STRATFORD, Conn--For a long time I have been struck by the remarkable parallel between Shakespeare and Beethoven at the end of their creative careers. Writing for the string quartet medium. Beethoven penned the relatively traditional Op. 127. Them, in order of composition, came Op. 132, 130, 133 and 131--all in a fresh kind of musical language. Opus 135, of lesser quality, reverted to an earlier style; and Beethoven ended his career with part of a work, a new finale for Op. 130.
Shakespeare wrote a tragedy, Coriolanus. There followed a group of four plays--Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest--which constituted a novel genre, the tragicomic romance. Henry VIII. also of lesser quality, reverted to the history genre; and Shakespeare concluded by writing a part of The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Furthermore, as I indicated in reviewing the previous production of The Winter's Tale mounted in 1958 by the American Shakespeare Theater, the central tetralogies of both men show many thematic and other relationships, and both reflect a shift from conventional Probabilities to incongruities and implausibilities. In confronting the four Beethoven pieces and the four Shakespeare plays, we find, on the one hand, more that is meditative, philosophical and allusive, and, on the other, more that is naive, childlike or grotesque. This is not the place to pursue the matter at length, but it remains curious and noteworthy that the careers of the central figure in western literature and the central figure in western music should wind up in such a similar way.
With both men, too, the new late manner has encountered trouble gaining acceptance over the years. Even today, most people consider the middle-period works to be the "real" Beethoven; and they admire most of all the tragedies of Shakespeare's middle period. Productions of the four romances are far from frequent, and the Stratford company has never staged Pericles or Cymbeline even once a hint for next season.
Shakespeare's quartet of romances deals, in a new symbolic and mythic fashion, with the ties of friendship and blood. At the start of each, a father is responsible for losing a child. In each, estrangement leads to remorse and eventually to reconciliation and peace. The dramatist seems in these plays to be making a statement of Christian faith, an endorsement of the redemptive power of penance.
The Winter's Tale, with which the AST completes this summer's repertory, has often been scored for its anachronisms and factual slips. Shakespeare set the play in the times of ancient Greece, yet its tone is clearly Christian, including even a reference to Whitsunday. Hermione claims her father was Emperor of Russia, when there was then no such thing. A famous 16th-century Italian sculptor is cited by name. Shakespeare confused the oracle of Apollo at Delphi with the one on the island of Deios, and provided Bohemia with a seacoast it has never enjoyed. On top of that, the dramatist dared to jump 16 years between the third and fourth acts.
These things never bothered the Elizabethans. Why should we take such offense? Except in The Tempest, Shakespeare never observed all three of the classical unities of time, place and action rigidly prescribed by 10th century Continental theorists (and not by Aristotle, as usually claimed). Many people need to be reminded that, even in the ancient Greek playwrights, one ode may indicate a long lapse of time. Pericles contains a similar 16 year leap of time; and Henry VI, Part One covers more than three decades.
The time gap in The Winter's Tale is necessary. Whereas the tragedies focus on the fail from prosperity, this play and the other romances emphasize the stage of rebirth, regeneration or recreation that is part of the full cyclical pattern--and this demands plenty of time. We also must not look here for the gradual development we find in the tragedies; we are obliged to make many assumptions, and to look upon the characters more as allegorical representations than as traditional dramatic personages. Any winter's tale, after all, is at heart a fairy tale to be related around a warm fireplace.
The structure of The Winter's Tale is not bipartite, as usually maintained, but tripartite, a fine example of the Hegelian dialectic. In the first three acts we have a thesis: the chill, sterile, tragic life of Leontes's middle-aged court in Sicilia. In the fourth act, we have the antithesis: the pastoral and exuberant life of the young commoners in Bohemia. The fifth act brings us a synthesis, in which the two components are brought into mellow harmony with each other.
In this production director Michael Kahn has made all this especially clear, with the help of Jane Greenwood's costumes and Ken Billington's lighting. In the first Sicilia scenes, everyone is in snowy white. In Bohemia, John Conklin's handsome cyclorama of hanging Lucite tubes is lit with the green of vegetation, and the actors wear colorful yellows and greens. When we return to Sicilia for the last act, the whites have been softened with patches of light grey. In addition, the character of Time (Powers Boothe), whom Shakespeare brings in only to bridge the celebrated 16-year hiatus, appears wordlessly at the outset carrying a barren wintry branch with green leaves; and he concludes the play by reappearing with a third branch of autumnal gold. The level is complete.
The text, which is exceedingly difficult to assimilate, being highly elliptical, syntactically intricate, and stuffed with multiple meanings, is somewhat abridged here, so that the entire show has a running time of only 170 minutes. For some reason Kahn has adopted hybrid pronunciations for the names Leontes, Paulina and Proserpina; and I wonder whether the Clown's misaccentuation of "lamentably" is intentional. why too must everyone accent occurs some 60 times in Shakespeare, and it almost invariably requires first-syllable stress.
And I must protest the decision to have Camillo substitute the humdrum word "undress" in discase thee instantly." "Discase " is a gem of a word (Shakespeare would use it again in The Tempest). Once you start this tinkering, where do you stop? The Winter's Tale has quite a number of obsolete or arcane terms that occur nowhere of obsolete or arcane terms that occur nowhere else in Shakespeare--such as neb, hoxes, callet, losel, pugging, dibble, caddises, barne, and pettitoes. Are these to be thrown out too? Let audiences do their homework, or suffer the consequences. (Some years back, Robert Graves announced that he was preparing a text of Hamlet with all the old words updated. Fortunately I never saw either him or the result. Graves indeed are fitting places for such scoundrels.)
The dominant person in the first half of the play is King Leontes (Donald Madden), whose consuming jealousy leads him to accuse his visiting boyhood chum King Polixenes (Jack Ryland) of fathering the child his innocent wife Hermione (Maria Tucci) is about to bring into the world. Many people have complained that we are not given the full background and unfolding of Leontes's jealousy. But Shakespeare had already written Othello and there was no need for him to write that play all over again. His purpose here is quite different.
Leontes is impulsive and paranoid; and his jealousy, unlike Othello's is wholly internal, "begot upon itself." His "too hot, too hot!" speech should be sufficient preparation for nay audience. There is also a strong strain of immaturity in Leontes. Kahn underlines this at the very start by showing us Leontes and Polixenes, an almost twin-like pair, stripped to the waist. Trying to recapture their stripped to the waist, trying to recapture their boyhood by arm wrestling. When Leontes, a bit later, sees Polixenes and Hermione innocuously holding hand, he starts chewing on the end of the tie-cord of his shirt in most unregal fashion. The men's friendship has not really matured properly during the years of their separation.
Effective too is Leontes's occasional facial tic, and the moment when, as he says, "'Tis Polixenes has made thee swell thus," he violently grabs Hermione's burgeoning belly. After the Delphic oracle eventually proclaims Leontes a "jealous tyrant" and the others blameless, this Leontes even pulls out a dagger to stab himself and has to be restrained (incidentally, in the source from which Shakespeare took the story, the king does commit suicide).