Leontes Damages The Winter's Tale'
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).
It is the aural part of Madden's performance, however, that severely damages of this difficult role is that it requires the actor to be overwrought for a prolonged time and yet clear. Madden gargles his denunciation of Camillo, and speech after speech in his lengthy argument with Paulina is not intelligible. And when he comes to speaking over the wind-storm, it's impossible to make out a single syllable.
Madden has now been acting professionally for exactly 25 years. In 1961 I saw his long-running Hamlet in New York, which demonstrated marked talent. Here at Stratford, seven years ago, he gave us a fascinating but somewhat misguided Richard II. Even then there were signs of vocal gargling. But this has now developed into a most serious affliction, and I don't know whether it is too late to find a remedy.
This Leontes comes as a big disappointment after the impressive one that John Colicos gave us here in the 1958 version. It would, in any case, be hard for anyone today to equal the magnificent Leontes that the late Henry Daniell achieved in the Theatre Guild production that toured the country in 1946.
Ryland's sinned-against and then sinning Polixenes is a winning performance. His delivery of the "I saw his heart in's face" speech is particularly lovely. If he and Madden had exchanged roles. I suspect we'd have a far superior result.
Kahn has assigned the roles of both Queen Hermione and her daughter Perdita to Maria Tucci. He is thus following the lead of Mary Anderson, who in 1887, two years before retiring at 30, made a great hit playing both parts. The doubling of roles was of course a commonplace in Shakespeare's company. The problem here is that Hermione and Perdita both appear together in the final scene. Although Perdita has only six lines, it is crucial for the harmony and symmetry of the ending that nobody be missing, that we see two middle-aged couples and one young couple happily united Kahn's solution is to cut the six lines and bring on a stand in for Perdita with her back to the audience.
The text makes a point of calling attention to the resemblance between the two women, and Maria Tucci does beautifully by them both. She is at her best as the warm and unflappable queen eloquent in her restraint even in the face of ferocity.
Quite in contrast is Paulina the queen's lady-in-waiting, cowed by nobody. She is one of drama's supreme steamrollers, telling off the king to his face, later functioning as his conscience and orchestrating the finale. Florence Reed, whose Paulina electrified audiences in the theater guild production, will forever remain the paragon. This time, Bette Henritze invokes plenty of strength; her voice is a trifle monotonous, but this is admirable work all the same.
As Paulina's husband Antigonus, William Larsen is forceful in defending Hermione to Leontes. When, on executing the order to expose the queen's baby daughter to fate and the elements he narrates his dream about Hermione, we actually see the queen upstage hovering in the air. Antigonus's departure is accompanied by Shakespeare's most startling stage direction: "Exit pursued by a bear," In Elizabethan days a real bear was used, such as the celebrated Sackerson mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor. This practice was revived in the 1948 British production, but it's a risky business. On the other hand, dressing someone up in a bear outfit and parading him across stage on all fours would today surely elicit laughter at what is intended as a serious and even terrifying moment. Kahn takes the best approach by stylizing the animal, somewhat along the lines of the horses currently to be seen on Broadway in Shaffer's Equus. The bear is undisguisedly a person on two feet wearing a golden bear's head. Since the bear devours Antigonus offstage, that's one problem no director need tackle.
As Florizel, Polixenes's teenage son and suitor of Perdita, Richard Backus is an attractive chap. But he is not at ease with classical poetic diction. One is constantly aware of listening to an actor mouthing lines rather than a person voicing thoughts.
Of those belonging to the pastoral life of Bohemia, it is the Autolycus of Fred Gwynne that stands high above the rest, His rubbery face and his antic movements are a joy and though he is a liar and a thief (like his protonym in Greek mythology), one can't help loving the rascal, Gwynne has a way of taking lines that are obscure on the page and making them seem perfectly natural. He can also put over Shakespeare's puns--as when, in a colloquy about a three-voice song,he turns a ballad scroll into a phallus while assuring the others. "I can bear my part." He handles his several songs with aplomb too--especially his first. "When daffodils begin," which is appropriately, an example of the old reverdie, a song of nature's joy in the return of spring. Lee Hoiby's music, which is not very helpful in the first half of the show becomes a lot better when we get to the outdoor singing and dancing, which Kahn wisely allows to go on at considerable length (with choreography by Elizabeth Keen).
Laurinda Barrett, as Emilia, deserves a kind word for her prison scene, and Theodore Sorel for his yeoman doubling as a lord a trial officer, and a gentleman.
It Madden offered Leontes, did spring at the chance and fall, there by making this not the local summer for The Winter's Tale the show is still well enough seasoned.
[Ed. Note--The drive to the picturesque American Shakespeare Theatre's grounds on the Housatonic River takes about two and a half hours via the Massachusetts Turnpike, Interstate 80 and 91, and the Connecticut Turnpike to Exit 32 or 31. Performances in the air conditioned theatre tend to begin rather promptly at 2 p.m. or 8 p.m. and a group of singers offers madrigals on the lawn beforehand. There are free facilities for picnickers on the premises.]