I’m grateful to have played one of Shakespeare’s great fools, Feste in Twelfth Night, three times – first when I studied at NYU (I also composed the score and musical directed the production), 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 advises Orsino not to drown too deep 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 a connection between Cesario and Orsino. 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.
Ultimately, he is a servant. He serves Olivia’s house (he was her father’s fool), yet manages to slip out to spend time at Duke Orsino’s house and who knows where else. It’s easy to get esoteric about Feste, but logistically he is the jester of Olivia’s house.
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 his music is a vehicle to share his perspective. Feste seems to pick his songs specifically for the people who ask him to play. When Sir Toby and Sir Andrew call for a love song, he picks “O Mistress Mine”, a song about living in the moment, for the epicurean knights (I’m often confused by mournful compositions of this song – I read this lyric as someone persuading his love to stay and play, sort of “carpe diem”). 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 and setting, the score wanted a contemporary, yet timeless feel. This was around the time when folk-oriented bands like Mumford and Sons and Old Crow Medicine Show were popular (or at least finding their way into my own world), and I had been listening to different kinds of folk music for years. Those scores purposefully pulled from a wide range of folk idioms, from Simon and Garfunkel to pseudo-vaudevillian to rockabilly. The director and I 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 me as Feste singing alone, and by the end the entire company was singing and playing along.
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 the 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, to me, like a water play. 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 Sir Andrew and Sir Toby’s cups, we see water in many forms, and likewise how unpredictable and changeable our emotional life can be.
The rain it raineth every day.
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.