Or, What You Will
Hooray! It’s Twelfth Night!
You know that catchy little holiday song “Twelve Days of Christmas”? Well, we’ve arrived at the Pipers Piping part of the number this morning and, tonight is Twelfth Night, traditionally one of the merriest nights in the whole Christmas holiday.
William Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night, Or What You Will to be performed as a “Twelfth Night entertainment.” Traditionally the twelve days of Christmas have culminated in a celebration that involved an evening of reversal of the established order of things. Hence the crossed gender roles and upended class roles that propel the comedy of the play. The subtitle, too, celebrates the spirit of the evening. “Order is taking a break tonight, so make of it what you will.”
I’ve many warm memories of this particular holiday, though they begin in a place of piety. Raised in an Episcopalian New England household, we took the rituals of Christmas pretty seriously for many years. We began the celebration with the Advent calendar, opening a new window each night following a reading from the Bible. Whenever our tree would go up, out would come the creche. “The what?” The creche, for those of you new to this whole ritutal, is the manger scene. Ours was of the size that could sit easily on an end table or mantlepiece. It resembled a sort of lean-to, with a thatched roof and straw floor. A rough-hewn wooden trough served as the cradle. Painted ceramic figurines of Mary and Joseph would be placed on either side of the cradle, and an assortment of animals scattered around the interior of the barn. The cradle, of course, remained unoccupied until Christmas morning when we’d awake to find that Santa had delivered not only our presents, but also the swaddled baby Jesus figurine.
But the most mysterious and fun part of the whole thing was the journey of the Three Wise Men. They’d remain out of view until Christmas Eve. Following midnight mass, they’d make their first appearance, usually somewhere on the far side of whatever room the tree and creche were in. And each morning we’d wake to find they’d advanced closer and closer to the manger. Until finally, on the twelfth day of Christmas, they’d arrive with their gifts for the babe. This was Epiphany. The day the world learned of the miracle. Wonder! And the day to take the tree down. Bummer…
Fast forward to my early twenties. I had left grad school to study privately with the acting teacher Michael Howard. Michael celebrated a different piece of the Twelfth Night history. It was anything but a pious celebration. For him, the occasion was a moment to mark the artistic tradition of The Actor. He’d bring a cake, the traditional Twelfth Night cake, to class and we would commence to the same sort of disordered tomfoolery that our forebears had gotten up to on the Twelfth Nights of Shakespeare’s day. Cross-gendered scenes and monologues were delivered, we’d give our teacher critiques, we’d play instruments and invent dances and drink wassail— all under the disapproving glare of Malvolio. We were celebrating our ancestors, and in that room for those few hours we could feel ourselves part of a tribe, of a lineage that went straight back to the Greeks, passing through The Globe on its way. For a bunch of itinerant workers from all parts of the country— migrants, all, in the big city— the feeling of family and heritage was exhilarating. And it felt, for a moment, like a noble calling. For most actors there is precious little in the way of remuneration, recognition or validation from the rest of the world. Twelfth Night was a little space where we could affirm each other, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, and connect to something greater, older, and prouder than we found in the daily grind.
And there is where I found, for the first time, the very real sense of the power in the freedom Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night exhibits. Since, some of the most memorable moments in my life in theater intersect performances that seem fueled by a similar sense of the liberation from order the play sets down. I remember a tremendous performance, for instance, by Peter MacNicol, at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater where Sir Andrew Aguecheek spent the entire play, from his first entrance, wandering up and down the stairs of the Escher-like set trying to find his way off stage, always winding back up in the center of the scene just in time for his lines but never seeming to find a way off it. Or more recently, Paul Chahidi’s knockout turn as Mistress Maria in the Shakespeare’s Globe’s production that starred an equally unhinged Mark Rylance in the role (and gorgeous gowns) of Olivia.
Tonight, when your daily chores are done, why not take a tiny moment to celebrate Twelfth Night yourself. Upend your nightly routine. Dance a little jig. Burst out in song. Recite a poem out loud— even a silly one. Heat up a glass of red wine with a slice of orange and a cinnamon stick. Eat cake. Or, what you will. It will give you more insight into this play than a thousand essays on the topic ever could.
Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night, created in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, runs inside the Emerson/Paramount Center JAN 20 – 30, 2016. Tickets are on sale now.