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A Midsummer Night's Dream Adaptations: Film, Ballet & Opera

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

You might think of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' as a school-related subject. However, this play is celebrated, produced, and performed all over the world in various forms. We'll learn about film, ballet, and opera adaptations of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'

A Midsummer Night's Show: Films and TV

Did you know that more film adaptations have been made from Shakespeare's plays than from any other author's work in any genre or language? There are 410 TV and movie versions of Shakespeare's plays, and at least six for A Midsummer Night's Dream. These include three American movies made in 1909, 1935, and 1999, as well as British films in 1968 and 1980 and an animated TV version that aired in the UK and Russia in 1992.

The first film adaptation was released in 1909 and was directed by Charles Kent and J. Stuart Blackton. It was a silent film just ten minutes long! During the early 1900s, short films were popular, but the technology to synchronize recorded sound wasn't yet available. In it, Lysander is played by Maurice Costello, who is Drew Barrymore's great-grandfather.

The next version, which was the length of a typical movie today, aired in 1935 and was directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle. Most of the actors in it had never performed Shakespeare before, and the performance of Lysander in particular caused the film to get mixed reviews.

Demetrius, Lysander, Helena, and Hermia in the 1935 film adaptation of A Midsummer Nights Dream
Demetrius, Lysander, Helena, and Hermia in the 1935 film adaptation of A Midsummer Nights Dream

Although the first two film versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream were American, it's only logical that England, Shakespeare's home, would get in on the action. Peter Hall directed a 1968 version that featured Judi Dench as Titania and Ian Holm as Puck (you may remember Dench from the Skyfall Bond movie, and Holm played Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings). Unlike the 1935 American version, this film boasted actors who were also members of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

A crown-helmeted Victor Jory as Oberon in the 1935 adaptation
A crown-helmeted Victor Jory as Oberon in the 1935 adaptation

In 1980, BBC Television released a TV production of the play, which formed part of its Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare series. In 1992, an animated TV series based on the play aired in the UK and Russia.

The 1999 American movie version was directed by Michael Hoffman. It featured Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania, Rupert Everett as Oberon, Stanley Tucci as Puck, Christian Bale as Demetrius, and Kevin Kline as Bottom. (You probably remember Tucci from his roles in The Devil Wears Prada and Captain America, and one of Pfeiffer's most well-known roles was in Dangerous Minds).

Balanchine and Ashton: A Dream of Ballet

When Bottom wakes up in Act 4, he thinks the night's events have been a whimsical dream. He declares: 'I will get Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream.' In 1962, his wish was granted when the ballet adaptation of the play premiered at the New York City Center of Music and Drama, choreographed by George Balantine. (You may have seen Balanchine's version of The Nutcracker). Balanchine was inspired by and incorporated the music written for the play by Felix Mendelssohn, a famous German Romantic composer.

A Midsummer Night's Dream has also been made into a one-act ballet called The Dream. Choreographed by Frederick Ashton, it was first performed by England's Royal Ballet in 1964. Ashton, too, used Mendelssohn's music.

It's Not Over Until Puck Sings: Britten's Opera

Librettist Benjamin Britten also adapted A Midsummer Night's Dream for an opera of the same title. A librettist is someone who writes librettos, or lyrics for musical theatrical pieces. The opera was premiered in 1960 at an arts festival in the UK and was performed at London's Royal Opera House just a year later. Britten used music to distinguish between the three groups of characters: the comic or rustic characters, the lovers, and the fairies. The comic characters' parts featured simple or folk music, the lovers' parts romantic orchestral music, and the fairies' parts more ethereal music to reflect their supernatural essences. His adaptation emphasizes the madness of love, with themes of innocence and purity as the possible antidote to this.

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