What Dreams May Come: Theater at Monmouth Celebrates its 50th Anniversary
By Benjamin Bertram

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet with Yorick’s skull (1880-85)

What Dreams May Come, the celebratory title for Theater at Monmouth’s Golden Anniversary Season, has been taken from the most famous speech in English literature, Hamlet’s rumination on suicide. Dreams, in this case, are an extension of a commonplace metaphor: death as sleep. How else can we conceive of the total annihilation of the self? We need a metaphor, and sleeping is as good as it gets. Such annihilation is desirable; indeed, Hamlet insists that it is a “consummation devoutly to be wished.” Why? Because life is tough; love stinks (“pangs of disprized love”); people are mean (“scorns,” “proud man’s contumely”); the body is constantly in pain (“thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”); there is injustice in the world (“law’s delay”); labor is harsh (“who would fardels bear”); and debt piles up (death is a “quietus”). Wouldn’t it be lovely, then, to just lie down for a pleasant nap and never wake up? Perhaps, but for a Prince who has been to school in Wittenberg, often regarded as the “birthplace” of the Protestant Reformation, there is one major obstacle: the fear of damnation. This dream that may come is in fact a nightmare. If you think life was bad, well you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Nevertheless, Hamlet is hardly certain damnation will come, and this uncertainty is enough to “puzzle” his “will.” Should he not simply cope as best he can with the “ills” he knows rather than take a risk of encountering something even worse? Some people are risk averse.

In asking “what dreams may come” the Theater at Monmouth is more aligned with Prospero than Hamlet. The former, a magician in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, compares the theater, and indeed life itself, to dreams: “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.” The great globe itself, Shakespeare’s theater, is like the pageant performed by Prospero’s spirits. Theater is ephemeral, even dream-like, in its beauty. Prospero seems to extend the metaphor even further to life itself, his “we” being the actors as well as the audience. Therein lies the greatness of theater: a play may only last a couple of hours and run for a few weeks, but it can stick with us for years to come, if not a lifetime. Just as dreams have an impact on our waking life–the shape “reality” will take–so too, theater’s influence is more lasting than we might think. Moreover, in desiring to return, we are more like Caliban, Prospero’s servant, than the magician: we cry out for more; we want to dream again, even when we are uncertain what dreams may come: “And then, in dreaming,/The clouds methought would open and show riches/ Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked/I cried to dream again.”

Edwardian corset.

But dreams can also be scary. Whether or not they are, as Freud said, the “royal road to the unconscious,” we do know that dreams often make us feel like strangers to ourselves. They unleash bizarre creatures. Hamlet says that the point of drama is to turn the “mirror up to nature,” but in truth theater often leads us to question what we’ve always assumed is human nature, to allow the inhuman or nonhuman its proper due. This season TAM has the shadowy figure of a giant, snarling hound; a plethora of anthropomorphized animals in the jungle; a debauched knight who dresses as the “Windsor stag,” a Fairy Queen, and of course a ghost that seems awfully real at times and at others purely imaginary. Even when TAM gives us characters who seem to walk among us in conscious, waking life, they seem to have magical, otherworldly qualities about them. There is Sherlock Holmes and his preternatural mental acumen and Esther with her ability to embroider heavenly quilts and apparel.

Then there are the dreams of characters on stage that take us beyond princely angst. Esther, the protagonist of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, has hopes of romantic fulfillment, yet she also dreams of running a business, a beauty parlor that caters to black women. Like Hamlet, this play is concerned with the surface/depth distinction. Esther is a seamstress whose beautiful creations, especially lingerie, are sought after by many. We soon learn that people have “that within which passes show,” as Hamlet puts it. Yet as in Hamlet, the apparel doth oft proclaim the woman. The way we appear on the “outside” is important to who we think we are on the “inside.” Esther’s “true self” is, in a sense, represented by the gorgeous items she makes, including a quilt. The quilt may be symbolic, but it is also a material investment or resource for her future; it embodies her hopes and dreams for romantic fulfillment, for intimacy. But she already has intimacy with her clients—male and female—that is mediated by the sensual properties of cloth and apparel. The quilt might itself be considered one of the dramatis personae. Humans matter, but so do things, and we ignore their power at our peril. We are such stuff as quilts are made of. Esther’s personal life is entangled in the lives of her clients and in the things she creates. Her clients and lovers are in the dreams she has embroidered. Not everyone treads lightly on those dreams.

What Dreams May Come celebrates variety, the unexpected, as well as the creative re-working of what has been done before. The Merry Wives of Windsor stands out as Shakespeare’s only English comedy, a “comedy of humors” or “city comedy” with plenty of middle-class characters. At the same time, it brings back characters—Falstaff, Mistress Quickly, Shallow— that Shakespeare had already developed in another genre—the history play. Falstaff was killed off in Henry V, but Shakespeare felt compelled to dream up another version of him, bringing him back on the stage. If modern psychological depth, or at least the kind Hamlet has to offer, is what you are after, you won’t find it here (and Hamlet is anomalous in that regard anyway).

Cover of the first edition, 1902

In many respects, Merry Wives resembles another comedy of the 2019 season—Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery. Returning by popular demand for more adventures, Falstaff and Holmes are, or course, the stuff of dreams—they are not meant to resemble “real” people, yet the conflicts they become entangled in are things we all can relate to— relatively harmless lovers/schemers and more dangerous con-artists are frequently found among us. The season includes a third comedy, a musical murder mystery—Murder for Two—that treats death as laughing matter and generates a nice counterpoint to the tragic high seriousness of Hamlet (though Hamlet has its comic moments as well). When asked by a detective what happened the evening of her husband’s death, Dahlia says, “Let’s see. M’husband died. I had a hoagie. Then you showed up.” Had the detective been Sherlock Holmes, he would have figured out what was in the hoagie.

In both Merry Wives and the Henry IV plays, Falstaff seems like the kind of man we could only conjure up in a strange dream. Prince Hal says as much once he becomes Henry V and rejects his former partner in crime:

I know thee not old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester.
I have long dreamed of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane.
But being awaked I do despise my dream.

Falstaff is the “kind of man” that generates such ambivalence because he is a figure for all the pleasures we want to regulate, control, or repress. But he cannot be confined. We love engaging in Falstaffian pleasures without committing ourselves to a life of debauchery. “If every day were playing holiday,” Prince Hal, astutely points out, “To sport would be as tedious as to work.” Thus, the newly priggish Henry V must announce in public that he no longer fraternizes with such a “profane” man. Indeed, he goes so far as to make their comradery seem like it never existed or rather only existed in a strange dream.

In Merry Wives, too, we see attempts to contain Falstaff, to keep him away from an undeserved fortune. One of the play’s most hilarious moments occurs when he is stuffed in a laundry basket so that he might manage a narrow escape from Mistress Ford’s home. Falstaff is indeed wooing another man’s wife, though that almost seems less scandalous than the fact that he is wooing two wives at the same time. Most shocking of all, perhaps, is how lazy he is and blissfully unaware that he is constantly being mocked. He even sends the same love letter to both women. Falstaff’s various humiliations give him plenty of opportunity to generate bizarre metaphors:

Falstaff at Herne’s Oak by James Stephanoff, 1832

Have I lived to be carried in a basket like a barrow of butcher’s offal? And to be thrown in the Thames? Well, if I be served such another trick, I’ll have my brains ta’en out and buttered, and give them to a dog for a new year’s gift. The rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have drowned a blind bitch’s puppies fifteen in’th’litter.

Falstaff’s body is frequently compared—by himself and others—to animal flesh that we consume, yet here the process works a little differently: he imagines his brains taken out, buttered, and fed to a dog. This is the first I’ve heard of dogs receiving gifts for the new year. One can imagine the dog cheerfully eating Falstaff’s buttered brains like a human stuffing his face with popcorn at a movie theater. Falstaff is such stuff as strange dreams are made of.

The fat knight represents the universal joys of eating, drinking, and performing, but he is also a figure of “the market” as a process and the market as a place. Pleasures, he unfailingly reminds us, are bought and sold. The results of such exchanges are not always pretty, though in comedy no one gets seriously harmed. Falstaff’s economic motive in seducing the two aristocratic women is made central in Merry Wives. We are more likely to want to forget Falstaff’s economic interest in fighting alongside Prince Hal in 1Henry IV, however, since it makes many an audience member question her fondness for the man.

Somehow in all these plays Falstaff manages to be endearing and repulsive at the same time. Indeed, when Shakespeare brings him back from the dead in Merry Wives, his nature as a calculating man of the market is much more apparent from start to finish. One reason the Prince must ultimately reject him in 2Henry IV is that he represents the vices of the land of plenty; he is a reminder that utopian dreams have frequently been forms of satire. Consuming in excess might sound appealing in theory, but in practice it grows tedious quite quickly. In the comic world of Merry Wives, however, Falstaff never really seems like a threat the way he does in the world of History. His games are just that, games, and everyone is ready to hang out together and have a good laugh at the comedy’s end.

The dream of romantic fulfillment is important this year, as it almost always is in drama. Even love letters are important to those dreams. No one is deceived by Falstaff’s romantic gestures, including his love letters, but his wooing still has more charm than that performed by George in Intimate Apparel. Hamlet, too, would seem to have misled Ophelia in his love letters and other “tokens” of affection. Thankfully, in Intimate Apparel we discover another wooer who communicates with more authenticity through the sensuality of cloth. What makes Falstaff so endearing is that in all the plays he appears in (four if we include Henry V), what you see is what you get. That is true, in a more serious vein, with the Hasidic clothier who loves and admires Esther. Love letters are one form of exchange that can create intimacy, and often of a false kind, yet Intimate Apparel also explores the possibilities for intimacy between people with different backgrounds (race, religion, gender, and class) that must be generated in other ways—through fabric, music, dance, and sex. In 1905, the historical moment of the play, the boundaries restricting intimacy were quite firmly planted, and yet the play shows how people can transgress those boundaries, even if they aren’t able or willing to alter them. And as we know today, just when we congratulate ourselves for being pluralistic, we find that many of the battles we thought we’d won still need to be fought.

Perhaps, in our age of climate change and the sixth extinction, the greatest dream of all can be found in The Jungle Book, a work that has lessons for adults as well as children. Greg Banks’ version of Kipling’s beloved story ends with the “man cub” Mowgli carrying a torch, and heading back to his village. The big question, my allegorical reading suggests, is what will happen upon his return? Fire enables Mowgli’s defeat of the bully of the jungle, the tiger Shere Khan. Yet, as some, if not all, of the animals know, and Mowgli is to learn, the real bully or “bad boy” is not the tiger or the monkey, but the human race. While the animals optimistically assure Mowgli that they will be there when he returns, we know their survival is hardly assured.

The Jungle Book Illustration by W. H. Drake. First edition, 1894

The Promethean theme underlying Jungle Book raises another, related question: can we share our natural resources with nonhumans, or are we the bully that will spell doom for the planet? The Jungle Book is not at all about the dream of peace and harmony among all creatures, the end of predation. Predation still exists in the jungle, as we find when Mowgli passes from one predator to another. But there is still generosity in the jungle, and hope that if animals allow humans to exist when they are capable of destroying them, then humans might return the favor by putting out the fires warming the planet and ending the destruction of animal habitats.

What dreams may come? They could be nightmares or they could be beautiful events or people we never expected to show up. What we desired could turn out to be terrifying and what we feared could turn out to be the greatest joy we’ve ever experienced. Whatever they may be, let’s be glad that we are never satisfied, that we always dream of more—more love, food, music, and theater. The alternative is to give up the ghost, to decide we’d rather not stretch a painful existence upon the rack of this tough world, as Kent says of King Lear and Hamlet says of our “mortal coils” more universally.