This is from my proposal to the Theatre and Dance department (more or less):
I’m working on a minimalist, eighty-minute long chamber play for six players based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The piece will focus on Hermia’s dream/nightmare highlighting the societal forces of oppression and their internalization into the young woman’s psyche where they reside and reign as what Freud would call the super-ego. The central theme I hope to explore deals primarily with the relationship of fantasy to reality. Lysander makes Hermia’s fantasy (of fleeing an oppressive patriarchy for an egalitarian and loving utopia in the forest) into a reality. In the process he makes Hermia into a refugee. According to Jacques Lacan, the realizing of a fantasy can result in the loss of the ability to fantasize. When Hermia’s fantasy disintegrates, what remains is not the reality in which she began, but a nightmarish Real too traumatic to be experienced directly and thus requiring a realignment of her relationship to the “reality” she formerly fled. The paradox of Shakespeare’s Dream shows how we flee fantasy for the safety of the pacifying illusions that we unconsciously use to construct reality itself. Given the nature of current American social and political reality and the effect that the moving image has on it (not to mention the role the moving image plays in creating it), I feel the use of projected video will be essential to the piece. Roughly stated, the live actors will confront images of themselves “projected” on screens, in essence, fantasy versions of themselves. The relationship of life to virtual reality that this juxtaposition will examine mirrors the relationship of the conscious self with its unconscious counterpart. The philosophical and poetic center of Shakespeare’s Dream, I believe, is an analogous relationship.
This project is not about reverence for Shakespeare or any so-called “Shakespearean Tradition.” It is also not about “deconstruction” of classical texts in the service of any post-modernist theory. It’s not about philosophical or intellectual obscurantism dressed up in the tropes of “progressive” theatre. It’s not about preconception or my “reading” of the play. It’s not about using the flashy trickery of technology to avoid the intellectual or intuitive rigors of making theatre. Most importantly, it’s not about reassuring the audience of how fortunate we all are to live in an enlightened democratic state in which oppressive patriarchal laws (as depicted by Shakespeare) have all been abolished in favor of the total freedom we now enjoy.
The primary question we will ask is: In what ways does the unconscious determine our actions and thoughts without our conscious awareness? Inextricably linked to this question is the idea of the mask or the performative dimension that structures societal space. Does role-playing and disguise unconsciously lead to liberation and realization of the “true” self? Put differently: Can you really “fake it ’till you make it” as is maintained by Pascal, not to mention every 12-step recovery program? The dialectic that Shakespeare seems to be presenting in A Midsummer Night’s Dream hangs on the idea of symbolic identification or the assumption of a symbolic mandate (Hermia’s order, on pain of death, to assume the role of Demetrius’s wife for the remainder of her days). Hermia denies the identification and choses to throw off the false mask required by the patriarchy. She has a different image of herself than her father has and her ideal self conflicts with the one required by the social compact. Hermia would die for the chance to choose love by her own eyes. But in the end, when she has assumed the role of wife to her beloved Lysander, she, like her doppleganger Helena, doesn’t speak another single word – and on the “happiest” night of her life. Is this mute woman the “true face” beneath the mask Hermia has braved death to cast aside? Most importantly: What does Hermia’s transformation mean in relation to the transformations of Hippolyta and Titania who appear to have given over to the will of the patriarchy and become the very masks they’ve been forced to wear? I haven’t an answer to this final question, but I know that the key to making this play lies in not placing judgment on Hippolyta and Titania. I simply want to create a space whereby the designers, the actors, the audience and myself can examine these images as they collide on stage.
We will try to discover whether or not wearing a mask actually makes us (contrary to conventional wisdom) what we feign to be. Are we the masks we wear? Can we be sure the “true self” we keep searching for really exists? Or is it possible that the only authenticity available to us comes in the performance of a role required by the social network? Perhaps the Rude Mechanicals know more about our heroes (the six lovers) by the end of their play-within-a-play than the lovers themselves who’re watching (and heckling) a representation of their own folly. It’s my feeling that Bottom and Hippolyta share a moment of recognition during the play-within-the play. In that moment, they both know something about what happened in the land of dreams, in the unconscious. They recognize each other and see through reality to their own dream counterparts (the Ass and Titania). I’m trying to discover what they’re trying to discover in that moment of connection. Language cannot adequately describe such connections but theatre can make them happen in the here and now.
You may ask, “But what happened to all the comedy and tramping around in the forest?” That’s there, it’s a given. But I think that there’s a dark center to this play that often goes ignored. When the four refugees return to Athens after their comic ordeal at the hands of the fairies each marries her or his “true” love. Then why don’t Hermia and Helena speak another word for the rest of the play? Do they regret their choices? Have they forgotten the cruelty the two young men recently visited upon them?
Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.