I can’t escape A Midsummer Night’s Dream. No one can. Every year when Shakespeare Festivals across the country announce their summer seasons, an onslaught begins: an army of “Midsummer”s. An armada. An invasion. “Midsummer” is as ubiquitous to the Summer as The Nutcracker is to the Holidays. Today we are going to examine why this play is so darn popular. 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

But first, a little personal background: as a blessing and/or curse, “Midsummer” has graced and/or haunted me at every step of my artistic career. My first exposure to Shakespeare was reading “Midsummer” in school, first studying the play in Middle School then in High School (I recall playing Snout the Tinker when we read scenes aloud; my depiction was by all accounts definitive). 

Since graduating into adulthood I have had the joy/horror of being in “Midsummer” five times. My first experience was an accident. I was directing a production for a young actors’ training program in California. Three days before opening the kid playing Puck dropped out. In the absence of understudies and facing the possibility of having to cancel the entire run, I volunteered to step into the role. The challenge was not so much learning the material (I feel like much of “Midsummer” sort of floats around in the actor’s collective-unconscious); no, the real difficulty was trying to make it not seem weird that in a cast of children, the character of Puck was randomly portaged by a 6’4’’ man. The casting was less than ideal. 

My next two stabs at “Midsummer” were both playing Bottom, first when I was studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and subsequently on tour through the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. For six months we toured an abridged version of the play through the tri-state area, performing at schools, libraries, and community centers. After completing a half-year of “Midsummer” servitude I celebrated by … performing in another production of “Midsummer” immediately after (this time as the young lover Demetrius with Vermont Shakespeare Festival). 

Lucky “Midsummer” number five was just last year when I had the good fortune to make my debut at California Shakespeare Theater playing Lysander and Flute in a large-scale outside production. I have taught the play, edited the play, directed it, and seen more productions than I can count. It has gotten to the point where when I meet a fellow performer for the first time, my customary greeting has become: “Oh you’re an actor? How many productions of “Midsummer” have you been in?” 

A Midsummer Nights Dream
Vintage book illustration.

So why this popularity? Why is A Midsummer Night’s Dream a perennial favorite, performed so frequently? Well, the easy and perhaps overly-simplistic answer is that “Midsummer” is accessible. Its plot is intricate but not particularly complicated. Characters are clearly differentiated. And it is actually funny (not pretend “Shakespeare Funny”). There is no better way to introduce young people to the classics than through this particular play. We used to have talkbacks after our school tour performances in which the children would sometimes complain that they didn’t understand any of the show; we would politely point out that we heard them laughing. You can’t laugh at what you don’t understand. Through the joyful, anarchic humor of “Midsummer”, we tricked thousands of children into understanding Shakespeare. Gotcha!

Additionally, “Midsummer” is just a solidly constructed play. It works. If you say the words in order you will get laughs. The story will flow. The three plot lines (the four young lovers; Titania, Oberon, and the fairies; and the Mechanicals rehearsing their play) are seamlessly intertwined. The play is short, swift, and economical. It is entertaining without seeming frivolous. It doesn’t feel like empty calories (hello The Merry Wives of Windsor) nor does it feel uncomfortably out-of-touch (hi The Taming of the Shrew). It strikes the silly/tender balance just right. There is equal room for slapstick and for deep emotional truths. It also contains some genuine big ideas. The play can be viewed through the lens of gender inequality, the loss and finding of self, the repression of sexuality, even global warming (seriously! check out Titania’s “These are the forgeries of jealousy” speech – she predicts climate change hundreds of years before the fact!). 

It is also the most outdoorsy of Shakespeare’s plays, an obvious and rewarding pick for outdoor Shakespeare festivals. “Midsummer” all-but demands to be performed under the stars in an environment that lets the natural world in. The characters venture into the woods to find themselves and we, the audience, get to follow. It is the perfect summer Shakespeare offering, a bucolic escape. It invites us all into the trees, into the night, into a shared dream. Plus the delightful play-within-a-play that concludes the festivities is a gloriously ridiculous meta-theatrical farce, one of the best comedic sequences in the Shakespearean canon. “Midsummer” is a joyful play, beginning to end: warm, welcoming, generous, and full of life. 

So I really can’t complain. Even after five spins through this particular Dream, I admit I still love the dusty old thing. I’m grateful for the time I’ve gotten to spend in this unique enchanted forest. There truly is room for everyone in “Midsummer”: room for actors to grow, room for audiences to laugh, room for children to discover, room for theaters to make bank, and room for nature to reclaim the stage. So even though I’ve already spent more time in the world of “Midsummer” than any other dramatic work, I still feel like I will be back again one of these days. And I haven’t played Oberon yet. So if anyone’s casting … ?

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