A Mid-November Night's Dream
The Flapper dress isn’t for everyone. Unless you’re very tall and slim, straight dresses, finishing just below the knee, can really make you look like you’re wearing a House Elf’s pillowcase. So when I was invited to a Great Gatsby party I decided I would take the Baz Luhrmann approach: I would aim to evoke 1920s glamour (with a great deal of beading) but in an historically inaccurate and far more flattering and fashionable cut. Doesn’t every period drama say more about the period in which it is produced than the era in which it is set?
Well I was thrilled with my outfit – it’s definitely the season for beading – and I particularly enjoyed meeting my friends before-hand in the dingiest pub in town, wearing my Carrie Mulligan-style crown. I hadn’t dressed as incongruously as this since that phase as an undergraduate when I thought it was a good idea to wear a tartan turban and yellow kaftan. I felt very undergraduate in the best possible sense. As we enjoyed our curly fries, one of our number (less dazzled by the prospect of an evening in sequins than I) mused about whether the night would end in a tragic automobile accident, or if there’d be disillusionment-themed decorations. I said, perhaps too primly, that I thought the theme was probably more about the aesthetic than ideas of disappointment, betrayal, shattered illusion, and the death of the American Dream. Sure enough the party was wonderful fun, with no road deaths involved. I did, however, feel a certain pinch of disillusionment when I got up early the following morning to catch a train.
As my train whipped through rain towards the south-west and dithered outside small train stations where nobody got off, I thought about the idea of a party. Gatsby aside, we go to parties full of expectation, we go dressed beautifully, flushed with excitement, and possibly gin, as the best versions of ourselves. For those couple of hours we sparkle in conversation, laugh loudly, flirt, dance like maniacs, and are free of responsibility. The next morning, we get up and go to work, in our duller everyday wear, have our mundane conversations over the photocopier, and shoulder - once again - all the responsibilities and anxieties that we had briefly put aside. Like the party, the Shakespearean comedy contains a brief moment of sparkling freedom, illusion and excitement, but, similarly, in the comedy, this suspension of reality is only ever temporary. At the end of the play order is restored, disguises and misunderstandings are dissolved, and the characters are reassigned to their designated social roles. Usually this takes the form of a marriage, with an independent, young woman controlled and safely defined as ‘wife’. Sometimes disobedient wives are taught a lesson by the end of the play, or ambitious servants are taught to know their place.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream illustrates this party / play analogy perfectly. The idea that the licence enjoyed by the characters who enter the green world is no more than a temporary illusion (or dream) is heightened by the inclusion of magic in the world of the forest. Although in this case the party isn’t that much fun for the lovers, their time in the wood outside Athens represents a limited period of freedom, magic, intoxication, and heightened emotion. As we go to a party to escape the strictures of everyday life and pursue our own desires, the lovers flee into the woods to avoid the harsh Athenian law that declares Hermia must submit to her father’s wishes and marry Demetrius or be left with the following choice: “Either to die the death or to abjure / For ever the society of men” (I.I). However, freedom is not altogether positive. The characters are plunged into a lawless society which has its own dangers. Lysander and Demetrius try to kill one another; they also display threatening behaviour to the women. Outside the confines of the town Lysander is importunate in his unwelcome attempts to sleep with Hermia (II.II), and Demetrius warns Helena, “do not believe / But I shall do thee mischief in the wood” (II.I). Demetrius reminds Helena that there are now no rules and no witnesses.
Helena’s behaviour on her night out in the woods is the sort that she might regret the following day. Helena, just as too many women we all know are, is held captive to the illusion that the man she’s pursuing deserves her attentions. She follows him, demeaning herself with her pleas:
“I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you:
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.” (II.I)
Because Helena is at a party / in the woods, her ill-advised desires are given free reign, as is her ability to humiliate herself. The function of the end of a comedy is to restore an acceptable social order. Since Helena has run off into the woods with Demetrius, the only socially acceptable ending in a patriarchal society that emphasises female chastity is that the pair must marry. The fairy plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream facilitates this ending with a drop of love potion, yet it is difficult not to imagine that Helena’s married life to the horrible Demetrius will be a terrible consequence of her short-lived freedom. The play leaves little possibility for the idea that married life will be much fun at all. Titania is a disobedient wife who, in the course of the play, is punished and humiliated for refusing her husband’s requests. I don’t think any of us want to imagine how Titania felt that morning after! Although the present day party faux pas doesn't usually end in marriage, a parallel might be drawn with those 21st Century Helenas (male and female) who pursue bad boys or girls, either for the challenge or the thrill of the chase, and then wonder why they have ended up with someone who really isn't that kind or pleasant. If you find yourself dismissing a potential date as "too nice" think of Helena!
While it may be tempting to class A Midsummer Night’s Dream as more of a nightmare after closer inspection, a good party is like a dream: surreal, intoxicating, and unbound by the normal rules you set yourself. The essence of any party is short-lived. Its fizzy mirage evaporates as soon as it’s over, leaving you to wonder why you ever thought purple eyeshadow, your dance moves, or that joke you told everyone, were a good idea. Despite the unreality of parties, once the illusion is hoovered up with all the sequins from the carpet, unfortunately they still have their consequences. Fortunately for me, apart from feeling a bit bleary-eyed as I sat on the train, and a slight consciousness of the anti-climax of returning to a world in which I don’t routinely wear a crown, I suffered no lasting after-effects from the Mid-November Gatsby party.