Thursday, June 02, 2011

Who're You Calling Rude?


WHAT’S SO FUNNY ABOUT WORKINGMEN AS ACTORS?

In medieval England, festivals and fairs often centered on energetic dances (such as the Bergomask). One form came to be known as the Morris dance (Titania mentions the part of the village green where the “Nine-men’s Morris”is done) – borrowing from the idea of Moorish dancing in the Mediterranean region.

Other entertainments combined a story line with fighting, slapstick, and general clowning – these Folk Plays featured characters drawn from popular tradition, such as Saint George and the Dragon, Robin Hood and Maid Marian, portrayed by villagers and townspeople.

Eventually, local citizens built upon developments in medieval church services in which scenes from scripture were dramatically re-enacted. These Liturgical Plays gave rise to Mystery Plays, staged outdoors, which presented imaginative retellings of a wide range of biblical stories. In several towns, the trade-guilds took charge. One explanation for the term “mystery” is that it refers to the skill or craft shared by the performers (perhaps related to “mastery,” as with a Master Carpenter). Generally, each play was presented by a single guild and sometimes there was obvious suitability in the subject matter, as when the Carpenters presented the play of Noah’s Ark or the Bakers that of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.

Each series of plays, known as a cycle, traced the spiritual history of humankind – from, that is, the Christian perspective. Each individual play could also include (and deliberately so) farcical comedy and realistic scenes from contemporary life: The Second Shepherds’ Play, for example, is a brilliant, hilarious, and moving take on the Nativity story. Mystery Plays were almost always written in verse, in a range of stanza forms. They became focal points for festivals (holy-days, holidays) in towns and cities, including Chester, Wakefield, and York, in the 1300s and into the 1500s. Performers associated with guilds would also provide entertainments at pageants and processions during special occasions, such as visits from royalty. But as the Reformation took hold in England in the second half of the 1500s (and after Elizabeth’s accession), guild plays in particular were gradually suppressed as inappropriate forms of entertainment on feast days. Other factors included the influence of University drama – which staged ancient Roman plays or tackled classical subjects – and the rise of professional theater.

Shakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals (Puck's description: that is, unlearned men who work with tools) are based on the actors of Guild Plays – if with important differences. Since A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in ancient Athens, their subject matter has to be classical: the exploits of Hercules (“Ercles,” says Bottom) or the tragic tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. They are drawn from a variety of occupations, not a single craft or mystery. Even so, they are true to form in their performance style (Bottom clearly is used to playing Hercules in a ranting manner appropriate to King Herod), their approach to verse, their contemporary flavor, and their perhaps surprising potential to be dramatically effective. The 1952 movie musical Singin’ in the Rain is an affectionate tribute to (and satire on) the Hollywood pioneers who made possible the transition from silent film to talkies – and musicals, for that matter. Shakespeare’s presentation of the Mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisbe is, similarly, an affectionate tribute to (and send-up of) the working folk who had embodied and sustained English drama for centuries.

The Flatwater Shakespeare Company’s
Midsummer Night’s Dream

Directed by Bob Hall
Dates: June 15-19, 22-26
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Place: Lincoln Community Foundation Gardens
"N" Street, Between 14th and Centennial Mall, Lincoln
Reservations: 402-473-2897
Admission Free -- $10 Suggested Donation

(Photo: 19th-century illustration suggesting how the Chester Crucifixion Play – note the emblems of punishment, along with tools of the Carpenters’ trade, on the front banner – might have been staged on a pageant cart in the town square.)

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