Losing your humours
School of the Arts presents a dark Twelfth Night
Hamlet and Twelfth Night, written very close to one another (c. 1600), were both influenced by the so-called “humours comedies” in vogue during the late 1590s, an anxious time for many English, who felt their glory days had passed and worried about their aged monarch’s coming death. Written by Ben Jonson and others, these plays involved various relatively flat, self-obsessed types who had to be laughed or embarrassed out of their obsessions (drinking too much, boasting, falling in love foolishly, getting conned, or pretending to be more sophisticated than they actually were).
To be obsessed in such a manner was known as “being in one’s humour,” and “humours plays” saw that all such poseurs were made asses of, embarrassed and reformed, or got “out of their humours.” The plays were often quite shallow and were performed by the child players Hamlet criticizes as “little eyasses,” unable to portray human actions or emotions of much depth.
It was perhaps under the influence of such plays that Shakespeare, in both Hamlet and Twelfth Night, created single, basically optimistic and outgoing characters (Hamlet and Viola) and set them against collections of flat, self-obsessed ones. In Hamlet, the results are tragic; in Twelfth Night, they are comic, but darkly so.
Thus, Twelfth Night, which name suggests the last of twelve days of Christmas overindulgence, and which opened this week at Chico State’s Harlen Adams Auditorium, has a full slate of obsessive characters: the Falstaffian drunk, Sir Toby Belch (Matt Larson), the excessive melancholy lover, Orsino (Leo Maheu), the would-be-sophisticated Sir Andrew Aguecheek (John Reynolds), and the willing-to-forsake-the-world-because-of-her-brother’s-death countess, Olivia (Nicole Edholm). And, of course, there is Malvolio (Zak Yurkovic), the arrogantly self-righteous and humorlessly puritanical steward, a type Shakespeare and his audience both scorned and feared. (Puritans were a real threat in the England of 1600, and those who didn’t sail to this country to plant the seeds of self-righteous religiosity that consume us every fifty years or so would take over England and kill the King forty years later.)
All these characters get their just comeuppance in the course of the play, except for Malvolio, who remains as myopic and as even more of a threat at the play’s end.
There is plenty of humorous stuff, of course—ranging from the clown Feste (Bryan Zoppi) and his unstoppable playing with words (often in a quite filthy manner—listen carefully), to the pretty Viola (Ashley Mauerhan), disguised as a handsome young man, breaking through the equally pretty Olivia’s shell, to Sir Andrew’s malapropisms, to the joke Sir Toby and Maria play on the pompous Malvolio, to Feste’s torturing Malvolio by pretending to be a Puritan zealot.
Overall, however, Twelfth Night is far less joyous than earlier comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. Director William Johnson says that his production is meant to emphasize the play’s “darker” side, and it does
So one must ask: Do Feste’s songs, with their emphasis on death and Life’s brevity paint too grim a picture of the world? Are Malvolio’s torturers justified, or are they as venal as he is? Do we think Viola will really be happy with the relatively shallow Orsino, who, only lines before he agrees to marry her, threatens to kill her? Is Maria (Ashley Monroe) the classic “tricky servant,” or is she really as self-important and quick to involve herself in others’ affairs as Malvolio? And, finally, is Malvolio’s world, with its shallow understanding of others and its self-righteous arrogance not a little unsettling—especially in this country—today?
You must behold, dear viewer, and decide for yourself.