I’ve played Twelfth Night‘s Feste, one of Shakespeare’s great fools, three times – first when I was at NYU (where I also composed and musical directed the score), three years later in an evolution of that production produced by Libra Theater Company, and another three years later with the Texas Shakespeare Festival. Not only is he a fascinating character, but the role has come to resonate deeply with me.
Feste observes. He’s the wallflower at the party who can sense what’s really going on between the people on the dance floor. He is the guy with the guitar in the corner who people can always ask to bust out a tune. Everyone loves him for his humor, his playfulness, and his music. However, no one else in the play looks to intimately connect with him. He floats around from place to place, entertaining and playing by request. Once he plays “Come Away, Death” for Orsino, Orsino sends Feste away. He doesn’t keep the fool around to connect over his troubles (though Feste warns Orsino not to drown in his own emotions – “the melancholy god protect thee”). He witnesses the budding romance between Sir Toby and Maria, seems to know what is happening between Cesario and Olivia, and may even notice the connection between Cesario and Orsino. He may also know that Cesario is a woman (“Now Jove, in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard!”). It is easy for a director to turn him into an omniscient character (“Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines every where.”) and they often do.
Feste is also, at this point in his life, a “dry fool.” His creative well has run dry, his jokes are stale, he’s desperate for money, and he is at risk of becoming homeless – Maria warns him, Olivia is upset with him, and Malvolio would kick him out in a heartbeat if he had his way.
Logistically, Feste is a servant. He’s Olivia’s jester (or at least he was her father’s jester), yet manages to slip out to spend time at Duke Orsino’s house and who knows where else.
As an actor/musician, I approach Feste’s songs as if they were his own original repertoire. I find the songs are more dramatically playable if Feste wrote them from his own life experience, and that he uses music as a vehicle to offer his perspective. He seems to pick his songs specifically for the people who ask him to play. When Toby and Andrew call for a love song, he picks “O Mistress Mine”, a song about living in the moment, for the epicurean knights. The Duke calls for an old antique song that apparently only Feste can sing, “Come Away Death”, as sentimental a lyric as you can imagine, for the lovesick, melancholy Duke.
At least five other songs are referenced in the play, but the play ends with Feste singing “The Wind and the Rain. Some productions end with him singing it as a solo, while others (including the three I’ve done) turn it into a full company number. The original text (First Folio) has all of the other characters exit and then “Clowne sings.”
Before I get into my personal take on the song, here is my surface-level history with it: The NYU/Libra productions were in modern dress, though not explicitly contemporary in setting. The Libra production was performed in an actual bar. Based on the style, the setting, and my conversations with the director, I drew inspiration from a wide range of folk idioms, from Simon and Garfunkel to Amos Lee to Old Crow Medicine Show to the Dubliners to give the score a contemporary, yet timeless feel. We wanted “The Wind and the Rain” to have a celebratory feel to go with the weddings at the end of the play. It started with Feste singing alone, building in the entire company to sing and play along (and eventually, we hoped, the audience).
But… the song seems so depressing…
But when I came to man’s estate
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gates
For the rain it raineth every day
Most of the verses are in this vein. Constant rejection, constant failure…
But he bounces back. He isn’t defeated. He is resilient.
His ability to bounce back and try again is, to me, the key to the song.
Studying clown at the Dell’Arte School, one of our touchstone principles was Buoyancy. The clown fails and fails and fails, but always bounces back to try again. This is what allows us to laugh at him. We recognize our own failures, often reminded of much much we thought we knew in a moment and how little we actually did, and are elated and inspired by the reminder that we can bounce back.
The characters in this play show incredible resiliency and buoyancy, particularly in the pursuit of love. How many times does Orsino send overtures to woo Olivia despite her constant rejection? Olivia continues to woo Cesario/Sebastian after being rejected. Malvolio doesn’t curl up and die in the prison after all he’s endured; he bursts forth from the prison demanding an explanation from Olivia, and even after he finds out he’s been duped, he declares “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” Sir Andrew’s courting of Olivia, Antonio’s efforts to serve Sebastian, and when Viola and Sebastian wind up shipwrecked in a strange land, they set out determined to survive, even though everything they’ve known has been taken from them.
The rain it raineth every day.
Rain. Water is an archetypal symbol for emotions. It ebbs and flows. It can exist as ice, mist, stream, ocean, tempest, and fog. It morphs and transforms. An oasis in the desert can save us, while hurricanes and floods can destroy civilizations. Water can cleanse and wash away dirt, then turn around to help plants grow.
At the end of The Rainmaker, a rainstorm hits the drought-oppressed town at the very end, when the characters have released their pent-up emotions. It’s as if all that water had been stored up and can finally burst forth. In Singin’ in the Rain, when Don Lockwood kisses Kathy good night, his heart swells from all of the joy and romance he feels and it starts to pour.
Let the stormy clouds chase everyone from the place
Come on with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face
I walk down the lane with a happy refrain
Just singin’, singin’ in the rain
Rain can also resemble tears. Think of the lyrics for “It’s Raining on Prom Night” from Grease, or the classic tune “Rhythm of the Rain”:
Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain
Telling me just what a fool I’ve been
I wish that it would go and let me cry in vain
And let me be alone again
Rain, as a manifestation of water, is changeable, mutable, transformative, and unpredictable. At the same time, rain is inevitable and part of the natural cycle.
Twelfth Night feels like a water play to me. It examines how love arrives, flows, ebbs, swells, trickles, and pours. From the storm that led Viola and Sebastian to the island, to the drinks that fill Andrew and Toby’s cups, we see water in many forms alongside the unpredictable and changeable nature of our emotional lives.
The rain it raineth every day.
For the NYU/Libra production, I set the song as an Irish drinking tune. I thought that was the best way (in that particular production and collaboration) to celebrate the unpredictable nature of our lives. I’m sure I would set it differently in future productions with different collaborators and circumstances, but I believe when Feste sings this song, he reminds us that day-to-day, moment-to-moment, life is unpredictable. “The rain it raineth every day” acknowledges that sh*t happens. Life happens. The beauty of life is that we can be drenched in our humanity, our capacity to love. Sometimes we are rejected by the happenings in our lives, but the truth is (since Feste, as fool, always speaks some kind of truth) that sh*t happens every day. More importantly, we can choose to be resilient, and sometimes rain turns out to be the best thing for us. It cleanses us and allows us to grow. Every day, every moment, is another chance to feel, to love, to start again, and reconnect to our own humanity.