"...that will draw three souls out of one weaver..." (II.iii)
"What if Feste was Fabian's Tyler Durden?"
Postmodern approaches to Shakespeare are as old as postmodernism itself. The notion of using the fragmented presentation of multiple narrators as a means of dramatizing a character's inner monologue is found within the actual canon -- witness Richard III's pre-battle nightmare, in which the ghosts of his victims come to haunt him -- and such an approach was used to great effect in Joe Banno's "Herman's Head" approach to Hamlet at the Folger in 1999.
"Twelfth Night" is a play with two clowns -- Feste and Fabian -- and numerous attempts have been made by directors to combine the two characters into a single fool. The sudden appearance of Fabian in the last scene of Act Two, inexplicably taking the post Maria seems to assign to Feste in II.iii ("let the fool make a third," to join Sir Andrew and Sir Toby in observing Malvolio's discovery of the letter), is a perplexing dramaturgical question and seems to suggest that the two fools are even interchangeable within the household itself.
I had always envisioned a Feste with a jester bauble, but as we moved through the audition process, it became clear that there were actually three sizable parts to be distributed: Feste, Feste's music, and Fabian. Once the notion of handing the last song to Fabian came up as a possibility, the rest flowed like rain. Fabrina, the anima to Fabian's animus, was partly a means of rounding out the trilogy and partly a shameless excuse for me to give Leah's voice center stage for a song or two.
Support for this dramatization of the characters can also be found within the script, because Feste always speaks in or is referred to in threes:
OLIVIA What's a drunken man like, fool?
FESTE Like a drowned man, a fool and a mad man: one draught above heat makes him a fool; the second mads him; and a third drowns him.
FESTE How now, my hearts! did you never see the picture of 'we three'?
ORSINO There's for thy pains.
FABRINA No pains, sir: I take pleasure in singing, sir.
ORSINO I'll pay thy pleasure then.
FABIAN Truly, sir, and pleasure will be paid, one time or another.
ORSINO Give me now leave to leave thee.
FESTE Now, the melancholy god protect thee...
FESTE Primo, secundo, tertio, is a good play; and the old saying is, the third pays for all: the triplex, sir, is a good tripping measure; or the bells of Saint Bennet, sir, may put you in mind; one, two, three.
Framing the play by beginning the show with a verse or two of Feste's final song is nothing new, but what I envisioned was the casting (and, later, the dissolving) of a spell. Fabian, having been brought out of favor by Malvolio (a usually unseen event alluded to at his first appearance), takes his bauble and sings a prayer which unlocks the Aladdin's lamp. The genie(s) that appear are the wilder, bolder, stronger, smarter, more confident sides to Fabian's personality. In the Twelfth Night I imagine, it's Fabian that's actually doing everything but it's Feste and Fabrina that we get to watch sharing the business at hand, because that's what Fabian's mind's eye imagines.
Shakespeare himself seems to have decided that the fact that Viola and Sebastian are twins is really an ancillary plot point: at V.i Sebastian has forgotten that both he and his sister were born the same hour and confirms that their father died on Viola's 13th birthday. Unless the hour in question overlapped midnight so that Sebastian's birthday was actually technically a different day in either direction, shouldn't it be Viola and Sebastian's 13th birthday?
Fleeing The Terror
To the extent that the suspension of disbelief is strained already in a story of fraternal (and therefore by definition non-identical) twins being repeatedly mistaken for one another, the denouement of the story has always troubled me because it feels a little too inexplicably final. We don't know enough about Viola and Sebastian's journey to know the nature of why they were leaving Messaline, but neither of them seems to be in any great hurry to get back.
When both of them wash up on the shores of Illyria, the emphasis isn't on finding some way of getting home or even sending a message back home that they're alive but stranded and need help. Rather, both Viola and Sebastian seem spend a considerable amount of time three months making a go of being Illyrian citizens.
I wanted to place the story in a time in which going home simply wasn't an option, and to do that I needed a reason for the noble-born twins to be on a voyage of exile rather than a simple transport. When I read about the 1794 post-Terror revolt on the island of Guadeloupe, it seemed perfectly credible that the aristocrats on another French colony, hearing the reports of revolt and having no real home to return to, might indeed have found themselves panicked into flight.
In those circumstances, the appropriate response to a shipwreck is not to seek help, but to disguise yourself as one of the natives, blend in, and disappear. Viola's actions become far more credible if there is no going back.
"Hath made a vow no woman shall approach his silent court."
The notion of Olivia's household being completely unsympathetic to the plight of a shipwrecked woman in distress is more than a little far-fetched. Still, her mourning rites include denying admittance to anyone, and the captain makes that fairly clear. But Orsino can't be so obtuse as to refuse admittance to a woman who claims noble birth and asks for help, can he? Why doesn't Viola simply knock on Orsino's door and explain what's happened? I needed the two households on the islands to streamline Viola's options, because the lengths she goes in placing herself in the otherwise amusing predicament seems quite outlandish.
Taking a cue from Trevor Nunn's film of Twelfth Night, I went ahead and made the exact same intra-canon appropriation of the line which actually comes from Love's Labour's Lost. This way, the choice is simple: there are two households on the island. One's not admitting anyone, and the other is only admitting men. You've got a trunk of boy's clothes, and if they discover who you are and deport you, you'll be executed. Now the choice seems much more plausible.
[A longer version of this essay will be posted shortly...]
[The rest of these notes were composed before the production began. Given what the final results were, these notes are almost quaint.]
I'm placing this in the post-"Rights Of Man" era, in which revolutions were logical conclusions to aristocratic imperialism. The play presents a world in which the established order is stale and outmoded, and the threat of Madame Guillotine is very, very real. It is at this point in the life cycle of a nation in which the heads of state become increasingly paranoid and desperate, because the old rules no longer apply and the masses no longer have the Divine Right of Kings to keep their revolutions in check. Orsino and Olivia have no Scarlet Pimpernel to save them, and unless they are able to reinvigorate their place in society, they will be disposed of. Viola and Sebastian provide a dying state with the cross-pollination necessary for the continued survival of its authority.
And Feste is the key. Because the clown represents the street's place at court, the harlequin archetype is an ambassador to a more tribal energy, bringing the rhythms of the drum circle into the tepid, stodgy chamber madrigals of old. If Orsino and Olivia can embrace the spirit and energy which Feste represents (and remember that it is s/he that brings Viola and Sebastian into the court), they have a chance of transmuting the revolutionary spirit of the teeming masses into a democratic nation-state which will embrace and not usurp their authority.
Messaline and Illyria: Colonized islands in the rim of the Empire (probably somewhere near Australia), 1790s - 1830s.
There are four castes or levels of society we need to establish in the hierarchy of this culture. The trick is going to be developing the differences between the three imperial castes and the one native caste without fixating on the essentially racist undertones of imperialism. We're walking a fine line here, because it's essentially Feste's and Viola's and Sebastian's influence upon the aristocrats that keep this story from being a tragedy -- or, specifically, that make this story a fantasy and not a history. Illyria does not share the destiny of the Empire, and we must be careful to avoid suggesting that the imperial holdings of history were one clown short of a happy ending.
Aristocracy -- Olivia, Orsino, and eventually Viola and Sebastian
The imperial authority. Their power comes from equal parts intimidation and technological superiority, and they are under assault from a number of forces. Humanist thinking and revolutions on all sides wear upon the notion of authority stemming from a noble birthright, and the dukes and duchesses of the ruling classes must take greater steps to rationalize their power. For our leads, the role is even more dire, because they were born into a hegemony that they cannot internalize intellectually they're too humanist to believe that they are innately better than other races or nationalities, and too pragmatic to believe that they are superior to people who have actual skills. Their parents were able to believe in their titles, but they cannot -- and now that their parents are dead, they have no guiding authority to reinforce their positions.
Lower Court -- Sir Andrew, Sir Toby
The upper middle class, whose family power comes from lands in their native country but which must be content with titles in the outer rim of the Empire. They are gentlemen and ladies, and have been bred to expect a certain quality of life, but their position is extremely vulnerable and they have no practical skills of their own. [e.g. Sir Andrew is a knight who has never learned how to properly wield a sword -- in a true combat-rich environment, he'd be the first corpse.]
The Household -- Maria, Malvolio, Fabian, Valentine, Curio
They arrived on the boat with the upper classes, but they don't get to take the helicopter out of town when the embassy is overrun. They are the great-great- granddaughters and great-great-grandsons of the pages and squires of old.
The Natives -- Musicians*, street people, Antonio, seafolk
A much more dangerous crowd, simply because they're the home team and they simply don't have the belief system to treat the established authority as anything but a yoke to overthrow. They fight with knives, not rapiers, and they are crude and vulgar instead of refined and cultured. At the same time, they have retained ownership of an energy which the other classes have lost and desperately need.
* Feste is outside of all castes, but he travels between them without trepidation (and is the only one capable of wandering over the entire stage between the various worlds of the play).
Olivia -- Proud, but also extremely vulnerable. Every man in her life that she's ever counted upon has been taken from her, and with her brother's death, she's utterly without focus or direction. At her core, her resistance to Orsino's advances work from a simple hypothesis: every man she's loved has left her, so she'll not love
Orsino -- Proud, but also frustrated and confused. His power is out of date, and he has no idea how to revitalize his authority. The courting of Olivia stems from wanting to be respected by doing the respectable thing and taking the homecoming queen for a bride.
Viola -- Our heroine. She represents multiculturalism in the face of ethnocentricity, flexibility in the face of rigidity, individualism in the face of stereotypes, and is the soul of the play. To the extent that the breeding programs of the aristocracy were any kind of success, they gave Viola the tools she needed to be adaptable enough to survive in an environment that would have destroyed a weaker person.
Sebastian -- Complement to Viola, but we don't really learn too much about him. Noble enough, but unable to avoid quarrelling with Sir Andrew when provoked -- though much of this may be the result of grief over the "loss" of his sister than any innate rashness. Without Viola, he has nothing left but to play the part set out for him, which he does to the best of his ability.
Feste -- The wild card of the play. Feste is Harlequin, the player archetype whose roots go back to the first storytellers. Not as overtly malevolent as Loki, but still possessing the Coyote energy of one who is outside of the rules, the laws of physics themselves bow to the Clown. He can be anything, he can go anywhere, he has utterly no restrictions of any kind. The side of him that is a human and not a force of nature genuinely cares about Olivia's household, but he is there because that is where his talents are needed. He wanders the earth, like Caine in Kung-Fu, and once he's applied the energy which heals the state (by bringing Orsino and Viola and Olivia and Sebastian together) he disappears into the night. [Tune in next week for the further adventures of Feste!]
Sir Toby -- Perhaps as vacuous as Sir Andrew, but an older knight who has survived on charm and knowing when to buy the drinks and when to shut up. He's quite comfortable in the house of his niece, Olivia, but he's restless as well. To a certain extent, the subplot of the play finds Sir Toby self-destructing the comfortable bonds of courtly life to make his way out in the world with Maria -- like a plant which has grown too big for its pot, he cannot avoid falling out of favor with Olivia and needing to seek alternatives.
Sir Andrew -- Vain, vapid, and vacant. If society is evolving, he is an evolutionary dead end. Everything that is dysfunctional and useless about the Old School is advocated by Sir Andrew, and he has no practical skills whatsoever. Outside of the court, he is functionally useless. He'll eventually find a dowager to cling to when he realizes that he has no place else to go.
Malvolio -- The Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III of the household, it is his job to be everybody's foil. The treatment he receives at the hands of Olivia's household may seem harsh, but he represents absolutely everything negative about the bourgeois.
Maria -- The lifeblood of Olivia's household. We see only gentlemen in Orsino's estate, but there simply has to be a counterpart to Maria in his house -- because nobody else has the sheer tenacity to keep things running. Her mother cared for Olivia's mother, and so on.
Fabian -- A Clown Apprentice, the caterpillar who longs to become the butterfly he sees in Feste. He's the neighborhood class clown who finds himself hosting Robin Williams as an exchange student. Fabian is one of the mechanics of Olivia's household who keeps things running, but he's definitely blue collar in his demeanor and his humor.
Antonio -- While he's listed as being a sea captain, I think that Antonio is actually more legitimately a dark mirror to Feste -- one whose place in society is rootless. Without name or allegiance to one state or place, he is a free agent who bonds to Sebastian because he sees in the youth a nobility that he covets but cannot possess.
Valentine/Curio -- Sebastian's servants (but also his drinking buddies and confidants). They are the upper management of the colonial powers on the island, and they are therefore responsible for making sure that order is maintained.
Captain -- The original script identifies the Captain as native-born to Illyria, but I think a far more interesting choice is to make Illyria an unfriendly shore to him.
Priest -- If Malvolio is Winchester, the priest is Father Mulcahy. Actually a Curate, he came to Illyria from the mainland to serve as a Missionary but he knows he's converted all those he's going to convert, which aren't very many.