February 9, 2018

Midsummer's wacky ending: Pyramus and... who, now?

Ah, the glory that is Pyramus and Thisbe.

It's the most famous play you didn't know you knew. But you do! ...Usually under another name. I know you've seen it once. The odds are good you've seen it twice, and it's entirely possible you've seen it up to four times, each version with its own individual style.

Abraham Daniƫlsz: Pyramus and Thisbe (ca. 1670)
In Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the hapless laborers (Bottom, Flute, Snout, Snug, Starveling and Quince) leave their various day jobs to form The Worst Theater Troupe in History for a command performance of Pyramus and Thisbe to celebrate a royal wedding.

This gives Shakespeare an opportunity to poke deadly fun at amateur actors, a species he doubtless had to tolerate on more than one occasion. If you've worked in community theater you've seen these types:
  • the guy who thinks he'd be PERFECT for all the parts (Bottom)
  • the doofus who reads all his lines at once instead of waiting for others' lines in between; and who also reads the stage directions out loud. (Flute)
  • The big dummy who is so hopeless an actor that you give him the simplest part with as few lines as possible (Snout)
  • the prima donna who doesn't take direction well and stomps out of rehearsal in a hissy-fit (Bottom again)
and so on.

Pyramus and Thisbe is a story dating back many centuries. The first written-down version of it we know of comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses in 8 A.D. The version played by our Thespians follows the original story pretty faithfully - it just gets ruined by the absurdity of the players' distinct lack of talent, much to the amusement of their audience. Pyramus and Thisbe are lovers whose parents forbid them to be together. One thing leads to another; Pyramus suicides when he thinks Thisbe has been killed; Thisbe (who is still kicking) then stabs herself upon finding Pyramus.

Curtain.

So I wish to point out a couple of things about this dramatic enterprise. The first concerns what Shakespeare did; the second with what Britten contributed in his operatic adaptation.

1. I'M PRETTY SURE SHAKESPEARE WAS A REALLY LIKEABLE GUY.
Remember now: A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy, but it is made up equally of two distinct genres of comedy: a) situation comedy (known as sit-com), and b) farce. Bottom & Co,'s presentation of Pyramus is the farce. In fact, it's the farciest farce that ever farced. Queen Hippolyta aptly observes "This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard."

HOWEVER! the same basic story also appears as sit-com. Hermia and Lysander, after all, are the lovers forced to elope because her father disapproves of Lysander. Do they off themselves at the end? Well, no, because then it wouldn't be a sit-com, right? But the connection is there: we have two versions of Pyramus and Thisbe.

But, as they say on late-night infomercials, THAT'S NOT ALL!

I assume most of you Dear Readers graduated from high school, so by now it probably struck you that the Pyramus story sounds suspiciously familiar. And you're right. 

Approximately two years before writing Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare wrote a serious, tragic, poetic version of the story; one that makes you cry and results in dark streaks of mascara oozing down your cheeks (don't you hate that? I know I do):

Romeo and Juliet. Obviously, P&T is the original source material for R&J,

So let's stop and tie a ribbon on all this: within the space of about two years, William Shakespeare gave us THREE versions of Pyramus and Thisbe:
  • TRAGEDY: Romeo and Juliet
  • SITUATION COMEDY: The story of Hermia and Lysander
  • FARCE: the absurd performance of the hapless amateurs near the finale.
See what I mean about Shakespeare? You'd have to be a pretty cool guy to give one story such triple treatment. I bet it'd have been fun to spend the day with him at a pub, listening to him tell stories.

2. BRITTEN RAISED THE ANTE IN HIS P&T
If you plan to come to Virginia Opera's production, don't leave early - you must see Pyramus and Thisbe. (NOTE: some day I will adopt a Corgi puppy and I will name her Thisbe.) Everyone should see this ... thing... at least once before they die.

Britten's approach is to follow Shakespeare's lead. The Bard lampooned bad actors and bad scripts, so Britten pokes good-natured fun at bad singers, atonal music, bel canto and Giuseppe Verdi.
  • Snout, as The Wall that separates the estates of the two lovers, "sings" in a parody of Sprechstimme, that creepily atonal conflation of singing and speech introduced by Arnold Schoenberg in such works as Pierrot Lunaire and Moses und Aaron.
  • Bottom, as Pyramus, emotes like a big Smithfield Ham in solos that remind us of grimly serious passages of Verdi - Phillip II from Don Carlo, perhaps.
  • But cruelest of all is the music given to Flute as Thisbe. Flute, who was dismayed back in Act 1 when he learned he would have to portray a girl, enters in an ill-fitting wig and gown to a melody that might have been composed by Donizetti with less-than-full inspiration:
You'll note, perhaps, that the melody is in E flat. Sadly, when "Thisbe" begins her solo, she sings in E natural, producing excruciating dissonance. Not much of an ear, has our Flute. Well, he's a little nervous - wouldn't you be?

The subtle daggers launched at inept artists and old-fashioned opera music are too numerous to list completely. 

And now, a little P.S. 

There's actually a fourth version of Pyramus and Thisbe you probably know. It too is a musical adaptation, though in a different musical solar system than Britten's. And it has an actor playing a Wall! And it premiered in the same year as Britten's opera - 1960.

Figure it out yet? It's The Fantasticks.

Wouldn't Ovid be amazed? Think of the royalties he could have collected.....


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