The Will Shakespeare Experience seems to have choked on The Merry Wives of Windsor, and I am not confident that All’s Well That Ends Well will succeed as a Heimlich maneuver (there’s an analogy that gets out of control).
My own history with the play is minimal, though I may have been prejudiced against it very early in my 60 years of association with Shakespeare. Once upon a time elementary-school Gilbert saw an evening of excerpts from Taming of the Shrew and Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by either Eva Le Gallienne or Margaret Webster, both of whom toured the US at the time, when I was in grade school, but the only image I’ve kept was being allowed to move to the front row at intermission where I was fascinated to see the detail of Puck’s makeup. My first full production was a Tempest when I was in junior high (again, either Webster or Le Gallienne), and from that I remember the scenery, a backdrop of the tempest on a giant roller so the storm sped by as the sailors tilted back and forth to simulate being rocked by waves. Caliban wore a tortoise shell.
It wasn’t until I was in England in high school, and I saw Peggy Ashcroft and Leo McKern in Twelfth Night at the Old Vic that I was hooked for life. Soon thereafter was a Love’s Labour’s Lost with Michael Redgrave (in Newcastle, for some reason), and then acting in my own high-school productions of Henry V—want me to recite the “Upon the King…” speech for you? And since, I have spent many more than a hundred nights (and days during all those summer Shakespeare festivals) in the theatre, read the plays close to a hundred times, and taught at least eighteen.
So where in all that is All’s Well That Ends Well? Well (that didn’t end well), I’ve seen it only once, in Ashland, Oregon, on my honeymoon in 1961, forty-nine years, eleven months ago. What was most memorable about it? It finished last among Midsummer Night's Dream, 1 Henry IV, Hamlet with Richard Russo, and The Alchemist. Honeymoonwise, I remember tubing on the Rogue River, being amused by the Oregon Vortex (“center of mystery”), and splurging on chateaubriand for two in the Mark Antony Hotel. And I vividly remember the young woman I was with, the focus of so many memories for the last 49 11/12 years.
But I’m stalling. Of All’s Well my indelible memory is what an unpleasant play I witnessed, and that was concentrated on what an intolerable jerk Bertram is. He is callow from the start, stiffs the admirable and beautiful Helena (played by Elizabeth Huddle who later was director of the Intiman Theatre in Seattle ) in the complication phase of the plot, and yet when reconciliation and resolve might be anticipated by conventions of comedy, he is still the same, or worse, egocentric pig. To a honeymooner, a play about how grim marriage must be, even at its beginnings, is not promising.
So we left Ashland and went to the Oregon Caves—“see how this single match can illuminate this entire cavern; that illustrates one candle-power.” Bertram was played by a young Nagle Jackson, who has since flourished as a director, including six shows at Ashland (I saw his Pericles in 1967), and playwright (I’ve seen The Quick Change Room, This Day and Age, and Taking Leave). He was guest director at Carleton in 2002, where he directed his own The Elevation of Thieves (he and prof Frank Morral were classmates at Whitman College). He must have given a memorable performance or it wouldn’t be so indelible. I confess that when an actor is so good as a creep that I despise him, I later don’t want to see that actor again anywhere (Jason Alexander after Pretty Woman or Michael Gambon after The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; I know it’s foolish to penalize excellence, but there you are). I didn’t hold Bertram against Jackson, because he also played a definitive Face in The Alchemist as well as bits as Westmoreland and the Player King, but I seem to have dismissed All’s Well forever.
For a graduate course in Shakespearean Comedy, we read nineteen plays—Comedies, Romances, and both Henry IV’s—the final was a take-home (“You have just read a book with nineteen chapters; now write the twentieth chapter”)—and I see that I have no marginal notes for All’s Well at all. (Ernst, don’t tell Bill Matchett that I didn’t read it.)
Reading it this week, it was hard to resist being frivolous:
- the Countess sends Bertram to court with parental advice: “Love all, trust a few, Do wrong to none,” Polonius to Laertes again, and we know how that worked out;
- Parolles first described as “you go so much backward when you fight,” a miles gloriousus, but he will never come up to Falstaff’s example;
- Helena, having miraculously resurrected the King wins her reward: Enter three or four Lords. “Fair maid, send forth thine eye. This youthful parcel/ Of noble bachelors stand at my bestowing,” so for background, you’re going to make me watch The Bachelorette?!? Not to say that Helena journeys on a quest to the King, cure him or die, but if she succeeds she gets to marry the prince, the old fairy tale [but in this case it’s Bertram who wants to marry the King; I said it was as fairy tale—just kidding!!!!]
- Parolles is hooded by a disguised band of strangers (the French Lords) and they speak to him in tongues: “Boskos vauvado…Oscorbidulchos volivorco…Throca movousus, cargo, cargo, cargo.” And I don’t even know where my Klingon dictionary is.
- And the unnamed 1 Lord and 2 Lord are at last named in act IV: Capt. Dumaine and Capt. Dumaine, that is my brother Daryl and my other brother Daryl.
I’d like to listen to Cindy and Mike (and Randall) on what might resonate with contemporary students—something beyond Bachelorette and the Klingons, I hope. And I’d like, not alone, to take on Ellen Terry and account for my Helena. May my second fifty years rise above the prejudice of the first.