by Ellen Gillingham
I attended the performance, A Midsummer Night’s Dream co-directed by Mitchell Hebert and Yu Fanlin on September 27, 2012. The performance took place in the Kay Theatre of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. The piece is an interpretation of William Shakespeare’s comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Just as three plots intertwine in the original play, this production mixed American and Chinese elements from performers to music. Analyzing the play revealed that Chinese and American cultures are not opposites as they may appear, but have an intertwined relationship that parallels themes in the plot.
The play opens with the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Some laborers get together to form a play to perform at the wedding. The play focused on two men and two women. Both men are in love with Hermia, but she only loves one, Lysander. The other woman, Helena loves the other man, Demetrius. The action begins when a faire uses magic to make Demetrius love Helena back, but he, having never seen Demetrius before mistakenly makes Lysander fall in love with Helena. Trying to correct his error, the faire ends up making both men fall in love with Helena. Oberon and Titania are the king and queen of the fairies. Oberon wants Titania to give him a changeling boy, but she will not. To get revenge he curses her to fall in love with the next creature that she sees. This happens to be Nick Bottom, who has been turned into a donkey. In the end, the couples end up matched correctly and married with Theseus and Hippolyta. The laborers end up producing a ridiculous play focusing on a wall. The play concludes as the fairy apologizes for the silliness of the play.
This production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream followed the same storylines as Shakespeare’s plot. The directors and writers took the themes of the play and applied them to culture. There is a theme of contrast in the play. The play juxtaposes extremes, so each character opposes each characteristic of another character. For example, Bottom is often a victim of pranks, while the fairy is a trickster. Bottom is depicted as part of the American country group by an American actor, while the fairy is part of the Chinese cast. This sets up a dichotomy between the two cultures. Bottom represents an American culture depicted as grotesque, clumsy, and marry. The fairy is shown as graceful and magical. It would have been interesting to see the third group, the lovers, depicted by another culture, as their characteristics are overly serious and chaotic. However, contrast between the laborers and the fairies is a prominent theme in the play. The love potions and magical flowers pair seemingly impossible characters. For example, the beautiful Titania is made to love the ass-headed Bottom. This makes the play more interesting and comedic.
By having a visual contrast between the laborers and the fairies be supported by the contrast in cultures, A Midsummer Night’s Dream reinforces cultural stereotypes. In 1849, Henry David Thoreau claimed that the world had to be sundered between East and West (Prashad 174). Orientalism is filled with analytical meaning, but nothing was considered central to the United States. The United States and European governments categorized the “East” or the “Orient.” However, this becomes problematic when values are applied to the “Orient” zone. The “West” or “Occident” sees itself as productive, dynamic, adult, and masculine, while the East is slothful, static, childlike, and feminine (Prashad 175). This generalization gives the “West” the opportunity to have dominance over the “East.” It is a flawed understanding of the world because it underestimates half of the world. Additionally, it rules out the theory of individualism by over generalizing people into groups by location.
In the play, this contrast is reinforced. The Chinese actors embody traits that are more feminine, while the American actors embody traits that are more masculine. One particular example that resonated with me is in the use of ribbons. The character Titania, who was depicted as Chinese, had a beautiful scene, where she wore a rainbow costume with ribbons that she dances with in great circles. The scene was elegant and graceful. On the other hand, later in the play, Bottom was wearing an off-white shirt with long sleeves. He spun the sleeves around, but in a different fashion. His actions appeared comedic, but clumsy. He was ultimately depicted as a fool, hitting other characters with his sleeves at random times. The shirt appeared to be too big for him and he was having a hard time with it. While Titania was applauded for her skills with the ribbons, Bottom received laughter at his buffoonery. The stereotypical images are also apparent, in the play, when the Chinese characters, both male and female, are seen nearly kissing men and crying. Both instances recreate the idea that the Chinese culture is more feminine and childlike than American.
The laborers in the play were portrayed as Americans. These actors perform a play-within-a-play. The play represents many of the important ideas and themes of the main plot, but in a condensed form. The condensing demonstrates the productive and efficiency of the West contrasting the slothful characteristics of the East. Additionally, the resourcefulness of the American character being able to play a wall pokes fun at the West’s dynamic characteristic, while the Chinese needed several scenes and characters to explain the same themes. The American actors offer to play several roles and adopt elements of Chinese culture, like the music. This serves to highlight their dynamic characteristic.
By performing Chinese and American cultures with such contrasts, the text reproduces the same images and presentations of a group of people as in popular culture. This becomes problematic when people take this repeated image as the sole and generalize it for every person in the group. It leads to prejudice, discrimination, and social-ism. It creates oppressors in society because it justifies forms of dehumanization by making the judgments seem deserved. In my opinion, the play works against this theory of opposition using Chinese characteristics throughout the entire play. These ties are subtle, but present enough to question the theme of complete opposition. For example, in the second country song performed by the American group, Tom Snout dances a solo. The choreography of this dance is quintessentially an American country-dance. However, it possesses elements of Chinese dance. The dancer shrugs her shoulders repeatedly, which is an important element of Mongolian dance. Reinforcing this culture link, the Chinese-sounding music for the play scene was played on the banjo, with the fiddle. These instruments are known as backbone of American old-time music (Appalachian Bluegrass).
When this play is performed at the University of Maryland, the Chinese culture is disseminated into the United States. This is why it is important not to perform the Chinese nation as purely “oriental,” as defined by Thoreau, but to include ties between the American and Chinese culture. A Midsummer Night’s Dream did a good job with subtle nuances that break the stereotypes. Looking below the surface of the play reveals that it does not solely show Americans as fools, and Chinese as feminine mystics. It mixes the two cultures by applying parts of American culture to the Chinese actors and Chinese culture to the American actors. Constants such as, the bamboo stalks, were present on the screen throughout the play. Bamboo being a plant that can grow in both China and the United States symbolizes the pervasiveness of culture. Additionally, the final scene ties the two cultures together by having both groups represented even taking care to great the other in their language. In essence, the play plays into obvious stereotypes, but ultimately performs the Chinese and American nation as interconnected paralleling the interweaving lines in the plot.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By William Shakespeare. Ina and Jack Kay Theatre, College Park. 27 September 2012. Live.
Appalachian Bluegrass. Banjos. n.d. Web. 28 September 2012.
Prashad, Vijay. “Orientalism.” Burgett, Bruce and Glenn Hendler. Keywords for American Studies. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 174. Print.