by Elliot Wasserman
The Lion in Winter is a historical play similar to Shakespeare’s. Like Shakespeare, James Goldman spins his plot in order to get at the truth in characters, and he will imagine events as he chooses to in that pursuit. And like Shakespeare, Goldman homes in on one character in particular, the lion in this winter, Henry II, one of the greatest of English kings - as the character tells us himself, the greatest ruler in 1000 years.
But James Goldman is not teaching a history lesson any more than Shakespeare sought to create an accurate picture of Richard III when he set onstage a crooked and afflicted monster we love to despise. Goldman has acquired Henry because within the Medieval circumstance of a great king is the psychological narrative of an aging man. Here in the Middle Ages is the story of the middle-aged male.
I confess - directors do internalize these projects. I am also in my fifties, and occasionally I have the sense that time is carrying me along like a passenger in the back of a taxicab driven by a lunatic. This is Henry’s perception, too, minus the modernity of the simile. But Henry has greatness within him, and he cannot go quietly into the good night. If I am a Prufrock, he is Ulysses. And in him, the Prufrock sees his own desire to rise up in rebuke of time and age, to reclaim greatness or simply to seize the greatness that forever eluded him. He wants to “drink life to the lees” as Tennyson’s Ulysses declares. Ever “strong in will,” he wants “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
I wonder how this theme will play to a young audience. Perhaps they will ignore it and simply enjoy the sheer creepiness of Henry’s royal family, the plot reversals, the twisted relationships, and especially Goldman’s witty language. If that is enough for them now, I hope that one day they will remember the narrative of age that I refer to here. They may be as surprised as we who have gone before them how quickly that day comes. But I hope they will not lament it either and that they will see in Henry’s greatness a chance to manifest their own in the wisdom and acceptance that age can bring.
One more thing: if this is Henry’s story, if this is the story of the aging alpha male pitted against younger ones, it must be clear that it can only unfold in the presence of the women in the play. After all, males and females do not define themselves in the absence of each other. In the great Queen Eleanor, are all of the responses, all of the balance, and all of the wreckage that intemperance between the sexes can create. And in Alais the mistress is the fresh chance that youth offers, still ignorant of how precious that chance is, and how easily wasted. Let them see each other clearly, we say, such men and such women, and even when no perfect solution offers itself to them, there will be at least a strategy for the here and now -- a provision for going forward.