The summer solstice was this past week, and with it, one of the most sacred nights of the year for actors and Bardolaters everywhere. Sometimes it’s celebrated on the solstice itself, sometimes the weekend immediately afterwards; a Google search yielded this year’s official date as June 24th. It was Midsummer’s Eve, that night when a quartet of Athenian youths, a group of amateur performers, and a tribe of magical fairies met up with each other in a fantastical Shakespearean wood.
I’ve mentioned before that I appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in college; it marked my very first experience with Shakespearean performance, and was among my first experiences with acting in general and with raging cast parties. For today’s post, I want to revisit one epic Midsummer cast party in particular, since that long-ago bacchanal is the only way to explain what I’ve been doing as a writer for this entire first half of 2017.
I’m going to be circumspect and not name names here, since the two principal figures in this story are gentlemen who have gone on to run rather significant arts organizations. However, on that long-ago night, they were my fellow undergraduate actors, cast in the roles of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Philostrate, his master of the revels. “Philostrate”, a fellow freshman, was an exceptionally serious, reserved, and focused young man – much like the part itself, the court functionary who introduces the rude Mechanicals and their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. “Theseus,” however, was a senior, the BMOC in our little drama department, and he was in fulsome Dionysian mode that night. For whatever reason, “Theseus” decided that the loosening up of “Philostrate” would be his great project of the evening. And over the course of the night, “Philostrate” got as drunk as I have ever seen a human being get, while the Falstaffian cries of the Duke rang out, exhorting him to party even harder:
“Philostrate, you dog!”
I must have heard that war-cry sound a dozen times and more that evening. My poor classmate heard that phrase for a full three and a half years after that fateful night:
“Philostrate, you dog!”
All of which taught me two things. First, you learn a lot about people when they’ve had more to drink than you. Second, and more importantly: if I were ever to write a play in the vein of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, focusing on the lesser-known supporting players in a Shakespearean classic, it would have to be about Midsummer, and it would have to focus on Philostrate.
I mean, after all that, how could it not?
I proceeded to take this insight and do exactly nothing with it. I was in college, after all – I was extremely busy. Philostrate the play became something of a pipe dream. Maybe I’d do something with it, maybe I’d write a lead role for myself, maybe someday…
About ten years later, in a friend’s Shakespeare workshop, I finally got around to reading Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen. Like Midsummer, Two Noble Kinsmen is set against the background of Theseus’ marriage to Hippolyta, and the revels taking place to celebrate it. And reading this play, I was reminded of my long-ago pipe dream, and another insight came to me. Philostrate would have to take place behind the scenes of both of these plays, somehow unifying their contradictory (and in the case of 2NK, baffling as hell) plotlines to tell the true story of the revels.
And again, I did nothing with this insight.
There’s a whole host of reasons why I wasn’t writing at this particular time of my life, but in the case of this particular project, there was one overriding issue. I had a setting, I had an idea, but I didn’t have a story. I didn’t know how Philostrate belonged in the world of the other play, and I didn’t know what his particular journey would be or why anybody should care about it. So a pipe dream it remained.
I can’t remember what happened, but about two years ago it hit me – how exactly Philostrate could be connected to the most memorable character in TNK, the Jailer’s Daughter. And once I had that connection, after a quarter of a century, an actual full-blown plot presented itself. (And I’m not going to reveal either the connection or the plot here – no spoilers!) And so I went to my Ardens, trying to figure out how on earth it would be possible to connect the two plays in such a way as to weave an entire third play around them.
It can, as it turns out, be done.
I finished up other projects I was working on, did some further research, and at the start of this year, started a rough draft. An extremely rough draft. For you see, this play is written as if it were an Elizabeth play itself, the third and final installment of some unknown trilogy. And we’re about four centuries out of practice when it comes to verse drama. Nothing I’ve written this far has come this slowly, and I’ve been tempted to chuck it more than once – but after a quarter century, I figured if I’ve come this far there’s no reason I shouldn’t see it through.
I finished just after midnight, in the early morning hours of the 24th. Midsummer’s Eve. Just as the iron tongue of midnight hath tolled twelve.
It’s nowhere close to finished, of course. Huge chunks of what I wanted to put in are still missing, whole vast swaths of doggerel have to be turned into something approximating English verse. And it’s going to be a while before I get back to this; I have a number of other projects I’ve put on the back burner, and it will be better in any case for me to look at this script with fresh eyes once it’s time to revise. But after all these many long years, a draft exists. Broken and messy though it is, it’s an actual, tangible thing.
It’s not just a Dream anymore.