circle around him thrice… for he on honey-dew has fed, and drunk the milk of paradise! – and he’s come, at the eighth hour, like some sporting hero come to save his team by miraculously running onto the pitch on time, to play the leading role in the play, which “is preferred” by the Duke. And though laughter falls all about his ears, he is pleased to bow and pack up, and graciously leaves before the applause (which is demanded by Puck, another demi-devil who sows discord, but only with the best intentions…
Ah, Puck. I sat by the tree, finishing up the final row while the players packed up their stage and prepared to roll away. The shabby little player who resembled Bottom came up to me. “Did you enjoy the play?”
“Indeed I did,” I said. “I think it is very fine, a very fine play. But it’s not ended. I have read this play before, and Puck has yet to give the epilogue.”
“This is true,” said the player.
“In fact I would go so far to say that it is the best live production of this play that I have seen thus far.”
“Have you seen many such productions?” asked the player.
“Well, let me see. I’ve seen the film version with Calista Flockhart in it, and I liked that very much. And I saw a production in a true copy of the Blackfriar’s theatre that was abysmal. I mean, the theatre was good, and the play was good, but the production – utterly abysmal. But your production was excellent.”
He smiled. So I went on. “And I have a degree in English Literature from a fairly reputable University, so I do think I have a certain expertise on the matter,” I added. “You all did a thoroughly excellent job, really excellent.” A couple of other players and fairies had gathered around me now. “And furthermore, some of you are still in braces, so I think you have a fair future ahead of you,” I said, and a girl with braces who had just flashed them at me giggled.
“Well, I’m very glad you enjoyed the play,” said the player, “Could I have my scarf back?”
“Most certainly,” I said, and, finishing up the last stitch on the row, handed it back to him. “I enjoyed doing a little bit very much.”
“Actually, it’s a loincloth,” said the player, took it, and scampered off. Puck was starting the epilogue. “Give us your hands if you be friends,” he said, in his clear, clear voice, lightning bugs surrounding us in the Midsummer air. “And Robin will make amends”. Amen, I thought, as the applause went on. I dug a little hole in the ground and planted the winged seed. Oh, what fools we mortals be!