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23 June 2010

Midsummer Nights


Happy Midsummer (or just after Midsummer). Today was close to the longest day of the year, and I spent close to five ours of it absorbed in San Francisco Opera's fabulous production of Die Walküre. Not precisely a midsummer opera, though it does include some glorious music about spring. A couple of years ago, I gave a Midsummer Night’s Dream party (what’s more fun than a party with a Shakespearean theme?). Rushing around doing party prep, I was listening to Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (one of my favorite musicals), and I found myself thinking about the allure of stories set on midsummer nights.

Shakespeare created a brilliant template with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Under a midsummer moon, lovers find and lose each other, friends become enemies and back again, lines are blurred between classes and between fairies and mortals. Until recently, I didn’t realize how much one of my favorite plays and movies, The Philadelphia Story, owes to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s the estranged/divorced married couple, the pre-wedding setting, the characters falling in love (and blurring class lines) under influence of a mind-altering drug, whether it’s the juice of a rare flower or Pommery champagne. Philip Barry even sets the play on midsummer night and explicitly refers to it by having Tracy’s younger sister Dinah say “it’s supposed to be the longest day of the year or something” (to which Tracy, coping with the escalating complications of her wedding day, replies, “I wouldn’t doubt it for a minute.”).

Then there’s A Little Night Music and the movie upon which it is based, Ingmar Bergman’s exquisite Smiles of a Summer Night. Once again lovers change partners beneath a midsummer moon (beautifully evoked by a waltz among birch trees in the opening of A Little Night Music). But while the majority of the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Philadelphia Story end up back with their original partner (Demetrius being a notable exception) in A Little Night Music/Smiles of a Summer Night, the majority of the lovers change partners and end the story with the new partner. One might say that the events of the night help Frederik recover from the madness of his love for his child-bride Anne and back to his far more real love for his former mistress Desirée. “A coherent existence,” as Desirée puts it. Frederik, like The Philadelphia Story’s Tracy Lord, finds his eyes opened in the course of a midsummer night’s adventures.

Beneath a Silent Moon offers my own take on the midsummer night theme. I actually scoured A Midsummer Night’s Dream for quotes when looking for a title. for the book but couldn’t find one my publisher and I agreed on. I love Beneath a Silent Moon as a title (it was a suggestion of my agent, Nancy Yost) because while it isn’t a quote, to me it conjures up the moon imagery which is so prevalent in Dream. Perhaps not surprisingly, my version of midsummer madness includes lots of spies, smugglers, and secret meetings beneath a silent moon. But the elements are still there. Lovers find and lose each other, partners change, old loves are rekindled. Lovers and lunatics seem not so very far apart. “Love isn’t sensible,” Quen tells his former lover. “Love’s a fire that can’t be contained. Until it burns itself out.”

Writing this blog post, I realized Beneath a Silent Moon even offers it’s own dark twist on theme of a wedding party. Charles and Mélanie aren’t precisely estranged, but they are certainly struggling to define the dynamics of their marriage. And there’s a birch coppice which serves at the setting for midnight adventures, my own homage to the birch wood in A Little Night Music.

At the end of the book, Mélanie thinks, somewhat ironically, of the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 'Jack shall have Jill; Nought shall go ill'. I think that Charles, like Tracy and Frederick and Titania waking from enchantment, finds his eyes opened in the course of the story.

Do you like stories with midsummer settings? Any favorites? If you've written a book with a midsummer setting, how did the setting impact the story?

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8 Comments:

Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Tracy, I love Midsummer-themed stories. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was the first Shakespeare play I ever performed in (Peaseblossom, in 8th grade!) and whetted my appetite for both Shakespeare and the magic that can happen during stories in sylvan settings.

I also adore "A Little Night Music" -- far and away my favorite Sondheim musical. I know all the songs by heart and used to use "The Miller's Son" as an audition and cabaret performance song.

We could all get into a long discussion of how the weather (or just seasons in general -- "The Winter's Tale," anyone?) impact a story and characters. Weather and climate affect mood (of the story and of a character). I always feel my heart lighten on a sunny, temperate day; but I'm grumpy when it's hot and muggy, don't much feel like going out in the rain, and would prefer to walk through the snow because I want to, not because I need to.

3:47 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I adore The Philadelphia Story. I've never thought about it in relation to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it's a very interesting comparison. I’m going to have to think about this one for a bit.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I'd love to hear you sing "The Miller's Son", Leslie!

I was a tree spirit (no lines but fabulous costume) in Midsummer at the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival (now the California Shakespeare Theater). I know a bunch of the play by heart from that production.

One thing that interesting about the time of year/weather in terms of writing historical fiction, is that the events one's writing about often lock one's story into a particular season and perhaps dictate the weather (if there's an historical record of it). My recently completed "Vienna Waltz" takes place in November but that autumn in Vienna was particularly warm and golden, a sort of gilded world that laughed in defiance at oncoming winter, which I was able to use in the book as a metaphor for the Congress itself. The book I'm starting is set around Waterloo, so I'm locked into June, which dictates weather, type of clothes the characters are wearing, activities available, etc...

10:48 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love "The Philadelphia Story" too, Kalen! I never thought about the "Midsummer" parallel until the Broadway musical version "High Society" (which opened in SF). That made the "Midsummer" parallel even clearer, but once I thought about it, I could see it there in the play.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

The weather thing is interesting to think about. My first two books both start at the end of summer or in early autumn and run though to the following spring, but my new ones, for reasons of plot, are starting in spring and running into summer. Very different and slightly strange.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, did you set your first two books in end of summer/early autumn because you wanted to start at that time of year or did the plot dictate what season the story started in? The impact of season/weather on a story is fascinating. Often I'm locked in by historical events or the fact that the book is following another connected book, but I did consciously decide to set "Secrets of a Lady" in November and "Beneath a Silent Moon" in June/July (the latter because I'd be in Scotland doing research then).

5:04 PM  
Blogger Blythe Gifford said...

What an interesting post. The parallels between The Philadelphia Story and A Midsummer Night's Dream are quite intriguing. (Must admit I've never seen A Little Night Music.)
In THE HARLOT'S DAUGHTER, I had a Midsummer Night scene. The book began and ended at Yuletide. Midsummer was significant because it was the heroine's "long lost" birthday and it marked a turning point in her relationship with the hero and herself. I write medievals and find myself looking for such natural celebrations (Yuletide, Beltane, etc.) because they offer wonderful "set pieces" of interesting activities, rituals, and superstitions that give richness and thematic layers to the action.

7:09 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for posting, Blythe! As someone whose books usually span a week or less, I'm very intrigued by the idea of writing a book that covers a whole year. I can see medieval festivals offering fascinating set pieces. I think any historical era and setting has its own seasonal event that impact the story. In the Regency, it's parliamentary sessions (sometimes different in different years), summer house parties or trips to Brighton or Bath, the hunting season, holiday house parties, etc...

8:25 PM  

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