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by Ethan McSweeny
Adapted from remarks at the first rehearsal
Have you ever been in love with the wrong person? Maybe you loved someone who didn’t love you as much as you loved them. Or maybe you loved someone who couldn’t love you, whether because of social status, marital status, sexual orientation or some other obstacle. For whatever reason, the two of you couldn’t meet, equally, on the field of love.
That’s what this play is about: every single person in Twelfth Night is in love with someone they couldn’t or shouldn’t be in love with and it is driving them crazy. Feste sings “What is love? ’Tis not hereafter. Present mirth hath present laughter.” In other words, love isn’t eternity—and we still don’t know what will happen to us after we die. Love exists only in the present moment, time is a dream, and both can disappear in a flash.
Look at our language. In English we fall into love. There is no other verb. You don’t walk into love or jump into love. You give over control and fall. Upside down. Head over heels. Love is a force for chaos, but also a force for creativity: without it we would have almost no literature, very few songs, and we certainly wouldn’t have the second act of any musical.
When Shakespeare set this play in Illyria, he was going to the furthest-out place he could think of. Probably no one in his audience had ever been to the Adriatic coast. Like the seacoast of Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale, it’s a place where crazy things happen. While working on the play, I came to think that Shakespeare’s Illyria is not so much a geographic place as a state of mind—perhaps Viola’s after she has survived the wreck at the beginning of the play. In a sense, the whole play happens in that bubble. Viola washes up on the seashore of Illyria, this upside-down world, and never goes back to reality. It’s like Shakespeare wanted to move us all into that mindset of being upended by love.
Working with my longtime designers, Lee Savage and Jennifer Moeller, we started looking at many images of upside down worlds, worlds of mirrors and clouds. I knew I wasn’t interested in using a traditional, proscenium lens for this play, in having a formal distance between the audience and the stage. One of the great—and often underutilized—facets of Sidney Harman Hall is its capabilities for transformation, its inherent potential to be an immersive space.
I also knew that, if Illyria is where we would ultimately be going, we had to start somewhere else, somewhere more grounded in reality, a world more like the one we’re living in. I’ve always felt—and don’t take this the wrong way—that the grandeur and scale of Sidney Harman Hall and its public spaces are reminiscent of the international departure lounge at an airport. (It is an appropriate metaphor really—the theatre as a point of departure.)
I love airports. Even when the modern experience of travel does its utmost to dehumanize us, there is always a whiff of adventure in an airport. And with the democratization of air travel, departure lounges are transient spaces where all sorts of different people from different cultures and backgrounds collide in shared experience. Airports are places of constant narrative, of comings and goings, of leave-takings and reunions, of loves lost and found. I can and have spent hours sitting in airports just observing the hundreds of human stories passing me by. All of Shakespeare’s Illyrians, this great cast of characters, each with their own stories, are just like holiday travelers you might see at JFK or Heathrow or Dulles.
Importantly, there is also an element of fear in flying, for me as for most people. Most of us respond to the sensation of an enormously heavy cylinder rising into the sky with a mixture of elation and dread. What is it we don’t like? I think it is loss of control. We know the chances of being in a car accident are infinitely greater, but we don’t say a prayer every time we get behind the wheel. Pilots are usually not apprehensive about flying. But they possess the illusion of control. Passengers don’t.
Ship travel was also pretty scary in Shakespeare’s time. When people set out on a voyage, they had a very high risk that the trip would not go as planned, that they may not ever arrive at their destination. Sebastian and Viola more or less surrendered control of their destinies when they boarded their ship. In choosing this modern setting, I wanted to exploit our latent fear of flying and call out our fear of losing control, in life and in love.
Twelfth Night is one of the most perfect comedies ever written, the mid-career work of a master dramatist. Watching people fall head over heels in love is a bit like watching someone slip on a banana peel. We laugh at the loss of control. But we laugh with a mixture of pity and dread. It could be any of us slipping. It could be any of us in Illyria. And even as we laugh, we are reminded that the play is really a paean to impossible love and the endless complications of the human heart.