Twelfth Night, or What You Will

February 9, 2014

About one month after I turned 18, as a senior in high school in New Jersey, I acted in the role of Sebastian in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  Our play director was Robert (Bob) Stevens, the school’s drama teacher, a man who made a profound impact on the professional and creative lives of a number of generations of my high school’s students.

He was a former southerner, from Virginia, and that spring production of Twelfth Night was the school’s first attempt at Shakespeare.  It was a great success, at least I remember it so.  But what did I know – I was 18 and thought that I had the lead role.

I didn’t, of course.  You hardly see Sebastian in the play.  But my experience was akin to that of Tom Stoppard’s lead characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: they may be off-stage for most of Hamlet, but they are convinced that the story is really about them.

An article by Hilton Als in the November 25, 2013 issue of The New Yorker (“The Mirror Has Two Faces”) gives a joyful elucidation of Twelfth Night’s themes, reviewing Tom Carroll’s production at the Belasco theatre in New York City (closing on February 16th).  Here are two excerpts:

How marvellous it can be to let go of one’s self-conscious rationalizing, with its fear of the uncontrollable, like joy, and sink helplessly into the theatre of feelings—tender and coarse, confused and projected, authentic and invented—that drives “Twelfth Night.”

For days after I saw “Twelfth Night,” questions about the play and about Shakespeare reverberated in my mind. (Despite my love of mystery, I am, like most humans, a problem-solving animal.) How did he do it? How did he construct such a popular work out of “outsider” thoughts about gender and cross-dressing? By opening himself up to creative empathy, certainly. Where most of us succumb to the limiting power of self-preservation, Shakespeare rushed toward the enormous freedom that can come with “why”—the spirit of inquiry that jump-starts the imagination.

I was swept up with the glorious words of the play (once I could understand the words, they were delightful), but only vaguely aware of the radical gender-bending and cross-dressing elements in it.  The innocence of youth.  And Bob Stevens was nothing if not a brave man when it came to drama.  By my count, no less than five of those who acted in the play with me later went on to professional acting careers.  An unusually large number?  Perhaps, or not.

To this day, my mind is immediately transported back to that stage of so long ago when I hear the words,

“If music be the food of love, play on …”

My close friend Steve played Sebastian’s friend and confidant Antonio, and it was only a few years ago (some decades after I last acted) that I stopped reciting Sebastian’s great soliloquy, which reads thus:

This is the air; that is the glorious sun;
This pearl she gave me, I do feel’t and see’t;
And though ’tis wonder that enwraps me thus,
Yet ’tis not madness. Where’s Antonio, then?
I could not find him at the Elephant:
Yet there he was; and there I found this credit,
That he did range the town to seek me out.
His counsel now might do me golden service;
For though my soul disputes well with my sense,
That this may be some error, but no madness,
Yet doth this accident and flood of fortune
So far exceed all instance, all discourse,
That I am ready to distrust mine eyes
And wrangle with my reason that persuades me
To any other trust but that I am mad
Or else the lady’s mad; yet, if ’twere so,
She could not sway her house, command her followers,
Take and give back affairs and their dispatch
With such a smooth, discreet and stable bearing
As I perceive she does: there’s something in’t
That is deceiveable. But here the lady comes.

Want to see the full script of Twelfth Nightclick here for an MIT-supplied version, part of their complete works of Shakespeare free online.

Twelfth Night1

Twelfth Night2