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Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream starts off with the two pairs of Athenian lovers whose love is prohibited from flourishing. Here, the atmosphere is appropriately sombre. Even an element of ‘anguish’ is elicited from the audience as the play progresses, the surreptitious fairies work their magic and exacerbate the confusion on stage.

'Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing' by William Blake (circa 1786)
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 475 x 675 mm

Michelle Pfeiffer (Titania) & Kevin Kline (Nick Bottom) being awesome

Were it not for Bottom’s antics and his delusions of grandeur (Act I, Scene ii … HI-LA-RIOUS, you’re welcome), there would be very little to make us chuckle in this realm conjured up by one of Shakespeare’s most fantastical of comedies. Is it Bottom, then, that makes this play a comedy?

Traditionally, a comedy is called as such because it ends happily. The main ‘problem’ is resolved, the lovers are re-united – ‘all’s well that ends well’… What Bottom actually provides is comic relief and farce.

Such, I think, is the situation that Frank Capra’s 1941 film ‘Meet John Doe’ presents. Although the final few minutes provide the happy ending through a somewhat forced coup, the film deals with real and serious issues throughout. Indeed, the protagonist, John Doe, is presented as being not only a symbol of the collective society, not only a fictitious creation of Ann Mitchell (the newspaper journalist ), but also a real person (actually called John Willoughby).

By acting as a kind of everyman, Doe successfully represents ‘every man’ and functions as the character Everyman does in the ‘Morality Plays’ of the Middle Ages. However, John isn’t a fighting against his own vices, he is ironically fighting against the vices of a society whose individuals he represents.

The story of the film is set in motion by a journalist who is about to be made redundant. In order to safeguard her employment, she relies on her imagination. This creates a persona – John Doe – who is so disenchanted with the current state of society that he ‘writes’ a letter to the paper threatening to commit suicide in protest on Christmas Day.

This scenario already raises questions which acquire particular relevancy now that the Leveson Inquiry has been unearthing new scandals in journalism and generating a revision of journalistic ethics. Coupled with the sense of disenchantment that many are facing, no less because of the economic crisis – the character of John Doe is this film starts speaking for our society as well as his.

John Willoughby (fabulously played by Gary Cooper) first appears as a common working class man, but he  is selected by an interview process to be the face of John Doe to the masses. This transforms both his psychological self and social status. Willoughby gets to live in luxury whilst purporting to be the writer of the steady flow of socio-political letters that keep the newspaper away from bankruptcy. This disgusts his vagrant friend (‘The Colonel’, played by Walter Brennan) who dubs the corporate, money-lusting people as ‘heelots’. He explains the reasoning behind this in admirable eloquence and honesty, which you wouldn’t really expect in a ‘mainstream’ movie – and which is consipicuous for its absence in more recent mainstream films:

Hundreds of people pass you by in every line of business. Shoes, hats, automobiles, radios, furniture, everything, and they’re all nice loveable people. They let you alone…Then you get ahold of some dough and what happens? All those nice, sweet, lovable people become heelots. A lotta heels! They begin creepin’ up on ya, tryin’ to sell ya something. They get long claws and they get a stranglehold on ya and ya squirm and ya duck and ya holler and ya try to push ’em away, but you haven’t got a chance. They’ve got ya.

The first thing you know, you own things – a car, for instance. Now your whole life is messed up with a lot more stuff. You get license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and courtrooms and lawyers and fines – and a million and one other things! And what happens? You’re not the free and happy guy you used to be. You’ve gotta have money to pay for all those things. So you go after what the other fella’s got. And there you are – you’re a heelot yourself.

– The Colonel

Watch the clip here:

This reminded a lot of the late George Carlin (apart from a long list of theorists/philosophers of course…But I think we can all agree, Carlin is much more entertaining!):

The things that matter in these country have been reduced in choice. There are two political parties, there are a handful of insurance companies, there are about six or seven information __. But if you want a bagel there are 23 flavours ’cause you have the illusion of choice.

– George Carlin

John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) and Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) in one of the final scenes

[the above quote is from 5:00 onwards, but I suggest you watch the whole programme]

The journalist and John Willoughby predicatably fall in love, perhaps because John grows to realise that he shares more with his alter ego than a first name.

But will the John Doe Movement that enourages a practical application of ‘love thy neighbour’ flourish and create a revolution?

Possibly, but we get the impression that it’s not John Doe who decides whether John Doe should be empowered – and I’m not sure that that ending deserves the triumphant joy of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with which the film closes…

Watch the full movie here: