A Midsummer Night's Dream

Performance history

17th and 18th centuries

During the years of the Puritan Interregnum when the theatres were closed (1642–60), the comic subplot of Bottom and his compatriots was performed as a droll. Drolls were comical playlets, often adapted from the subplots of Shakespearean and other plays, that could be attached to the acts of acrobats and jugglers and other allowed performances, thus circumventing the ban against drama.

When the theatres re-opened in 1660, A Midsummer Night's Dream was acted in adapted form, like many other Shakespearean plays. Samuel Pepys saw it on 29 September 1662 and thought it "the most insipid, ridiculous play that ever I saw ..."[27]

After the Jacobean/Caroline era, A Midsummer Night's Dream was never performed in its entirety until the 1840s. Instead, it was heavily adapted in forms like Henry Purcell's musical masque/play The Fairy Queen (1692), which had a successful run at the Dorset Garden Theatre, but was not revived. Richard Leveridge turned the Pyramus and Thisbe scenes into an Italian opera burlesque, acted at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1716. John Frederick Lampe elaborated upon Leveridge's version in 1745. Charles Johnson had used the Pyramus and Thisbe material in the finale of Love in a Forest, his 1723 adaptation of As You Like It. In 1755, David Garrick did the opposite of what had been done a century earlier: he extracted Bottom and his companions and acted the rest, in an adaptation called The Fairies. Frederic Reynolds produced an operatic version in 1816.[28]

The Victorian stage

In 1840, Madame Vestris at Covent Garden returned the play to the stage with a relatively full text, adding musical sequences and balletic dances. Vestris took the role of Oberon, and for the next seventy years, Oberon and Puck would always be played by women.[29] After the success of Vestris' production, 19th-century theatre continued to stage the Dream as a spectacle, often with a cast numbering nearly one hundred. Detailed sets were created for the palace and the forest, and the fairies were portrayed as gossamer-winged ballerinas. The overture by Felix Mendelssohn was always used throughout this period. Augustin Daly's production opened in 1895 in London and ran for 21 performances. The special effects were constructed by the Martinka Magic Company, which was later owned by Houdini.

20th – 21st century

Herbert Beerbohm Tree staged a 1911 production with live rabbits.

Max Reinhardt staged A Midsummer Night's Dream thirteen times between 1905 and 1934, introducing a revolving set. After he fled Germany he devised a more spectacular outdoor version at the Hollywood Bowl, in September 1934. The shell was removed and replaced by a forest planted in tons of dirt hauled in especially for the event, and a trestle was constructed from the hills to the stage. The wedding procession inserted between Acts IV and V crossed the trestle with torches down the hillside. The cast included John Davis Lodge, William Farnum, Sterling Holloway, Olivia de Havilland, Mickey Rooney and a corps of dancers which included Katherine Dunham and Butterfly McQueen, with Mendelssohn's music.

On the strength of this production, Warner Brothers signed Reinhardt to direct a filmed version, Hollywood's first Shakespeare movie since Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford's Taming of the Shrew in 1929. Rooney (Puck) and De Havilland (Hermia and Zara) were the only holdovers from the Hollywood Bowl cast. James Cagney starred, in his only Shakespearean role, as Bottom. Other actors in the film who played Shakespearean roles just this once included Joe E. Brown and Dick Powell. Erich Wolfgang Korngold was brought from Austria to arrange Mendelssohn's music for the film. He not only used the Midsummer Night's Dream music but also several other pieces by Mendelssohn. Korngold went on to make a Hollywood career, remaining in the U.S. after the Nazis invaded Austria.

Director Harley Granville-Barker introduced in 1914 a less spectacular way of staging the Dream: he reduced the size of the cast and used Elizabethan folk music instead of Mendelssohn. He replaced large, complex sets with a simple system of patterned curtains. He portrayed the fairies as golden robotic insectoid creatures based on Cambodian idols. His simpler, sparer staging significantly influenced subsequent productions.

In 1970, Peter Brook staged the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company in a blank white box, in which masculine fairies engaged in circus tricks such as trapeze artistry. Brook also introduced the subsequently popular idea of doubling Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania, as if to suggest that the world of the fairies is a mirror version of the world of the mortals. British actors who played various roles in Brook's production included Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, John Kane (Puck) and Jennie Stoller (Helena).

Since Brook's production, directors have used their imaginations freely in staging the play. In particular, there has been an increased use of sexuality on stage, as many directors see the palace as a symbol of restraint and repression, while the wood is a symbol of unrestrained sexuality, both liberating and terrifying.

A Midsummer Night's Dream has been produced many times in New York, including several stagings by the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park and a production by the Theatre for a New Audience, produced by Joseph Papp at the Public Theater. In 1978, the Riverside Shakespeare Company staged an outdoor production starring Eric Hoffmann as Puck, with Karen Hurley as Titania and Eric Conger as Oberon, directed by company founder Gloria Skurski. There have been several variations since then, including some set in the 1980s.

In September 2013 Michael Grandage staged a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Noël Coward Theatre. The production featured TV star Sheridan Smith as Titania and TV star and comedian David Walliams as Bottom.

The University of Michigan's Nichols Arboretum's program Shakespeare in the Arb has presented a play every summer since 2001. Shakespeare in the Arb has produced a A Midsummer Night's Dream three times. These perforances[30] take place in a 123-acre (49.7 hectares) natural setting, with lush woods, a flowing river, and steep hills. The performance takes place in several places, with actors and audience moving together to each setting. "As one critic commented, 'The actors used the vastness of its Arb[oretum] stage to full advantage, making entrances from behind trees, appearing over rises and vanishing into the woods.'"[31]


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