Unreality in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play that encompasses three worlds: the romantic world of the aristocratic lovers, the workday world of the rude mechanicals, and the fairy world of Titania and Oberon. And while all three worlds tangle and intertwine during the course of the play, it is the fairy world that has the greatest impact, for both the lovers and the mechanicals are changed by their brush with the “children of Pan.”
For those whose job it is to bring these worlds to life in the theatre — directors, designers, actors — the first questions that must be answered are: just what do the fairies look like, and how is their world different from ours? As our world has grown increasingly scientific, technological, and separated from nature, artists’ answers to those two questions have changed considerably.
As cities have engulfed our landscape, and the “unreality of moonlight” has been washed out by the very real glare of streetlights; as the “whisperings of the leaves, sighing of the winds, and the low, sad moan of the waves” gradually have been replaced by the sound of traffic and small weapons fire, the gentle voices of the fairies have been drowned out by the cacophony of the metropolis. In this brave new world of concrete and glass, Shakespeare’s “children of Pan” have come more and more to resemble the “children of Man” than ever before.
One hundred and fifty years ago, however, it was very different: the world of the fairies was an idealized version of our own, filled with unearthly splendor and wonder. Directors and designers reveled in the opportunity to create scenes of unparalleled beauty and magnificence. In a lavish production created by Madame Vestris a…
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…atural. To emphasize this, Longworth sets the play in the Victorian era with its rigid social codes, which served to cut the human soul off from any emotion or thought that hinted at a lack of reason and control; and with its confidence that Man could dominate nature and convert it to human purposes. The fairies, of course, are proof that humans are deeply deluded in both regards. And though by the end of the play the lovers still cannot see the fairies, they are nonetheless beginning to sense their presence a bit more.
In our noisy, frantic world, full of sound and fury which all too often seems to signify nothing, Longworth’s fairies seem to encourage us to listen once again, to seek out the mysteries of “another type of life akin but distinct from [our] own,” and to once again hear the voices of the children of Pan as they whisper the secrets of their world.