Our Friend, The Play Within a Play
In Venus in Fur, a playwright has adapted a novel from 1870 called Venus in Furs into a new play, and hopes to cast the perfect actress in the lead role. So in the play that we, the audience, see, the playwright auditions an actress for the role, and through that audition the play that he has written is revealed to us. Still with me? Essentially, we get to see a "play within a play." When the characters of the play we are watching become the actors and audience members of a play within that play.
The concept of a play within a play (or a story within a story) comes from the French saying mise en abyme, or “placed into abyss.”
Have you ever stood between two mirrors and had a weird, self-reflecting feeling because your image seems to keep going on forever? That’s a mise en abyme! Historically, the mise en abyme was used as a symbol in European coat of arms, placing a smaller replica of the shield in its own center. Basically it was a taunt to all potential enemies, as a way of saying, "Hey, we will not be defeated, so watch your self!"
But back to theater. The mise en abyme has been used for hundreds of years in the form of a play within a play. Throughout history, writers have used plays or stories to highlight an emotion or a plot point. So it makes sense that playwrights blur the lines of reality and fantasy, as we see in Venus in Fur, and create a play within a play or a story within a story.
As you can see see below, the concept of a play within a play is no spring chicken in the world of literary devices.In the spirit of Venus in Fur, let's take a look at a few other examples of famous plays within a play.
The Spanish Tragedy or Hieronimo is Mad Again
by Thomas Kyd
The Spanish Tragedy was the first to use the play within a play device, around the year 1587. The play is performed before two characters, revealing a series of murders and in turn igniting the desire for revenge. Fun fact: Kyd is believed to be the original writer of a rendering of Hamlet. And the man who made Hamlet famous, Sir William Shakespeare himself, loved a good play within a play.
Hamlet and The Murder of Gonzago
by William Shakespeare
Oh hey, speaking of... doesn’t Hamlet have a play-within-a-play twist? Yes, revenge tactic! When the Ghost tells Hamlet about his father’s murder, Hamlet becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth. His uncle Claudius is the murderer! So, what does Hamlet do? He has his actor friends stage a play, The Murder of Gonzago, recreating the exact death of his father, the King. Claudius’ agonizing reaction to the play solidifies Hamlet’s suspicions, setting him on a quest for revenge (cue ominous music).
I wish I could have used the play-within-a-play revenge tactic in high school. I mean, let's get real, most people make fun of the theater kids in high school and then later they realize how awesome it is to be yourself, outgoing and just straight up rad! Theater for the win!
A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Craftsmen’s Play
by William Shakespeare
A more whimsical view of the play within a play can be seen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The bumbling mechanicals offer a comedic ending to this Shakespeare classic. They essentially put on a ridiculous performance mirroring the play up until this point. Brilliant! This play within a play, performed at the Athenians’ wedding in the final act, mimics the insane antics of these star-crossed lovers who will ultimately never be with who they truly love. Lots of belly laughs. So depressing. Nicely done Bill.
The King and I and The Small House of Uncle Thomas
Directed by Walter Lang
Screenplay by Ernest Lehman
As cultures intertwine in the classic film The King and I, we are able to witness a play within a film. (I guess it is also a play within a play, as it was adapted from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical…which was adapted from Margaret Landon’s book Anna and the King of Siam.) We are getting three examples in one here! The play, or rather, a narrated telling, of The Small House of Uncle Thomas, is represented through Siamese dance demonstrating the two cultures. The Small House of Uncle Thomas follows Eliza, a slave of the evil King Simon of Legree. Eliza flees from the King and gains her freedom while the King dies while in pursuit to catch her. Now here is some good use of play-within-a-play foreshadowing (tune ominous music again). The story is narrated by Tuptim, one of the King’s wives. Like Eliza, Tuptim runs away from the King following the play in order to reunite with her secret lover Lun Tha. Tuptim is captured by the King’s guard and with Anna’s insistence is spared by the King. Though she gains her freedom, Tuptim learns that Lun Tha has already been killed. Now with all this understanding he has gained from Anna, of course he has to die. Because sometimes you need a not so happy ending that breaks your heart a little…or a lot.
Cabaret and the Kit Kat Klub
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Based on the play by John Van Druten
Ah yes. Cabaret. Who doesn’t love some wartime comedic emotional heartbreaking musical magic? The production performed here at Portland Center Stage with Storm Large as Sally Bowles and Wade McCollum as the Emcee is a personal favorite (I saw it four times which beats out my record for how many times I saw Titanic in theaters). Here we see a variation of the classic form of a play within a play, as the actors are the performers and audience members of the Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret club in Berlin, Germany, prior to WWII as the Nazis are coming to power. The performances at the Kit Kat Klub highlight the emotional tension and themes that are occurring in the war as well as how they have taken a toll on the relationships between the characters. The only way to exhibit their personal hell is through farcical play-within-a-play antics. The “If You Could See Her” song is particularly striking in this feat.
Moulin Rouge! and Spectacular, Spectacular
by Baz Luhrmann
Spectacular, Spectacular! The play that portrays the ideals of the Bohemian revolution of Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love. Not bad ideals if I do say so myself. The play follows the secret love affair between a penniless sitar player and the beautiful Indian courtesan under the nose of the evil maharajah that is trying to win her heart. The play allows for Christian, the penniless writer and Satine, the star courtesan of the Moulin Rouge to carry out their love affair unknown to the evil Duke. Spectacular, Spectacular parallels the movie and relationship of the two lovers. We see this story line evolve through the movie, changing with the relationships. The ultimate end of their love affair is even hinted at, when the storyline of Spectacular, Spectacular is being pitched to the Duke. The play gets its happy ending, but the film ends behind the curtain with our heroine dying in her lover’s arms. If you didn’t sob at the end of this movie, your heart is made of stone.
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