“Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
A classic case of mistaken identity washes up on the shores of Illyria — known today as Albania — spawning comic antics and utter abandon. Having survived a shipwreck, Viola dresses as a boy to become the page of Duke Orsino. Though smitten by her new master, she must obey when he sends her to woo the Countess Olivia on his behalf. Meanwhile, tricked into believing she shares his love, Olivia’s stuffy steward Malvolio hysterically humiliates himself to please her. This year’s production features a rich late 18th-century European design and setting.
By Bob Bows
Given the sketchy records of the Elizabethan court in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, it’s hard to know when this multi-faceted comedy was first performed, but the title and subtitle give us some clues as to the bard’s intent.
While present day observances of Twelfth Night (January 6th) are generally confined to the ecclesiastical calendar as the Feast of the Epiphany, in Elizabethan times it was also celebrated as a secular holiday, with an assortment of revelry and mischief.
These contrasting expressions—the sacred and the profane, restraint and revelry—are not only the opposing forces in the play, but are longstanding poles of human behavior around which discussions can be traced back at least as far as classical Greece, where they were symbolized by Apollo, on the one hand, and Dionysus, on the other: a rational and ordered life versus a sensual and spontaneous one.
As director Philip Sneed puts it, “I really think it has to do with an Apollonian versus Dionysian worldview. I go off of the line that Toby Belch says to Malvolio, ‘Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ Meaning, whatever you do and whatever your opinions are, this is going to happen, people are going to party.
“There’s a real tension in the play between Apollo and Dionysus, as there has been throughout history: Those folks like Malvolio who believe in order, who believe that there need to be rules, and that the only way people can function effectively and get along and do anything useful is if order is established and enforced; and those folks like Toby Belch, who are infused with a spirit of life that can’t be stopped; no rules will stop them.”
In the course of the story, this conflict—Malvolio (steward to Olivia, a rich countess) versus Toby Belch (Olivia’s kinsman), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Belch’s companion), and Maria (Olivia’s lady in waiting)—escalates, leaving us to consider the means for reconciling these opposing world views within ourselves and between ourselves and others.
The playwright interweaves this struggle with the other major dynamic in Twelfth Night: love in its many forms and disguises. Early in the play, Viola, who has survived a shipwreck, masquerades as a man (Cesario) and finds work as a go-between for Orsino (the Duke), in his efforts to woo Olivia.
Her disguise sets in motion many confused feelings: Orsino has feelings for Cesario, but doesn’t feel these are appropriate; Olivia grows fond of Cesario and is frustrated by his resistance; while Viola has feelings for Orsino, but is unable to properly express these without blowing her cover.
As is so often the case in Shakespeare, the refined struggles of the nobility are comically paralleled in the behavior of the rustics (common folk); in this case, the crude approaches of Malvolio, Belch, Aguecheek, and Maria serve as a fun house mirror of sorts, hyperbolizing the conduct of their superiors.
One interpretation of the sub-title of the play, What You Will, is that the work is an attempt to capture and condone all these variations of love.
As Sneed sees it, “I think What You Will can apply to the idea that ‘love is love’ and whatever is attractive to you is okay, which is an interesting and lovely theme.”
All of this courting is fed by music, as suggested by Orsino’s famous opening remark, “If music be the food of love, play on!” Expect some telling melodies and lyrics that reveal the playwright’s musings on these subjects.
So rest assured, and enjoy the festivities, for as Feste (the clown) sings:
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man's son doth know.
(Act 2, Scene 3)
Viola, shipwrecked, washes ashore with the ship’s captain. Fearing her brother drowned, and finding herself in Illyria, she determines to find shelter and favor from its duke, Orsino, a former ally of her late father, by adopting the disguise of a male page named Cesario. Meanwhile, Orsino pines for the countess Olivia, and learns she has sworn off contact with all men for seven years to mourn her late brother. Orsino quickly grows fond of his new page Cesario, sending him (her) to try to change Olivia’s mind. However, Viola, in disguise, has fallen in love with Orsino. At Olivia’s mansion, maidservant Maria and Sir Toby Belch encourage unlikely suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek to court Olivia. Olivia is not in the mood, having had her patience tested by her clown Feste, but when Cesario arrives to woo her for Orsino, she instead instantly falls in love with the young page.
Sebastian, Viola’s twin, has reached Illyria with his companion Antonio. Malvolio finds Cesario and attempts to deliver Olivia’s message to return to her tomorrow. Viola realizes Olivia has fallen in love with her (him!) Later, Malvolio discovers Maria, Sir Toby, Feste and Sir Andrew partying late at night, and scolds them for their uncivil behavior. Maria plots revenge by forging a love letter from Olivia to Malvolio. Meanwhile, Viola indirectly exposes her feelings for the duke without revealing her true identity. In Olivia’s garden, the conspirators spy on Malvolio, who finds the false letter, and totally falls for it.
Olivia reveals her love for Cesario, but Aguecheek, eavesdropping on the conversation, concludes he’s lost his chance. Sir Toby persuades Andrew to challenge Cesario to a fight. Elsewhere, Antonio reunites with Sebastian and they agree to meet later at an inn. Back at the mansion, Malvolio, outlandishly dressed (as instructed in the forged love letter), surprises Olivia and returns Olivia’s “love” most ardently, which results in his imprisonment in a dark room to cure his seeming madness. Sir Andrew delivers his challenge to Cesario, and Sir Toby whips the impending duel to frenzy. At the brink of bloodshed, Antonio rescues Cesario, mistaking him for her twin Sebastian. The Duke’s men arrest Antonio.
Feste strikes an argument with Sebastian, confusing him for Cesario, whom Aguecheek tries to duel shortly thereafter. Olivia, halting the melee, mistakes Sebastian for Cesario and welcomes him into her home. Sebastian, delighted, instantly falls in love with Olivia. Feste disguises himself as a priest and torments the imprisoned Malvolio. Later, Sebastian revels in his newfound situation, as Olivia, with a priest, hurries them off to be married.
Duke Orsino arrives at Olivia’s to discover his old enemy Antonio, whom Cesario identifies as his rescuer. Olivia arrives and accuses Cesario of betraying his duties as her husband by leaving with Orsino. Orsino becomes even more perplexed when Aguecheek accuses Cesario of wounding him in a fight. Sebastian arrives and all are amazed at the sight of Sebastian and Cesario together. Stories and true identities are revealed. Orsino proposes to Viola, and Malvolio promises vengeance on everyone. Orsino entreats peace, and Feste has the last word.
For the Elizabethan audience, much as for us today, the mention of Illyria, the fictional setting of Twelfth Night, conjures up images of an exotic, lost world, perhaps with mysterious castles topping storm-battered craggy cliffs — the kind of desperate end-of-the-world that such a romantic shipwrecked heroine would find herself washed upon.
Although Shakespeare’s Illyria proves more fictional than factual, historic Illyria was confederation of tribes contemporary to the Greek and Roman empires, which occupied the Adriatic coast now encompassed by Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.
Legendary for its piracy against Roman shipping, Illyria was conquered by the Roman Empire in 168 B.C.E. At the time of the writing of the play, the southern parts of Illyria had been absorbed into the empire of the Ottoman Turks, and would remain so until the late 19th century, while the Dalmatian coast was under the rule of the Venetian republic.
Thus, Illyria proved the perfect exotic elsewhere for Twelfth Night, where the London audience of civilized England could consider this romantic romp, where people aren’t what they outwardly seem, and society seems suspended between reason and passion, between Puritanical rigidity and liberal revelry, between rule and misrule — with the audience invited to take away “What (They) Will” by Shakespeare.
Director Philip Sneed conceived this production to highlight the play’s “struggle for dominance between the Apollonian and Dionysian forces,” referring to dramatic theory popularized by Friedrich Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872).
Philip and the design team have set the production in a fictional Illyria reminiscent of the times and fashions of the early 19th century Albania. The setting is a seacoast-courtyard structure, based on classical Albanian architecture, fused with Turkish elements. According to scenic designer Brian Mallgrave, the Turkish influence represents the aristocratic hierarchy (Countess Olivia and Duke Orsino), while the working classes and native people are represented by the more rustic Albanians.
The manor has resided on this coast for some time, and shows signs of deteriorating — much like the declining Ottoman Turkish rule — but due to the encroaching natural elements. Thus, as Mallgrave puts it, “The intoxicating and natural powers of love are overtaking practical ideals of restoring order and reason.”
While we easily see the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomies played out in the contrasts between Malvolio and the Sir Toby/Aguecheek/Maria/Feste cabal, other characters aren’t so easily aligned, playing out their own inner struggle between reason and passion.
Costume designer Clare Henkel observes that the female fashions of the first decade of the 19th century featured lighter, loose fittings, reminiscent of Ancient Greece, but with Empire waistlines. Therefore, Olivia, in mourning when we first meet her, will cover up her low neckline, and wear black, secure in the rigidity of her Apollonian virtue. Then, after falling for Cesario, she will become more brazen, expose more, wearing white by the end, thus falling under the spell of her Dionysian side.
Many of the characters under go similar outward transformations through the performance. As Henkel explains, “Most of us have within us both of these yearnings, for order vs. chaos, head vs. heart, etc. We choose to let them out at various times, and it is this conflict that I hope to articulate visually for each of the characters in the play.”
— By Rand Harmon, Dramaturg/Assistant Director
CU Presents Digital
We invite you to watch, listen and gather with us online right now. Each week we will bring you curated creations from the artists you’d see in any other CU Presents season, in the comfort of your own home.Digital Home