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In theatre, to define the role of a director is a particularly important problem. Is he completely free to treat the play (of course, we are talking of a play which was not written by himself - and in particular a canonical work) as he wants or must he keep some respect for the author's spirit? One of the most obvious thing to state is that "the spirit" in itself is not always obvious. However, if the director considers this respect of primary importance, he will try to look honestly to the context of that play in its time and in the complete work of its author. Without doubt, to focus only on one subject is the best and clearest thing to do with a work such as Shakespeare's Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was studied in all its details by a huge critical literature. In the introduction to his edition for Oxford World's Classics, Peter Holland writes: "Presenting the fairies, finding a style for the fairies, is perhaps the most acute problem for any modern director of the play" (p.24), and also "The history of the play in performance can be defined in terms of treatment of fairies on-stage"(p.25). Consequently, focusing on the fairies in different stagings seems a solid test of our question. We will try to show, through several stagings of that play (and using sometimes other plays and texts as a corollary argument), how the way of treating Shakespeare's fairies, despite its apparently minor - or only 'aesthetical' - importance, was almost always an evidence of the period of the production and/or the spirit of the director's approach to Shakespeare's work. First of all, we will attempt to define interpretation, and present the fairy roots and ground were the tree called Midsummer Night's Dream could grow. Afterwards, we will try to show how directing that play without this knowledge can produce misunderstandings relating to the meaning of fairies that cannot be considered as interpretation but mistakes. But, it is through the subtle use of the different traditions that the director can find his interpretation. Finally, we shall describe another approach to the conception of the relationship between the text and the direction that deserves to be considered and gives a significance to the notion of interpretation, different from ours.
If we consider the definition of the verb 'to interpret' in Webster's dictionary, the debate seems already closed. Its third meaning is the most likely to concern theatre and gives: 'to represent by means of art: bring to realisation by performance'. Thus, the word seems generally accepted almost as a synonymous with 'staging'(> 'the putting of the play on the stage'). However, the two first definitions of the verb ‘to interpret’ are more ambiguous. One gives ‘ 'to explain the meaning of: 'elucidate' ‘ and the other 'to conceive on the light of individual belief, judgement, or circumstance: 'construe' ’. Though the second let a places more emphasis on the idea of personal point of view (and even of belief which is something that does not leave room for argument), both definitions express an idea of relationship to the subject where the aim is to clarify. Here, the subject is the dramatic text. The metaphor of music is perhaps the best to explain the process of 'interpretation', because it is the closest to drama: both turn a written, (and in a way abstract) work to a performance. To play a wrong note or to play out of tune on a standard, if it is not the original purpose of a
musician cannot be considered as an interpretation. Those who dare to use this word in such a circumstance have a serious lack of honesty. The situation in theatre is not different. If a director chooses to present in a particular way complex beings like fairies, he needs to know their rules of harmony before using them. If we must describe interpretation in music, we could say basically that it is a creation respecting the harmonic structure of a score (changing the accentuation and dynamics for classical music; in jazz, changing notes as well, but following the thread of the score in the architecture of the improvisation). In drama, the use of fairies, if done without regards for the original creation, could sound very much out of key. To understand how different directors interpreted intentionally or "decontextualized"(producing a loss of meaning) Shakespearian fairies, we must look the text, his surrounding culture and its hidden roots. First of all, despite the common perception, it seems quite clear nowadays that the idea of fairies (or elves, the words are synonymous) as small child-like beings do not belong to a "folklore" (word in itself extremely ambiguous),or a popular culture from which Shakespeare could have borrowed them for some of his most light-hearted plays such as A Midsummer Night's Dream. The words elf or fairy do not come from oral tales destined to children; and they are in no way small in there real meaning. Elf comes from poems of the ancient Scandinavian religion (alfar>elf) to which Old English culture was closely linked; and ‘fairy’ is equally of indo-european religious background, but it is a word of French origin (in Middle Ages romances and lays, chevaliers fae are those knights coming from the lore of Celtic religion which designate the people of the "Other World" - called Sid in Irish). In that way, Peter Holland's assumption that "popular belief in fairies is notoriously difficult to document" is utterly false, as the Indo-European studies prove. Fairies were part of the mythical Celtic tradition of which scholars and keen readers found traces in romances of the Middle Ages. To cast doubt on an ancient belief in fairies at a period where Ireland was scarcely christianised is like casting doubt on belief in angels and demons among Christians. Probably Holland was only talking about the Renaissance, but this older period was still influential on later conceptions of the after-world - at least during the late Middle Ages. Professor Latham expressed the idea that our perception of fairies as small beings comes from Shakespeare's treatment. Even if that cannot be proved beyond all doubt, Briggs's rejection is less understandable. Even Edmund Spenser, a Renaissance writer (who was far from knowing the original meaning of fairy), still used the word "Elfe" to design a knight of full size (in fact Redcross himself in The Faerie Queene, Book I, Canto 1 Stanza 17) inherited from the Celtic knight of the Other World. In literature, it is only with Shakespeare and Michael Drayton that emerged fairies of a reduce seize. Maybe that conception was already in existence, deformed by a common misunderstanding of that "product of imagination" in a context where Christian clerks had burnt almost everything belonging to local pagan religion, but the choice to introduce that new shapes of fairies does not date, it seems to me, before these authors. Furthermore, it is useless to try to find this kind of creatures in older works of the Middle Ages. Anonymous lays (like Sir Orfeo) as well as those of Marie de France dealt with fairies more deeply rooted in the pre-Christian ground of NorthWest culture. It is also clear that Shakespeare did not just diminished fairies. William Ringler noticed: "he appears to have intended an effect either of bulky grotesquerie or of something quite different from and more subtle than productions in our time have indicated". We agree with such a statement, for we are close to believing that Shakespeare did not mean to infantilize fairies as, unfortunately, was commonly understood. The fact that Titania is inherited from Ovid's Metamorphoses, showed that Shakespeare used several sources to create his own fairies. He drew on at least two traditions: the remnant of Celtic background (fairies sexuality evoked in almost rituals of dancing - several anonymous poems of Britany - and their habit of hunting - as in the Welsh Mabinogi of Pwyll, Prince of Dyved or the Lay of Guigemar -; but also jokes about humans of our world) and a southern influence (Roman and Greek). However, that is not all. The "grotesquerie" evoked by
Ringler is particularly interesting in the sense that it is strangely close to another mediaeval tradition, which had a hidden and long posterity in later literature and was fully explained by Russian critic Mikhaïl Bakhtin. Bakhtin considers the concept of "carnivalesque" as the expression, in some works of literature (Rabelais, Dostoievski), of a world of inverted values coming from the numerous mediaeval feasts where people were authorised during strict limitations of space and time to follow their old traditions which were in contradiction with Christianity. Historically, clerks of MiddleAges had still to deal with societies in which people's attitudes originated from completely different moral values, and these feasts were a way to regulate, mastered and marginalize those remnants of pagan behaviour. However, the perception of these feasts quickly altered the ancient values in a new way. Not all kinds of grotesque in literature are linked to that tradition, but to confront A Midsummer Night's Dream with it is particularly interesting. We must admit without reserve that Oberon belongs rather to the grotesque characters of the Comedia del' arte than the typical Celtic king of the other world. What does he retains from the Welsh Arawn, king of Annwfn, or the Irish Nuada the Silver Hand? Few things, evidently - and the impact of the mediaeval carnival is clearly more potent. And the tradition of that character is in many ways a bastard tradition less linked with real fairies than the Fairy Queen (of whom Titania, despite her Ovidian features has several traces). Drayton's Nymphidia, in a period close to Shakespeare, manages to change the whole original significance of the fairy world through a completely anti-Celtic use of Oberon as the king of diminutive world. And though in comparison to Drayton’s Oberon only Shakespeare’s evinces clear carnivalesque values in his attitudes (Be it ounce, or cat, or bear, / Pard, or Boar with bristled hair, / In thy eye that shall appear / When thou wak'st, it is thy dear. / Wake when some vile thing is near. cf. 2.2 v.36-40), that characteristic is still more true of the character of Robin Goodfellow (called 'knavish sprite' even by a fairy - cf. 2.1 v.33). Both are representative of the development of an inverted world in the play, but they are not alone: Bottom turned into an ass is the equivalent on a physical level of the spiritual translation in the four human lovers' mind and in Titania's, whose status of Fairy Queen does not escape the general 'carnivalisation'. Briggs writes that the sixteenth century marked a decay in believes of such beings and that "fairy-lore could be used for delight and ornament". That statement is quite true in appearance, but though Shakespeare did not try to keep the deep Celtic meaning of fairies (for instance, in Irish tradition, they are inhabitants of the Sid and must be considered as people of divine nature from the Tuatha dé Danann, the fourth race of dwellers of Ireland, before being vanquished by the this conception Goidels, mythical ancestors of Irish people; in that tradition, fairies help humans most of the time, but can also attack them, for the rules of the Sid are beyond the strictly human comprehension and belong to a superior reality*), we disagree with the idea that his purpose was only aesthetic, "for delight and ornament". That conception is probably the most common, as is evidenced by a huge quantity of stagings where fairies are a simple device of background intending to create an oniric atmosphere. However, the majority of these versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream are not real interpretations of Shakespeare's purpose with fairies, but a reading of Shakespeare as a writer using fairies a posteriori from nineteenth century fashion of childish and oniric aesthetic influenced by works such as Peter Pan. It is an anachronism. Even if Elizabethan time had already forgotten the religious meaning of Celtic fairies, it does not mean that all the dramatic depth was lost. (arguments of the seriousness of fairies characters). I feel when reading Shakespeare's play that the author retains the intuition that something of the highest importance is hidden behind the fairies appearances : Robin Goodfellow is more than a simple tool of the plot, Oberon, Bottom and Titania more than simple mirrors to the human lovers. In each play where he chooses to make a
confrontation of worlds Shakespeare creates fairy situations which are rooted in a past of which he was not always aware. The theme of the walking forest in Macbeth comes from Kat Godeu, one of the oldest Welsh poems (attributed to Talieslin, the legendary bard of the sixth century); King Lear takes its roots in a past that we cannot access, far beyond Layamon's Brut. And do not these roots help the trees to grow and live longer? Nonetheless, the perception of fairies, as we have already said, was altered. Moreover, in a way or another, a lot of directors chose to cut roots that to them seemed useless. As an example, Granville Barker's version of 1914, which was originally criticised for the use of an oriental aesthetic in the representation of the fairies, is interesting in its mistake. The orientalism is an idea that certainly deserves to be tried, but the problem which results from it was in the choice of representing Robin Goodfellow as a typical English spirit in contrast. From which criteria does Granville Barker keep one type of fairies but decide to replace the others? This is no doubt simply because Robin is something more concrete, more clearly English than Oberon and Titania. But choosing to represent the fairy population in an oriental fashion is also probkematic in dismiss the Shakespearian attempt of syncretism between the Ovidian tradition, the mediaeval conception of grotesque, and the last embers of the culture of Britain and Ireland. Probably the director would say that it was not the aim in his production. And in some ways, by fine work on costumes and its effect on a society to whom it was a new and profoundly astonishing aesthetic, he succeeds to show "creatures [that] are invisible to human eyes*". This is all the more impressive for being on a theatre stage, where fantasy is almost doomed to failure. But may we call interpretation, something that, changing the original cultural backgrounds of Shakespearian fairies, can keep only the ornamental part? Even if there was a shock and something new in this version, we can still feel the ghost of the ornamental fashion that spread throughout the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth: from Charles Kean's production (1858) to Frank Benson's (1889), fairies had a strictly aesthetic interest indicating nothing but an "exotic" atmosphere and background, as a simple represented landscape. It seems a diminution of the value of for the whole Shakespearian meaning of fairies: a world parallel to ours, where problems of love exist also, but in a different way, which asks us to change our perspective. Here, there is not even an idea of 'personal belief' as in the second definition of Webster's dictionary for the verb 'to interpret': it is a case of 'panurgian sheep', a simple act of following the common perception of fairies in the society of the time. When Peter Holland writes that "Shakespeare's fairy-world is more than an adjunct and parallel reality with its own rules and activities. It is also a source of our actions", despite the lamentable formulation, we agree. I say 'despite', because this sentence claims (but it is commonplace that the most canonical writer must be considered as superior in everything he does) that Shakespeare's choice to use fairies as glasses to look at our world is more than the Celtic conception of the 'Other World' where fairies are independent from us. That is, in our opinion, a despicable consequence of the Renaissance and Reform ideology (to place the emphasis and meaning on Men rather than outside) which continues to spread even today, with the prevailing view that men and women are the highest subject in literature. But aside from questions of appreciation and difference in literary tastes, we perfectly admit that Shakespeare tried to use fairies with dramatic purpose rather than mere ornamentation. Sir Peter Hall's version of 1969, though filmed, is perhaps one of the finest and most intelligent among contemporary direction in the treatment of fairies. He perceives clearly that Shakespearian fairies marked a rupture with the older Celtic tradition in their reduced size and innocent attitudes (Peter Hall took children to play the fairies) but excluded the idea of "beauty" that our period (especially under the influence of the nineteenth-century conception of fairy-stories) kept in mind: for example, as the critic William Ringler points out, the importance of the "grotesquerie"
is retained by representing fairies as devilish dirty children dressed in mire. Here, the carnivalesque atmosphere intended by Shakespeare is brightly understood and transcribed into the physical presence. These fairies depart from the modern cliché and bring it surely closer to Shakespearian will. Finally, it is necessary to examine on some extremely modern and original stagings. There is, of course, a huge variety of views on the, role, rules, and meaning of theatre. Thus, it is not surprising that the relationship between the text and its staging is perceived from different point of view. The ideas developed in the previous parts of this study could be seen as a very literary view of drama, where the text is the real director and where director is a workman toiling to bring out the glory of the text. However, that conception is by no means unanimous. The director Peter Brook staged A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1970 for the Royal Shakespeare Company, expresses clear opposition to that idea: "Ever since I started working with Shakespeare, I've resented one of the idiotic clichés that are always coming up, which is talking about 'serving the author' and 'serving the play'. My instinct of resentment against this cult of personality is such that however much I love Shakespeare, the moment I'm told that I'm serving Shakespeare, there's another instinct that says 'Fuck Shakespeare - why him more than anyone else?' No one in our time actually wants to go and serve the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen, Shakespeare..."**. Though the problem emerging from the canonical acceptation of Shakespeare is not our purpose here, it is important to note that Brook does not only resent 'serving Shakespeare', but also 'serving the play'. That corresponds to the non-literary view of drama. Despite the unavoidable pressure associated directing that author, Brook thinks he has to keep in mind a distance, a freedom, not only from the author but even from the play. In such a situation, does the word interpretation have any meaning? I would rather describe it as a 're-appropriation' of the text in the way that it is not an attempt to give a personal perspective on the hidden meaning of the text but to use the text and its strength as a vehicle to express something personal. His denuded staging cannot deny an intentional loss of fantasy atmosphere in favour of a sterner world where little importance is given to the costumes of his (adult) fairies. But there curiously emerged an instinctive (the word 'instinct' appears twice in Brook's sentence) link with the text beyond the sphere of reasoning. That link is simply the artistic success: if a staging is a successful, real, work of art, it means that the original text permitted it. And thus, there is clearly a relationship, which is not however on a level of 'interpretation'. We can still use the metaphor of music. Where does an interpretation end and begin a creation? To listen some of the later versions of My Favourite things by John Coltrane (the best example would probably be the 21 minutes version in At The Village Vanguard Again!, Impulse,1965). We can say without a shadow of a doubt that he did not try to keep the spirit of the composers Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and not even that of the song, but he took the song to his own musical world and re-invented it: the total freedom, at some points, in the treatment of the original harmonic structure of the song showed very well how he uses it not in order to express a new view of that standard but to create a new song*. And what remains of 'interpretation' is only the fact that the result is a success - the relationship between Rodgers's harmony and Coltrane's own, if it exists, cannot be perceived by human reason. In much the same way, a written play could be regarded as a device for an anachronic consideration (of the original play): In Fugard's The Island, are John Kani and Winston Ntshona interpreting Antigone? In our opinion, they are more simply and powerfully using the play as a cultural shield for talking about their own present political (and social) situation. Interpretation ceases when the central meaning moves away from the text.
Thus, when it is quite clear that Shakespeare's fairies derives from a complex and personal purpose, may we call "interpretation" the attitude of a director that uses them only as a so-called "folkloric background" where finally the subtle syncretism of different origins is lost and exchanged for an impoverished idea of unrooted imagination? If a director of A Midsummer Night's Dream considers that a respected for and understanding of Shakespearian spirit is essential to any interpretation, he must be able to recognise Shakespearian view of fairies from the knowledge of the different roots (conscious and unconscious) that formed them. Without that meticulous work, his attempt at 'interpretation' will be a failure because interpretation could be faithful to the text only through thorough familiarity with the author's material and the numerous possibilities with which the older culture provided him. The interpretation of fairies will be a misunderstanding, by ‘decontexualization’, and finally a failure: in no way can we interpret Shakespeare's intention in using fairies as a simple will to reduce them but explore the confrontations of its different traditions (the link between fairies and doom and death in Celtic tradition; the sexual meaning of the Ovidian tradition). Nevertheless, if the director believes that his freedom towards a text does not oblige him to have anything to do with the original intended meaning of the text, I honestly consider that we cannot credit him with an "interpretation" of the text. This way of staging is, in my opinion, another work - an attempt to possess the text and to twist it to serve a personal aim. In that conception (which I respect totally) , the text is not central, drama and literature are distinct arts - even if the writer is called Shakespeare, he remains a simple workman for the stage. Nothing can extinguish the deep flame of drama burning in both of these opposite conceptions, though their colours are different. Finally, our answer to the original question is clearly negative: we do not necessarily regard a staging as synonymous with an interpretation, for it could also be a re-writing (in languages of bodies and tones) where the purpose and meaning of the production are quite different from those of the writer in his personal vision of his creation. The only relationship remaining, then - determined by the possible artistic success of the new director in creating -, is of a nature inaccessible to the consciousness of men: staging, there, do not correspond to ‘explaining’ or ‘construing’.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oxford world's classic, The Oxford Shakespeare, Edited by Peter Holland, 1994. On Directing Shakespeare, Interviews with contemporary directors, by Ralph Berry, Hamish Hamilton, 1989. Shakespeare on the English Stage 1900-1964, J.C. Trewin, Barrie and Rockliff, London, 1964. La poétique de Dostoievski, Mikhail Bakhtine, Point Seuil, 1929. N.B.: In that study, we consider under the word 'fairies' not only the subjects of Oberon and Titania, but also the King and Queen of Fairy themselves and Robin Goodfellow. All of them belong to the same kind of beings from the 'other world, even if they occupy a different status. The case of Bottom is particular. Normally a simple actor from a troupe of the human world, his transformation into an
ass makes him enter into the category of people from the world of the marvelous. From the moment he mysteriously cannot take off his ass-mask, we can consider him as a fairy. This physical parallel between an actor and a fairy underlines a spiritual one: the whole company of Peter Quince has already shown the same kind of "grotesquerie" that can be assigned to Robin or Titania. In this way, the change of Bottom into an ass must be seen as a metaphorical expression that the world of actors is on a twilight zone, belonging to both worlds (and to none also): the seemingly 'real' world and another, which is at the same time a parody, an inverse of that human world (the 'grotesque' part) but also an Outside, which could correspond to the world of art, closed in itself, with its own rules, quite different from the human 'reality'. NOTES: * It is clear than Shakespearian fairy world is not the world of the Dead, despite the place made in the play to Sleep - mythological brother of Death. For that inheritance, we must not search in this play but in Macbeth or Hamlet- where the fairy beings are witches and ghost. ** in On Directing Shakespeare (interview with Peter Brook).