Our long summer of love in the woods is finally over, concluding with a final performance of As You Like It on Sunday afternoon. I went to the show expecting an "end of term" atmosphere with maybe a few liberties taken--but there was only one: William the Clown took a curtain call in full belly, without a shirt. He has a thing about his belly, as some men with bellies do. Auden,speaking of Sir John Falstaff, writes about this, and of how a big belly is a source of pride for its possessor--he has grown it all himself--and how it returns its bearer to a state of both pregnancy and infancy. A big belly is not a thing to laugh to scorn. Otherwise the show was as it has been, varying as much because of the audience as the actors. On this final afternoon my favorite moment came towards the end, in the little scene where the inebriated hunters are returning with the deer they have bagged (the deer was an inflatable decoy), and are met by Jaques who demands to know "which is he that killed the deer?" Knowing of Jaques sympathies for the native citizens of the forest, there is a silence on stage; no one is ready to fess up. The pause was broken in this production when a small boy, about 7, sitting next to me, piped up and said, "It was the guy with the arrows!" And he was right, of course. So the production ended on this little high note--though the play itself has lots of problems ending.
As You Like It is ready to end, as it should, with the long promised weddings of the four couples, and it is all set to do so when the god, Hymen, appears with Celia and Rosalind in their wedding gowns. He gives away all the brides, and then calls for a song to send the show:
Whiles a wedlock hymn we sing
Feed Yourselves with questioning
That reason wonder may diminish
How thus we met, and these things finish
Perfect, no? The speaks in rhymed couplets which close the door firmly on the action. Now we'll have a concluding song as the characters exit speaking of the marvels of Ganymede, the magician, who has suddenly become the bride, Rosalind (a reasoned explanation will soon diminish this wonder). This is the way Shakespeare plays often end. And indeed we get this promised song, but as soon as it's over yet another character we have never seen before enters the woods. He is Jaques de Boys, the second son and middle brother of Orlando and Oliver. He has a startling tale to tell of how old Duke Frederick had mustered an army to seize his brother, but who, marching into the magic woods, met an "old religious man" and was converted from his evil purposes. The duke is going to live a religious life, and has returned lands and titles to the exiled lords. OK. It's a fairy tale--but so on some level--is the whole play. All loose ends have been wrapped up. NOW we can end, right? Yes--and so says Duke Senior, who invites us all now "to forget this new-fll'n dignity/And fall into our rustic revelry./Play, music! And you brides and bridegrooms all,/With measure heaped in joy to the measures fall." Another strong concluding couplet, and the play will end with a dance, as Elizabethan comedies so often do.
But wait! Just as the dance is about to begin, the other Jaques, the French philosopher, steps forward to announce he is not for dancing measures. He's going off to see the old religious man too. He stops the dance at the last possible moment, just as we are ready for it to begin, and then takes a long time to leave with a round of farewells. As usual, Jaques is always worth watching and hearing,so we can really really ready to end with the promised dance, as the Duke again announces in yet another concluding couplet:
Proceed, proceed! We'll begin these rites
As we do trust they'll end, in true delights.
And with a dance, these things do, at last, finish. Well, not quite. Because at the end of the dance, when the wedding party leaves the stage and the last strains of the music fade, there is still someone coming back on stage---Rosalind. And guess what? She has more to say, appearing as epilogue, asking favor and taking her own extended farewell. And now, for the fourth and last time, the play actually ends.
Don't ask me to explain this, or tell you what it means. I don't know why Shakespeare created three false endings for his play. But having watched the show many times this summer, and watched the audience watching the show, I would say that As You Like It is oddly constructed. It's first act is all plot and exposition. Who is who, and who is doing what to whom (assassinating, banishing, falling in love, etc.). Oddly enough, it is the intensely plot driven first part of the play that is most tedious; almost dull, in spite of love, treachery, great wrestling and cruel banishment. Once the play gets into the woods, the plot stops. There's nothing much to do but meet, talk, love, and sit down and sing. But it's here in the woods, free from the tyranny of plot, that the play sets sail. There is indeed "no clock in the forest." Very little happens, but the play never seems slow. And plot has been so much discarded that when it finally does come time for an ending it's difficult to manage. The play doesn't want to end. It wants to go on and on and on--and it does. And that's the way we like it.