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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Thoughts on Shakespeare and war

Tonight I watched the 1939 version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on DVD. Mickey Rooney as Puck is alone worth watching this cinematic adaptation of German director Max Reinhardt’s legendary Hollywood Bowl staging of Shakespeare’s classic comedy of mismatched lovers. Truly, though, the entire movie is magical (even if I did find myself wishing for a letterbox version at times)..

I’m not a fan of film versions of Shakespeare’s plays. They always leave me wanting, at best. Some have seemed downright stinkers to me. (On the other hand, I was thoroughly captivated by “Shakespeare in Love”.) However, this movie is the exception. It is flat out brilliant. Put it on your Netflix queue right now if you have never seen this work of genius.

The scenery, the costumes, the fairy dust in the forest -- Will himself would have been flabbergasted at this realization of his play, I'm sure. And the acting is so charming.

James Cagney as Bottom is most excellent. Joe E. Brown, my favorite comedian as a youngster, is outstanding. Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland – a truly star-studded cast. The music is by Mendelssohn. The language is clear and understandable.

Now, I should say that the first Shakespearean production I ever saw, as a high school student on a field trip to McCarter Theater in Princeton – where my own first play was produced several years later – was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Puck was played by a 6 foot-plus galumphing actor who fascinated me at the time, as I had read the play and expected something quite different.

I’ve seen several productions of this comedy in the ensuing decades – it and “The Tempest” are my favorites of the Bard’s plays, commoner that I am -- and always that first staging was the standard by which subsequent experiences of this play were measured. Now that has been displaced, and by a film no less. The live version must have been astounding.

Among the other terrible crimes against humanity that were engendered by the second world war, the thwarting of the greatness of German theater does not stand out for most people. But a film like this makes you wonder where the world of theater would have gone had not the travesty of war stifled those artists and forced them to work outside their own language.

Humanity deserves better than unending war. We deserve beauty.

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