Comic plays are rarely as funny on the page as they are on the stage. I was last reminded of this when I read Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed, and found myself going through passages of dialogue without so much as a chuckle when, in the hands of performers Julie White and Tom Everett Scott and director Scott Ellis, those same words had made me pee my pants. If even a 21st century comic play struggles to leap off the page, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself underwhelmed by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It’s not that the play isn’t funny. The main plot of the mismatched and mistaken lovers has some amusing misunderstandings. The stunningly unproductive first rehearsal of Bottom’s theater troupe is elevated from sloppy slapstick to refined satire, seeing as how the arguments among the members of the creative team are likely being repeated in network boardrooms on both coasts today. And then there’s Oberon’s famous prank on his embittered bride, Titania, which lends itself to all the bawdy bestiality jokes you can muster.
But beyond the broadest humor, there isn’t much there; at least not in the edition I read, which was a bit sparse with its explanatory notes. Perhaps a more dutifully annotated copy would have allowed me to enjoy the Elizabethan wordplay a bit more. On a related tangent, I wonder if someone will have to footnote all of Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe puns on Sex and the City for future generations.
Even when taking those things lost in translation out of the equation–even ignoring the comedy quotient altogether–Midsummer is simply not a particularly well-structured play. It follows the essential framework of traditional theatrical comedy: there is great discord in the world, madcap mayhem ensues, and all is made right with a wedding (or, in this case, three of them). Beyond that, though, the bare bones of Midsummer are hollow and assembled haphazardly. The conflict is completely resolved by the close of Act 4, but because Shakespeare left Bottom and the rest of the secondary characters without a finish, he tacked on Act 5, in which they perform their awful play for Theseus and the soon-to-be-newlyweds. Act 5 has its moments (it’s actually the great-great-granddaddy of Mystery Science Theater 3000), but it’s wholly unnecessary.
Another flaw is that the most compelling character in Midsummer is the most serious one. Poor Helena gets shit on by everyone in the play. Demetrius rudely puts her down and repeatedly turns her away. Lysander winds up being a tease, though he doesn’t realize what he’s doing at the time. Oberon screws the pooch even further by putting the reluctant Demetrius under an identical spell, which has the reverse effect of making him even more repellent to Helena. When Hermia finally catches up with them, Helena breaks out the bitch mitts and, albeit mistakenly, tears Hermia a new one for her part in this apparent charade. Yes, Helena’s got her lines crossed, but it’s during this verbal and nearly physical cat-fight that we learn that all throughout their friendship, Hermia has basically been the Shakespearean equivalent of Regina George from Mean Girls. The three points of the play’s initial love triangle have all revolved around Helena, and they’ve all been pretty terrible to her, whether by accident or by design. As such, I found myself rooting for her, even if her eventual union with Demetrius rang a bit false. Still, should the character a reader most readily identifies as the protagonist in a comedy be the one whose situation is really the farthest from being funny?
Midsummer has some solid thematic elements going for it, namely the great mystery of love itself, of being in love (and its alarming similarity to criminal psychosis); but as a diversionary piece of comic theater, it wasn’t all I hoped it would be. If I heard of a production being staged somewhere nearby, I’d give it a chance and buy a ticket. But I think my next Shakespeare selection off the shelf will have to be one of the tragedies. Those are always good on paper.