Existentialism has codified for us that anxiety about personal flaws and inadequacy is a 20th century realization. Prior centuries deluded themselves with romanticism, class systems, and theological dogma. Tragic or Comic theatrical structures dominated the stage from the Greeks though the Victorians. Theatre of the Absurd came into consciousness during the years of genocide and holocaust. We are no longer fated by our tragic flaw, nor destined to match with our lover. Dark humor, suffering, and death await us all. Life is a Seinfeld sit-com in which nothing really happens and we laugh at our own cruelty toward others. Most productions of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which I have seen, have held it in the realm of a Victorian era romanticism about twins being reunited and lovers matched. The Blackfriar Theatre’s current production presents a darker, and more substantial characterization, of What You Will. For the existentialist, the challenge is how to find meaning in our anxieties and inadequacies.
Twelfth Night has one of Shakespeare’s most memorable quotes for its opening line. Duke Orsino muses, “If music be the food of love, play on…” From his entrance on stage, wearing 19th century hunting suit and boots and carrying an empty shotgun, John Harrel, as Duke Orsino, draws us into their world of anxiety and inadequacy. He recites this line to a trio of musicians playing pleasant themes from the balcony. Yet, seconds later, he shows his romantically capricious attitude, as he discards his shotgun for a mandolin, plays a few notes badly (ever been to a concert in which someone next to you sang off-key and rhythm, but is in his or her own groove?), then silences the musicians, ” — Enough, no more;/’Tis not so sweet as it was before.” Throughout the play, Harrel will show us that Duke Orsino is in love with himself and his ideals of love, not any one actual person. He will eventually be matched with Viola, whom he idealizes as much, even though she spent most of the play pretending to be a boy. We’ll leave that 21st century theme right there.
Jessika Williams’ Viola plays us in the twin-dressed-as-her-brother disguise for most of the play, going by the male name Cesario. She wittily exchanges her feminine and masculine characteristics as easily as she changes her petticoats for tie and coat. The Duke’s and Countess Olivia’s hearts throb at Viola/Cesario’s entrances and exits. When Viola secures the position of the Duke’s messenger to Olivia, she expresses to us, the audience, that she will seduce the Countess for the Duke and the Duke for herself, “Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife”. Love is both masculine and feminine for Viola/Cesario. In the end, when she and her brother are reunited, she removes her tie and coat to reveal which type of love she is.
Benjamin Reed’s Sebastian, Viola’s brother who is nothing but masculine, shows up alive from the shipwreck, mid-way through the play. Dressed identically to his sister/brother figure, he drives the plot along as he quarrels with fools and lovers alike, who mistake him for Cesario. He knows himself, but not why these other accuse him and accost him for actions he did not do. But, he is superficially masculine enough to drop his drawers when the Countess offers her bed for no apparent reason to him (though she believes him to be Cesario, with whom she is smitten). The cock is ready to crow at the first light of day.
Allison Glezner’s Countess Olivia ravishes the play, whether she is in black-lace mourning her brother’s death or smooth as satin trying to draw Cesario to embrace her. She has vowed to mourn her brother’s death for seven years, thus frustrating the Duke’s plans to court her to fulfill his self-absorbed desires. Yet, upon meeting Cesario, who comes with the Duke’s invitation, she drops her veil of mourning to pursuit Ceario’s coat tails. As I mentioned, she is fulfilled once Sebastian arrives with the counter part that his sister lacks.
To keep this foursome of love-mates from becoming a drawing-room farce or melodrama, Shakespeare added a host of fools. David Anthony Lewis drunkenly plays Sir Toby Blech, who eventually pairs up with the Countess’s gentlewoman, Maria (Shunte Lofton). They are equally debauched for each other, full of schemes to put others in their places. Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Patrick Earl) has as much personal fortitude as his floppy hair style. They mock the gentry, drink, laugh, fight and sing, while playing pranks on each other. The butt of their revelry is Malvolio, whom Rene Thornton, Jr, portrays in all of his narcissistic greatness. In the end, he is put in his place, but also suggests that if the play had sequel, it would be a revenge play.
Should we as audience go beyond having a good evening watching this play, we might realize that we are as incomplete as all those on stage. We have our romantic aspiration and illusions. Our masculine and feminine characteristics may come out at times that both attract and repel us from others. We enjoy a good prank, but have been the butt of the joke at times. What we will is to bring all of those together to be complete. Yet, even then, we are Malvolio harbingering the desire for revenge that will perpetuate another cycle of action.
Why might Shakespeare have named this play Twelfth Night, and added the more telling What You Will? Twelfth Night is the celebration of the Magi finding the baby Jesus. Maybe the play was performed as a mid-winter revelry show? Maybe Shakespeare played a marketing trick to bring in audiences, or slip-another-by-the-Royalty whom might have seen him mocking their superficiality? Maybe Shakespeare realized that Twelfth Night was also called The Feast of the Epiphany, an experience of realizing how our inadequacy could be made whole. Only when all of the half-formed characters are reunited is Twelfth Night made whole. An existential epiphany.