I’ve played Feste three times now – once when I was at NYU (I also was the musical director and composer on that production), three years after that in an evolution of that college production produced by Libra Theater Company, and then three years after that with the Texas Shakespeare Festival. Especially by that third production, the role has come to resonate quite deeply with me. Not just that it’s a fascinating role, but I quite empathize with him. Or perhaps, he is an especially well-suited mask to reveal a big chunk of my life experience and my authentic self.
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 for a song. Everyone loves him for his humor, his playfulness, and his music. However, he doesn’t have any intimate connection with anyone specific in the show. He floats around from place to place, entertaining and playing as called for. Once he plays “Come Away, Death” for Orsino, Orsino doesn’t keep him around to connect with him over his troubles. He sends Feste away. Feste even advises Orsino not to drown too deep in his own emotions (“the melancholy god protect thee”). He is witness to the budding romance between Sir Toby and Maria. He has some intuitive knowledge of what is happening between Cesario and Olivia, and possibly even 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 the house of Olivia, somehow slips over to Duke Orsino at times, and seems to move about by his own whim as evidenced by Maria’s questioning of his whereabouts when we first meet him. It’s easy to get esoteric about Feste, but based purely on the text, he is the jester of Olivia’s house.
As a actor/musician, I approach Feste’s songs as if they were his own original repertoire. I also find the songs are more dramatically playable if Feste were inspired to write them from his own life experience, and that his songs is one of his main vehicles to express his perspective (his other main one being his use of wit). I believe that Feste picks 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 (I am always confused by the mournful compositions of this song – I’ve always read it as a guy trying to convince his love to stay and play). The Duke calls for an old antique song that apparently only Feste can sing, “Come Away Death”, which is about as melancholy a lyric as you’ll ever find written. Quite a few other songs are referenced in the play (at least five), but the play ends with Feste alone on stage singing “The Wind and the Rain.”
Here is my surface-level history with this song before getting into my deeper perspective on it:
The NYU/Libra production was in modern dress, though not explicitly contemporary in setting. The second of those productions was mounted in the performance area of an actual bar (where bands and improv shows would normally play). As a result of the style and setting, that score needed to have a contemporary, yet timeless feel. This was around the time when bands like Mumford and Sons, the Avett Brothers, and Old Crow Medicine Show were becoming popular, and I had been listening to various kinds of folk music for years. The score purposefully pulled from a wide range of folk idioms, from Simon and Garfunkel to pseudo-vaudevillian to rockabilly. The director and I decided we wanted “The Wind and the Rain” to feel like a true musical finale. We wanted it 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 at the same time, 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 the terrain of 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.
Most of the characters in this play show incredible resiliency and buoyancy, often in the pursuit of love. How many times does Orsino send overtures to woo Olivia? Olivia repeatedly woos Cesario/Sebastian after many rejections. Malvolio doesn’t curl up and die in the prison, even after all he’s been through; he bursts forth from the prison demanding an answer from Olivia, and even after the revelation that he’s been duped, he declares “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” and leaves, presumably to rise again. Sir Andrew’s courting of Olivia, Antonio’s efforts to serve Sebastian, and the fact that when Viola and Sebastian wind up shipwrecked in a strange land, they set out to find a way to survive, move forward, and to live when everything they know has been taken from them.
The rain it raineth every day.
Rain. Archetypally, water represents our emotional lives. 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 be our salvation, while hurricanes and floods can destroy civilizations. Water can cleanse and wash away the dirt, but can turn around and help the plants to grow. In The Rainmaker, the rain comes at the end when the characters are finally emotionally available, as if all that water has been stored up and is finally bursting forth. In the song “Singin’ in the Rain”, Don has just kissed Kathy good night, and as his heart swells from all of the joy and romance he feels, the rain starts.
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. “It’s Raining on Prom Night” from Grease, or the pop tune, “Rhythm of the Rain” offer the metaphor of rain for tears:
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. In all of this, rain is inevitable and part of our natural cycle.
I consider Twelfth Night a water play. The beauty of its examination of love is how love arises, flows, ebbs, swells, trickles, and pours. From the storm that led Viola and Sebastian to the island, to the drinks that fill the cups of Sir Andrew and Sir Toby, we see water in all forms, and likewise, we see how unpredictable and changeable our emotional life can be.
The rain it raineth every day.
For the production I scored, I set the song as an Irish drinking tune. That was the best way in my opinion, in that particular production and collaboration, to deeply celebrate the unpredictable nature of our lives. I’m sure I would do something different in future productions, but I believe when Feste sings this song, he is reminding the denizens of his world, or just the audience if he’s alone on stage, that every day is unpredictable. “The rain it raineth every day” is an acknowledgement that shit happens. Life happens. The beauty of life is that we can be drenched in our humanity, our capacity to love. Sometimes we seem to be rejected by the happenings in our lives, but the truth is (for Feste, as the fool, usually speaks some kind of truth) that shit happens every day. More importantly, we can be resilient, and sometimes that rain proves to be the best thing for us. The rain can cleanse us and allow us to be reborn. The best part about this is that it rains every day, and every day, every moment, is another chance to feel, to love, to start again, and connect to our humanity.