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Any production occurs "in history," even if the production tries to escape a recognizable moment in the past. Some productions do, of course, and are often praised for their "post-modern indeterminacy." Shakespeare in Love survives some of its earlier lapses into anachronism, such as the silly 1970s trip to the shrink, which trades on self-congratulatory recognitions on the part of members of the audience, to move into a late-1990s vision of Elizabethan London, as if Sam Wanamaker's Globe had spread down Bankside and slid its tentacles across several bridges to the City, there to replace the steel and glass towers with squatter structures of timber, mortar, and brick, and gridlocked avenues with muddy lanes. The architecture, streets, and costumes convey "authenticity" and are not really much different than the black-and-white mise-en-scene of the opening of the 1929 Taming of the Shrew, though the latter features more live dogs. Most important, the settings for Shakespeare in Love contextualize the love story and its conflict: an arranged marriage versus romantic love, which, in turn is the conflict central to the play-within-the film, Romeo and Juliet. Conceptual space and the story told within that space coincide perfectly. The film emerges from a tradition of films about the production of plays or musicals or films in which backstage and onstage worlds tug at each other. In this genre, the onstage world sometimes resolves the offstage dilemmas. Marion Davies's wonderful silent film Show People, Singin" in the Rain, Mickey-and-Judy flicks like Babes in Arms, and Cole Porter's masterpiece, Kiss Me, Kate! are examples of a genre that seldom fails, though it can do so, as in Goldiggers of 1937, which consistently trespasses beyond the boundaries of credulity. Shakespeare in Love benefits from its not having a happy ending. Unlike the examples I give or almost any other instance in the genre, the two young lovers don't end up together. That separation lifts the film above its generic counterparts. It is, as the comparison with old-fashioned films suggests, an old-fashioned film, doing what film has always done well and, above all, it is thematically unified from its depths to its surfaces.
The same cannot be said for Michael Hoffman's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is a waste of money and, possibly, of good actors, and certainly of time for its audience. It is a good example of what happens when a shallow understanding of post-modernism overtakes the production of a Shakespeare script. Here the mode is further compromised by that old nemesis called "Hollywood," a term for any film that seeks only to be popular, to fill the screen with "stars" and count on them to make a banal production profitable. The film reveals no sense of whatever its generic premises may be. Apparently, that is an intentional absence, as some of the director's nonsensical utterances suggest. The historical moment that the film selects collides with whatever the script may still have to communicate to a late-twentieth-century film audience.
Dennis Kennedy notices a trend in staging Shakespeare toward "a trans-historical or anti-historical use of eclectic costuming and displaced scenery, creating through irony, a disjunction between the pastness of Shakespeare's plays and the ways we now receive them" (1993, 166-167). Ron Daniels's 1995 Henry V for the American Repertory Theater took this tendency over the border. "Whereas the English are very much these mud creatures," said Daniels, "the French are sky creatures" (quoted in Graham 1995, B30). This is as if Daniels (or J. R. R. Tolkien or Frank Herbert) were making a fiction, not Shakespeare, as if the contrast between the French and British, a "given" the play invites a director to explore, invites a reductio ad absurdum. "We're looking at these French creatures as very beautiful creatures," Daniels gushes, "very wondrous creatures. They walk on shoes that are 1 foot high, they ride these beautiful horses" (Graham 1995, B30). The French did walk around on high shoes and later were pushed around on wheeled platforms, from which they played chess or rolled dice on trays held high by servants. Later, they pranced inside toy horses borrowed from Equus. The "ideas" go back at least as far as John Barton's 1972 Richard II, where Mowbray and Bolingbroke appeared inside toy horses, as on an amputated merry-go-round for their trial by combat, thereby trivializing the profound issues involved in their dispute, and where Northumberland (the "ladder") grew into a giant upstage crow. These isolated images forced me to keep resuspending my disbelief until I gave up trying. The issues of this difficult script were sponged up by the distracting pictures Barton kept presenting to us. They belonged to no coherent world. In science fiction, although things happen that cannot happen in "reality," the writer creates a world in which they can and do happen. I think particularly of the Dune trilogy, where Herbert's imagination challenges our own.
It is true that tribesmen with spears charged Mussolini's columns in 1935, that a squadron of Polish uhlans attacked a Panzer division in 1939, and that an army without an air force defeated the United States in Vietnam. History is full of anachronisms and, even today, different parts of the world live in different, if parallel, times. Daniels, however, put his fantasy Frogs up against automatic weapons. While the French misunderstood the lesson of Crecy about the superiority of the longbow and charged headlong into it again at Agincourt, this contingent was from another time and another world. We were asked to plunge our disbelief into deeper places than it can go in order to accept what was happening on stage. We were being asked to imagine the charge of a group of armored knights against the machine-gun nests of the Somme in 1916. In that instance, the superior numbers, of which the inherited script makes so much, would mean nothing. By moving into non-history, the play made no link with our moment, except to suggest that Henry V and its title character represent a boy's fantasy as played out at a video arcade. It may be that my assumption that a director attempts to discover coherence in the script and to deliver that coherence to an audience is untenable within post-modernist criteria.
In 1935, Warner Brothers trotted out their stars and produced a black-and-white Midsummer Night's Dream that took advantage of the field of depth that color makes impossible and of the filmic silence that Warner Brothers had almost single-handedly destroyed. The Indian boy tries to follow his wafting friends, but pauses at a pond because he cannot fly. The donkey who pulled the props into the woods for Peter Quince bolts at the sight of his brother, Bottom, one of the film's images of monstrosity that contrast with fairies who dance up ramps of clouds as unicorns graze below. Oberon and Titania fly in from a far star and land gracefully on the parapets of Theseus's sinewy palace. The special effects that seem to rise from Korngold's adaptation of Mendelssohn are beautiful these many years after for all of the Hollywood auspices of the film (see Crowl 1992). The black-and-white format gives the film the feeling of an antique, which, in turn, erases discrepancies in casting and technique that would have been clear to a 1935 eye, still learning to tune its ear to film. Time has been kinder to this film than to other early sound manifestations, such as the 1929 Taming of the Shrew, which began as a silent fill and still has the feeling of one; the 1936 Romeo and Juliet; and the 1937 As You Like It. Perhaps that indulgence results from the film's ability to do some things that films …