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Contemporary Inspirations from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Jun 28 , 2014

Right at midsummer, the Actors’ Gang from Los Angeles has brought Shakespeare’s famous “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to Beijing. Directed by Tim Robbins, who has numerous fans in China after starring in “The Shawshank Redemption”, his theatrical production is quite innovative. Twelve performers, the Actors’ Gang, hail from across the globe and presented Shakespeare’s most imaginative and romantic comedy through dance, original music, as well as a dynamic stage performance that blended the realistic with the magical. The audience expressed their heart-felt respect for Robbins and the performers with lasting applause.

During the interaction with the audience afterwards, I asked Robbins an interesting question: “You mentioned that you were relating to the present-day world’s waves of violence with this play. I have the feeling that although the play features a happy ending with the triumph of love, the king of the fairies’ magic juice may create sweeping chaos in the forest, or restore order in an utterly chaotic world. So it’s not love that made the return of order possible. So, how should we look at the finiteness of the power of love?” To which Robbins replied: No. The power of love is infinite. And humorously he added: “When you dream, more love please.” The entire audience burst into laughter. At a time when the “Chinese dream” is a popular catchphrase, Robbins’ pun was both sophisticated and funny.

However, since a Shakespearean play was being employed as a reference, I found the keyword “order” more intriguing in the question raised.

Nowadays, Ukraine, Syria, Thailand, Egypt, Iraq and Libya are in turmoil. The United States and Russia are in confrontation, Russia and Europe are at a stalemate, China and Japan have locked horns, and tensions are running high in the South China Sea. The world seems to be bogged down in another round of unprecedented changes, prompting some influential Americans to sound the alarm that the haunting ghost of the Cold War is back. Such American sense of crisis is timely and sensible. Yet subsequent American moves have more often than not backfired. To date, none of the afore-mentioned hot spots have seen tensions eased as a result of US intervention. On the contrary, some have slide into an infinitely worsening abyss.

Frustrated, American media have found President Obama a ready scapegoat, dubbing him a “lame duck president”, or “the weakest president in history”. In fact, America’s biggest problem is that its entire philosophy on international relations has lagged behind our time. It is dealing with problems of the post-Cold War world with a Cold-War mentality. 

Regarding the Diaoyu Islands, the most sensitive issue between China and Japan, for instance, the US, on one hand, claims that it doesn’t have a position or take sides, but on the other hand, it openly supports Japan and contains China. President Obama made an explicit pledge during a recent visit to Japan that the US-Japan security treaty covers the Diaoyu Islands. No other US president has ever made such a tough statement, even during the Cold War. He is thus the first “tough US president” to take sides on the Diaoyu Islands.

This move was in no way conducive to easing tensions. Encouraged by his remarks, Japan has escalated provocations. In response, China has to resort to more forceful countermeasures. With tensions escalating, the US finds itself sinking deeper into a quagmire over a few uninhabited rocks thousands of miles from its shores. It is American Cold War thinking that has resulted in such this post-Cold War diplomatic predicament. Thus, it is not fair to dump all of the blame on Obama alone. As long as such philosophy persists, under Obama or any other US president, nobody can avoid driving American diplomacy into such a dilemma. 

In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the disorderly forest Shakespeare created was the outcome of the king of fairies’ use of the magic juice. In today’s real world, all disorder derives from confusions in our thinking. America surely remains the world’s only superpower, and the world continues to look to it for recovering order at critical junctures. Yet in spite of such high expectations, if the US doesn’t come to terms with the need to adapt to the post-Cold War world order, which features globalization and multi-polarization, to take into consideration all countries’ concerns, to seek harmonious co-existence with all nations, and if it insists on the antagonistic Cold War thinking that seeks confrontation and containment, then the world will inevitably sink into a vicious circle of chaos. Such protracted exhaustion will not only weaken the diplomatic efficacy of Obama and subsequent US presidents, but it will also lead to the increasing decline of America’s position as an international leader.

For centuries, many western scholars and playwrights have conducted exhaustive studies on Shakespeare’s plays, and come up with fascinating works that resonate with today’s audience. During his interaction with the audience in Beijing, Tim Robbins repeatedly emphasized that though “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was set in the time of Athens under Theseus, the thinking and feelings of the characters were from Shakespeare’s Elizabeth Era, and today, Mr. Robbins and the Actors’ Gang want to connect this 16th-Century play to the violence that is sweeping the modern world and look for a solution. His reply to such a need, in his own words, is less resentment and condemnation, more redemption and consecration. But, just as the question that this writer raised had stated, the concept of “order” might far outweigh that of “love” for putting this Shakespearean play into today’s context.

In reality, American politicians have a tradition of learning from Shakespeare’s plays. For example, during George W. Bush’s presidency, the US military once held a special session on Shakespearean plays, where then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and generals of the US navy, army and air force engaged in heated discussions about those works’ inspirations for contemporary international politics and strategies. Hopefully today’s politicians and strategists in America could also take a look at Tim Robbins’ dazzling theatrical presentation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and share with us their ideas about the present world order. That would certainly be interesting to hear.

Jin Ying is an Associate Researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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