“Give me a little peace.
A little? Why so modest? How about eternal peace? Now, there`s a thought.”
~~ James Goldman, The Lion In Winter ~~
Someone once described James Goldman`s play, The Lion in Winter, as Dallas set in the Middle Ages: this Plantagenet soap opera has vicious, verbal catfights, drippy suitors, Richard the Lionheart emerging from his murky closet, murderous siblings, a Queen banged up in prison for years allowed out for Christmas on good behaviour, and sundry carpet chewing set pieces between the biggest, baddest, most morally reprehensible group of combatants you could ever imagine this side of Hell. Welcome to the Devil`s Brood.
Plays are just as important as books or poetry in giving us great literature and language: the author`s words are performed by actors rather than being read – that`s all. Screenplays are another case in point: I don`t think anyone could successfully argue against Robert Bolt`s screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia being anything other than a highly literate, and intelligent masterwork.
“I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know. We`re a knowledgeable family.”
The Lion in Winter takes place at Chinon, a French residence of the English king Henry II, during Christmas 1183. Henry`s heir, Henry, known as the Young King, lies cold in his tomb, having just inconveniently died: inconvenient for Henry, because he has to choose a replacement from among his squabbling sons, and keep the unsuccessful candidates on-side. He`s just let his scheming, rebellious wife Eleanor out of jail for the festivities, knowing full well that she will wind her sons up against him as pay-back for her years of enforced incarceration. Meanwhile, the young French King Philip is also in town to discuss the matter of Henry occupying the strategically important Vexin region, which Philip wants back.
This prickly Christmas is one many in the audience will no doubt identify with, although most families won`t go beyond the bickering stage; this one plots, one against the other, with fantastical, murderous intent. The Plantagenets are ready and able, to take each other on with armies if the Christmas turkey is apportioned out incorrectly.
“My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. Henry Fitz-Empress, first Plantagenet, a king at twenty – one, the ablest soldier of an able time. he led men well, he cared for justice when he could and ruled, for thirty years, a state as great as Charlemagne`s. He married out of love, a woman out of legend. Not in Alexandria, or Rome, or Camelot has there been such a queen. She bore him many children. But no sons. King Henry had no sons. He had three whiskered things but he disowned them………You`re not mine! We`re not connected! I deny you! None of you will get my crown, I leave you nothing and I wish you plague! May all your children breach and die!”
Henry decides to marry his young mistress, Alais Capet, to his youngest sprog, the drippy John. She doesn`t fancy John one bit: “I don`t like your Johnny. He`s got pimples, and he smells of compost.” She is being decidedly picky about things: after all, everyone in the 12th century probably smelled of compost, sported pimples, and suffered from facial and body warts and imperfections caused by disease and poor personal hygiene.
The play was transferred with immediate success to the big screen, with Goldman writing a screenplay which keeps the visceral spirit of the acerbic verbal jousting which makes the play so memorable and so full of quotable lines.
Eleanor: “You look fit. War agrees with you. I keep informed; I follow all your slaughters from a distance. Do sit down.”
Richard: “Is this an audience……a good night hug with kisses……or an ambush?”
Eleanor: “Let`s hope it`s a reunion.”
Everyone plots with each other, against each other: promises are made and hang in the air to be admired like the decorations on the Plantagenet family Christmas tree; they are as decorous, useless and insubstantial as a passing reflection in a glass ball. But the plot thickens with the Lionheart and King Philip sailing their sexuality close to the wind and flirting with each other: one accusing the other of not writing, as they clasp hands, the lover`s tiff over and done with they reminisce on past times of intimacy and passion. It`s merely Philip playing out the Game of Kings: he`s always seen Richard`s weakness – his hidden homosexuality- as a useful weapon in his locker, to be sharpened and plunged into the lion`s heart, deep and sure, when the time comes. He sees advantage in playing Richard against his father, to regain the lands he sees as rightfully his. But, he is up against a master of mind games in old Henry: not so mentally decrepit and retarded by age as young Phil thinks: Henry triumphantly outwits Philip without the French king realizing he has just lost his metaphorical pants to the old man.
Angry at the inevitable plotting against him by his family, Henry decides to put the idea of marrying Alais to John on the back-burner, and instead, divorce Eleanor, marry Alais himself, and father another son and heir, thus disinheriting his entire brood of sons by Eleanor. To do this, he needs to pay a visit to the pope in Rome and ask a favour.
Eleanor: “And when you die, which is regrettable, but necessary, what will happen to frail Alais and her puny prince? You can`t think Richard is going to wait for your grotesque to grow?”
Henry: “You wouldn`t let him do a thing like that?”
Eleanor: “Let him? I`d push him through the nursery door.”
Henry: “You`re not that cruel”
Eleanor: “Don`t fret. We`ll wait until you`re dead to do it.”
Henry: “Eleanor, what do you want?”
Eleanor: “Just what you want, a king for a son. You can make more, I can`t. You think I want to disappear? One son is all I`ve got, and you can blot him out and call me cruel? For these ten years you`ve lived with everything I`ve lost, and loved another woman through it all, and I am cruel? I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it justice!”
The whole show is about these two aged juggernauts locking verbal horns, pushing and shoving across the arena, while the rest of the household circulate them like minor satellites around two gas giants, pulled into the gravity and held firmly in place by Henry and Eleanor`s powerful magnetism. It`s hatred and love: need and desire against naked ambition; they can neither live without, nor with each other. They have locked themselves and their family into a vicious circle without escape.
The Lion in Winter is laugh out loud funny, rumbustious, vicious, and razor sharp cruel, while keeping just the right side of historical accuracy to keep even the most ardent geeks happy. To witness this stupendous exhibition of Plantagenet, not-so-happy-families, check out the 3 times Oscar winning movie with Peter O`Toole and Katharine Hepburn in the lead roles: it more than does it`s source material justice. James Goldman was so unhappy at how he had portrayed John in his play and movie screenplay, that he later wrote a novel about John called, Myself As Witness, which showed John in a better light. In the combative world of the Plantagenets, the Devil has all the best tunes.