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The Dream, Translated

As soon as the ink dried on the first quarto, other artists began setting their own stamp on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, redefining the play for their time and their world. Below are just a few of the notable adaptations of Dream. Do you have a favorite? Tell us in the comments section.

Composer Henry Purcell’s “Restoration spectacular,” The Fairy-Queen, adapts Shakespeare’s text into a semi-opera, a piece of theatre that combines a spoken play, masque-like episodes and music. Purcell pays homage to King William of Orange and his queen, Mary, with symbolism: orange trees for Dutch William and a Chinese-inspired scene tipping its cap to Mary’s collection of china.

Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn, only 17 years old, composes an overture inspired by the play, which is performed in concert in present-day Szczecin, Poland. Years later in 1847, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia commissions Mendelssohn to write incidental music for a German translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which features the now-famous Wedding March. In 1962, George Balanchine choreographs his Midsummer ballet to Mendelssohn’s music.

The Victorian era, an age of scientific classification and curiosity, comes to
a head with English director Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s production that features pluckable flowers embedded in a grass carpet and live rabbits. When the actor playing Bottom squeezes one of the rabbits too tightly out of annoyance, the rabbit bites him. The scene changes in this elaborate production add 45 minutes to the playing time.

Max Reinhardt stages A Midsummer Night’s Dream countless times during his career. His production in 1905 is highly realistic, employing three-dimensional trees and an innovative revolving stage used for the forest. The revolve allows for an almost infinite amount of scenic views and possibilities.

Actor-manager, director, playwright and theatre impresario Harley Granville-Barker breaks with the realism that had marked productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to this point. Instead of three-dimensional trees for the forest, Granville-Barker uses drapes with trees painted on them. Critics pan it almost gleefully, one saying, “No human being…can be expected to be anything but worried and annoyed by pink silk curtains that are supposed to be the roofs of houses, or green silk curtains that are supposed to be forest trees.”

Conductor, composer and pianist Benjamin Britten collaborates with Peter Pears to create an opera based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which focuses primarily on the goings-on in the woods. Each group in the story—mechanicals, lovers, and fairies—receives a specific musical treatment, and Britten stays close to Shakespeare’s original theme of love’s madness. In Thisbe’s final lament, Britten also makes fun of the opera form, parodying Italian composer Donizetti’s famously intense “mad scenes” that feature raving women.

Combining elements of Italian commedia dell’arte, circus and avant-garde theatre practices, Peter Brook strips away the ornamentation that had characterized Midsummer previously. He is the first director since Shakespeare to double Theseus and Hippolyta with Oberon and Titania, and he places the fairies on swings above the stage. The action takes place in a blank space, something like a rehearsal room, making the production consciously theatrical. It is the first post-modern approach to any of Shakespeare’s plays.

Theresa J. Beckhusen is STC’s Artistic Fellow and graduated summa cum laude from Susquehanna University with a dual degree in theatre and creative writing.

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