STRATFORD, Conn-The production of All's Well That Ends Well that has opened the American Shakespeare Festival's sixteenth season forces some rather drastic rethinking about this notoriously puzzling play-and that is of course always a laudable effect. Far from the Bard's best work, this uneven play nonetheless has a sufficient number of intriguing features to justify its periodic staging.
It is generally thought to contain so much ambiguity, irony, cynicism and gravity that it deserves the usually applied label of "dark comedy" or "problem play." But director Michael Kahn will have none of this. As he chooses to present it, we are hardly aware of anything dark or problematic. Kahn, trimming the text to two acts of seventy minutes each, has gone for fun and make-believe: and he has brought his approach off with lustrous success.
This is in marked contrast to the Festival's only other production of the work, which John Houseman directed eleven years ago. In 1959, we saw an impressively sober and severe version, which underlined the profoundly serious content to be found in the text. Make no mistake: not everything Shakespeare wrote into the play was a laughing matter. As its title suggests, the work is among other things a study in the ethical question of whether the end justifies the means. It also explores the essence of personal honor, the proper nature of marriage, and the relative importance of worth and birth. Heady stuff indeed.
The trouble, though, was that Shakespeare, drawing on an episode in Boccaccio's Decameron. foisted on us a plot that is at once preposterous and poorly constructed. To which we must add that his heroine, Helena, lacks motivation, and his supposed hero. Bertram, lacks all semblance of virtue.
Consider the skeleton on which Shakespeare has hung his play. Helena is the orphaned ward of the Countess of Roussillon, and is in love with the Countess' son Bertram, who is above her in station. When he goes to the King's court, she follows. The King has been pronounced incurably ill, but Helena promises to cure him in return for the hand of any lord she chooses. The King recovers in two days, and she picks Bertram, who wants none of her. He is forced to marry her, but leaves at once to fight in the Italian wars, and sends her a message: "When thou canst get this ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband." Eventually Helena turns up in Italy, where she bribes a widow's daughter, Diana, with whom Bertram has a midnight assignation, to yield her place in bed. Helena thus secures his ring and is impregnated by him. After further complications. Bertram finally says-in a crude Hollywoodesque wrap-up-that he is willing to love her.
The ringidentification gimmick, so skillfully handled in Twelfth Night, is here even more awkwardly managed than in The Merchant of Venice. And interlarded along the way is another story involving the vile coward Parolles-a plot that has no organic connection, with the main tale.
Michael Kahn, eschewing a tragicomic view of the play, has pushed his production along the gamut to pure comedy and at times beyond this in the direction of farce. The advantage accruing from this is that audiences will readily accept, under the guise of comedy, the kind of silly plot that they would not swallow in a serious work. But there is a disadvantage too: a comic interpretation tends to prevent the audience from realizing that grave issues are being extensively dealt with in this play. Kahn made his choice, and has proven its viability beyond a doubt.
The tone of this production is set at the very outset by designer Marsha Eck's pretty picture-frame made of candelabrum-adorned Corinthian pillars, and a foliage-sprouting crosspiece bearing the play's title in flowing letters. The opening mood is buttressed by Conrad Susa's bright E-major fanfares that lead into a section for hidden singers and pastoral woodwinds punctuated by airy strokes on a glockenspiel. And Jane Greenwood, using the late 16th-century as a period, has provided dozens of stunning ruffcollared costumes.
Helena is the main personage in All's Well. It is easy to see why Shaw so ardently admired the play, because Shakespeare provided in Helena a more striking example of the clever and strong-willed female than he had given us in the Portia of the Merchant of Venice, a type continued by Nora in lbsen's A Doll's House and by such characters from Shaw's own pen as Ann Whitefield. Major Barbara. Hesione Hushabye, and Saint Joan.
In Kahn's production. Roberta Max-well has softened the character of Helena from the Women's Liberation aggressiveness the play wright probably intended. Miss Maxwell is pert and pretty; and she introduces into her demeanor touches of self-doubt that make her a warmer and more sympathetic person and take the edge off her duplicitous scheming. When she first appears before the King she does not curtsy but instead prostrates herself for an unconscionable length of time before the throne. Shaw would not have liked that. Coleridge proclaimed that Helena is Shakespeare's "loveliest character." She is a far cry from that, but Miss Maxwell gives her a hefty push in that direction.
She speaks with exemplary clarity. In fact, in an effort to be clear she makes us aware of a certain laboredness in her speech. She cannot disguise that she is working hard. At the same time she ought to be more careful about preserving the vodsound in words like "issue" and "duty." But these are minor flaws in a most attractive performance. No more than any other Helena, however, can she make us understand why she is in love with Bertram, beyond the fact that she likes "his arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls."
For Bertram is, to be blunt, a scurvy scamp-hardly a model of what a hero ought to be. Yet people go on trying to defend the indefensible. Dr. Johnson hit the nail on the head two centuries ago when he wrote: "I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram-a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helena as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she is [reportedly] dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness."
It is often claimed that Bertram did nothing wrong when he thought he was committing adultery with Diana since he was in actuality copulating with his own wife. But this goes against the time-worn truth voiced in the Book of Proverbs: "For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he." Peter Thompson looks young and handsome in the role, but he does not have sufficient dash to balance the gross deficiencies in Bertram's character.
The most remarkable performance in this entire production is that of Eva Le Gallienne as Bertram's mother. the Countess of Roussillon-which Shaw quite arguably called "the most beautiful old woman's part ever written." Although this is Miss Le Gallienne's first appearance at the Festival, she brings to it well over a half century of professional stage experience. She manages to convey all the warmth and wit and wisdom of this aristocratic lady who is fully aware of her ward's virtues and her son's defects. One cannot begin to describe what she can do with a line like. "But I do wash his name out of my blood." In her performance there is not the slightest hint of labored delivery; all the words flow forth with seeming effortlessness, as though blank verse had always been her natural mode of discourse. Not the least impressive part of her playing comes in the long final scene, during which she is almost entirely silent; here she exhibits mastery of what the redoubtable Ethel Barry more called the hardest part of acting: the art of beautiful listening. It was a gracious gesture to assign the Epilogue to the Countess instead of the King. Miss Le Gallienne is a small woman, but she is a towering artist.
Splendid too is the King of Josef Sommer, back for his seventh Festival season. So skillful has he become at portraying older men that one would never guess he is really a young man. When we first see the King, he is ailing; Sommer makes clear that the King is not only tired of state business but also just plain tired, as he gives a slight grunt from the exertion of stepping up to the throne. When he is led to reminisce about Bertram's deceased father, his eyes glaze over as nostalgia takes him back to better times long gone. After Helena has cured him, the two of them execute a dance; he launches into his speech on honor with the vigorous irresistibility of a bulldozer, and gets a fine laugh through the exasperated way he says to Bertram. "Speak. Thine answer." -as though anybody could have gotten a single word in edgewise. Sommer is an unusually intelligent actor; one never doubts that he understands every word he utters.