With The Taming of the Shrew, the play-within-the-play is the main event. And as I explained in my last post, the frame that introduces the internal play is never closed. I think, however, that my theory about why that is the case is more appealing than just saying “Will forgot to take care of business.” I suggest that the way the material inside the frame consumes the thing itself operates as a metaphor for losing oneself, not just in a fantasy or a work of art, but in work. Work is certainly a major part of real life, and some who envy the French would probably say that it occupies too much of all our lives here in the States. The play-within-a-play device in Shrew can be interpreted as showing what happens when work becomes synonymous with or indistinguishable from one’s life.
With A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we have a true play-within-a-play situation. But more than a mere device, the performance of the internal play is the comedic climax of the whole event. If you have never seen a good production of Midsummer—or any production—you may have a hard time accepting that the scene where the mechanicals put on their little homespun production of “Pyramus and Thisby” to celebrate the royal wedding between Theseus and Hippolyta is truly hysterical. I don’t mean crack-a-smile funny; I mean writhe-in-pain-while-crazy-sounds-come-out-of-your-throat-and-nose funny. In fact, the first time I saw a production of Midsummer on stage (at a place called Lon Morris Junior College in the Texas piney woods) I cackled so hard that, after the show, some of the actors (including one of my best friends) thought I had lost it. But, quite truthfully, their performances were so wonderfully sincere in their bumbling that I was in the throes of the kind of laughter that can induce various embarrassing bodily malfunctions.
Part of what makes the “production” of the Midsummer play-with-the-play so hysterical (when done well) is that the audience has witnessed the mechanicals in earlier scenes working to pull the piece together. These people are not professionals; they all have day jobs—as a weaver, a bellows-mender, tailor, etc. They do, supposedly have a director, Peter Quince, who has prepared a basic draft for the proceedings. But from the outset, he has trouble keeping his team focused. For instance, while Quince tries to give the most basic instructions, Bottom the Weaver interprets every five seconds. It is not clear if Bottom is just bubbling over with enthusiasm, desperate to call attention to himself, incapable of subordination, desirous of clarification, or all of the above:
Is all our company here?
You were best to call them generally, man by man,
according to the script.
Here is the scroll of every man's name, which is
thought fit, through all Athens, to play in our
interlude before the duke and the duchess, on his
wedding-day at night.
First, good Peter Quince, say what the play treats
on, then read the names of the actors, and so grow
to a point.
Marry, our play is, The most lamentable comedy, and
most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby.
A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a
merry. Now, good Peter Quince, call forth your
actors by the scroll. Masters, spread yourselves.
Answer as I call you. Nick Bottom, the weaver.
Ready. Name what part I am for, and proceed.
You, Nick Bottom, are set down for Pyramus.
What is Pyramus? a lover, or a tyrant?
A lover, that kills himself most gallant for love.
That will ask some tears in the true performing of
it: if I do it, let the audience look to their
eyes; I will move storms, I will condole in some
measure. . . .
Bottom then goes on and on about all the great techniques he will employ to wow the audience—and he hasn’t even read the script yet.
And while he may be the biggest, Bottom isn’t Quince’s only headache. Flute is distraught about having to play a girl since he has “a beard coming.” Snug, cast as the lion, is worried about his ability to learn his lines in time because he is “slow of study” (till he is reassured that he can “do it extempore, for it is nothing but roaring.”) After a very trying first rehearsal in which little is accomplished, the team agrees to go their separate ways and reconvene in the woods later that night for a full rehearsal. But before Quince can get things started at the second meeting, Bottom is complaining about things in the script “that will never please” and that will “fright the ladies.” He takes it upon himself to add a Prologue wherein he’ll explain that the swords are not real swords, the lion is not a real lion, and the lovers Pyramus and Thisby don’t really die. When the players finally try a run-through, no one has memorized their cues, so they all miss their entrances. And Flute as “Thisby” is so anxious to finish that he speaks “all [his] lines at once.” The rehearsal is soon completely upended when the rakish fairy, Puck, “translates” Bottom into a literal embodiment of what he is (an ass). It is no wonder, perhaps, that when the mechanicals are called upon to present the fruits of their labor the next night after the wedding, they stand on shaky ground. Such poor preparation and so many substantive compromises, supplements, and deletions guarantee the final work product will be a bit of a mess.
Sound at all familiar?
Trying to put on plays “by committee” is not optimal. One needs a benevolent, yet strong, dictator at the helm. This is often true with legal matters, too. Lawyering so often involves team work. But because many lawyers are also known for their, uh, robust opinions, working as a team can be quite challenging. Moreover, learning how to operate as part of a professional team isn’t part of most legal training, that’s for sure. When it comes to writing something—like a legal brief—working by committee can be particularly challenging, frustrating, exasperating, inefficient.
What are the secrets of a successful work collaboration? At the very least, you need:
- a clear division of labor;
- each person assigned to a particular task to be capable of doing that job in the time allowed;
- each person to actually do his or her job in the time allowed; and
- someone ultimately in charge of The Big Picture or at least some process for working through conflicts.
In other words, when working as a team, everyone needs to know who is handling what and have the ability to get their job done; someone has to have authority to make sure all of the disparate efforts cohere in the end; and everyone on the team has to actually be worthy of the team’s trust. Getting all those stars to align can take some serious “theater magic.” But it does happen. And when it does, the result can be work product that is far superior to what even the most talented member of the team could have accomplished alone. But often, teams are much better at slowing things down than getting things down—or that which they create can seem like multi-headed hydras with no central nervous system.
Next time I am struggling with some team project (or team member) that is just not very satisfying, instead of looking for comfort in old episodes of The Office, I think I’ll try to picture my nemeses as characters in the terrifically funny final play in Act V, scene 1 of Midsummer. It begins on a wonderfully awful note with Peter Quince delivering not one, but two “Prologues” to try to justify all that follows:
If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think, we come not to offend,
But with good will. To show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then we come but in despite.
We do not come as minding to contest you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent you,
The actors are at hand and by their show
You shall know all that you are like to know.
Enter Pyramus and Thisby, Wall, Moonshine, and Lion
Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show;
But wonder on, till truth make all things plain.
This man is Pyramus, if you would know;
This beauteous lady Thisby is certain.
This man, with lime and rough-cast, doth present
Wall, that vile Wall which did these lovers sunder;
And through Wall's chink, poor souls, they are content
To whisper. At the which let no man wonder.
This man, with lanthorn, dog, and bush of thorn,
Presenteth Moonshine; for, if you will know,
By moonshine did these lovers think no scorn
To meet at Ninus' tomb, there, there to woo.
This grisly beast, which Lion hight by name,
The trusty Thisby, coming first by night,
Did scare away, or rather did affright;
And, as she fled, her mantle she did fall,
Which Lion vile with bloody mouth did stain.
Anon comes Pyramus, sweet youth and tall,
And finds his trusty Thisby's mantle slain:
Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broach'd is boiling bloody breast;
And Thisby, tarrying in mulberry shade,
His dagger drew, and died. For all the rest,
Let Lion, Moonshine, Wall, and lovers twain
At large discourse, while here they do remain.