STRATFORD, Conn., July 29--With its opening performance of All's Well That Ends Well here today, the American Shakespeare Festival has put its full repertory on the boards for the current season. From now until mid-September, this well-acted, handsomely staged, but somewhat abridged All's Well will share the Festival stage with performances of Romeo and Juliet, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and--a revival from last summer--A Midsummer Night's Dream. All four are much worth seeing, and the last two are obligatory.
The choice of All's Well raises a raft of problems (some of them insoluble). One of these is of long standing, and arises from the publication of Shakespeare's collected plays by his fellow-actors John Heminges and Henry Condell in the celebrated First Folio of 1623. In this volume the publishers divided the plays into "comedies," "histories," and "tragedies"--a categorization that has perdured far beyond its usefulness. A considerable number of the plays either do not fit in any of the three divisions or do not belong in the one assigned them in the Folio; All's Well is such a one.
This play was designated a "comedy" in the Folio. Modern scholarship has tried to improve the situation by setting up a sub-category of "dark comedies" for All's Well, Troilus and Cressida, and Measure for Measure. But let's face it: All's Well simply is not a comedy, dark or otherwise--unless one wants to render the term meaningless by applying it to anything with a happy or, as in this case, pseudo-happy ending. (Actually, this ending is utterly absurd, unbelievable, perfunctory, and, for a man of Shakespeare's stature, inexcusable--the sort of thing one finds at the end of so many Hollywood movies when the makers suddenly run out of funds. One could almost say that all would be well if All's Well That Ends Well ended well.)
There is precious little laughter in this text. Even the clown is the merest shadow of his traditional former self. The showing up of Parolles for what he is, though richly deserved, is not really funny. Nor is it comical to see a count try to weasel out of his King's command; or to see him coldly desert his wife on their wedding day; or to see a woman arrange for her husband to commit (as he thinks) adultery.
Many things in this script tax to the umost the oft-stated "willing suspension of disbelief" that every playgoer is supposed to bring with him into a theatre. Shakespeare was never primarily concerned with story line, anyway; he was more interested in character than in plot. For All's Well he just snapped up a Boccaccio tale from a secondary source, complete with the trite gimmick of identification of rings. But he failed to expend the necessary effort on characteriaztion as well. Pascal once said, "Every author has a meaning in which all the contradictory passages agree, or he has no meaning at all." This play contains such passages. For example, the first two acts make real sense only if one assumes a homosexual relationship between Bertram and Parolles; yet the last half of the play precludes this situation. Until I am convinced that the inconsistencies do in fact agree, I am rash enough to put the blame squarely on Shakespeare.
But if this is one of the Bard's most poorly constructed works, it still has a good many strong points. A great number of profoundly wise statements are constantly being made; there are plenty of well-turned phrases; and some of the passages of verse rank with his best.
The strongest point of all, however, is Helena. This is Helena's play; and in her lies the clue to its nature. If we disregard the incongruous ending, we are confronted with a "tragedy," or something perilously close to it; and Helena is the heroine. She is a noble, strong-willed personage, "the most virtuous gentlewoman that ever Nature had praise for creating." But, like the great tragic protagonists, she has a serious flaw of character: the lofty quality of Love becomes in her the lowly passion for Sex. And to achieve her goal, which is a perfectly legitimate one, she resorts to a long concatenation of sins, big and small, on the theory--expressed in the play's title--that the end justifies the means. Through this policy, Helena's nobility and honor are tarnished; and she undergoes a tragic "fall" into one humiliating circumstance after another. Comedy? Not on your life; this is serious business indeed.
I say all this to point up the wisdom of John Houseman's directorial approach to the play. On the rare occasions when it is produced, the work usually tends to be turned into a circus. This Houseman steadfastly refused to do. He preferred to play it straight for the most part; though he was not afraid to introduce occasional bits of humor where they really belong, as in the phony prisoner-of-war inquisition. But, much to his credit, he had the good taste not to court a cheap laugh by having Helena make her final entrance obviously great with child.
Houseman has underlined the essential gravity in a number of ways. He had Dorothy Jeakins design the costumes for three important members of the Roussillon household--the Countess, Lafeu, and Helena herself--all in blacks and browns. And Will Steven Armstrong's settings for Rousillon are rather colorless (except in the finale), compared with the blues and golds of Paris and the burnt oranges and ochres of Florence. Also, much of Herman Chessid's background music, full of archaic touches right down to Landini and Burgundian cadences, is melancholia-tinged.
Houseman's blocking of his performers is nearly faultless; and there are numerous examples of especially felicitous solutions, such as having Parolles on his kness when he is sarcastically saluted by the soldiers.
The performances themselves are excellent almost down the line. Nancy Wickwire gives us a radiant Helena; and if she does not show quite the blazing drive desired, she does still bring a good deal of the proper Shavian sheen to the part. John Ragin, moving from a series of small parts to take over the important and impossible role of the scornful cad Bertram on very short notice, showed no visible signs today of trouble, and will doubtless continue to make a favorable impression.
Trumpet-tongued Richard Waring is wonderfully cast as the swaggering braggart Parolles, an exhibitionist in sartorial as well as vocal matters. Larry Gates is a first-rate King of France, and nearly succeeds in making his sick-bed scene credible. Will Geer is a lovable Lafeu, and has come up with some very original and effective line-readings. Aline MacMahon is aptly warm-hearted as the Countess; and Barbara Barrie's Diana is properly wily yet pure. Hiram Sherman has fun with the Sergeant's mumbo-jumbo; and among other commendable jobs are Jack Bittner's Clown (though his most difficult passage is cut) and Sada Thompson's Widow.
This production of All's Well is fine enough to obscure many of the shortcoming of the play itself as analyzed in the armchair. Need more be said?