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All's Well That Ends Well

by William Shakespeare
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Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3887


All's Well That Ends Well has traditionally been one of the least admired and least performed plays in the Shakespearean canon. It's fusion of folk-tale and comic elements with a cynical presentation of character has baffled critics and directors alike in their attempts to perceive psychological coherence and dramatic resolution in the work. Until recently, Muriel Bradbrook's judgement of the play as one "which is of its age rather than for all time" has represented the opinion of most commentators. Since the 1950s, however, the play's reputation has risen, and this has been reflected on the stage in a number of innovative productions that have underscored aspects of the drama previously overlooked in the study.

The early stage history of All's Well That Ends Well is exceptionally meager. Scholars have noted that the taste of seventeenth-century audiences had veered away from Shakespeare's comedies, and there is no record of the play ever having been performed before Henry Giffard presented it at the Goodman's Fields Theatre in 1741. Giffard himself advertised the play as "written by Shakespeare and not acted since his time." Although little is known with certainty about this production, it is believed that an intact version of the text was used. Additionally, it appears that the play was well received by the audience. Giffard and his wife played Bertram and Helena, and Joseph Peterson took the role of Parolles. Peterson was so popular in this role that he enacted it in the provinces in subsequent years. For the remainder of the play's history on the stage the character of Parolles has generally been viewed as the focal point of the drama. In 1742 Theophilus Cibber and Charles Macklin fought over who would portray the braggart soldier in a production at DRURY LANE. Cibber's success in the role was documented by the poet William Shenstone, who wrote "young Cibber's exhibition of Parolles …elicited from me as sincere a laugh as I can ever recollect." This revival was nevertheless so plagued by a series of illnesses among the cast that the play became known as "the unfortunate comedy." Cibber again played Parolles in the 1742-43 season, when Giffard moved his theater to LINCOLN'S INN FIELDS. He also intended to enact the role at COVENT GARDEN in 1746, but decided to return to Drury Lane shortly before the production's opening. Henry Woodward assumed the role in Cibber's absence and became famous as Parolles until his retirement from the stage in 1777.

David Garrick's 1756 revival of All's Well That Ends Well at Drury Lane initiated a trend in which the farcical elements of the play were accentuated at the expense of characterization. Chiefly concerned with the effective pacing of his productions, Garrick substantially altered the text of Shakespeare's drama, eliminating much of the poetry in the original and focusing solely on the character of Parolles. The readjustment of the play's plot and characterization particularly reduced the role of Helena, who became nothing more than a comic foil for Parolles. Although Garrick had employed a fine cast—including Henry Woodward as Parolles, Richard Yates as Lavatch, and Hannah Pritchard as the Countess—the production failed to please audiences and was performed only eleven times between 1756 and 1758. An even more aggressive attempt to present the play as a farce occurred in John Bannister's revival at the HAYMARKET THEATRE in 1785. The play had been adapted by Frederick Pilon, who cut virtually all of the first three acts in order to concentrate the comic stage business of Bannister's Parolles.

Several years later, however, John Philip Kemble inaugurated a new approach to All's Well That Ends Well that remained dominant until the end of the nineteenth century. In 1793 Kemble published an adaptation of the play's text that made Helena the focus of the drama. This new conception of the play replaced the traditional emphasis on farce with the Regency taste for sentimentality. Kemble staged the play in 1794 at the newly built Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Kemble himself took the part of Bertram; the cast additionally included Mrs. Jordan as Helena and John Bannister as Parolles. Although critics and audiences responded favorably to the staging, the play was not revived again for fifteen years. Charles Kemble, the manager of Covent Garden, used his brother's text in his lavish 1811 production of All's Well That Ends Well. The reviewer for the European Magazine and London Review noted enthusiastically that "the Florentine costume of the age was well attended to in the dress of the character; and the scenery was illustrative of the subject." The cast included Kemble himself as Bertram, Mrs. H. Johnston as Helena, Joseph Munden as Lafew, and John Fawcett, Jr. as Parolles. Charles Lamb singled out for particular praise Munden's acting: "in the grand grotesque of farce, Munden stands out as single and unaccompanied as Hogarth. … Can any man wonder like he does?" The European Magazine and London Review similarly praised the production's performances, asserting that "the character of Parolles is wrought up with the hand of a master, and the situations of Helena are so delicately supposed and finished, that the auditor follows her, in the vicissitudes of her fortunes, with sympathy." Favorable reviews notwithstanding, the play was abandoned after a second performance later in the year.

Although All's Well That Ends Well was revived in Bath in 1821 and again at Covent Garden in 1832, scholars believe that the Kemble brothers' emphasis upon the romantic theme of the play was considered offensive to the tastes of the nineteenth-century theater-going public. Frederick Reynolds's operatic adaptation for Covent Garden in 1832 strove to blend the comic, romantic, and fairy-tale elements of All's Well That Ends Well into a coherent and more decorous whole. Reynolds excised the text's darker overtones and farcical scenes and inserted a number of musical pieces from such plays as A Midsummer Night's Dream, Love's Labour's Lost, and Twelfth Night. The result, however, was deplored by the critic for The Times, who suggested that "to leave out all that makes [the play] unfit for representation would be to leave a little behind." The reviewer for the Court Journal castigated the production on quite different grounds: "The revival at all, at this time of day, of the only play of Shakespeare that is really exceptionable in its moral tone and tendency, is a sufficient blunder."

The next major revival of All's Well That Ends Well was that of Samuel Phelps, the actor-manager of SADLER'S WELLS, in 1852. Prior to opening, the production excited considerable interest. The Times commented that "the Islington establishment is a sort of museum for the exhibition of dramatic curiosities, and we have no more right to be astounded at finding some Elizabethan crudity within its precincts than at finding a Buddhist idol in a missionary collection." Harking back to John Philip Kemble's 1793 adaptation of the text, Phelps presented a successful version of All's Well That Ends Well that emphasized the play's romantic and picturesque qualities. Contemporary critics writing for The Athenaeum and The Illustrated London News praised the scenery and tastefulness of the mise en scène, both of which were felt to alleviate the "obvious crudities" of the play. The staging was further enhanced by several outstanding performances. The reviewer for The Illustrated London News described Fanny Cooper's rendering of Helena as "beautifully sustained" and praised her "careful elocution" of the soliloquies. Similarly, Mrs. Ternan was praised for her dignified performance as the Countess of Rossillion. Critics were unanimous in asserting that the most memorable performance was that of Phelps himself in the role of Parolles. The Athenaeum stated that "the situation after his capture was perfectly realized; and the picture of the coward turned traitor was complete." Although the play was staged a further eleven times in the 1852-53 season, Phelps did not revive it thereafter.

After a hiatus of some forty-two years, Henry Irving presented All's Well That Ends Well twice in January 1895 with the Irving Dramatic Club. Irving's staging failed to win favor with the two prominent critics William Archer and George Bernard Shaw. Both objected strenuously to the director's use of an abridged text. Archer wrote that the play "had been so carefully bowdlerized … that the story would scarcely have been comprehensible to any one who did not know it beforehand." Similarly, Shaw, who deprecated Irving's striving after scenic effects, wrote that "the whole play was vivisected, and the fragments mutilated, for the sake of accessories which were in every particular silly and ridiculous." The central performances in this production were also the subject of negative criticism. While Archer approved of Olive Kennett's portrayal of Helena and Len Heinekey's Countess, Shaw found both renderings to have been without merit. The critics were in agreement, however, that the male performances were undistinguished, with Shaw judging that "Mr. LewinMannering did not for any instant make it possible to believe that Parolles was a real person to him."

Frank Benson's 1916 production of All's Well That Ends Well at the SHAKESPEARE MEMORIAL THEATRE in Stratford-upon-Avon was the first modern staging to attempt a unified presentation of the play without doing excessive violence to the text. Employing the original version of the drama for the first time since 1741, Benson himself played Parolles in a performance that was ecstatically received. It appears that this enthusiasm stemmed more from the recent knighthood of the actor than from any appreciation of the intrinsic merits of the drama itself. Four years later, William Poel's revival of All's Well That Ends Well at the Ethical Church, Bayswater, sought to impose a modern social significance on the play by presenting it as a plea for women's liberation. Robert Speaight commented that this staging presented a Helena whose "wooing of Bertram was free from any restraint of code; it was the expression of a love, religious in impulse, which no convention could repress." Poel's production was faulted for being unusually dismal and was cooly received by critics. In the following year, Robert Atkins presented a less ideologically motivated version of the play at the OLD VIC THEATRE. Opening on 28 November 1921, Atkins's presentation of All's Well That Ends Well featured a restored text and an emphasis on the comic elements inherent in the work. Harking back to eighteenth-century versions of the play, Atkins replaced the scenes that had offended Victorian sensibility, while maintaining the Victorian conception of Helena as a sweet and delicate character. Although the comic scenes were generally admired, the majority of critics faulted Jane Bacon's portrayal of Helena. For John Francis Hope, the production was at once "interesting and disappointing." The critic maintained that Atkins's reintroduction of the comic scenes was hampered by a failure to express the nature of Elizabethan humor frankly. This tendency was most evident in Ernest Milton's rendering of Parolles, which Hope characterized as being "like someone skating on very thin ice, as though he were trying to spare Helena's blushes instead of provoking them." At the Arts Theatre Club in 1932, Atkins revived the play in a staging that retained the traditional interpretation of Helena and reaffirmed that critical opinion of the play as mediocre. James Agate, for example, asserted that it was "Shakespeare botching and bungling at his worst." Atkins revived the play for a third time in 1940 at the Vaudeville Theatre, London. Once again, the production received mixed responses. Catherine Lacey as Helena garnered qualified praise from Ivor Brown, who wrote, "you need not believe in her, but love her you must—and love her you will." Atkins himself took the part of Lafew, making this role the focal point of the play. Herbert Farjeon wrote that he handled the character "with ease, amiability and good understanding." Owing to this staging's coinciding with World War II, melodrama was emphasized at the expense of the play's comic scenes. Despite acknowledging Atkins's competent direction, critics concurred with Alan Dent's sentiment that the play "may be put by for another twenty years without great loss."

Prior to the World War II, there were several productions of All's Well That Ends Well that displayed anew the comic potential of the drama. W. Bridges-Adams's 1922 production at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was successful primarily as a result of Baliol Holloway's Parolles, which St. John Ervine hailed as "a piece of comic acting as fine as I have seen for some time." Five years later, Barry Jackson revived the play at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in a modern-dress production that was notable for containing a young Laurence Olivier in the role of Parolles. J. C. Trewin characterized Olivier's conception of the character as "an amiable, too smart young man, a sommelier's scourge." In 1935, Ben Iden Payne's presentation of All's Well That Ends Well at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre strove to achieve highly delineated characters. Kenneth Wicksteed's Lavatch, for example, was described by Gordon Crosse as "a bore" and "a life-like portrait of a professional funny man who is not very successful in his profession." This production was indifferently received by critics, and led J. C. Trewin to comment that the play was "more brilliant in its parts than in its whole."

For the opening of the STRATFORD FESTIVAL in Ontario in 1953, Tyrone Guthrie staged one of the most significant productions in the history of All's Well That Ends Well on the stage. J. L. Styan has characterized it as a "water-shed" moment that "identified a unity of theme and style, and suggested possibilities for future productions." Setting the production in the Edwardian era, Guthrie aimed at presenting the play as a high comedy that united fantastic plotting with a realistic portrayal of characters' psychology. Perhaps the most innovative feature of the production was Irene Worth's portrayal of Helena as an intelligent and determined woman capable of successfully achieving her goals in a world of men. Critics additionally praised the performances of Alec Guinness as the King; Douglas Campbell as Parolles; Eleanor Stuart as the Countess; and Michael Bates as Lafew. Six years later, Guthrie revived the play at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. In this production he further emphasized the elements of farce in the play, expanding the humorous dialogue and making use of dumb-shows for comic effect. A. Alvarez enthusiastically characterized the presentation of the play as "almost as perfect as we are likely to see."

Michael Benthall's revival of All's Well That Ends Well at the Old Vic in 1953 sought to impose a very different kind of unity on the play. This production focused on the folkloristic origins of the narrative and presented Shakespeare's play as a comic fairy-tale. This atmosphere was achieved in part by Osbert Lancaster's ingenious set designs, which resembled the illustrations found in children's books. While this approach offered a unifying and coherent conception of the drama, critics generally felt that it did so at the expense of the play's serious undertones. This was especially evident in Laurence Hardy's portrayal of the King of France as a figure of fun. Commentators were similarly made uneasy by Claire Bloom's Cinderella-like rendering of Helena, which both J. C. Trewin and Audrey Williamson felt displayed poor taste. Richard David maintained that despite her grace and deft handling of the soliloquies, "her performance made no coherent impression, and the spectator was left in irritated puzzlement as to what exactly the actress had been driving at." Michael Hordern's Parolles, however, won universal praise from critics. David described it as "brimful of vitality, and a masterpiece of comic invention."

In the 1950s two productions on either side of the Atlantic emphasized the darkness implicit in All's Well That Ends Well. Noel Willman's 1955 staging at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre sought to achieve this end by focusing on Joyce Redman's morally indignant rendering of Helena. T. C. Worsley, however, faulted this performance, declaring that Redman displayed a "pertinacity worthy of the Royal North-West Mounted Police." Equally innovative was Willman's decision to have Keith Michell's Parolles portrayed as a hunchbacked cripple. While this served to accentuate the grim atmosphere of the production, other directorial decisions appeared to contradict such a mood. Critics cited such examples as the use of lavish scenery and costumes that evoked the seventeenth-century, as well as Michell's Parolles, which T. C. Worsley characterized as "a natural romantic juvenile." As a response to Willman's presentation of the play, Alan Downer concluded that "the conventional director can only attempt to smother [All's Well That Ends Well] in verisimilitude and trust that the audience will accept its conventional edified boredom as a cultural experience." A similarly sombre approach was chosen for the successful North American revival of All's Well That Ends Well by John House man in 1959 for the AMERICAN SHAKESPEARE THEATRE in Stratford, Connecticut. By highlighting the passion of Helena, without diminishing the deceitfulness of the bed-trick scene in Act III, scene vii, Houseman was considered to have exploited effectively the melodramatic potential of the play, but only at the expense of Parolles's comic scenes. Joseph G. Price deprecated the shift in conception of Parolles "from the braggart-soldier to a coward-villain who failed to draw his first real laugh from the audience until his capture." Nevertheless, the majority of reviewers concurred with Henry Hewes's assertion that Houseman had "made this unpopular play work by filling it with genuine passion."

The next major English revival of All's Well That Ends Well was John Barton's 1967-68 production with the ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY. Aiming for directness and narrative clarity, Barton's staging featured a heavily reduced text and stressed the tension between old and young in the play. The costumes were set in the early seventeeth century and the set consisted of a neoclassically inspired wooden archway. The conflict between generations was accentuated through the depiction of the elderly characters in a state of decrepitude, while "the young," wrote Peter Ansorge, strutted "around the French court like nimble flamingos." Particular emphasis was given to the character of Bertram, played by Ian Richardson. John Peter asserted that Richardson brought to the role "an unobtrusive physical virtuosity, communicating endless masculine distress with a drop of his jaw." For Hilary Spurling, Brewster Mason's Lafew provided a second focal point of the production. She described him as a "master of the graceful insult, the thrust and lazy flick, prodding Parolles as he would a ripe and squashy insect." The least successful performance was generally judged to have been Estelle Kohler's Helena. J. C. Trewin found her "repetitive and mannered," and Spurling argued that "Miss Kohler remains a principal boy at heart, a youthful version of Miss Mary Martin in Hello, Dolly!"

In recent years, All's Well That Ends Well has received noteworthy renderings on both the stage and television. Elijah Moshinsky's 1980 BBC Television version of the play is considered by many commentators to have been among the most successful productions in the BBC Shakespeare series. Critics particularly praised the director's highlighting of the domestic nature of the play through a sensitive use of lighting and the framing scenes in a manner that evoked seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Reviewers were less united in their appraisal of the production's performances, however. While Kenneth S. Rothwell deemed Ian Charleson "superb as the snotty Bertram," G. M. Pearce maintained that Charleson's sullen portrayal of the young man struck "the only discordant note" in the production. Critics were similarly divided over Donald Sinden's fruity rendering of the King, which Jeremy Treglown characterized as both lecherous and "hammy." Angela Downs's Helena impressed commentators with her crafty intelligence and serenity. Rothwell noted that her "plain, spinsterish, puritanical face with the unruly strands of hair conceals a volcanic disposition." Other favorably reviewed performances were Michael Hordern's Lafew, Celia Johnson's Countess; and Peter Jeffrey's Parolles. In explaining the success of Moshinsky's translation of the play into the medium of television, G. K. Hunter concluded that it seems "to accept the inevitable diminution in theatrical power that the translation involves, and tries to invent new relationships which will … compensate for that loss." By contrast, Trevor Nunn's RSC production in 1981-82 placed All's Well That Ends Well in a modern context. Opening the play with a waltz, Nunn's production was set in Edwardian England and fin de siècle Europe. Commentators praised John Gunter's set designs, which consisted of structures of articulated glass and wrought-iron and served variously as a café, a conservatory, a gymnasium, and a train station. The martial trappings of the production evoked the Crimean War and highlighted what Benedict Nightingale called the officer "caste's callow preoccupation with military glory." For several commentators, this atmosphere added depth to the characterization of Bertram as portrayed by Mike Gwilym. Nicholas Shrimpton argued that "everybody's least favourite Shakespearian hero appeared as an overgrown adolescent desperate to escape from home and mother, and live in a world of men." Stanley Wells argued that Bertram's "evident immaturity assists the credibility of his response to Helena's choice of him for a husband," and maintained that the most interesting relationship in the play became that between Bertram and Parolles. The latter role, rendered by Stephen Moore, received particular praise. Sheridan Morley characterized Moore's performance "as the Parolles against which all others in our life-time will have to be measured—a marvelous mix of braggart and tragic buffoon, whose subplot unexpectedly takes over and controls the whole of the second half of the evening." Additionally commended was Harriet Walter's Helena, whom Nunn had conceived as being motivated rather by an all-encompassing love than by social ambition. The majority of the critics lauded the production as a whole; Roger Warren praised it as "the finest and most illuminating interpretation of a Shakespeare play for many years." The cast also included Peggy Ashcroft as the Countess; Geoffrey Hutchings as Lavatch; John Franklyn Robbins as the King; and Cheryl Campbell as Diana. In 1982 the production was transferred to the Barbican Theatre in London, where Philip Franks enacted the part of Bertram. In the following year the production ran for a short time at the Martin Beck Theatre, New York.

After a twenty-year absence form the RSC, Peter Hall returned to direct All's Well That Ends Well in 1992. This was a brisk and fluent production that sought to underline the play's ambiguities rather than resolve them. Most critics agreed with Michael Coveney that the choice of Caroline costumes and John Gunter's use of architectural models in the set design complemented the director's "emblematic, austere approach" and took the audience "right to the heart of every knotty speech and twist of plot line." For Martin Dodsworth, however, the production's coherence was purchased at the expense of comedy and characterization, particularly in Sophie Thompson's portrayal of a child-like Helena and in Michael Siberry's uncomic rendering of Parolles. Taking the contrary view, Coveney appreciated the tragic nuances which were thus revealed in Parolles's character, maintaining that the braggart's torture and humiliation became "the most powerful sequence in the play, and one where Bertram sees the turpitude of the times." Played by Toby Stephens, Bertram was depicted as maturing from a callow youth to an individual wise enough to abandon Parolles and follow Helena. Other notable performances included Barbara Jefford as the Countess, Alfred Burke as Lafew, Anthony O'Donnell as Lavatch, and Richard Johnson as the King. Despite certain qualifications, critics found much to commend in the production. Dodsworth concluded: "It all makes for an enthralling three hours of theatre, and for the most part it convincingly holds together the odd blend of realism and folk-tale in the play."

Reviews And Retrospective Accounts Of Selected Productions

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 65318


Samuel Phelps • Sadler's Wells • 1852-53


Relying on John Philip Kemble's 1793 adaptation of the text, Phelps presented a successful version of All's Well That Ends Well that emphasized the play's romantic and picturesque qualities. Contemporary critics writing for The Athenaeum and The Illustrated London News praised the scenery and tastefulness of the mise en scène, both of which were felt to alleviate the "obvious crudities" of the play. The staging was further enhanced by several outstanding performances. The reviewer for The Illustrated London News described Fanny Cooper's rendering of Helena as "beautifully sustained" and praised her "careful elocution" of the soliloquies. Similarly, Mrs. Ternan was praised for her dignified performance as the Countess of Rossillion. Critics were unanimous in asserting that the most memorable performance was that of Phelps himself in the role of Parolles. The Athenaeum stated that "the situation after his capture was perfectly realized; and the picture of the coward turned traitor was complete."


The Athenaeum (review date 4 September 1852)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in The Athenaeum, No. 1,297, September 4, 1852, p. 955.

The re-opening of this theatre [Sadler's Wells] announces the commencement of a new dramatic season. On Saturday the performances began with 'The Man of the World,'—and this was followed on Monday by the tragedy of 'Henry IV.' It was not until Wednesday that any real business was attempted,—by the revival of Shakspeare's neglected comedy of 'All's Well that Ends Well.' The rude nature of its plot has banished this play, notwithstanding some fine poetry, from the modern stage. The manners represented are exceedingly gross; but the language has a style of euphuism which looks like refinement,—and indeed, there is much natural refinement in the persons of Helena and The Countess. The purity of these two characters sheds an influence over the entire drama, and breathes about it a poetic atmosphere. The success of the present representation must in a great measure be referred to the delicate and efficient manner in which these parts were impersonated by Miss Cooper and Mrs. Ternan. The whole drama had evidently been carefully rehearsed,—and a calm, quiet, and dignified tone prescribed to the different elocutionists. The parts were rather spoken than acted, and an air of polite reserve appeared to have been imposed on all the actors, save one. That one was the representative of Parolles:—to which part due prominence was given by Mr. Phelps. The part is properly what is technically called a character-part; and Parolles will be considered one of Mr. Phelps's best impersonations. The poltroon and the braggart came out in his acting in alternate relief. In the incident of the drum, the undertaking the recovery of which involves Parolles in the certainty of exposure, Mr. Phelps was eminently successful. The situation after his capture was perfectly realized; and the picture of the coward turned traitor was complete. The mental prostration of the culprit was made fearfully true. There are touches in this dramatic portrait which are eminently Shakspearian,—and these Mr. Phelps identified with power and taste.—The scenery and accessories illustrating this revival are, as usual at this house, picturesque and carefully grouped.—The theatre has been repaired and decorated; and the company has been improved by some additions,—so that throughout the piece was efficiently represented.

The Illustrated London News (review date 4 September 1852)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in The Illustrated London News, Vol. XXI, No. 577, September 4, 1852, p. 190.

On Wednesday, a play seldom acted was revived, Shakspeare's "All's Well that Ends Well." The mere announcement was calculated to excite great curiosity. It is one of those perilous adventures which, on this stage, have furnished the most remarkable successes. There are more than one difficulty, too, in the plot; but these appertain rather to the story than the treatment. The ruder accidents of the tale are judiciously kept in the background; and the slight indiscretions in dialogue have been judiciously and skilfully weeded by the management. The general style of the drama is calm and dignified poetry; and this was well observed by the actors, who contented themselves with a smooth and even delivery, which enabled the meaning to reach the mind of the auditor without misinterpretation. The natural interest of the play thus rose scene by scene, and exercised a quiet influence which was perfectly delightful. Notwithstanding its obvious crudities, "All's Well that Ends Well," as acted at this theatre, is one of the most pleasing of plays, and will have a decided run. The heroine was beautifully sustained by Miss Cooper, who gave to the soliloquies of Helena a careful elocution, and was throughout elegant in her attitudes. There was nothing in the part to strain her powers, and these, within their due limits, are capable of charming expression. Mrs. Ternan, also, as the Countess, came well off, and spoke and acted with proper dignity. But the feature of the evening was the Parolles of Mr. Phelps, whose nervous temperament well expressed the comic uneasiness of the braggart, whose tongue outruns his thoughts and deeds, even sometimes its words, which it has to borrow from others' mouths. The continual propelling of his arms was as curious as it was artistic and provocative of mirth. In the affair of the drum he was admirable; and, in the scene of the exposure, acted with an aptitude which realised the situation most thoroughly. The success of this experiment will, no doubt, give rise to amended criticism on this play, the elements of which have been much mistaken. It only remains to add that the performance was illustrated by some very picturesque scenery, and that the mise en scène was in excellent taste. The revival is altogether highly creditable to the management.

The Spectator (review date 4 September 1852)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in The Spectator, Vol. 25, No. 1,262, September 4, 1852, p. 846.

Sadler's Wells opened on Saturday; and, after what we may call a few preliminary nights, gave its characteristic stamp to the season, by the production of that long-shelved play, All's Well that Ends Well. Nothing could be more strongly indicative of the true nature of the Islington temple of "legitimacy," or more clearly show its title to the name of a "dramatic curiosity-shop," which Mr. Charles Mathews, in his English-French pamphlet, so wittily and so wickedly bestowed upon it. The position of Sadler's Wells among other theatres, and the peculiar temperament of its public, are completely fixed by the two plays of All's Well that Ends Well and the Duchess of Malfi. Elsewhere, the former would have been found insufferably dull, supposing the plot to have been tolerated; the latter would have made the audience cry out "Murder!" as they did at the strangulation of Dr. Johnson's Irene. No such thing at Sadler's Wells. There we have a public soundly educated in the faith that the Elizabethan fountain is all of pure if not medicinal water, and that the manager's judgment is infallible. A piece that is odd or dull beyond the ordinary level no more startles the genuine Islingtonian, than an extraordinary miracle in the Romish Church disturbs the devotion of the faithful. Protestants without open their eyes and shake their heads, less at the miracle than at those who believe in it; but those within the pale find no more than a new rivet to their adherence.

Sadler's Wells is quite right to maintain this position. The ground which it occupies is untouched by any other establishment; and as its curiosities are all of value in the history of English literature, it not only secures the Islington body of believers, but it draws from all parts of the town a certain class of "reading men," who know that they will see the visions of their closet realized with taste and care, like that other class of readers who constantly attended the German performances at the St. James's. Sadler's Wells is not a goal to stimulate the exertions of living dramatists; for there is an enormous Elizabethan répertoire, unavailable elsewhere, which will prove more attractive than any modern material: nor is it a school for acting, for its main audience is too believing to be critical. But it offers a wholesome example to other theatres, inasmuch as it always preserves its individual character; whereas too many of the rest—though we are glad to see this number is fast diminishing—shift from one class of entertainment to another, so as to be wholly without a determining predicate.

With respect especially to All's Well that Ends Well, we would remark that Mr. Phelps has made of Parolles a picture of character worthy to be placed by the side of his Sir Pertinax and his King James.

The Times, London (review date 2 September 1852)

SOURCE: A review of Ail's Well That Ends Well, in The Times, London, No. 21,210, September 2, 1852, p. 6.

Of all the plays of the Shakspearian collection that are not actually banished from the stage, as for instance Pericles, or the three parts of Henry VI., not one is so little familiar to the public, through the medium of theatrical representation, as All's Well that Ends Well. If we turn to the records of dramatic doings for the last 60 years, we find that the revivals of this play have taken place at long intervals, and that the "runs" have only been for a few nights.

A perusal of All's Well that Ends Well will show, at a glance, that its unfrequent production is not to be attributed to any unjust neglect, but lies in the nature of the play itself. In the first place, the plot is indelicate, even beyond the limits usually conceded to Elizabethan dramatists, although these are allowed a pretty open field for the display of their eccentricities. If a young lady were to ask a gentleman to give her some notion of it, the latter would be driven at once to a nonplus, unless he took refuge in the evasive reply that it resembled the episode of Angelo and Mariana, in Measure for Measure; a reply which, after all, bears a strong affinity to the answer of the Cambridge youth in the immortal "Essay on Pluck," who, when questioned as to the material of the walls of Babylon, told the examiner that it was the same on one side as the other. If this reply, bad as it is, would not suffice, we can see no other course open, but a bold digression on the state of the weather.

In the next place, with the single exception of Parolles—a poltroon who will bear no comparison with Falstaff—there is not one of the dramatis personae who offers any temptation to the actor. The hero, Bertram, is one of the most uninteresting and despicable scoundrels that ever trod the boards of a stage, perhaps more despicable than the case required. In Boccaccio's story of Giletta of Narbonne (Day 3, Novel 9), from which the plot is obviously derived, though it seems through an English medium, Bertram is entirely free from those details of business with which Shakespeare has taken so much trouble to decorate him. Boccaccio bears the impression of a libertine lord, with a feudal abhorrence of a mésalliance, but of the paltry sinner who, in the presence of the King, goes on boggling from lie to lie, he has not had the slightest notion. Dr. Johnson, rather an obsolete critic on the works of Shakspeare, has shown remarkable acumen in tracing throughout the piece the villanies of Bertram, whom he pursues with the vigilance of an old Bow-street officer, and we think few readers will be dissatisfied with his summary. "I cannot," says the good Doctor, "reconcile my heart to Bertram;—a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness."

Helena, indeed, is a charming character. The sense of her inferiority to Bertram, whom she has loved from childhood, and her earnestness in winning him, notwithstanding so many obstacles, are beautifully portrayed, while some of the speeches put into her mouth are equal to anything which can be found in the whole compass of our rich dramatic literature. Nothing, for instance, can be more exquisite than the following, of which the first three lines have passed into the mass of ordinary Shaksperian quotations:—

                It were all one,
That I should love a bright particular star,
And think to wed it, he is so far above me:
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere;
The ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. 'Twas pretty, though a plague,
To see him every hour; to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
In our heart's table; heart, too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favour;
But now he's gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his relics.

The character of the Countess, Bertram's mother, who can value the virtue of Helena, in despite of the difference of rank between them, is an admirable support to that of the young and devoted girl, and is without prototype in Boccaccio. Here the departure from the original story is productive of the best results; but, at the risk of being deemed presumptuous, we cannot help thinking that in the conclusion of the tale the Italian is more pathetic than the Englishman. The fifth act of All's Well that Ends Well is terribly huddled together, with little or no regard to the exhibition of individual character, and the personages are disposed of in the most commonplace manner possible; whereas in Boccaccio's novel, Giletta, with her twin children in her arms, suddenly appears before her husband, while he is giving a festival to his friends, and, his nature being far from ungenerous, he is struck with contrition. This is a striking picture, and leaves a much more pleasing impression than the reform of the English Bertram, who is half led, half driven, into virtue. The Shaksperian zealot, who will defend the play through right and wrong, would no doubt find a ready answer, by showing that such a Bertram as Shakspeare drew was incapable of all spontaneous goodness whatever; but this would be merely taking advantage of what seems to us the original sin of the whole piece. Beautiful as they are to the reader, even the characters of Helena and the Countess are not such as come out strongly on the stage. They merely reach the level of the calmly interesting.

At any theatre besides Sadler's Wells, we should be surprised to see a revival of All's Well that Ends Well, but the Islington establishment is a sort of museum for the exhibition of dramatic curiosities, and we have no more right to be astounded at finding some Elizabethan crudity within its precincts than at finding a Buddhist idol in a missionary collection. That the piece is by Shakspeare, and that the piece is rare, is in itself a sufficient recommendation to the manager, who is sure that a number of English literati will pay him a visit, just as the head-master of Westminster School is sure that Terence will attract the "Old Westminsters." There is the further recommendation in All's Well that Ends Well, that Parolles, whose episode stands quite apart from Boccaccio's tale, affords Mr. Phelps an opportunity of displaying that comic humour which has, of late, been brought forward almost as a new talent. By his strong, sharp delineation of the poltroonery of Parolles, and that abject servility which succeeds empty vaunting, he maintains an interest in an otherwise weak piece, and commands incessant roars of laughter. As the plot of the play is of such a ticklish nature, we should in justice observe, that by making the production of the ring the sole condition named in Bertram's letter, and by other judicious alterations, the offensive peculiarities are kept so far in the background that nothing is left to shock the ordinary spectator, though, at the same time, we cannot help remarking that these sacrifices to delicacy weaken the real motives of the action.

The mise en scène is in the best taste, as is usual at this establishment, and the applause of the audience, which was bestowed on the revival of the piece last night, showed that the manager's exertions had not been in vain.


Henry Irving • St. George's Hall • 1895


Irving's staging of All's Well That Ends Well with the Irving Dramatic Club in 1895 failed to win favor with the two prominent critics William Archer and George Bernard Shaw. Both objected strenuously to the director's use of an abridged text. Archer wrote that the play "had been so carefully bowdlerized … that the story would scarcely have been comprehensible to any one who did not know it beforehand." Similarly, Shaw, who deprecated Irving's striving after scenic effects, wrote that "the whole play was vivisected, and the fragments mutilated, for the sake of accessories which were in every particular silly and ridiculous." The central performances in this production were also the subject of negative criticism. While Archer approved of Olive Kennett's portrayal of Helena and Len Heinekey's Countess, Shaw found both renderings to have been without merit. The critics were in agreement, however, that the male performances were undistinguished, with Shaw judging that "Mr. Lewin-Mannering did not for any instant make it possible to believe that Parolles was a real person to him."


William Archer (review date 31 January 1895)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well That Ends Well, in the Theatrical World' of 1895, Walter Scott, Ltd., 1896, pp. 37-41.

[The following review first appeared in the Pall Mall Budget.]

A performance of the Irving Amateur Dramatic Club at St. George's Hall (22 and 24 January) last week gave me an opportunity of seeing a play as yet unknown to me on the stage—All's Well that Ends Well. I never miss a chance of "bagging" a new Shakespeare, and adding its scalp, or, in plain language, its playbill, to my collection. As I enjoy the proud privilege of being an Englishman (à peu près), and not a German, I shall certainly go to my grave without having seen anything like the full cycle of his playable plays. My ambition stops short of Troilus and Cressida, which was not intended for the stage, and of Titus Andronicus, which is absurd; but now that All's Well is bagged, there still remain The Tempest, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Richard II., the second part of Henry IV., the whole of Henry VI. (which, after all, is part of our great historical epos, and is so treated in Germany), the Comedy of Errors, and the Two Gentlemen of Verona, unacted in my time. Several of the others I have seen only once, presented by amateurs—Love's Labour's Lost, Measure for Measure, and Henry IV., Part I. Mr. Beerbohm Tree once played King John, at the Crystal Palace, several years ago; Cymbeline I have seen only in the provinces; and Julius Caesar, perhaps the most magnificent acting play ever written, has been performed in London, and admirably performed, within the memory of man—but by a German company.

Far be it from me to maintain that all or any of these plays ought to be constantly represented; but is it utterly chimerical to dream of a theatre at which no year should pass without a revival for a few nights of one or two of the less-known Shakespearian plays, so that the whole repertory should be passed in review once in ten years or so? The Germans possess such theatres; we poverty-stricken islanders cannot afford one. But I perceive I am trenching on the inflammatory topic of the Municipal or Endowed Theatre, which causes angry passions to rise in many otherwise equanimous bosoms. I sheer off hastily with the confession that All's Well that Ends Well, which forms the text of my discourse, is not in itself a very great loss to the theatre. Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, and the two parts of Henry IV are plays which could really be made to live for a modern audience—not so All's Well Hazlitt calls it "one of the most pleasing of our author's comedies," but I think a "dis" has dropped out before "pleasing." Despite its extraordinary inequalities of style, indeed, it is pleasant enough reading, though I don't know but that I would rather read Boccaccio's story in his own words. In any case, a story may be delightful in "the golden pages of Boccaccio," and very much the reverse when expanded and realised on the stage.

In a romance, a fairy-tale (and practically this is nothing else), we have a right to look for some resting-place for our sympathies; where are we to find it here? In plain latterday English, Bertram is a snob, Helena an adventuress. I turn to one of the latest German commentators, Dr. Louis Lewes, author of The Women of Shakespeare, and I find that "Helena's love is passionate, spiritual, free from all egotism"! "Her position," Dr. Lewes proceeds, "is not only unhappy, it offends our taste, and yet her character rises in inward sincerity, touching nobility, and beauty, above the unworthiness of her condition." Character, in other words, is independent of conduct, and love which has recourse to tyranny and perfidy in order to gain its ends shall be held "free from all egotism" if only the young lady expresses herself nobly and poetically. If Bertram had promised Helena marriage, even if he had betrayed and deserted her, one must still have questioned her taste and dignity in carrying her breach of promise suit to the King's Bench in such a spirit of intrigue and chicanery. But there is no suggestion that Bertram ever breathed a word of love to Helena. She simply made up her sincere and noble mind to marry him willy-nilly, and she carried her point by methods which, if used by a man towards a woman, would brand him as a villain of the deepest dye, and earn him the execrations of every gallery in Christendom. The thing is a fairy-tale, and as a fairy-tale it pleases the imagination, on its sensual rather than its spiritual side. On the plane of real life, Shakespearolatry alone can find the fable edifying or attractive. The text had been so carefully bowdlerised for the Irving Club that the story would scarcely have been comprehensible to any one who did not know it beforehand. Miss Olive Kennett played Helena with dignity and intelligence, Mrs. Herbert Morris made a charming Diana, and Miss Lena Heinekey a good Countess of Rousillon. The male performers were passable, but undistinguished.

Bernard Shaw (review date February 2,1895)

SOURCE: "Poor Shakespear!" in his Our Theatres in the Nineties. Vol. 1. Constable and Company Limited, 1932, pp. 24-30.

[The following review first appeared in The Saturday Review.]

What a pity it is that the people who love the sound of Shakespear so seldom go on the stage! The ear is the sure clue to him: only a musician can understand the play of feeling which is the real rarity in his early plays. In a deaf nation these plays would have died long ago. The moral attitude in them is conventional and secondhand: the borrowed ideas, however finely expressed, have not the over-powering human interest of those original criticisms of life which supply the rhetorical element in his later works. Even the individualization which produces that old-established British speciality, the Shakespearean "delineation of character," owes all its magic to the turn of the line, which lets you into the secret of its utterer's mood and temperament, not by its commonplace meaning, but by some subtle exaltation, or stultification, or slyness, or delicacy, or hesitancy, or what not in the sound of it. In short, it is the score and not the libretto that keeps the work alive and fresh; and this is why only musical critics should be allowed to meddle with Shakespear—especially early Shakespear. Unhappily, though the nation still retains its ears, the players and playgoers of this generation are for the most part deaf as adders. Their appreciation of Shakespear is sheer hypocrisy, the proof being that where an early play of his is revived, they take the utmost pains to suppress as much of it as possible, and disguise the rest past recognition, relying for success on extraordinary scenic attractions; on very popular performers, including, if possible, a famously beautiful actress in the leading part; and, above all, on Shakespear's reputation and the consequent submission of the British public to be mercilessly bored by each of his plays once in their lives, for the sake of being able to say they have seen it. And not a soul has the hardihood to yawn in the face of the imposture. The manager is praised; the bard is praised; the beautiful actress is praised; and the free list comes early and comes often, not without a distinct sense of conferring a handsome compliment on the acting manager. And it certainly is hard to face such a disappointment without being paid for it. For the more enchanting the play is at home by the fireside in winter, or out on the heather of a summer evening—the more the manager, in his efforts to realize this enchantment by reckless expenditure on incidental music, colored lights, dances, dresses, and elaborate rearrangements and dislocations of the play—the more, in fact, he departs from the old platform with its curtains and its placards inscribed "A street in Mantua," and so forth, the more hopelessly and vulgarly does he miss his mark. Such crown jewels of dramatic poetry as Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream, fade into shabby colored glass in his purse; and sincere people who do not know what the matter is, begin to babble insufferably about plays that are meant for the study and not for the stage.

Yet once in a blue moon or so there wanders on to the stage some happy fair whose eyes are lodestars and whose tongue's sweet air's more tunable than lark to shepherd's ear. And the moment she strikes up the true Shakespearean music, and feels her way to her part altogether by her sense of that music, the play returns to life and all the magic is there. She may make nonsense of the verses by wrong conjunctions and misplaced commas, which shew that she has never worked out the logical construction of a single sentence in her part; but if her heart is in the song, the protesting commentator-critic may save his breath to cool his porridge: the soul of the play is there, no matter where the sense of it may be. We have all heard Miss Rehan perform this miracle with Twelfth Night, and turn it, in spite of the impossible Mr Daly, from a hopelessly ineffective actress show into something like the exquisite poem its author left it. All I can remember of the last performance I witnessed of A Midsummer Night's Dream is that Miss Kate Rorke got on the stage somehow and began to make some music with Helena's lines, with the result that Shakespear, who had up to that moment lain without sense or motion, immediately began to stir uneasily and shew signs of quickening, which lasted until the others took up the word and struck him dead.

Powerful among the enemies of Shakespear are the commentator and the elocutionist: the commentator because, not knowing Shakespear's language, he sharpens his reasoning faculty to examine propositions advanced by an eminent lecturer from the Midlands, instead of sensitizing his artistic faculty to receive the impression of moods and inflexions of feeling conveyed by word-music; the elocutionist because he is a born fool, in which capacity, observing with pain that poets have a weakness for imparting to their dramatic dialogue a quality which he describes and deplores as "sing-song," he devotes his life to the art of breaking up verse in such a way as to make it sound like insanely pompous prose. The effect of this on Shakespear's earlier verse, which is full of the naïve delight of pure oscillation, to be enjoyed as an Italian enjoys a barcarolle, or a child a swing, or a baby a rocking-cradle, is destructively stupid. In the later plays, where the barcarolle measure has evolved into much more varied and complex rhythms, it does not matter so much, since the work is no longer simple enough for a fool to pick to pieces. But in every play from Love's Labour Lost to Henry V, the elocutionist meddles simply as a murderer, and ought to be dealt with as such without benefit of clergy. To our young people studying for the stage I say, with all solemnity, learn how to pronounce the English alphabet clearly and beautifully from some person who is at once an artist and a phonetic expert. And then leave blank verse patiently alone until you have experienced emotion deep enough to crave for poetic expression, at which point verse will seem an absolutely natural and real form of speech to you. Meanwhile, if any pedant, with an uncultivated heart and a theoretic ear, proposes to teach you to recite, send instantly for the police.

Among Shakespear's earlier plays, All's Well that Ends Well stands out artistically by the sovereign charm of the young Helena and the old Countess of Rousillon, and intellectually by the experiment, repeated nearly three hundred years later in A Doll's House, of making the hero a perfectly ordinary young man, whose unimaginative prejudices and selfish conventionality make him cut a very fine mean figure in the atmosphere created by the nobler nature of his wife. That is what gives a certain plausibility to the otherwise doubtful tradition that Shakespear did not succeed in getting his play produced (founded on the absence of any record of a performance of it during his lifetime). It certainly explains why Phelps, the only modern actor-manager tempted by it, was attracted by the part of Parolles, a capital study of the adventurous yarn-spinning society-struck coward, who also crops up again in modern fiction as the hero of Charles Lever's underrated novel, A Day's Ride: a Life's Romance. When I saw All's Well announced for performance by the Irving Dramatic Club, I was highly interested, especially as the performers were free, for once, to play Shakespear for Shakespear's sake. Alas! at this amateur performance, at which there need have been none of the miserable commercialization compulsory at the regular theatres, I suffered all the vulgarity and absurdity of that commercialism without its efficiency. We all know the stock objection of the Brixton Family Shakespear to All's Well—that the heroine is a lady doctor, and that no lady of any delicacy could possibly adopt a profession which involves the possibility of her having to attend cases such as that of the king in this play, who suffers from a fistula. How any sensible and humane person can have ever read this sort of thing without a deep sense of its insult to every charitable woman's humanity and every sick man's suffering is, fortunately, getting harder to understand nowadays than it once was. Nevertheless All's Well was minced with strict deference to it for the members of the Irving Dramatic Club. The rule for expurgation was to omit everything that the most pestiferously prurient person could find improper. For example, when the non-commissioned officer, with quite becoming earnestness and force, says to the disgraced Parolles: "If you could find out a country where but women were that had received so much shame, you might begin an impudent nation," the speech was suppressed as if it were on all fours with the obsolete Elizabethan badinage which is and should be cut out as a matter of course. And to save Helena from anything so shocking as a reference to her virginity, she was robbed of that rapturous outburst beginning

There shall your master have a thousand loves—
A mother and a mistress and a friend, etc.

But perhaps this was sacrificed in deference to the opinion of the editor of those pretty and handy little books called the Temple Shakespear, who compares the passage to "the nonsense of some foolish conceited player"—a criticism which only a commentator could hope to live down.

The play was, of course, pulled to pieces in order that some bad scenery, totally unconnected with Florence or Rousillon, might destroy all the illusion which the simple stage directions in the book create, and which they would equally have created had they been printed on a placard and hung up on a curtain. The passage of the Florentine army beneath the walls of the city was managed in the manner of the end of the first act of Robertson's Ours, the widow and the girls looking out of their sitting-room window, whilst a few of the band gave a precarious selection from the orchestral parts of Berlioz's version of the Rackoczy March. The dresses were the usual fancy ball odds and ends, Helena especially distinguishing herself by playing the first scene partly in the costume of Hamlet and partly in that of a waitress in an Aerated Bread shop, set off by a monstrous auburn wig which could by no stretch of imagination be taken for her own hair. Briefly, the whole play was vivisected, and the fragments mutilated, for the sake of accessories which were in every particular silly and ridiculous. If they were meant to heighten the illusion, they were worse than failures, since they rendered illusion almost impossible. If they were intended as illustrations of place and period, they were ignorant impostures. I have seen poetic plays performed without costumes before a pair of curtains by ladies and gentlemen in evening dress with twenty times the effect: nay, I will pledge my reputation that if the members of the Irving Dramatic Club will take their books in their hands, sit in a Christy Minstrel semicircle, and read the play decently as it was written, the result will be a vast improvement on this St George's Hall travesty.

Perhaps it would not be altogether kind to leave these misguided but no doubt well-intentioned ladies and gentlemen without a word of appreciation from their own point of view. Only, there is not much to be said for them even from that point of view. Few living actresses could throw themselves into the sustained transport of exquisite tenderness and impulsive courage which makes poetry the natural speech of Helena. The cool young woman, with a superior understanding, excellent manners, and a habit of reciting Shakespear, presented before us by Miss Olive Kennett, could not conceivably have been even Helena's thirty-second cousin. Miss Lena Heinekey, with the most beautiful old woman's part ever written in her hands, discovered none of its wonderfully pleasant good sense, humanity, and originality: she grieved stagily all through in the manner of the Duchess of York in Cibber's Richard III. Mr Lewin-Mannering did not for any instant make it possible to believe that Parolles was a real person to him. They all insisted on calling him parole, instead of Parolles, in three syllables, with the s sounded at the end, as Shakespear intended: consequently, when he came to the couplet which cannot be negotiated on any other terms:

Rust, sword; cool, blushes; and, Parolles, thrive;
Theres place and means for every man alive,

he made a desperate effort to get even with it by saying:

Rust, rapier; cool, blushes; and, parole, thrive,

and seemed quite disconcerted when he found that it would not do. Lafeu is hardly a part that can be acted: it comes right if the right man is available: if not, no acting can conceal the makeshift. Mr Herbert Everitt was not the right man; but he made the best of it. The clown was evidently willing to relish his own humor if only he could have seen it; but there are few actors who would not have gone that far. Bertram (Mr Patrick Munro), if not the most intelligent of Bertrams, played the love scene with Diana with some passion. The rest of the parts, not being character studies, are tolerably straightforward and easy of execution; and they were creditably played, the king (Mr Ernest Meads) carrying off the honors, and Diana (Mrs Herbert Morris) acquitting herself with comparative distinction. But I should not like to see another such performance of All's Well or any other play that is equally rooted in my deeper affections.


Robert Atkins • Old Vic • 1921


Opening at the Old Vic on 28 November 1921, Atkins's presentation of All's Well That Ends Well featured a restored text of the play and an emphasis on the comic elements inherent in the work. Harking back to eighteenth-century versions of the play, Atkins restored the scenes that had offended Victorian sensibility, while maintaining the Victorian conception of Helena as a sweet and delicate character. Although the comic scenes were generally admired, the majority of critics faulted Jane Bacon's portrayal of Helena. For John Francis Hope, the production was at once "interesting and disappointing." The critic maintained that Atkins's reintroduction of the comic scenes was hampered by a failure to express the nature of Elizabethan humor frankly. This tendency was most evident in Ernest Milton's rendering of Parolles, which Hope characterized as being "like someone skating on very thin ice, as though he were trying to spare Helena's blushes instead of provoking them." At the Arts Theatre Club in 1932, Atkins revived the play in a staging that retained the traditional interpretation of Helena and reaffirmed that critical opinion of the play as mediocre. James Agate, for example, asserted that it was "Shakespeare botching and bungling at his worst." Atkins staged the play for a third time in 1940 at the Vaudeville Theatre, London. Once again, the production received mixed responses. Catherine Lacey as Helena garnered qualified praise from Ivor Brown, who wrote, "you need not believe in her, but love her you must—and love her you will." Atkins himself took the part of Lafew, making this role the focal point of the play. Herbert Farjeon wrote that he handled the character "with ease, amiability and good understanding." Owing to this staging's coinciding with World War II, melodrama was emphasized at the expense of the play's comic scenes. Despite acknowledging Atkins's competent direction, critics concurred with Alan Dent's sentiment that the play "may be put by for another twenty years without great loss."


John Francis Hope (review date 15 December 1921)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in The New Age, Vol. XXX n. s., No. 7, December 15, 1921, p. 82.

The production at the Old Vic of "All's Well That Ends Well" was both interesting and disappointing. It is a play not often seen, and for that reason should challenge the originality of the producer. I saw it, I admit, under the worst circumstances; a first night, after four vile days of fog and frost, could not possibly present the play at its best. Something of the solemnity of the occasion must be attributed to the weather; even actors are not always immune from climatic conditions. But as I saw the Stage Society production of "Uncle Vanya" the same afternoon, and it was, I think, the finest performance I have ever, seen, the weather cannot be blamed for everything. When an actor knows what he has to do, he can usually do it, even if he has one foot in the grave. So I return to my first impression that the producer had not composed his values rightly.

"All's Well" is a comedy, which our newspaper critics call an inferior work, but which Hazlitt described as "one of the most pleasing of our author's comedies." True, he said that "the interest is, however, more of a serious than of a comic nature"; but that only applies to the main theme which Shakespeare adopted with very little variation from Boccaccio. The comic scenes in the play, though, are original—and here it is that I felt the chief defect of the production. Most of these comic scenes are definitely and distinctly "smutty," a characteristic quality of English humour; Parolles discussing virginity with Helena, for example, although expressing sound common sense in his reaction against ascetic ideals, is definitely playing for the guffaw. We ought to be as shocked and amused as we are by, say, George Robey, who embodies our national type of humour, which is Elizabethan not only in parody but in very nature. But Mr. Ernest Milton got through this scene without once provoking a laugh; he played it like someone skating on very thin ice, as though he were trying to spare Helena's blushes instead of provoking them. The scene is not merely illustrative of the frankness with which men and women discussed sexual matters in those days; it is comic, and is intended to be comic, in the grouty, fleshly English fashion. Shakespeare was a popular playwright, tickling the ears of the groundlings in such passages; and it is absurd to Bowdlerise him in spirit while giving the text. It was just the same with Mr. Andrew Leigh as the Clown; he talked of bawdry and cuckoldry with none of the suggestiveness, the will to be a little shocking, that the text demands. He really sets up a conflict in the Countess, between her will to maintain morality and her unregenerate interest in natural human desires; he makes her laugh herself out of her judgment—and he does not do it by lecturing like Dryasdust on the social problem. Lubricity should lubricate the wheels of being, and reduce friction—and it needs a broader method than that employed at the Old Vic, something approximating to the style of the music-hall comedian. Mr. Ernest Milton's Parolles, though, was well conceived as the fantastic braggart, although played far too lightly; he is a sort of younger brother of Pistol, and should exhibit much more of his Mars, even if it were retrograde, as Helena said, than he did. He should make a show of being a fighting man; Mr. Ernest Milton tamed him down to a courtier. While I think of it, Mr. Rupert Harvey's rendering of the old Lord Lafeu was the best thing I have seen him do; his comedic method was perfectly suited to his part, and it was really the only finished performance in the production.

When we turn to the others, most of them were playing mezzo-forte, with very little detail. These people are quick and extreme in feeling; the King, for instance, is in extremity until Helena cures him, then he is "able to lead her a coranto"; and psychologically, he is equally a creature of extremes. Confronted with Bertram's refusal to do his will, he blazes with an overpowering wrath:

My honour's at stake; which to defeat,
I must produce my power.

But Shakespeare's conception of power was Elizabethan, not Old Victorian; he thought of Tudor kings, and thought of them with the passionate heart of the poet. This was an issue of life or death, settled in a moment by a consuming wrath; and neither Mr. Wilfrid Walter, as the King, nor Mr. Alan Watts, as Bertram, flamed with fire. Of course, if you are only going to recite Shakespeare to school-children, the merest hint is enough; but we, who know something of history, of poetry, and of human nature, want more convincing. It is passionate power that Mr. Atkins fails habitually to get from his actors; he has, too, a sort of statuesque convention which he imposes on every play, as though Shakespeare could be played in talking tableaux. If people shake hands, for example, as the Countess does with Bertram at the beginning of the play, they hold the picture long after it has ceased to have any meaning. If architecture is frozen music, as Ruskin said, the Old Vic stagecraft is chiefly half-baked Shakespeare.

The women, too, were played chiefly as what a sculptor calls "one-view studies." Miss Florence Buckton, as the Countess, for example, expressed the maternal dignity of the woman finely, with a real sense of character; but the quick, autocratic temper of the woman, as expressed in her scenes with Helena when she forced her to confess her love, and later when she banished Bertram from her love, her merriment with the clown, were only indicated, not expressed. The prevailing tempo was too insistent, too slow, too heavy; and unfortunately, it affected Miss Jane Bacon, as Helena. Here was a performance that promised to be of exceptional appeal; she has a good presence, a good voice, a gracious personality, and should do well so soon as she makes up her mind what to do. But she was obviously suggestible on November 28, took her tempo from the Countess, and dragged her scenes interminably. Helena was no more all dignity and purity than the Countess was; she was sad in her remembrance of her father at the beginning (a mere mask, as she confessed, for her hopeless love of Bertram), merry, chaffing, with Parolles, a girl to the Countess, full of shyness and affection becoming confidential and purposeful; she reserved her grand manner for the King, and encountering opposition, exercised all the steadily impressive power of her personality to secure her end. She really hypnotised him with her assurance. There is plenty of variety in Helena and Miss Bacon has it in herself if only she will bring it to bear on the character. She is not simply a one-view study of sweetness and delicacy, as Hazlitt put it; she is a woman who knows what she wants, and how to get it, and uses every faculty of a very capable nature to achieve her purpose. One is sorry that she wasted herself on Bertram—but that is her affair; what is Miss Bacon's affair is to present her in all her variety of power and charm, and not to keep her in a state of solemnity varied by maudlin soliloquy.

The Spectator (review date 31 December 1921)

SOURCE: "All's Well that Ends Well at the 'Old Vic,' " in The Spectator, Vol. 127, December 31, 1921, p. 744.

What Sir Sidney Lee called the charpentage of the playwright fails to make a convincing play of All's Well That Ends Well. It is rarely performed and this is the first time that the "Old Vic." has produced it. However, plenty of enthusiasm, and in one or two cases brilliant acting, contribute to making its production well worth while. For one thing, Parolles, the Miles Gloriosus, the lovable Shakespearean rascal, entirely compensates for the impossible part Helena has to play. As Parolles, Mr. Ernest Milton practically dominated the stage. The scene in the Florentine camp when, blindfolded, he imagines himself in the hands of the enemy, could not to my thinking have been funnier if Mr. Miles Malleson had taken the part, while at the end of the scene, after his exposure as a cowardly braggart, this Parolles was as tragic a figure as Shylock outwitted by Portia. Of course, Mr. Milton has played Shylock and other serious parts for the "Old Vic." but he shows himself equally gifted as Parolles, if not more so. Miss Jane Bacon as Helena, "the female d'Artagnan," has all the sweetness and delicacy demanded by Hazlitt. She acted a difficult part extremely well. The alternate changes of scene between Rousillon and Paris were effected by the use of red and purple curtains, and the night scene in the Florentine camp, with a vague blue sky visible through the open doorway of the tent, was particularly successful.

Ivor Brown (review date 16 October 1940)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in Punch, Vol. CXCIX, No. 5,195, October 16, 1940, p. 388.

Professional productions of All's Well happen once in a lifetime, and it is an odd chance which has just given to this unregarded piece the sole tenancy of the West End stage. Now, it might be thought, is the ugly duckling's chance to prove itself a true cygnet of Avon. It has no rivals in its region and anyone intending "to see a show" becomes the conscript of Helena and Bertram. Well, it is no hard service; the plot may irritate, but the lady both speaks and looks most fair. The tiresome fable is full of lovely lines, and an afternoon spent in Helena's company (there are, for obvious reasons, no vespers) will abundantly console the ear which is afflicted by the customary "overheads" of our time.

Incidentally, when Helena is regretting that she may have unwittingly driven Bertram to prefer the horrors of war to the pleasures of matrimony, she talks of the "leaden messengers" which may assail him. This is conventional, but when she further mentions "the air that sings with piercing" she seems to be giving a first-rate and a fresh description of the whistle of a falling bomb. There is much in several plays to suggest that SHAKESPEARE had at one time followed an army and possibly taken an active part in the wars. At any rate, that phrase of Helena's suggests a fairly close acquaintance with things that go bump in the night and with the circumstance of such bombardment as was then in use and fashion. Tropical, Hamlet would have called the words, and now, alas! most topical too.

There is little else in All's Well that strikes one as having contemporary point. The Boccaccio plot, with its affair of the rings and of the undiscovered substitution of one lady for another in a gentleman's arms, is very much of its own place and time. The boorishness of Bertram and the indignity of Helena's prostration before so ungracious an idol are also alien to our modern sympathy. Parolles is just another of the boastful cowardly soldiers who continually flourished this mixture of panache and white feather all over the drama of the time. But Mr. ROBERT ATKINS has staged the piece for the excellent reason that he likes it and he has, with his clever casting and direction, and his swift deployment of scenes in an Elizabethan setting, done all that could be done to coax us into sharing his affection.

We realize at once that SHAKESPEARE, bored by some of his characters, lost his heart to his heroine. Such losses are infections. When genius adores, all must capitulate. Helena, whom Miss CATHERINE LACEY commends by beauty of speech despite some rather mannered movements and expressions, is a creature from a fantastic story-book. You need not believe in her, but love her you must—and love her you will. Mr. PETER GLENVILLE does his best for Bertram, and one is grateful to any actor who will step with a good heart into that foolish cub's shoes. There is an efficiently absurd Parolles in Mr. ESME PERCY, and a finely-spoken King in Mr. ERNEST MILTON, while a gracious mamma for the ungracious Bertram is provided by Miss BARBARA EVEREST, SHAKESPEARE was not prodigal with nice old ladies; here is one of his exceptions.

The plot proves untrue to the title by going from bad to worse; but the poetry, intermittently, goes from good to better. The wise, if they put their ears to the latter instead of their minds to the former, are assured of a pleasant week-day afternoon.

Alan Dent (review date October 1940)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in Preludes & Studies, Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1942, pp. 102-29 and 121-22.

[The following review was first published in the Manchester Guardian.]

London has a play at last, to be seen at the Vaudeville every afternoon. What is more, it is a Shakespeare comedy, though All's Well that Ends Well is almost too grim, unwitty, and disconcerting to be called comedy at all. Critics of the past, making excuses for this unhappy tale of Boccaccio, exclaim what a tender human creature Shakespeare has fashioned out of the wronged heroine, Helena, whose misfortune it is to love a prig and chase him all over Europe. Hazlitt and Coleridge fell in love with Helena, and Mr. Shaw liked the play's unromantic wrangling so much that his Man and Superman might almost be called its modern variant. But one of the shrewdest and soundest of the unprofessional critics, Ellen Terry, exactly "placed" Helena when, in one of her lectures, she dismissed that young woman as belonging to what she called the "doormat" type: "They bear any amount of humiliation from the men they love, seem almost to enjoy being maltreated and scorned by them, and hunt them down in the most undignified way when they are trying to escape". Helena was no part for Ellen.

Miss Catherine Lacey, always an interesting and a clever actress, somehow imposes the non-existent but necessary dignity on the character. Nothing, not even the glad and impetuous grace of Mr. Peter Glenville, can prevent Bertram from being an intolerable and, in the end, a preposterous puppy. These two head a good company which distinguishes itself, first, for making the most of a difficult and not-easily-memorised play, and second, for speaking its intractable prose and verse with clearness and with every appearance of perfect comprehension. Mr. Esme Percy is as voluble as he likes to be in Parolles. Mr. Robert Atkins should be praised and encouraged for his direction. But the play may now be put by for another twenty years without great loss. Anybody heard defending its poetry should be asked point-blank to quote two consecutive lines.

Herbert Farjeon (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "All's Well that Ends Well: Shakespeare All Alone," in The Shakespearean Scene: Dramatic Criticisms, Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1949, pp. 67-8.

[In the essay below, Farjeon provides a retrospective account of Atkins's 1940 production of All's Well That Ends Well.]

When the war broke out and the shows shut up, I suggested to a friend that then, if ever, was the time to put on King Henry VI Part 3, since in normal circumstances how could it hope to stand against Under Your Hat?—but with all competitors out of the field, somebody might go. A similar thought seems to have struck Mr. Robert Atkins, the staunchest Shakespearean in our theatre. All's Well that Ends Well never has been and never is likely to be popular. But here it is, all alone (at the time of writing) in the Strand, all alone (so far as plays go) in the West End. And if there's only one play on, it is almost a matter of national credit that that play should be by Shakespeare.

Why isn't All's Well more popular? All the scenes in which Parolles, that hollow drum of a braggart, appears are rich in humour. Wise things are continually said and fine phrases continually coined throughout the piece. But Helena, the heroine, is difficult, and so is Bertram, the hero she pursues. Although he dislikes her, she insists on making him marry her as a reward for curing the King of a fistula. And as his conduct does not make him seem worth winning by any woman, their ultimate reconciliation leaves one cold. The means, too, by which this reconciliation is achieved are just hack-plot stuff. That old ring business has been worn threadbare. And isn't it always rather hard to swallow nights of joy passed in bed with one woman under the impression that she is another? At the Vaudeville it is certainly not easy to imagine that the substantial figure of Miss Patricia Tucker could ever be mistaken for the slim figure of Miss Catherine Lacey, who tries to make her part less merciless by playing it in a kind of neurotic daze. A difficult part indeed. Helena would have been better written by Shaw, who would have turned her into an exposition, or by Ibsen, who might have plumbed Hedda Gabier depths.

So our apprehensive senses are best fed by the Parolles of Mr. Esmé Percy, who gives us perhaps too much of the affectation at the expense of the swagger and fails to bring out the tremendous comeback of that immortal line, "Who cannot be crushed with a plot?" when he has been finally exposed—but who is nevertheless full of drive and provides good sport. Still better are they fed by Mr. Ernest Milton who, as the King, speaking beautifully, sheds his mannerisms and brings the whole to a most royal and gracious conclusion. Mr. Peter Glenville grapples valiantly with Bertram, and Mr. Jerry Verno as Lavache comes not too badly through the severe test of the "O Lord, sir" scene. I would set this as a viva voce examination passage for the resource of all Shakespeare clowns. Mr. Atkins himself handles Lafeu with ease, amiability and good understanding. His production, in the Elizabethan manner, is simple, swift and sure. If Shakespeare came back to life, it is certainly Mr. Atkins, more than anyone else in our island, who, ever faithful, should be elected to the honour of receiving him.


Tyrone Guthrie • Stratford Festival, Ontario • 1953


Guthrie staged All's Well That Ends Well for the first year of the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. Setting the production in the Edwardian era, Guthrie aimed at presenting the play as a high comedy that united fantastic plotting with a realistic portrayal of characters' psychology. Perhaps the most innovative feature of the production was Irene Worth's portrayal of Helena as an intelligent and determined woman capable of successfully achieving her goals in a world of men. Critics additionally praised the performances of Alec Guinness as the King; Douglas Campbell as Parolles; Eleanor Stuart as the Countess; and Michael Bates as Lafew. Six years later, Guthrie revived the play at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. In this production he further emphasized the elements of farce in the play, expanding the humorous dialogue and making use of dumb-shows for comic effect. A. Alvarez enthusiastically characterized the presentation of the play as "almost as perfect as we are likely to see." Critics generally responded favorably to the performances of Zoe Caldwell as Helena, Edith Evans as the Countess, Cyril Luckham as Parolles, and Edward de Souza as Bertram.


Tyrone Guthrie (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: "First Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario," in Renown at Stratford: A Record of the Shakespeare Festival in Canada, 1953, Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, 1953, pp. 49-51, 57-60, 74-7, 81-2, 90-8, 109-11.

[In the following excerpt, Guthrie discusses the conception and portrayal of the roles of Helena, Parolles, Bertram, Lafew, Diana, and an Officer in his 1953 production of All's Well That Ends Well. Guthrie concludes with a defense of modern dress productions of Shakespearean plays.]

A number of first-rate critics have been unable to like Helena, but it would be presumptuous to pretend that they were stupid, because we can see something to which they were blind. Let us rather say that Helena belongs to a type of woman uncommon, but credible and admirable in Shakespeare's day, though not in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Not everyone likes or understands the type today, but two wars and a social revolution have made it commoner than it was; intelligent, determined women, perfectly capable of managing a romance and a profession, and ready to do so on the same terms as men, are to be met with everywhere.

Helena might be the heroine of an Existentialist drama. She refuses to be passive; she will not resign herself to be what Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, calls 'the prisoner of immanence'. She takes a firm line with her fate. Of course people whose idea of a woman is all in terms of passivity—passive romance, passive suffering—do not like a young woman who refuses to be passive. There are doubtless more people than would admit it, who dislike the idea of a girl who has an intimate knowledge of the behaviour of a fistula. They do not like Helena because she frightens them. Yet there is no reason why a brilliant young woman physician of determined and passionate nature should not be a wholly delightful person, filled with adventurous possibilities; compared with Helena, Juliet, Desdemona and Ophelia are ninnies. Surely we do not insist that every heroine should be a ninny?

The modern dress of All's Well did a great deal to explain Helena to the audience. We could place her, not in the rather vague but essentially passive category of Heroines of Olden Times, but in a world which we knew. That world was presented to us in terms which were contemporary without being commonplace. Most of us have seen love-affairs in which the girl has had to supply the greater part of the romance, and the brains, in order to get the man whom she, sometimes unaccountably, wants. If we put aside our childish insistence that the active partner in a romance must be a man, is not Helena a romantic figure?

In the Stratford performance Miss Irene Worth invested Helena with so much beauty of speech and movement that she seemed irresistible, and we were vexed with Bertram for slighting her. Yet we knew also that her qualities were not those which most young men would choose in the object of their first love. Diana gave Bertram what he wanted—a peg upon which to hang a romantic ideal of his own. The wisest people in the play—the King, Lafeu and the Countess—understand Helena's quality, but it is too much to expect a young man who is only just free from his mother's domination to do so; it takes more experience of life than Bertram had to know that a stupid and passive woman may be vastly more dangerous to a man than an intelligent and positive one.

This has been called one of Shakespeare's 'bitter comedies'. No one encountering it for the first time in the Stratford production would think of calling it so; on the contrary, it was filled with a sweet spirit. The play had not been tinkered, to achieve this result; the part of the Clown, Lavache, had been cut, but there is no bitterness in his lines. The quality of understanding which had been brought to the play, and the carefully considered modernity of its mounting and style of acting revealed it as high romantic comedy. The story had a superficially unreal, fairy-tale quality; underneath this it was true, convincing and satisfying. This was the best kind of romance, for we were given respite from the commonplace, without being asked to make any sacrifice of truth.

We have said the worst of Helena when we have said this: she tricks her husband into consummating his marriage. In other words, she lays siege to him, as thousands of male lovers are admired for doing in thousands of other plays which nobody ever thinks of calling bitter. Does she make some sacrifice of dignity in doing this? Perhaps, but her position through most of the play is one of undeserved indignity. Instead of waiting for someone to rescue her from it, Helena very capably rescues herself. She is humble in her love, but not in the least humble in her estimation of what her love can give:

There shall your master have a thousand loves,
A mother, and a mistress, and a friend,
A phoenix, captain and an enemy,
A guide, a goddess and a sovereign,
A counsellor, a traitress and a dear.
                           [I.i. 166-70]

A great deal of solemn stuff has been written about Shakespeare and Woman; it is curious that this splendid summation of what a great woman's love may be is so often omitted. Do the commentators really prefer the ninnies? Not always, but they usually miss the fact that there is no Shakespearean heroine who is deeper or more constant in love than Helena. She is that tunelessly popular figure, Patient Griselda, invested with the brains and spirit to do something about her predicament.

Miss Worth's performance was a lovely presentation of constancy and tenderness wedded to intellect and spirit. Her greatest triumph, perhaps, was that she won our compassion for Bertram. This was a great performance, and the finest single element in the illumination of a misunderstood play.

Lord Hastings [in Richard III] appears to lose his life because, after the death of Edward IV, he makes himself the protector of Jane Shore, Edward's mistress. Jane Shore was an unusually intelligent woman, and thus it is not surprising that in the fifteenth century she was thought to be a witch. At any rate, that is what Richard of Gloucester thought about her, and when he pretends that his arm has been shrivelled, he lays the blame upon her, and seizes the opportunity to condemn Hastings to execution. The real offence, of course, was that Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain, refused to ally himself with Richard's cause.

In the Stratford production some startling by-play was introduced when, after Hastings' execution, Ratcliff brings his head to Richard in an oozing sack. It is passed from hand to hand, but only Richard feels inclined to keep it, and when he carries it off under his arm we wonder what he means to do with it. Will he throw it away? Will he take it out of its wrapping and gloat over it? He is not a sentimentalist, so it is unlikely that he will have it preserved as a trophy. Nevertheless we feel that he has some disagreeable use for it.

It was pleasant to meet the actor who played Hastings in the great roll of Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well The character of the Bragging Soldier is as old as the drama, for the type is constant in mankind, and we were in no way surprised to find that it fitted perfectly into the modern dress version of the play. Parolles in his dirty trench-coat, filing his nails; Parolles in a seedy suit, with broken shoes, but with a gay shirt and tie; Parolles in a dress uniform which would have seemed extravagant on the leader of a nineteenth century Concert Band; Parolles as the most slovenly soldier on parade; Parolles at last, dirty and frayed, cadging from Lafeu: he was that ageless character, the loud-mouthed, worthless, impudent but somehow attractive rascal.

Parolles is irresistible and even lovable because there is abundant life in him. Virtue is rarely wedded to so much vitality, imagination and resource. Consider his situation when he has been tricked into making a fool of himself before the soldiers whom he most wishes to impress: "Who cannot be crushed with a plot?" he murmurs, in his burntout hour. But this man who has no honour has a shrewd notion that honour is not a big element in life—certainly not in life as he knows it. And he knows himself, this man.

Yet am I thankful: if my heart were great,
'Twould burst at this.
                           [IV. iii. 330-31]

There is more self-knowledge in these words than in all the questing soliloquies of Hamlet. Here is a man who seeks to impose upon the word, but who has too much wit to impose upon himself. The military life is closed to him? Very well. "Captain I'll be no more," he cries—

But I will eat and drink, and sleep as soft
As captain shall: simply the thing I am
Shall make me live. Who knows himself a brag
Let him fear this, for it will come to pass
That every braggart shall be found an ass.
Rust, sword! cool, blushes! and, Parolles, live
Safest in shame! being fool'd, by foolery thrive!
There's place and means for every man alive.
                                [IV. iii. 332-39]

Corrupt or not, this is a coherent and workable view of life. Before the play ends we see Parolles back at Court, where we may be sure he discovers means to maintain himself without dwindling into an honest man.

At Stratford Parolles found an admirable embodiment, and this performance was one of the delights of the Festival.

For what specially gifted actor did Shakespeare write this part? Of course he wrote it for an actor; there were no actresses on the English stage until the Restoration of Charles II. Well trained boys played the parts of young women; some of them, when their voices had changed, played the parts of older women: there is a good deal of evidence that the boys played very well, and no Elizabethan-Jacobean playwright complained of the custom. But we have reason to believe that the first player of the Countess of Rossillion must have been a young man of exceptional accomplishments.

For one thing, she opens the play. This is a difficult task, for technical reasons, and in no other instance does Shakespeare give it to a female character. And, throughout, the part is written with a restraint and dignity given to no other older woman in his comedies. So different is Shakespeare's approach to the Countess from that which he makes to the weeping queens in Richard III that there is no real ground for comparison. In All's Well That Ends Well Shakespeare leaps at least 150 years ahead of his time, and gives us a new stage figure—the Aristocratic Old Lady of High Comedy.

The part is not much easier to cast now than it was in the day of the boy actors, and it was one of the happiest circumstances of the Stratford Festival that Canada afforded a player exquisitely suited to it. We have seen these Aristocratic Old Ladies played, and beautifully played, by actresses of international reputation; they are masterly in their command, and in their creation of character. Yet there is not one of them that we could have wished at Stratford to play this part. For, as we saw it there, the Countess ruled the stage without imperiousness, and her character was a quality of spirit rather than of mannerism. She had great beauty, but appeared to be quite unconscious of it; great sweetness, but not a hint of archness; great firmness, but nothing of severity. It was the simplicity of this playing which gave delight.

How difficult it is to make plain the merit of a fine piece of acting to readers who do hot share the memory of it! So often, to describe what an actress did at a certain point in a role is more destructive than helpful, for it creates a distortion of emphasis. It was not anything specific that the actress did which made this performance beautiful; it was what she was at every moment of it. She existed, in perfect self-understanding and self-possession; gesture, speech and expression arose naturally from this state of being, and the whole creation moved in the warm light of the Comic Spirit.

Shakespeare took the story of All's Well from one of Boccaccio's stories in the Decameron, and in this original there is no character which corresponds to the Countess. She is his own creation, and she may almost be taken as a forecast of what Helena may become when the passion of her youth has been transformed into the dignity and wisdom of age. How fortunate is Bertram, to pass his life with two women of this quality!

The Stratford Production of All's Well That Ends Well showed us how delightful this play can be when it is thoroughly understood and understandingly presented, but we may expect the prejudice which has so long been felt against it to persist among those who know it only through reading. Dr. Johnson's criticism wakes an echo in many minds: "I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood and is dismissed to happiness". But is this just to Bertram? We cannot argue that he is a noble character, but certainly he is a very human one, and nowhere does Shakespeare claim more for him.

Bertram's first offence is that he thinks poorly of Helena because she is below him in fortune; he is a nobleman and she a physician's daughter, and it is easy for us in a democratic age and a country without an aristocracy to despise him. But let us imagine the situation in our own country; let us imagine that Bertram is a young Canadian of the millionaire class, with three generations of lumber money behind him, who declines to marry a gifted young woman who has been placed in his mother's household, under our Displaced Persons settlement scheme, to do domestic work. Can any of us say that young women of high desert who found themselves in that position have not been scorned by such young men? And while we may not approve the attitude of the young man—it is so easy to pick wives for rich young men—do we not understand it a little better?

Bertram's conduct with Diana hardly seems to call for comment. So long as armies serve abroad such stories will be told.

In the end, Bertram accepts the wife whom he had scorned. Surely this is wise, and a course toward which he has been moving all through the play. Without getting into a welter of psychological surmise, we can see Bertram moving toward maturity from his first appearance until at last he recognizes Helena as she really is. He has grown up in a household dominated by women; his first move, characteristically, is to idealize someone of his own sex, who happens to be the attractive though unworthy Parolles; it is to Parolles that he turns in his grief when he has been married against his will. His next forward step is to seek a girl of his own choosing, at the same time as he is disillusioned with Parolles. At last, when he is ready for the kind of woman that Helena is, Helena is waiting for him. It needs no psychoanalyst, surely, to understand this entirely normal pattern of a young man's development?

Perhaps what puzzles and affronts so many people in this play is that the usual romantic balance between man and woman is reversed. Bertram is foolish, insulting, proud and incapable of seeing what is fine in the woman who wants him. But this is an attitude which we accept complacently enough when, in a play, it is exemplified in a female character; indeed, it is part of the attraction of that long-enduring old piece, The Lady of Lyons, in seeing which several generations of playgoers were perfectly contended when Pauline behaved badly upon discovering that her lover was of humble birth (though quite as capable of talking fustian as she). Are we going to pretend, at this late date, that Shakespeare is too Shavian for us because he makes his heroine strong and constant, and his hero weak and foolish? To say that All's Well That Ends Well is bitter, for this reason alone, is to confess that we want nothing from Shakespeare in his comedy vein which is not sweetly pretty and conventional in the novelette style. It is to say that we would prefer that he had written The Lady of Lyons.

If we forget any preconceived notion of what the handsomest young man, with the best role, should be in a Shakespearean play, we find Bertram nothing worse than a very young man who has the great good luck to be loved by a girl of unusual intellectual and moral gifts. Shakespeare was no tub-thumping feminist, but he knew what people are like; he knew that the woman is often the stronger character in a romance, and that romances in which this is so are often successful and enduring. The Stratford production made this amply clear, and we may hope that it has done something to rescue a great and beautiful play from comparative neglect.

Lafeu is described merely as 'an old lord'. But he is an old lord with a very ready and salty tongue, and when we see him in modern dress he provokes us to some reflections on the nature of aristocracy.

There is a widespread notion that an aristocrat lives in a world of dignified constraint which most of us would find intolerable. But the briefest study of the lives of aristocratic persons immediately dispells any such idea; their lives are not more constrained, but more free, than those of any other section of the population except such poor and carefree minorities as gypsies. Their lives may be guided and limited by ideals of honour, but they never give a thought to public opinion. They refuse to do certain things because of what they owe themselves, but never because they are afraid of what the Next Doors might say. As for dignity, they do not give it a thought; they consider it to be ingrained, like the colour of their skins. They do not put it on and take it off, like a top hat. But neither do they confuse dignity with pomposity.

It has been said that a gentleman is a man who uses a butter-knife when he is dining alone. It might be said that an aristocrat is a man who never uses a butter-knife unless he happens to feel like it.

Thus it may be seen that anyone may behave like an aristocrat if he chooses, and if he has the courage to do so.

Lafeu is thoroughly an aristocrat. His feelings are of the finest; at many points in the play we see him perform acts of kindness, of understanding, and, in his final conduct toward Parolles, of mercy. This is a man whose nature would not permit of a base action. Yet his manners are, by the standards of Emily Post, extraordinary. He jokes when he ought to be solemn; he becomes huffy about things which are none of his business; he makes broad comments in the presence of ladies. Yet what he is robs his behaviour of any offence.

It is not as strange as it may at first appear that Lafeu takes a fancy to Parolles and, in the end, seems about to add the rascal to his household. They have much in common, these two. Both know a great deal of the world; both know themselves and their own worth; both are free of ordinary restraints upon their tongues and their behaviour. It is true that Lafeu has honour and dignity, and that Parolles has neither. But Lafeu understands parolles, and Parolles understands himself. If Lafeu has decided to keep Parolles for the amusement he can get out of him, we may be sure that Parolles will not give short weight.

The playing of the actor who was cast as Lafeu was distinguished among the many good things which made All's Well That Ends Well a vindication of a play which is too often underprized.

Shakespeare is capable of infinitely various interpretations, and in a modern dress production of All's Well That Ends Well we were prepared for some surprises. But who could have foreseen that the Florentine maiden, Diana, and the Widow her mother, would turn up in the guise of a Canadian keeper of a Tourist Home, and her daughter? Yet how well it worked! The Widow with her eye to business, her specialization in pilgrims bound for the shrine of St. Jacques le Grand, her protestations that she is of good family, though in reduced circumstances—we can place her in any part of Canada. And having placed her, we know that her daughter, however good a girl she may be, is not unlikely to meet a soldier, and to be sufficiently flattered by the attentions of an officer to give him a hearing.

In commonplace Shakespearean productions we are too often left in doubt about Who is Who. The social distinctions of the Renaissance are not familiar to us, and even distinctions indicated by costume may escape us. All Shakespeare's characters, unless they are clowns, are likely to speak in blank verse, which removes them from our ordinary standards of judgment. But in a modern dress production we have no trouble at all in placing the characters. We see in what ways this Florentine Widow differs from the Countess of Rossillion; the difference is approximately that between a woman who looks forward to the Old Age Pension, and one who must make provision against the Death Duties. And when Diana at last appears at court, in her charming frock, we can see at a glance how this frock differs from the gowns of the ladies to whom court is an accustomed place.

Is this snobbery? Very likely it is, but it is snobbery as we know it in Canada. It is, so to speak, a democratic kind of snobbery. And we cannot hope to understand Shakespeare without some understanding of snobbery, for he knew precisely how important, and how unimportant, social standing and money could be. All's Well That Ends Well is to a surprising degree a comedy in which this sort of thing is important. Does anyone suppose that Bertram would have approached Diana as he did if she did not wear, for the greater part of the day, a simple print dress?

An understanding of Diana's social position in relation to Bertram gives greater worth to her chaste and wise rejection of his proposals. It would have been understandable if she had yielded to a wealthy young nobleman; when she will not do so (at least on her own account) we applaud her the more because we know what her temptation has been. Her accusations of Bertram when at last she faces him in the court of France are in the convention of high comedy; in that scene Shakespeare ruthlessly sacrifices everybody in order to throw the character of Helena into the highest relief, and Diana fares no worse than the rest.

For this understanding of Diana and her mother we must thank the modern dress of the play. Political democracy and equality before the law are realities which we know; to pretend that we have come within hailing distance of social democracy in Canada—or indeed in any of our sister democracies—would be pretentious. When we see the characters in a Shakespearean play in modern dress, we are able to relate them to one another as Shakespeare intended, and our understanding of their conduct is correspondingly enhanced.

How anybody can believe that the works of Shakespeare were written by Sir Francis Bacon, after reading his essay Of Masques and Triumphs, is one of those mysteries which must remain unsolved until the Judgment Day. It is not that the essay is foolish: far from it—it contains just such dogmatic, pithy pronouncements, springing from a cultivated taste, as we might expect from a great lawyer. But it does not contain anything which suggests practical experience of the theatre, and it is filled with that systematizing which has always been fatal in the theatre. But it includes one opinion on the production of entertainments in which the audiences at All's Well That Ends Well would concur: "It is better they should be graced with elegancy than daubed with cost". This comedy was sufficiently costly, for nothing was slighted; but in every respect it was graced with elegancy.

A glance at the picture of this young Officer shows what is meant. A great number of Shakespeare's plays demand a group of courtiers who do nothing but dress the stage, take part in pageantry, and give an air of opulent distinction to the scenes in which they appear. Too often, even in productions otherwise satisfactory, these courtiers are scant in numbers, furtive in demeanour, and inattentive to their principal business, which is to watch everything that goes on as if their lives depended on it. The Stratford courtiers, directed by one who is probably the greatest master of spectacle since the death of Reinhardt, never failed to add to the action when they were on the stage.

As well as being truly within the framework of the action, they were sufficiently diversified in appearance. Too often stage courtiers are all of the same generation. They may be very young, in which case we know them at once to be students. They may all be tall, muscular men of fine but constrained bearing, wearing their socks under their tights, and we know that they are soldiers in private life.

But these courtiers were of all ages; the grey heads among them were the real thing, and the dignity of maturity had not been achieved with pillows.

The Officer whom we see here was one of those who danced with Helena when the King of France urged her to choose a husband. His dance may have taken forty-five seconds. But it was the desire on the part of the director and the company that each second of the play's action should be graced with elegancy which made this production an evening of enchantment. The Officer did not fail in his duty.

There are still people who can be roused to anger by the suggestion that Shakespeare be presented in modern dress. Nor can we lightly dismiss their wrath, for there have been experiments which give weight to their passionate assertion that modern dress destroys the romance of the plays. The trouble lies in the word 'modern'; clothes which are merely modish are destructive of great drama, just as a method of speaking which is too much of one time and place is destructive to it. Falstaff in a bowler hat, and Hamlet in plus fours, both of which were modern dress experiments in the years between the wars, seem old-fashioned when we look at pictures of them now; but we do not escape that old-fashionedness by giving Falstaff a Tyrolean pork-pie, and by putting Hamlet into the latest natty gent's suiting. Far better put them in mock-Tudor rig-outs from the nearest costume-hiring shop than that. Modern dress, if it is to be successful, must not be modern at all, but the most handsomely timeless costumes, based upon modern ideas of how the body should be covered, that the designer can devise.

Designers have always recognized this in the case of costumes for actresses. Whatever period is to be suggested, some concessions are made to the fashion of the moment. Compare a Shakespearean costume worn by Fanny Kemble with one worn by Ellen Terry and one worn by Vivien Leigh, and each will be, quite plainly, a 'period' dress, seen through Early Victorian, Late Victorian, and modern eyes. Actors are rather more ready to adapt themselves to the shapes of an earlier day.

In All's Well That Ends Well the costumes suggested modern dress but they were not the modern dress which was worn by the audience. Nor was this merely the result of more frequent pressing and the actor's professional ability to wear his clothes better than other people. It was the result of a deliberate purgation of superfluities—of a simplification which was in itself a deliberate act of design. Even Parolles, in the dreadful habiliments of a spiv, had a simplicity and clarity of outline which no spiv in real life could achieve. And, as in Richard III, the designer had taken pains that the colours, though muted, should never be dead, and that the accents of colour should fall in the right places. An instance of this subtle use of colour was the deep red lounging coat in which the King of France was first seen. (A pleasantly local, though unintentional, touch was added by the fact that his knees were covered by a robe which bore, unmistakeably, the crest of Upper Canada College; Miss Moiseiwitsch, searching for a decorative motif which should have no special significance, happened upon one to which thousands of Canadians were able to give a local habitation and a name.)

The clothing of any age can, in the hands of a fine designer, be made to assume an elegantly romantic appearance. Much of our admiration for the costume of past ages is rooted in the fact that we see it presented, as a usual thing, at its handsomest or most picturesque, rather than as it appeared when it was worn by people with no particular taste and no pretensions to style. The clothes in All's Well That Ends Well were modern, but they had a degree of style above the reach of most of us, and they had been given an ageless and romantic air by elimination of distracting detail. The dress uniforms worn by the young men at the Court of France, for instance, were strikingly free of the straps, ribbons and dangling ornaments which seem to be inseparable from dress uniforms in real life. Which of us, enchanted by the appearance they made, would not say, "So much the worse for real life?"

Tyrone Guthrie (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare at Stratford, Ontario," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 8, 1955, pp. 127-31.

[In the following essay, Guthrie examines Tanya Moiseiwitsch's "open" stage design for the Stratford, Ontario production of All's Well That Ends Well, noting that the intention was "to offer the facilities of an Elizabethan stage, but not to attempt an Elizabethan pseudo-antique style."]

The first Shakespearian Festival at Stratford, Ontario, is worth attention from two points of view: first as an enterprise, a feat of courage, faith and vision by the community of this little Ontario city; secondly because, so far as I know, this is the first time for many years that a stage and auditorium have been specially constructed for the presentation of Shakespearian plays.

Stratford is a town of 19,000 inhabitants, it is a railway junction, the site of a railway engine repair works, there are some furniture factories; but it is principally a market town for a very prosperous agricultural country-side, old-established by Canadian standards. It was settled over 100 years ago. The present population is some three or four generations removed from the Pioneers, who were mostly Scottish and German, although the actual township was named by a group who came from Stratford, Warwick-shire, and a Utile willow-edged creek flowing nearby is spelt Avon, though pronounced Avvon. This creek has been dammed up to form a series of lakes and islands—very pretty, and the one feature which distinguishes Stratford visually from any one of many similar little towns in Ontario.

The idea of the Festival was conceived by a young journalist called Tom Patterson. On warservice in Italy he had encountered grand opera for the first time and been bowled over. Then, still as a soldier, in London he saw his first professional productions of 'straight' plays. Then he went to the Old Vic. The result was to make him feel that the entertainment hitherto available in Stratford, Ontario, was rather insufficient. He set to work to mobilize local interest in a Shakespearian Festival and after three years had raised a considerable head of steam. There was plenty of enthusiasm, but very little experience. So I was asked to go out and give advice. The plan we evolved was as follows:

  1. A stage that would realize the physical relation between actor and audience which prevailed in the Elizabethan Playhouse; and that would have the practical features of an Elizabethan stage, as far as we can deduce them from the evidence available.
  2. This stage to be placed in a temporary auditorium under canvas, designed to hold about 1500 people, this figure being the largest that I thought could adequately see and hear under these conditions.
  3. Two plays to be given in repertory.
  4. The services of a small group of experienced and, if possible, celebrated actors to be sought in Great Britain—the project, however, to be demonstrably an effort for and by Canadians, with some outside assistance, but not much.

This project was then 'budgetted' and it was believed that, if a subscription fund of $150,000 (£50,000) were raised, then takings of 60% of capacity for four weeks would make ends meet.

On this basis the committee went ahead. Imagine a British community of approximately similar size—Ballymena, for example, or Truro, or Tonbridge, or Skipton, or Galashiels—embarking on a similar project with no outside backing whatsoever, with no influential 'names' on the committee. This was just a group of small-town citizens, doctors, lawyers, a clergyman, business men and women prepared to back an idea with not a hope of making money—indeed, with every likelihood of a considerable financial loss and very red faces into the bargain. In the end, I am glad to say, the enthusiasm and faith were justified; the plays were given for an extended season, played to the remarkable figure of 96% capacity, were considered an artistic event of national importance, attracted a flattering amount of favourable notice from the leading American as well as Canadian critics and, by no means least important, were the cause of a considerable fillip to the business of the little town. A weekly influx of ten thousand souls on pleasure bent is not to be sneezed at by local tradesmen. The municipality, lukewarm last year, is now heart and soul 'for' the Festival. It is hoped that this will have been the first of a long annual series. Plans are already well advanced for the second Stratford Festival.

Now for the more 'Shakespearian' aspect: the two plays chosen were Richard III and All's Well That Ends Well; the first as a 'vehicle' for Alec Guinness, who headed the cast; the second as a bold contrast and because it offered a number of good parts which we thought we could cast suitably.

The acting of Guinness in Richard III was highly and justly admired. But it was interesting to find that the booking for Richard was no better than for All's Well, an unfamiliar and supposedly 'difficult' play; and that of the two plays All's Well, certainly in my opinion, and I think in that of most of the audience, emerged as much the better bit of work.

The stage, designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, with a certain amount of suggestion from myself, presented a balcony supported by slender pillars above a main stage thirty foot square. The balcony was accessible, in sight of the audience, by two staircases from each side of the stage, as well as from a central entrance at the back. The main stage was accessible directly from the dressing-rooms, through the pillars supporting the balcony, from the aisles of the auditorium, and from two tunnels beneath the auditorium. There was also a trap-door cut in the floor of the stage, to serve as grave, entrance to dungeons and so on.

The designer's aim was to offer the facilities of an Elizabethan stage, but not to attempt an Elizabethan pseudo-antique style. The floor was of oak, polished—about as shiny as a dance-floor; the pillars, balcony and partition wall were stained a rather darker colour, appreciably darker than the actors' faces. The general visual effect we aimed at was to be strictly 'functional'; neither aggressively modern nor antique; a structure that unobtrusively offered to the actors standing-places, seats, and things to lean against, where they needed them; a platform that offered neither too much space nor too little, and which was so placed as to be the focal point of the nearly circular auditorium.

There was no curtained alcove under the balcony, partly because I did not think either of these two plays required its use (and I am not convinced that this practicality is, in fact, a necessity), partly because we did not like the look of drapery in this position.

Because we played at night, artificial light was a necessity. But there were no illusionary 'effects' of light. We permitted ourselves an unobtrusive 'dim' at what seemed appropriate times, not without a feeling that this was a weak concession to current theatrical convention and a departure from the method and style we had adopted.

Scenic austerity was offset by extremely rich and handsome clothes. I do not think audiences felt that they had been cheated of 'spectacle' in either play; and I do not think there was any loss of 'illusion' because there were no naturalistic indications of whereabouts. It is not for me to assess how successful these performances were. I can only say that, in my opinion, they had, owing to the nature of the stage, a number of advantages, which the proscenium stage, by its very nature, can never offer.

First, because there was no picture-frame and obviously no possibility of scenery, there was no need to attempt scenic illusion. In a proscenium one has to create a 'picture'; even the most negative background to the actors—black curtains for instance—makes a visual statement that cannot be ignored. And if in a proscenium, with all the paraphernalia for creating 'pictures' and all the weight of pictorial tradition associated with such buildings, one gives a whole play against some carefully and monotonously negative background, it is clear that the mechanism is being denied. This denial cannot but seem emphatic and self-conscious, cannot but draw attention.

Scenic statements, even negative statements, are obviously malapropos in a Shakespearian production. The plays were written for a stage that did not offer scenery. Therefore, if it is necessary for the audience to know the whereabouts of the characters, an indication is given in the text. If it is important that the audience's attention be drawn to facts about the weather, time of day, season of the year, its attention is drawn in the text; usually in language so apt, so memorable and so timely that to make another statement in visual terms, whether in paintwork, carpentry or lighting, is not merely superfluous but impertinent.

Our stage, trying to provide the facilities which the plays do require but no others, offered a merely functional background: anything that was visible had a practical purpose and was not there just to look pretty. Even its colour and proportions were functional. They may not, in the event, have fulfilled all their purposes adequately but there was at least a sensible reason for everything being as it was. Freed from scenery, scene could follow scene without the slightest interruption of continuity. I realize that this absolute continuity can be achieved in a proscenium—Motley did so brilliantly in a recent Antony and Cleopatra: Moiseiwitsch in a recent Henry VIII—but it is achieved only by toiling and spinning, by prodigies of technique. If there can be no scenery, it is merely wilful to break the continuity of the play's flow except to give the audience a rest. I need not enlarge on the advantages of continuity.

If the audience sits, as ours did, around the stage, certain choreographic problems are posed. But, on balance, the grouping and flow of movement are infinitely easier to arrange. The chief difficulty arises, I think, in long soliloquies, especially meditative soliloquies where movement 'feels' wrong to an actor and tends to disturb the concentration of the audience. I think the solution is for the actor to keep turning slowly, facing now this, now that, part of the house. With a little practice this soon feels, and looks, perfectly natural. Both Alec Guinness in Richard III and Irene Worth in All's Well managed long passages of psychological monologue in a way that felt comfortable and natural to themselves and entirely held their audience.

Conversational scenes are infinitely easier to arrange if the participants do not have to conform to the highly conventional groupings that rule the proscenium stage, where 'masking' or 'upstaging' one's interlocutor are rightly crimes. On an 'open' stage masking is inevitable. It is the producer's duty to see that all parts of the house get fair do's—that if Mr X faced East at one important moment, he must face West at the next; or better still must contrive to scatter the favour of his countenance over a wide radius. In practice two things emerge: the naturalness and expressiveness of the group is more important than the face of any single member of the group; a good actor's behind is often just as expressive as his face. Finally on the 'open' stage choreography can be much more fluid and varied than in a proscenium; first, because there is no question of avoiding masking; second because the picture must all the time be planned to be expressive from all angles, not just from 'the front'; thirdly because entrances and exits can be available in all directions, not just left, right and centre. This is especially helpful in those scenes, so frequent in Shakespeare, when a group pauses en route from X to Y. In the proscenium the progress of My Lords of Norfolk, Suffolk and Rutland from X to Y occurs parallel to the footlights, from right to left; and the progress of My Lords of Kent, Sussex and Surrey from Y to X occurs, parallel to the footlights from left to right. On the 'open' stage a far greater variety both of direction and pace can be achieved, because there is a wider choice of exit and entrance and a greater variety of distance to traverse.

But the great and basic practical advantage of the 'open' stage is that an equivalent number of people can be put into a smaller space than if they are all arranged to face a proscenium. Shakespeare's plays, with large casts, involve a large number of salaries, and shoes and hats and swords and so on. They are inevitably more costly to put on than a nice little modern comedy involving from six to sixteen actors, including understudies. As a result the modern comedies occupy the small intimate theatres where the actors can play with great finesse and still make their points. Shakespeare, in order to recoup the expense, has to be played in large theatres. Most of Shakespeare's plays, but especially the comedies, are interesting only if they are played with great intimacy, great finesse; above all if they are beautifully spoken. It is all but impossible to speak beautifully if you are only audible either when you speak loudly or when you speak slowly. The wonder is that actors do as well as they do. Top-ranking performers like Olivier or Sybil Thorndike or Edith Evans can make vast auditoria seem intimate by sheer force of magnetism. A great rhetorician, like Gielgud, can, by sheer virtuosity, conceal the fact that he is able only to use a fraction of the vocal variety which he could employ in more favourable circumstances.

Finally, it may be argued that an open stage is less conducive to 'illusion' than the comparatively realistic 'pictures' created behind a proscenium. This point I must immediately concede. But is 'illusion' the true aim of a theatrical performance? I do not think so. I do not believe that anyone beyond the mental age of twelve can believe that actors in a play are 'really' the characters they are pretending to be, or that the events which are being enacted are 'really' taking place. I do not believe that an adult public has ever swallowed the 'illusion' of the theatre; and certainly not in this epoch when dramatic entertainment is squirting out of machines at every minute of the day or night, when the features of leading players are more familiar than those of Prime Ministers and Archbishops. Who in this age is really taken in when Sir Laurence Olivier makes believe to be King Lear? We admire the artifice of his disguise, the emotional force of his feeling and the intellectual acumen of his comment—for every performance is a comment by the actor upon the part, the play, upon his own personality and the collective personality of the audience. Such admiration can be so tinged with sympathy that we do actually 'feel' with the actor, are moved to laughter and to tears and to feelings deeper than laughter and tears can express. But such sympathy does not, in my opinion, proceed from 'illusion'. Exactly analogous reactions can be evoked by music or paintings, by great works of architecture or literature, where there is no question of illusion.

I suggest that theatrical performance is a form of ritual, that the audience is not asked to subscribe to an illusion but to participate in the ritual. If the performance is sufficiently expert it is not hard for the audience to participate with great fervour; for each member of the audience to lose a great deal of his own identity; to allow his personality to become fused with that of other participants, to become lost, rapt, in a collective act of participation.

The attraction for me of the 'open' stage, as opposed to the proscenium, is primarily this: that it stresses the ritual as opposed to the illusionary quality of performance. Next there is the important practical advantage that an auditorium built around a stage, instead of facing it, accommodates a larger number of spectators in the same cubic space (at Stratford we could seat 1500 people in great comfort and the back row was only the same distance from the stage as Row M in the stalls of the Old Vic; the Old Vic holds fewer than 1400 people packed closer in its three tiers). Thirdly, it seems to me incontrovertible that it is more sensible to attempt to produce Shakespeare's plays in something that approximates as closely as circumstances will permit to the conditions for which they were written.

This is not to say that I am for putting all sorts and conditions of plays onto an 'open' stage. Far from it. The plays of Congreve or Sheridan, for instance, of Wilde, Pinero or Barrie were written for the proscenium stage and should be so produced. Nor am I suggesting that the Memorial Theatre at Stratford, Warwickshire, or the Old Vic should straightway be torn down and replaced by more 'Shakespearian' edifices. For some time to come the open stage will still be in the experimental phase. Ours in Canada was only one of many experiments that must, and will, be made. Detailed modifications and improvements will be made to our stage and particularly to our auditorium. We were all aware, I know, of deficiencies. In my opinion the auditorium embraced too wide an arc; the nearest spectators were too near to the actors, the farthest off too far—defects only curable either by a cut in capacity, which is economically unthinkable, or by building galleries which is, for the present, economically unthinkable. All in all, however, the results achieved were very encouraging.

Herbert Whittaker (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Stratford Festival, 1953-1957, Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, 1958, pp.X-XV

[In the following excerpt, Whittaker provides an account of Guthrie's staging of All's Well That Ends Well for the Stratford Festival, maintaining that the production "tops … every other performance at Stratford since, in sheer theatrical magic."]

On December 9, 1952, the announcement of the first Festival programme was made. At Mr. Guinness' suggestion, it stated, the plays would be Richard III and All's Well That Ends Well.

The names of other people who were to create Stratford's Festival were beginning to be known. That of Tanya Moiseiwitsch had been announced with those of Dr. Guthrie and Mr. Guinness on October 1. Her association with the Festival has outlasted those of either Dr. Guthrie or Mr. Guinness; her contribution was not a whit less valuable. The shape of the stage and the theatre, the vision of the productions to come, are all evidence of the contribution of this remarkable artist. The names of Cecil Clarke, the Festival's first production manager, and his wife, Jacqueline Cundall, who created the property department, were made known early in January. Mr. Clarke's ability to plan and organize was to be one of the young Festival's greatest assets.

Then came the news of Mr. Guinness' co-star. It was to be Irene Worth, the California-born actress who had won such high praise as Portia and Desdemona at London's famous Old Vic. Other names were soon to be listed, those of Ray Diffen to head the wardrobe department, and of two actors selected by Dr. Guthrie, one Douglas Campbell, the other Michael Bates. Mr. Diffen was to work miracles of cutting in the Stratford workshops for the next five years. Mr. Campbell was to continue as one of Stratford's most vigorous forces.

In the meantime, Dr. Guthrie had made his emphatic appearance on the Canadian scene. His warning that the Festival must hew to the high line of classical theatre, avoid Tudor touches and never think of itself as a mere tourist attraction set Stratford on a path of artistic austerity from which it has rarely strayed.

Dr. Guthrie's first visit was merely advisory. When next he came it was to scout for Canadian talent in a remarkable whirlwind visit to Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, during which he made uncanny judgments in a rapid succession of five-minute interviews. With him on that return trip he brought the model of Tanya Moiseiwitsch's design for the Stratford stage, that simple yet subtle classical facade set on a three-step platform.

This stage was to be housed in a tent on the banks of the River Avon. It was to be no ordinary tent, but the largest theatrical tent in North America, second in size only to the Ringling Brothers' circus home. Four poles, a ton and a half each, rose sixty feet in the air, and ten miles of guy rope and cable held taut the canvas. All such rigging was under the personal supervision of the legendary tent man, Skip Manley.

On a day when the face of the civilized world was turned to London awaiting the coronation of the young woman who was to make us all Elizabethans again, the actors gathered at Stratford. They assembled at the Agricultural Hall in the Fair Grounds, wearing the look of the chosen ones, but not quite certain how the chosen were expected to behave. Dr. Guthrie shepherded them in encouragingly and the doors closed on the first rehearsal of the Stratford company.

While the actors thumped about on a mock-up stage in the Agricultural Hall, work proceeded on the tent by the river. Then, the day before the opening, the dedication of the Festival took place. After church, the citizens of Stratford, in summer Sunday garb, entered the tent for the first time, gazed at its billowing blue interior, discreetly eyed such notables as Dr. Guthrie, Mr. Guinness and Miss Worth, and settled down to hear five of their ministers ask blessings for the enterprise. Then tall Dr. Guthrie presented to the Festival's first president, Dr. Harry Show-alter, the flag sent from the Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon, in Shakespeare's own Warwickshire.

For All's Well That Ends Well, [Tanya Moiseiwitsch] and Dr. Guthrie had decided on a period that was no period—modern, yet fanciful, with a wardrobe that ranged from the most elegant ballgowns to army suntans. Blood-red and black, leather and gold were replaced by cool delicate shades.

Dr. Guthrie's courage in tackling All's Well That Ends Well was rewarded by a most clear, concise statement of a world of honour and guile, priggishness and yearning, which we were induced to accept without question. Helena became a true lady made devious by love, Bertram a reasonable, unthinking deserter. Their coming together at the end of the evening was an occasion for joy.

In his skilful placing of emphasis Dr. Guthrie was immeasurably aided by some superb playing, particularly by Irene Worth as Helena. From her first silent entrance, gazing so longingly after Bertram, Miss Worth had power to move us to tears. She convinced us of her passion before ever she spoke, and we were committed to support her in every device she found to win her love.

There were wonderful moments in this play, but never tableaux: the Countess reading beneath her sunshade; Helena, in a wonderfully classic black dress and grey-blue doctor's robe, wheeling the pale King in a bathchair; Parolles trapped in ambush, betraying himself in an anguish of terror; the splendid ballroom scene in which Dr. Guthrie made the pat winding-up of the plot seem a grand finale we had been eagerly anticipating all evening. The undeniable ladies and gentlemen of rank in full evening dress, the slim young officers vying for Helena's affection and finally, Helena herself, lighting up the whole stage in her sweeping yellow dress, brought a sense of extraordinary satisfaction to the last scenes of the play.

The first season's Richard III provided the most exciting night in the history of Canadian theatre but the second night's All's Well That Ends Well topped it, and every other performance at Stratford since, in sheer theatrical magic, in its discovery of breathless beauty in a dark old Shakespearean comedy.

The most startling result of that first year at Stratford was the range of its success. From the very beginning, the concept of Stratford intrigued a widespread public. From half-way around the world came requests for tickets. From New York came the leading critics, led by Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times. The lovers of Shakespeare in the theatre recognized Stratford as the first full experiment in Shakespearean production along the lines laid down by William Poel and Granville Barker. The general public, who had heard Shakespeare spoken well of all their lives, suspected that this time they might find out what it was all about from "that Alec Guinness". The nationalists were prepared to find something to cheer about, and were startled when they did not have to lead the cheers themselves. Materialistic Canada, tired of being told it had no culture, was able to point smugly to Stratford and still gauge it as a recognizable achievement, from the box-office returns.

Patrick Gibbs (review date 22 April 1959)

SOURCE: "Comedy Staged at British Fete," in The New York Times, April 22, 1959, p. 30.

Tyrone Guthrie's production of the rarely given "All's Well That Ends Well," which came into the repertory at the Memorial Theatre here tonight, sets the comedy in the Edwardian period, but not very rigidly. Purists, I think, would find the use of a microphone in one scene to be not the only anachronism.

The inspiration for this period comes, perhaps, from George Bernard Shaw, who found in this play Ibsenlike ideas. The husband-hunting Helena, in particular, he saw as a representative of the New Women with the unheroic Bertram to be compared to the abject Helmer in "A Doll's House."

Of these ideas there is at the outset of the performance just a trace, especially in Helena's appearance, all efficiency in a neat black dress and with her hair tightly in a bun. But eventually it is apparent that Mr. Guthrie's intentions are frivolous rather than serious, and that his aim is less to reveal hidden depths in this play than to extract all possible fun.

This he does uproariously in the Florentine scenes in which the soldiers appear dressed as for a modern tropical campaign. The parody of an inspection that the decrepit Duke of Florence gives this "awkward squad," and the address he delivers via a microphone provided much lighthearted amusement at the level of a military farce; so does, of course, the legendary putting down of the boastful cowardly officer, Captain Parolles.

The effect of all this improvised fooling, inevitably, is to cut across any serious intention of the text itself. As a result, it was often a hilarious but hardly a completely satisfying interpretation. One was left with a lingering curiosity about this rare play and a feeling that were its problems to be solved rather than glossed over, as here, something almost as rewarding as "The Winter's Tale" might emerge.

Performances tended to be submerged in the production.

Edith Evans' Countess of Rossillion had all the expected distinction though her interesting scenes with the Clown were missing, that character having been completely cut. Robert Hardy's King of France, seen first in a bath chair, was another pleasing study. So was the Captain Parolles of Cyrill Luckham, a beautifully observed parody of a sham officer.

But Helena, whom Coleridge describes as Shakespeare's "loveliest creation," despite strong acting by Zoe Caldwell, came to little in this context. Bertram, although nicely played by Edward de Souza, amounted to not much more.

The Times, London (review date 22 April 1959)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in The Times, London, April 22, 1959, p. 16.

When the Stratford curtain rises on stable men in Edwardian livery carrying modern suitcases we think we know what we are in for. Happily we are mistaken. Mr. Tyrone Guthrie rises seriously to the challenge of All's Well That Ends Well and he gets fine support from the company led by Miss Zoe Caldwell.

His production wears Edwardian dress, but it has real Elizabethan vitality and its vindication of Helena is undertaken with as much care as the uproariously funny "debunking" of Parolles.

The key needed to unlock the full meaning of this difficult comedy has yet to be found. Commentators have so far given theatrical producers little help. Professor Wilson Knight recently has striven prodigiously to fashion a key that might work, but his essay obviously came too late for it to have any influence on Mr. Guthrie's present production. We shall have to wait—probably for a long time—to see Helena brought to the stage as Shakespeare's supreme expression of a woman's love, a humble medium for the divine power which out of a contention on equal terms of male and female values achieves a mystical union between them. We can be well content meanwhile with a Helena who exists on a lower though at some points a significantly parallel level.

Mr. Guthrie is well aware of the dangers he has to guard against. It is hard for us to like a woman, however nobly she may be planned, who drives a man into a forced marriage by a trick and then by another trick substitutes herself in her husband's bed for the mistress whom he wishes to seduce. We cannot but feel that she is stooping pretty low to conquer. But Mr. Guthrie takes pains to place the heroine's constancy in the most favourable possible light. The like of a fairy tale magic plays over the scene between the king and the young woman who stakes her life on his cure. Trick it may be, but we accept it as something more.

Again, in the half-ballet treatment of the king presenting the dancing eligibles for his saviour to choose from Mr. Robert Hardy as the king makes it angrily clear that Bertram's rejection of the would-be bride betrays his superficial understanding of honour. His rejection of her almost entirely on grounds of birth is ugly in its manner and suggests that only the woman he has thus churlishly humiliated can rescue him from his baser self.

Having thus masterfully won our sympathy, Mr. Guthrie deservedly enjoys himself with a delightful burlesque of drill-suited colonial troops enduring inspection by a fussy old fool of a general and a resourcefully comic rendering of the unmasking of Parolles by his comrades. He can afterwards trust the moving constancy of Miss Caldwell to atone in some sort for the stratagem on Boccaccio's story and so bring the comedy to an end in which we can feel that Bertram's tested values as a soldier and the defective values of his judgment of men and women have been set in order by the right-willed and loyal woman who has risked so much for him. It is not often that we come away from the comedy with this conviction.

Miss Caldwell's performance is one in which intensity of purpose is blended with an appealing waif-like charm. Dame Edith Evans gives her wonderful help with the Countess of Rousillon which is exquisite in its slow loveliness. Mr. Edward de Souza is perhaps inevitably a somewhat commonplace Bertram and Mr. Cyril Luckham gives us the bright vulgarity of Parolles but scarcely brings out the astuteness of his mind. But altogether it is a highly rewarding evening.

Alan Brien (review date 24 April 1959)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in The Spectator, Vol. 202, No. 6,826, pp. 577, 579.

At Stratford-upon-Avon this week there was a revival of a quaint old piece called All's Well That Ends Well. It was knocked together some 350 years ago by a hack actor who never even became a knight. Indeed, I'm told he could hardly write his own name. Most of my readers, fortunately for them, will be familiar with his work only as improved upon by some of those myriad-minded directors who are the glory of this present age. There was a time when men of the theatre who were bored with his long speeches, bemused by his involved language, irritated by his dragging plots, outraged by his reactionary views, rocked to sleep by his whiskery jokes, would rewrite a play of his-and proudly put their own name on the title page. But life today is too short to do a Dryden on such badly proof-read texts. Instead we have Mr. Tyrone Guthrie, himself the author of such masterpieces as Kiss Me Cressida, Pullup for Carmen, A Touch of Larry in the Night and The Three Wee Estates (this last in Serbo-Croat). Anybody who has missed All's Well because he thought it would be Shakespearean can happily begin to queue immediately. Mr. Guthrie has miraculously rejigged this old-fashioned prodigy of tedium into a rollicking farce which must instantly appeal to all fans of the Crazy Gang, all connoisseurs of ENSA concert parties, all aficionados of the Army Game: in short, all those who believe that the British theatre has been too long dominated by mere word-spinners and is sadly in need of a few grotesques who know how to parrot a comic accent, execute a lively prat-fall, and bump into each other every time they limp across the stage.

Mr. Guthrie begins by setting the play in another age from the original—or rather several other ages. The court of the King of France becomes the Kaiser's Germany. The Tuscan battlefield outside the walls of Florence is transformed into the Western Desert of 1941. The French nobles are all spruced and frogged and helmeted like Ouida guardsmen. Parolles is a 1930 sportscar cad with a thin moustache, light brown shoes, a yellow muffler and a trilby hat (though later he affects the orange tights and gold braid of an Ivor Novello aide-de-camp). Mr. Guthrie has understood the basic law of show business—keep 'em guessing. It doesn't matter what you do as long as it is different from what you did for. He takes the same freedom with the characters as he does with the settings. Diana is described in the text—even in Mr. Guthrie's text—as 'a young gentlewoman of most chaste renown' Therefore she must be played as a wartime factory tart who sits on the doorstep in nightgown and housecoat, with a turban on her head and a lollipop in her mouth, giggling the lines in coffee-bar Cockney. Her mother is an old bag of tricks from a Giles cartoon swathed in a purple knitted dress, strangled in Woolworth beads, and choking over her nightcap of gin. As much as possible of the evening—which lasts three and a half hours—must be taken up with elaborate, wordless business. The moment is everything—the easy laugh, the unexpected effect, the involved dance—while the total, poetic impact of the play is nothing.

Consider just one scene for a taste of the Guthrie genius. It is only a few lines in Shakespeare and eminently forget-table. The Duke of Florence is greeting the French lords who are to fight for him. Mr. Guthrie manages to make this an enormous show-piece, fit centre for any Sunday night spectacular at the Palladium. The comic soldiers in baggy shorts, black socks and berets are lined up under a blazing sky by the side of a ruined desert viaduct. The Duke of Florence, a goateed parody of General Smuts, dodders along the line with his officers falling over him every time he halts to peer at a mysterious medal. When he turns suddenly his sword becomes entangled between the legs of his staff officer. When he tries to make a speech from the top of an observation tower, the microphone gets a fit of metallic coughing. When he attempts to salute the flag, it slides slowly down the post again. Meanwhile every man on the stage is improvising some ludicrous prank such as few amateur entertainers at a Stag Night at the Sergeants' Mess could hope to equal.

All's Well is not one of my favourite plays. It has an aristocratic lout for a hero, a cold-blooded man-hunter for a heroine, an apoplectic dictator for a deus ex machina, and some rather indifferent poetry. But a mediocre play does not become more bearable by transforming it into a bad pantomime. Mr. Guthrie's hero is deprived of even those rags of snotty grandeur in which Shakespeare dressed him. Played by Edward de Souza, he is just a stuffy, dirty-minded schoolboy. (Because Shakespeare describes 'his arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,' Mr. de Souza was naturally chosen for his flat face, stolid eyes and cropped hair.) Zoe Caldwell is still an ambulating doormat of a maiden—and often she speaks the verse with the well-elocuted precision of a schoolgirl making a presentation in a foreign language. Edith Evans is Edith Evans—an exiled queen locked away in a madhouse who still bestows her autumnal wisdom on the deaf zanies around her. Mr. Guthrie has even hit upon some brilliant and enlightening strokes of direction—Helena hypnotising the King with her rhythmic verse while she strokes away his pain, for example. The last act has some groupings which are staggeringly effective. Many of the cast—notably Anthony Nicholls, Robert Hardy, Angela Baddeley and Priscilla Morgan—stuff their hollow roles with life and spirit. But the play itself remains a ragbag of revue sketches linked by a thin and improbable plot.

A. Alvarez (review date 25 April 1959)

SOURCE: "My Fair Helena," in New Statesman, Vol. LVII, No. 1,467, April 25, 1959, pp. 572, 574.

Mr Tyrone Guthrie's Stratford production of All's Well That Ends Well is about as perfect as we are likely to see. At first this seems improbable: Mr Guthrie staged it in Edwardian dress, and in principle the shades of My Fair Lady have little to do with the most serious of Shakespeare's early comedies. The poor bard, I thought, is going to be sacrificed once again to the Bright Idea. But not at all. The play translates perfectly: Shakespeare's courtliness becomes boiled-shirt formality; the renaissance men of honour are 'gentlemen', those without it cads; even the religious overtones come easily, thanks to Mr Guthrie's and his cast's extraordinary control over the tone; and the military horseplay becomes, almost incredibly, funny. Mr Guthrie, in fact, has had two bright ideas: the second is to turn the lumbering comedy of the war in Florence into a kind of Edwardian Army Game. The officers drink their light ale and are bored; the other ranks slouch around, scratch themselves and get at their superiors. At first the producer seems deliberately to be overdoing it, yet, by some miracle Elizabethan braggadocio becomes common or garden bull, and the jokes, for perhaps the first time since Shakespeare's day, are jokes. Every other detail of the production is worked out with the same care and invention. Helena chooses her husband in a beautifully elegant dance, the court orchestra tinkling in the background. She travels panoplied in veils and surrounded by wicker baskets through melancholy Edwardian stations. The reconciliation scene moves effortlessly from near-farce to the deepest seriousness. Mr Guthrie's invention is infinite. But, unlike Mr Richardson's in Othello, it is all at the service of the play. And it is matched at every point by Miss Tanya Moiseiwitsch's sets.

It is also matched by some superlative acting. Regretfully, I can only pick out the best of a remarkable bunch. Dame Edith Evans had not only all the dignity and wonderful range of expression you expect of her, she also resisted nobly the temptation to act everyone else off the stage, though the amount she made of the rather unpromising part was in its way a miracle. Mr Cyril Luckham played Parolles with full Terry-Thomas vulgarity, yet deepened the role, after his unmasking, into a kind of proto-Falstaff. Robert Hardy, as the King, balanced strength with pettishness, bottom-slapping with command. Priscilla Morgan turned Diana into a full-scale comic creation, not so virtuous perhaps as Shakespeare intended, but warmer and splendidly vulnerable. Angela Baddeley, as her trinketed old mum, was too fidgety at first, but her final hobble across the stage, as she collected her scattered dignity about her, was a minor triumph. The major triumph, however, was Miss Zoe Caldwell. It has become so much the fashion to speak Shakespeare as though his poetry were something extraneous to the play, merely unnecessary ornament, that Miss Caldwell's performance was doubly remarkable. She can speak verse not only as though she both means and understands it, but in such a way that it seems perfectly to express all the subtlety, flow and depth of her feelings. Perhaps her intensity made her wail too much at the beginning, but by the end she had transformed Helena, against all the odds, into one of the most moving of Shakespeare's heroines. On this showing she has the emotional range and intelligence to make her the finest Shakespearean actress of her generation.

Harold Clurman (review date 26 April 1959)

SOURCE: "Bitter But Not Better Bard," in The Observer, No. 8,756, April 26, 1959, p. 21.

All's Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon) strikes me at present as an ambiguous play. I make the temporal qualification because I have never before seen the play staged and am rather unfamiliar with its text. My view, therefore, is not that of a critic who habitually regards Shakespeare as a theme to be taken for granted, on which the actors and director may ring changes to demonstrate their ingenuity. What I find ambiguous about All's Well now is the character of Helena, who has been celebrated as the archetype of the profoundly enamoured and loyal woman who though spurned by the man she loves wins him at last by the persistence of her passion. She is widely regarded as a noble character and Shakespeare has written exquisite words for and about her to make the opinion plausible.

Yet it is clear that the young ass she is in love with does not want her, not only for the snobbish reason he gives that she is only a poor physician's daughter, but because she obviously fails to inspire him with any male heat. Howsoever highly she may be praised for her virtues, the plain fact is that Helena goes about getting her man with a wilful cunning worthy of ladies from Shaw's Ann Whitfield through Strindberg to Mae West. Even at the end when Bertram succumbs, it is quite evident that he does so not from any desire but because he is a victim of several scurvy tricks.

All through the play there is an ironic note, a streak of bitterness, even cruelty, from which only the Countess is free. It is this note relating the play in its temper but not, to be sure, in merit or value to Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure which gives All's Well its unity. The radiant and tender Shakespeare of Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night's Dream reveals himself here in a sardonic humour, an angry middleaged man. If Parolles is an egregious hanger on, he is not much worse than most of the courtiers or the King himself, whose gift to Helena of the reluctant calf Bertram is a manifestation of callous highhandedness parading as imperial honour.

This first reaction to the play may well be a misinterpretation. But most Shakespeare productions are based on either a reasoned misinterpretation or on no interpretation whatever, for Shakespeare to most producers is an occasion for self-display rather than a dramatist with something to say and therefore something to criticise. If what I have suggested be a misinterpretation, it is nevertheless entirely congruous with Tyrone Guthrie's production.

Mr. Guthrie is a master—surely the most gifted director of the English-speaking stage. That he is sometimes a dangerous master disembowelling texts of their authors' content may perhaps be a sinister emblem of his immense talent. In this instance, however, the most striking aspect of this talent—his capacity for Gargantuan clowning—has served Shakespeare prodigiously well. It has turned the play's grimace into a gigantic guffaw.

I cannot say which is the more impressive: Guthrie's mockery of the military (modern style) and his kidding of the court, or the atmosphere of glamorous shadow he has created, the opulent disease which seems to hover over the king's council and festivities. The figures at these moments, for all their comic absurdity, are made to appear part of a puppet world soon destined to crumble into dust.

If the production does not always attain the heights of these scenes (how brilliantly staged is the dance of Helena's proposal) either the text is to be blamed or a certain lack of measure on the director's part. There is an over-extension of the buffoonery and the delicious bits of invention together with a certain neglect of the more intimate scenes where the director's rich improvisational resources go dry.

The company as a whole is very fine, carrying out the leader's dictates with as much devotion as precision. If space permitted I should cite all the actors. Edith Evans—beautifully gowned—plays the relatively small part of the Countess in a vein all her own. Her quality and manner are perhaps fortunately beyond the grip of any director. Zoe Caldwell's Helena has a clean and intelligent drive, the point of which lacks a target due either to the ambiguity in the text or the director's uncertainty as to what that target might be. Guthrie has read Priscilla Morgan's Diana as an ingenue blandly cute though somewhat indistinct in speech. For a young actor. Robert Hardy does well with the King's saccharine sting. Angela Baddeley's final exit as the widow provoked me to as much laughter as anything in this elaborate entertainment—made Edwardian-stylish and handsome in Tanya Moiseiwitsch's design which like the direction, shifts about to various tunes, most of them fascinatingly memorable.

M. St. Clare Byrne (review date Autumn 1959)

SOURCE: "The Shakespeare Season at The Old Vic, 1958-59 and Stratford-upon-Avon, 1959," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. X, Autumn, 1959, pp. 545-67.

It is ironical to reflect that this so-called "bitter comedy", one of the least liked and least known of the plays, has now been introduced to a mass-audience, who have possibly never heard of it and almost certainly never read it, as a play written to delight and entertain in a theater. Many thousands of these lucky people now start off with the right idea, like Bankside audiences who recognized that a play was a play and did not confuse it with the sermon at Paul's. They are not a coterie audience for plays unpleasant, any more than Shakespeare's audience was; they are unlikely to go looking for trouble among such bedevilments as collaborators, revisers, transcribers and textual layers; and would be at a loss to understand why we should be told that its "problems" still await solution. Some of them may even agree with Bernard Shaw, who spoke of it as one of the plays "rooted in my deeper affections"; and would be genuinely puzzled to be told that the substituted-bedfellow trick is "disgusting" and "degrading" and that not to be "nauseated" by it is tantamount to a confession that one is dead to all finer feeling. Having got the idea of dramatic stock devices—mistaken identity, the dead restored to life and similar tricks—they do not confuse the substituted bedfellow business with Elizabethan or modern morals, but recognize at sight the myth or fairy-tale solution-by-stratagem of the accomplishment of the impossible task. And the whirligig of time brings in its final revenge when we realize that the producer's standard of textual fidelity is considerably higher than QuillerCouch's, who criticized "the inept business of Parolles" as "about the inanest of all Shakespeare's inventions", and considered it could be "cut out of the story, like a wen, without the smallest detriment to the remaining tissue", while "out with Parolles might well go Lafeu".

Today's audiences are less prickly and self-conscious about husband-hunting than their grandparents, who were born into the Ibsenite era of the "new woman" and met the first shock of Shaw's views on the womanly woman and the huntress-woman of Man and Superman. For the sixteenth-century categorical imperative that a woman must marry they may substitute the belief that she needs and wants a husband, but there is no divergence between what both ages accept as normal, and so nothing to offend the nicest morality of either when Helena, the orphan, with only her wits to help her and the approval and support of his mother, sets out to win the man she loves. Not only can they regard the play as a play: they can take its Elizabethan angle. A heroine who acts to get herself a husband is no more inherently unsympathetic to them than she was to an Elizabethan audience. They may not rate Helena as highly as Coleridge did, who regarded her as Shakespeare's "loveliest creation", attracted, so Dowden conjectured, by "the energy, the leap-up, the direct advance of the will", and by "her prompt, unerroneous tendency towards the right and efficient deed"; but having met her for the first time in the theater they do not dismiss her with the fatuous complaint that she is too "efficient" to be loveable. What they probably realize, aided by the clever casting of Diana, is that she is not obviously Bertram's physical type and that what he wants, when we meet him, is "a man's Ufe", not matrimony. Wardship and the unpleasant Elizabethan reality of that iniquitous institution, the Court of Wards, may be concepts outside the scope of the average playgoer, but what the neo-Elizabethans see as clearly as the Elizabethans, which enables them to take Helena as a genuinely acceptable personality and to have at least an understanding of Bertram, is the fact that this is a play about a heroine of unusually strong character and intelligence, with that capacity for loving (in the adult sense) that Shakespeare admires in women, who is in love not with a hero but with a handsome, aristocratic, spirited, young woodenhead—a very young and very ordinary young man. And this is an ordinary twentieth-century situation.

The truth is, literary criticism has been singularly unresponsive to the dramatic values of All's Well and to the function of some of the episodes and the theatrical effectiveness of such things as the last scene, which has been condemned as "bad playwright's work" and is, in fact, demonstrably and brilliantly successful on the stage. Many lines and passages, understandably enough, have been damned in the study as among the worst Shakespeare ever wrote, with the qualification "if, indeed, he wrote them". It is a play peculiarly dependent upon vocal and visual interpretation, and this production was not only brilliant and exciting: it was also profoundly illuminating. Tyrone Guthrie translated the play's individual rhythm into terms of action, atmosphere and décor, catching the overtones of a basically poetic conception, so that one grasped the intention of feeling as well as the structural subtleties. I had realized, for example, the functional or mechanical value of the Florentine scenes: but I had certainly not before caught their integrated and full dramatic intention in the emotional pattern of the whole. Time and again "impossible" Unes were put over, not by tricks of expression or delivery but by understanding and simplicity, or, as in at least one notable instance, by focussing attention not on the speaker and his words but upon the person spoken to and the emotion expressed, when at the end of the play Bertram has a concluding couplet which is perhaps the worst that any actor could be asked to speak. I did not hear him speak it. I did not knowingly shut my ears. Actress and producer simply persuaded me at the critical moment to be all eyes and feeling. I saw nothing but Helena and what she did, heard nothing but what she had said, accepted the gesture of contrition and perhaps of the beginnings of love with which he knelt and clung to her. It was her moment: her words and the stage picture had said all there was to say. And from Dame Edith down, every single member of the cast acted that moment: you did not watch them, you felt them feeling its impact. There was no need for Bertram to speak, and if his words had been adequate they would have been out of character. (Actually, of course, the "impossible" couplet was spoken simply and firmly. The literary eye is often deceived until the ears gain enough theatrical experience.)

Dr. Guthrie was, of course, singularly blessed in his excellent cast, and in Tanya Moiseiwitsch he has a designer who, whenever I see the results of their collaboration, seems to me a veritable alter ego. He has in Zoe Caldwell a young actress of unusual powers, emotional, vocal and intellectual, with a capacity for stillness on the stage and for the quiet projection of strength of character that makes her Helena an achievement one would hardly have thought possible at her years. Above all, he has Dame Edith Evans as the Countess to speak the opening lines, set the tone of the scene and dominate it, and give shape and direction to everything that follows—to pitch a note, here and in her next scene with Helena, that exorcises any pre-conceived, ill-conceived notions of "bitter" comedy and gives us a touchstone of quality for whatever is to come, a grave and gracious reassurance that in the end all will indeed be well.

His sensitive linking of action and décor gives unity to the emotional pattern of the play's successive moods and movements, and underlines the inherent shapeliness and balance generally denied to it by literary criticism. QuillerCouch's judgment is typical: "we hold this play to be one of Shakespeare's worst"; and the theatre itself has done little, in the past, to help us to revise such opinions. Though I have seen several productions I have never seen the atmosphere of the opening and of its first movement so subtly yet firmly established before. "Desolation is a delicate thing". An elegiac sadness broods over the neglected garden of Rousillon. Brown, withered leaves and broken branches droop mournfully in a classic urn in a niche of the deserted summerhouse: there is the melancholy of autumn in the clear pale light. It is a moment of departure. Rousillon is dead; his widowed Countess, in delivering her son to the King's wardship, "buries a second husband": the King himself is dying: Helena's father, the physician who might have wrought his cure, is dead. Life is ebbing away from the great house, leaving the women behind. It is prologue to the desolation of Helena's unattainable love, and to the shadow of mortality which hangs over the King's Court. It is also the perfect dramatic contrast for setting off the upsurge of her ardent will and the vitality which nerves her to find remedy in action, carrying us to the first climax when the scene opens out into the great ballroom as the Court assembles for the triumphant entry of the King to fulfill his promise to his preserver. The working up from the quiet gravity of loss and regret to this re-assertion of life and hope, with all the bustle of preparation, the entry of musicians, footmen bringing in lights, the gay chatter of expectation and excitement, is a most brilliant realization, in terms of theater, of dramatic intention.

The opening motif of loss and desolation is taken up, again at Rousillon, in the anti-climax movement of Helena's return and her rejection, followed again in her third soliloquy, as in her second, by the "leap-up of the will" to the "efficient deed"—the practical assertion of her love in her flight from Rousillon, so that Bertram who is the life of the great house may return. With this announcement of the counterpointing of the theme, which is the matter of the second half of the play, the scene moves to Florence. We shall return, but not to the deserted garden: instead, life will flow back to the great house, as the heir comes home and the King comes to Rousillon. Again there is the bustle of excitement and preparation. The great state room, shut up since Rousillon became a house of mourning, is made ready under our eyes—a moment earlier and we should have seen the dust-covers and druggets being whisked away. Chairs are set for the King and the Countess, the candles are lighted, expectation is in the air, and pleasure that the great room will be used once more and Rousillon know again its former glories. Emotion, action and scene fuse into one as the King enters, leading the Countess resplendent with tiara and orders and jewels and followed by his entourage. This visual balance, setting the last scene of the second half of the play against the Court scene of the climax of the first half, like the balancing of Helena's return to Rousillon against the opening scenes, gave the artistic satisfaction that comes from realizing the wholeness of the dramatic pattern; and how anyone can describe as bitter a comedy that ends on this note of life and affirmation in the reconciling of the young husband and wife will certainly surprise those who make acquaintance with it for the first time in this production.

The costuming of the play has been described generally by the press as Edwardian. Modern in tone, it is, in fact, a free Ruritanian treatment, which in the hands of a designer with Tanya Moiseiwitsch's impeccable taste and wide knowledge, her eye for line and her sure theatrical instinct, is one of the best possible devices for injecting style into the stage deportment of young players. It is one of the chief recommendations of Ruritania, with its stately salons and its nostalgic landscapes, that it has developed a traditional costume which, true to its theatrical origins, is no stickler for rigid time schemes but considers that the first requirement for a good stage costume is that it should be completely in character and suit its wearer. Which is very much what Mrs. Siddons was after when she declared, apropos of accurate historical costuming which she disliked, that "it was sufficient for the costumes to be conventional"—that dress should observe conventions indicating the status and quality of the wearer, and for the rest should be simply an idealized version of more or less current modes.

This is theatrical good sense and goes back to our own Elizabethan beginnings. Miss Moiseiwitsch ranges from a magnificent grande dame day-toilette for Dame Edith Evans, of roughly an idealized 1895, to ladies' evening dresses which might be worn today. The active service uniforms are pure Western Desert, but at Court mess jackets and dress pantaloons are infinitely flattering to youthful figures and "faultless evening dress" lends equal distinction to and also sharply distinguishes the King, Bertram and Lafeu. Parolles in uniform at Court provides legitimate fun in a showy scarlet with too much gold braid—the translation, presumably, of his "scarves" and of Lafeu's description of him as "this red-tail'd humble bee". Helena's first dress is pure inspiration: except for the neck and sleeves, which favor the eighteen-sixties, it might have been worn by Emily Brontë or the young Rachel; and its unrelieved black and absolute simplicity of line set off its wearer's delicate oval features and graceful carriage of the head to perfection. Having established her in this strikingly individualized way, the designer can then revert to tradition: theatrically, it is "white for heroines", so she has a white ball dress (with a touch of glamorous Edwardian tulle) that would grace any modern function and finally a billowy creation in pale daffodil yellow that any fashion house would be proud to claim had it had the wit to seek inspiration in the early 1800's and then improve, very much improve, upon them. It is all of it enchanting to look at, without being distracting; and it has the advantage, as a convention, of being familiar to the mass audience that kept the Drury Lane musicals running throughout the thirties. It is as helpful, in its own way, to understanding, as is the knowledge of the Elizabethan stock devices. The point of modern dress as the dominant impression is that it makes us recognize without effort, atmosphere, intention, overtones and above all the logic of feeling.

Shaw has described the Countess of Rousillon as "the most beautiful old woman's part ever written"; and there could be no more fitting way of celebrating Stratford's hundredth season than by the coincidence of the first appearance of Dame Edith Evans in this part with her first season at the Memorial Theatre. Needless to say, her Countess entirely justifies Shaw's opinion and takes rank at once with her finest and most lovable Shakespearian creations. The Countess is not, of course, "old": she is Bertram's mother, and he is still under age. Dame Edith gives her the serene, ageless wisdom of tolerant, compassionate maturity. Never, surely, can "emotion recollected in tranquility" have dropped a lovelier benediction upon the ardor and passion of youth than in the strangely beautiful rhymed octet in which the Countess, waiting to tax Helena with her secret, recalls that "Even so it was with me, when I was young" [I. iii. 128]. It is the perfect autumnal: "nor Spring nor Summer beauty hath such grace".

Every gesture and nuance of expression touches in with classic precision and selectivity the warmth of heart, the forthright, womanly common sense, the dignity, and the graciousness and generosity of spirit that compose the portrait of a very great lady. It is a flawless performance, conceived throughout in the spirit of pure poetry and spoken with that sureness of tone and inflection which seems as effortless and natural to her as breathing. The affectionate insistence, the mingled charm, kindliness and authority with which she gently teases Helena into the avowal of her love for Bertram is sheer perfection. Such was the contrasting harmony of the two voices—the serenity and reassurance, the delicate balance of tenderness and brisk good sense of the mature woman speaking straight from the heart of a richly fulfilled life, set against the passionate intensity of feeling that glows through Helena's direct, restrained yet unashamed avowal—that in their concerted playing we saw the youth of the Countess live again as she claims the girl as the child of her spirit. The cycle of experience completes itself under our eyes. As far as I was concerned, this exquisite duologue was the acting highlight of the whole year.

Rumor has it that Tyrone Guthrie saw Zoe Caldwell last year as the King of Antioch's daughter in Pericles and Margaret in Much Ado, and said, "That's my Helena!" The New Statesman, praising the "superlative acting" of the whole play, concluded the notice with her "major triumph", on which showing "she has the emotional range and intelligence to make her the finest Shakespearian actress of her generation". To which tribute one might well add Shaw's to the Helena of his imagination: "Few living actresses could throw themselves into the sustained transport of exquisite tenderness and impulsive courage which makes poetry the natural speech of Helena"; because besides the emotional power Miss Caldwell has the range and beauty of voice and a clear delicacy of enunciation that would have made even this exacting critic of stage speech say with Guthrie, "That's my Helena!" Possessed of great natural vitality and warmth that should make her an ideal exponent of the comedy heroines, what distinguishes her beyond her contemporaries is that instead of relying merely upon this natural vigor and the projecting of her own personality she uses her imagination to become absorbed into the character she is playing. She has the roots of the matter in her for genuine classic acting, and experience of leading roles in her own country has already given her technical discipline and control. She encompasses the almost instantaneous transition from the love-lorn intensity of Helena's first soliloquy to the comic perception and shrewd wit of the ensuing débat with Parolles with astonishing ease and naturalness and captures and conveys with great sensitivity throughout the wide range of mood that lends variety to the central strength and constancy of the characterization. The rapturous acceptance of the depth and strength of her love for Bertram in the opening scenes was more that matched by the passion of distress in which she threw herself at the Countess' feet with the shock of rejection: "Madam, my lord is gone, for ever gone!" [III. ii. 46]. What was so moving was the sudden overthrowing of the confidence and self-reliance that had seemed so mature until this unexpected blow of her "dreadful sentence" reveals her for an instant as touchingly young and vulnerable. Again the transitions of thought and feeling were masterly: the immediate restraint, in response to the Countess' noble affection: then, compassion and understanding as the comfort of the strength of love wells up from the heart and makes the thing endurable which else would break it: finally, the quick decision on action to rescue Bertram from the dangers of war to which she has exposed him. Miss Caldwell already knows how to trust the Shakespearian words. They will carry her far: on this showing, very far indeed.

The acting throughout gave fine support to these two outstanding performances. Robert Hardy's portrait of the King was a notably polished study of middle age by a young man—that most difficult of assignments. He combined the quiet, assured dignity of age and office with the individual, perhaps slightly hypochondriacal, irritability which is necessary for his initial resistance to Helena, his harshness to Bertram, and his sudden loss of patience with Diana at the end of the play. This king is one of Shakespeare's most modern royal portraits. He is almost too shrewd for his own time in that final summing-up of his own petty importance when faced by the imminence of death: "I fill a place, I know't" [I. ii. 69]. Nothing could have been more acutely appreciative of the quality of the man and the monarch than the quiet, semi-ironic, realistic delivery with which Mr. Hardy gave this line. In his account of his friendship with Bertram's father and in his rebuking of Bertram's crude and perverted idea of honor and his vindication of the worth of Helena he has not only some of the most interesting passages in the play but also some of its most mature verse, which Mr. Hardy spoke admirably. It is the most humanly effective and intelligent characterization of the King that I have ever seen.

Parolles is an actor's chance for an outsize comic creation if direction treats the plot structure as superficial. I have seen him, by sheer virtuosity of performance, become the play's most sympathetic character. Here he is kept within the picture: the part is not greater than the whole, but his proper functional value is firmly established. Cyril Luckham plays him with commendable discretion as the social sponger, an Edwardian bounder with touches of the post-1945 "temporary gentleman", recognizably a modern equivalent for the parasite-braggart soldier. The Edwardian lady distrusted him at sight: with his taste for loud checks he belonged in a male demi-monde of club smoking rooms. In our time he has again become a propper-up of bar counters. He pushes in with his betters, is tolerated by his own sex for stooge-value rather than rich roguery, but remains an outsider. He must sing for his supper whatever tune they call, unless he has a Bertram in tow. He will always manage to eat at somebody's expense, but he does not get his glass of sherry at the officers' farewell party. "Simply the thing I am shall make me live" [IV. iii. 333] is the simple truth about society and the essential parasite. By making no bid for sympathy but submitting with complete artistic integrity to the author's ruthless onion-peeling, this outstandingly sympathetic actor wins our admiration for his truthful anatomy of the parasite's progress.

Bertram is Edward de Souza's best Stratford performance, to date. His appearance and manner are exactly right—the right kind of male good looks, very, very young, stiff with undergraduate-level masculine and aristocratic self-conceit, cut exactly to the conventional pattern, as gullible and selfish as they come, the type that is always taken in by the knowingness, the flattery and the man-of-the-world swagger of a Parolles, and mentally about twenty years younger than Helena. He has a case—the case of the young, coerced male. It is possible that the young William Shakespeare knew something of this resentment, by experience as well as by observation. Mr. de Souza and his producer make such case as there is. He is too normal to be basically unlikeable: one simply has to wait for him to grow up. We see the beginning of this chastening process—no more: and "what that girl can see in him … !", as we say of our Bertrams, we must take on trust from William Shakespeare's Helena; and if we still don't understand, try if the modern idiom will help, and listen to Christopher Fry's Hilda [in Venus Observed] on the subject of "Roderic-phenomenon". Mr. de Souza's faithful, unpretentious delineation of the ordinary deserves more commendation than it has received.

Reference to those outstanding players, Angela Baddeley and Anthony Nicholls, will be made further on. They gave much more individual and interesting readings of the Widow and Lafeu than I have previously seen, which in my view integrated them firmly in their respective worlds and thereby added solidity and background depth to the production as a whole. Among the smaller parts Donald Eccles gave a delightfully sensitive sketch of Rinaldo. An unselfish and sympathetic player he is always an admirable listener, and this time he excelled himself by adding a slight touch of deafness. Peter Woodthorpe, the soldier who functions as the interpreter in the baiting of Parolles, carried it to the life. Paul Hardwick, dark, neat, short and stocky, and Michael Blakemore, long, thin and fair, with a monocle and a slightly inane but amiable grin, made a lively subalternly pair as the Captains Longaville and Dumain—and even so showed up the extreme youth of Bertram. Mavis Edwards gave a most amusing, racy, sharply-defined lightning sketch of the Widow's neighbor, Mariana, and by the vivacity of her dancing and her attention to what was once known as "the business of the scene" stood out among the ladies at Court. Priscilla Morgan, as Diana, had a plump, pleasing, robust quality, better calculated than usual to attract the Bertram who is not attracted by Helena. One critic labelled her whore. I do not believe that was the intention, but I am prepared to reserve judgment as to whether she was an earthier, comfortable, unintelligent Vivie Warren. The neighbor, who is not Boccaccio's "goodwife of the house", has always made me a little suspicious.

The production had the Guthrie hall-mark—the zest, the quality of life, and the integration that exhilarates; and, as always, those rich moments of pure theater insight for which one thanks heaven, not fasting but with libations. There were so many of these that two must serve for illustration. In all good rehearsing there are moments when the struggling conception within attracts the inspiration that seems to descend from above; and the god Dionysus blesses with illumination. In some such manner, one may imagine, when they had wrestled with those curious couplets in which Helena tells the King how long she will take to heal him and pledges her own life as the forfeit of failure, it was revealed to Dr. Guthrie and his Helena just how she was to put across to an audience what editors have scornfully described as "mere bombast"—Shakespeare "at his most immature and inept", letting us down at this crucial point with "fustian". Miss Caldwell makes a quick and unexpected move, stands behind the King's chair, and places her hands on his brow. He makes an impatient gesture as if to brush aside her insolent presumption—their timing throughout this passage was perfection—stops at her invocation of "the great'st grace" [II. i. 160], relaxes, closes his eyes and listens, while with a subtle, barely perceptible rise in tone into what is practically recitative, she speaks the couplets, with their fanciful, stilted phrasing, as an incantation, a charm; and carried beyond herself, rises to the crucial answer upon which her life and fortune depend, and wrings from the so-called fustian rhymes a moment of pure theater magic and spell-binding. It is quite breathtaking, and completely right, startling and convincing us simultaneously.

This, presumably, is one of those felicities at which actress and producer arrived together, by inspiration. The other example is producer's insight and intellectual grasp of the author's structural and tonal intentions when dealing with the "wen" that editorial judgment would "cut out of the story", "the inept business of Parolles". Rumor has it that the soldiers for the Florentine wars had expected to wear Boer War breeches and puttees and were surprised to find themselves in the shorts, shirts and berets of the Desert Rats, parading for an address of welcome from a Duke of Florence (Donald Layne-Smith) in complete, modern, top-brass get-up, while a lot of Guthrie fun was had with a mike and yards of trailing flex, which, as one realized afterwards, set the tone which gave the so-called "wen" its proper value and a function in the play. "A delightful burlesque of drill-suited colonial troops enduring inspection by a fussy old fool of a general", said The Times: "more or less contemporary military farce, very funny in its way, but somewhat incongruous" (Daily Telegraph). It was, indeed, uproariously funny, but not incongruous, and The New Statesman came out boldly: "The officers drink their light ale and are bored; the other ranks slouch around, scratch themselves and get at their superiors. At first the producer seems deliberately to be overdoing it, yet by some miracle Elizabethan braggadocio becomes common or garden bull, and the jokes, for perhaps the first time since Shakespeare's day, are jokes".

Time was—and not so long ago—when this gorgeous gallery of Guthrie inventions would have been frowned-on as "guying" Shakespeare. The note of respect is creeping in, perhaps with the suspicion—not voiced—that in this instance, Guthrie being Guthrie and so patently grasping the author's intentions throughout, there may even be more to this gallant invention than meets the eye, and that the jokes, clowning and horseplay were not only funny in their own time but also functional.

I had previously envisaged the purpose of the Wars and the Widow as purely functional—to contrive a natural opportunity for Helena to achieve the impossible, to show Bertram that he had been taken in by a specious imposter and to use the episode as a stamping-ground for Parolles as a great comic creation and provide comic relief. To see thus far is better than to see only a "wen", but what this production made clear to me for the first time was that the general intention of the Florentine episode, including Bertram's first essay in "love", is to provide the male counter-point to the female world which is Rousillon and the Countess and Helena—to set men's fancies

                more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women's are,
                          [Twelfth Night, II. iv. 33]

over against the practical energy and commonsense, the steadfast virtues, the loving care, the ancient, instinctive, matriarchal wisdom of women (and their leading-strings) from which Bertram, quite naturally, wishes to escape. No sooner is he free from parental control, released into the world of men to taste the delights of young male freedom—which Helena herself pictures for us so vividly in the first scene—than the wisdom of loving women catches up on him and authority marries him off, in normal Tudor fashion, to a young woman to whom he is not sexually attracted and who is not even his equal in rank. The sheer, comic dismay and boyish frustration of his "O my Parolles, they have married me!" [II. iii. 272] was Edward de Souza's best line in the play. No wonder he runs away to the wars to which his fellows have already departed so gaily.

That the tone of "the wars" is meant to be mock-heroic and deflationary of military honor and glory—if not a complete debunking thereof—is clear enough. The climax, the center-piece of the whole episode, is the unmasking of Parolles, in scenes which are admirably theatrical. For the rest, Bertram's wars consist of nothing save a ceremonial march, which links him and Parolles to the Widow-plot, the address of welcome in which he is nominated "general of our horse" [III. iii. 1] and some descriptive talk in which we hear praise of his valor.

What we see—the substantial, theatrical realization—is entirely frivolous, a parody of military action, but a brilliantly androgynous, ironic, dispassionate dramatization of the author's comment on what is one basic aspect of soldiering and perhaps its main attraction for the male—the jovial cameraderie, the masculine togetherness of licensed, releasing foolery and horse-play and practical joking with which man escapes from his responsibilities to exist in a world blissfully free, not, indeed, of females, but of his own womenkind, with their standards, their claims, their unclubbable natures, and their lack of understanding of his simple, elementary idea of fun. The episode accomplishes its functional purpose of making Bertram realize that he has been taken in by a liar and braggart, and the producer's translation of it into terms of a gorgeous stag-party conveys to us the author's contrapuntal intention. As I had not seen the point before, though I have seen the baiting of Parolles most effectively staged for Parolles' benefit, I doubt if I should have grasped this further intention had it not been presented to me as Shakespeare saw it—in modern dress.

Having been made to realize that the whole Florentine movement was not simply plot-mechanics but was structurally organic in the wider, artistic sense, I also saw what I ought to have seen long ago but had certainly not grasped consciously, and that is the ironically pretty balance the author has contrived within the larger pattern by setting off the substituted bed-fellow device against the opening scene in which Helena's romantic unattainable love is immediately succeeded by the realistic and very Elizabethan-witty debate upon virginity which has so offended critics that Quiller-Couch thought Shakespeare "degraded" Helena by permitting her to remain in the same room with Parolles, who attacks virginity as "against the rule of nature" [I. i. 135 ff.] and urges her to "keep it not". As go-between for Bertram and Diana, Parolles, in his ignorance, becomes the go-between for the wife and husband whom he has helped to separate, and the way for virgins to "undermine" men is discovered when the realism of consummating his own marriage, unawares, undermines Bertram's would-be romantic seduction of Diana. It is this pervading sensitive recognition of the balance of parts, the symmetry, the music of the whole composition, this awareness of the integrated quality of what has too often been described as a haphazard theatrical hotch-potch, that makes the production such an impressive achievement and is fundamental to our delight in it.

The staging of the scene in which the King, restored to health, fulfils his promise to Helena is yet a further instance of the way in which the producer's fundamental brainwork, allied to the imaginative use of theatrical resources, conveys the author's dramatic intention where it has been misunderstood by various commentators. Lafeu's remark as the King enters with Helena—"why, he's able to lead her a coranto" [II. iii. 43]—makes a legitimate cue for a lively dance in which he introduces his preserver (transformed, in a magnificent white satin gown, into the most radiant figure in the whole assembly) to the admiring and rejoicing Court. He then issues the command, "Go, call before me all the lords in court" [II. iii. 46] (which for the sake of clarity has been altered to "all my wards in court") and explains that he is both sovereign and father to these "noble bachelors", from whom she can choose freely. They have no power to refuse her. She begins by addressing them collectively, but falters when she comes to the point: then, reassured by the King, approaches four of them in turn, and in couplets of formal and witty compliment wishes each fair fortune in his marriage, indicating that he is not her choice, though each in his reply indicates that he would ask no better fate.

Technically the difficulty of staging this gay little comedy passage, in which the supposed wooer herself phrases each apparent approach as a courteous rejection and gains courage from the young men's evident admiration and disappointment, is that it has to appear to Lafeu as if they reject her, and his angry asides have been taken literally by several editors: "Do they all deny her? An they were sons of mine, I'd have them whipped. … These boys are boys of ice, they'll none have her". Lafeu must see but not hear these four individual passages; so, taking his cue from the formal set-to-partners effect of these couplet interchanges, the producer treats each as apas-de-deux in a cotillion which removes them from earshot to the further side of the stage for the brief encounter. The change in the manner of the dance when she comes to Bertram is most interesting—from a gay, waltzing turn to a more formal, angular almost tango-ish step, which breaks the mood and prepares for the harshness of his rejection of her. The total effect is brilliant, and one would need to observe it several times to grasp all its subtleties, but its immediate dramatic and theatrical impact is unquestionable.

To pass from interpretation and translation to alter-ation—Lavache, the Clown, has gone, and there have of course been a few mutterings, though it is a clean and simple cut and worse things happen in Hamlet, without any protest. My only grudge is that his omission means that we lose with him lines that would have been spoken by Dame Edith, which seems like flying in the face of providence. He is not, I fancy, entirely untranslatable. Belonging to the household as established by her late husband rather than to the Countess, one could envisage him in terms of a privileged, outspoken, John Brownish old retainer; but his functional or plot-value, in comparison with Parolles, is negligible. The Widow and Diana have come down in the social scale; but again, worse things happen in Twelfth Night, in nearly every production, with much less excuse. I found ample compensation in the dignity and charm with which Lafeu now provides aristocratic support and moves convincingly within the same orbit as the King and the Countess, instead of being condemned to editorial dismissal as a mere "usher" or to type-casting as a testy old party. Anthony Nicholls, both at Court and at Rousillon, establishes the background most handsomely and attractively. His distinguished appearance and his Savile Row elegance scores a pretty point, visual and verbal, when after baiting Parolles in his gaudy uniform he asks Bertram, "Pray you, sir, who's his tailor?" If there is room for differences of opinion about the function and status of Lafeu the same is true of the Widow and Diana; and though they come down steadfastly on the side of virtue on cannot help noticing that Miss Angela Baddeley has taken her bead curtain with her from Periclean Mitylene to give a finishing touch to the plushery and bric-abrac of her Florentine apartment, and that it is not altogether unreasonable to allow Bertram some little benefit of doubt in the final scene, to keep him in the young ass rather than the compleat-gentleman-cad category, when he tries to wriggle out of Diana's accusation with the counter-thrust, "She's impudent, my lord, And was a common gamester to the camp" [V. iii. 188]. If the ambiguity can leave her exonerated as a virtuous maid, while reserving judgment about her mother, it brings the characters and the episode within the coherent and credible stag-party set-up and places Bertram's behavior within a recognizable social code, as far as his own world, if not ours, is concerned. Perhaps Dr. Guthrie, like myself, had his suspicions roused by that Neighbor and the Widow's own protestation at III. vii. 4-7 (all texts) and so was prepared to commit himself to her gorgeous, absent-minded, automatic "Enter with a glass of milk" at the end of Diana's interview with Bertram. Boccaccio and Shakespeare have their differences, and to question too curiously is to make too much of a matter of opinion. If the nobility of the ancient house of Capilet shines too brightly through the reduced circumstances of the Widow and Diana, the King's reactions to them in the final scene become less credible. In the shabby-genteel mode they seemed to come alive in their own right as individuals, and this more robust characterization made an unexpected contribution to the quick changes of mood required for the ending. When the King finally loses patience with Diana's riddling mystifications and orders her off to prison she resists, and there is an undignified scuffle into which Miss Baddeley launches herself like an infuriated Yorkshire terrier. Diana calls out, "Good mother, fetch my bail!" [V. iii. 295], the Court is embarrassed, the audience half-embarrassed in sympathy, half-entertained, laughing a little. And then the old Guthrie audacity, which can move anybody anywhere, any time, on any stage, throws the switch and prepares the most exquisitely touching moment in the whole play with one of the biggest laughs of the evening. The Widow disengages herself from the scrimmage, draws herself up to her full five-foot-nothing of ruffled dignity, and with set face and pursed lips, the embodiment of pained affront, hobbles doggedly across the full width of the stage to fetch Helena. Call it a Guthrie grimace or "a minor triumph", like it or disapprove, the comic incongruity achieves its theatrical object. The response is overwhelming. The mood of the audience as a whole is adjusted by that laugh and the tone of the scene changes with it. The tension is broken and we are swung over by the intrusion of the ridiculous from the edge of ill-humor to gaity and pleasurable anticipation. We are one step ahead of Diana's stage audience as on a note of rising excitement and triumph Miss Morgan builds up her revelation of the truth to coincide with Helena's entry. Freed by that laugh from the highly ingenious, theatrical pattern of last-act comedy complications and piled denouements, the kind, contented, little smile of the Widow, as she watches the reconciliation of Helena and Bertram, gives us our cue. We should not take Helena's last lovely moment with the same deep seriousness as the restoration of Hermione. (There are only fifteen lines before we are switched back to the conventional comedy conclusion.) Like the Widow, therefore, let us take it with little more than tenderness and simple delight in a happy ending, or, like Lafeu, we "shall weep anon" [V. iii. 320]. Miss Caldwell moves the heart quite deeply enough as it is, and the reminder that All's Well is indeed a comedy is not unnecessary. The whole concept has style, its elegance relating directly to the producer's subtle perception of the play's highly artificial Elizabethan structure; but at the roots of its style is the warm, individual humanity of the characters, who except for Helena, the King and the Countess are dismissed by Q. as "stage puppets".

John Russell Brown (review date 1960)

SOURCE: "Three Adaptations," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 13, 1960, pp. 137-45.

Since Dryden's day, Shakespeare's plays have been much studied in schools and elsewhere, so that public opinion has turned against large-scale rewriting. (Translators, however, still cut, alter and add to please themselves, as Hans Rothe in Germany and Matej Bor in Yugoslavia.) This means that in England, at any rate, poets are no longer employed to alter Shakespeare and the responsibility has devolved entirely upon theatre-managers and directors. Of course, their scope is still considerable. Tyrone Guthrie, directing All's Well that Ends Well at Stratford in 1959, made some additions to the dialogue to fill out those scenes which had particularly attracted him: so a major-domo instructs lesser servants about 'hastening the musicians' and moving a platform 'more to the left', a courtier inquires about the 'good old king' and there are many 'Quite so's', 'Hear, hear's', petty oaths, orders and exclamations; more ambitiously, the Duke of Florence enquires 'Is this the machine?' But Guthrie's invention—in keeping with the present reluctance to accept rewriting— was more plainly shown in numerous dumb-shows, excisions, actions in contradiction to what is said, and deliberate and effective mis-speaking of Shakespeare's lines.

Yet after he had taken all this trouble, it was hard to see his leading purpose in adapting the play. During the first half, the scenes in which the Countess appears were set in and around an elegant Chekhovian mansion: in a tender, brownish light, a grove of bare and slender trees bend gracefully, from both sides of the stage, towards a summer-house, and, while its inhabitants are voguish and precise in dress, from classical urns dead leaves and tendrils hang untended. At the end of the play the same house becomes, surprisingly, a vast hall, sketchily furnished in trivial blue, white and gilt. The King's Court at Paris is a dark ballroom, glittering occasionally with lights and dancing figures but, more often, empty and comfortless, so that its inhabitants protect themselves with tall leather screens. All these scenes were presented as if the action took place just before the First World War, but in later scenes among the soldiers in Florence the stage was set as for the Second World War: there is a microphone and a megaphone of the latest design, and the men are dressed in khaki shorts, the officers in tunics, black ties and berets. The widow's household was presented in a mixture of the two periods: for, gaping and giggling at the soldiers, the girls are dressed in housecoats and headscarves, and one sucks a fruit lolly; but for travelling, Diana appears in an Edwardian coat and hat, to match Helena's, who has come, unchanged in her style of dress, from the other part of the play.

The treatment of the text was as various as that of the setting. At one extreme, Lavache, the old clown, is cut completely, and at the other, the Countess is played by Edith Evans with assured dignity, feeling and intelligence, in keeping with the sense and music of Shakespeare's lines. The King, both when dying and when restored to health, is a tetchy princeling: in Robert Hardy's performance, he has nothing of the Countess' assurance, but strives continually to exert himself; he toys with Helena and pats his courtiers; his lines are ingeniously spoken so that 'I fill a place, I know't' [I. ii. 69] is a petulant rebuke, 'My son's no dearer' [I. ii. 76] an affected self-advertisement, and 'the inaudible and noiseless foot of Time' [V. iii. 41] a jest that amuses its speaker. Diana, who is called a 'young gentlewoman … of most chaste renown' [IV. iii. 14-15] and claims to be descended from 'the ancient Capilet' [V. iii. 159], is played by Priscilla Morgan for restless comedy: on her first entrance she looks as if she passed her days reading cheap magazines and staring at men, and this appearance is half-reconciled with her lines about virginity, virtue and pity in that she speaks them with a pert and knowing avidity. Angela Baddeley, as her widowed mother, keeps the audience laughing by little tricks which emphasize her decrepit old-age and prudence to the exclusion of everything else. The bizarre effect of mingling these interpretations may be exemplified from the final scenes: here Parolles takes his proper place as Lafeu's fool without the encounter with Lavache to establish his new status; the king does not sit in judgement, but moves continually among his courtiers, so that he often steps up to a character before addressing him; only the Countess is unmoving and dignified and so, in the continual bustle, draws all eyes to herself—but there seems to be little purpose in this, for Shakespeare has written few words for her in this scene. In this disorder, some expectancy is awakened for Helena's final entry by sweet and soothing music played off-stage.

Guthrie's liveliest invention was reserved for an interpolated dumb-show in Act III, sc. iii. In Shakespeare's play this is a brief moment when the audience is shown the Duke of Florence welcoming the boy Bertram as a man and soldier of worth, and without any of the references to his father's virtues which he has always heard before. As such it is a step forward in the presentation of Bertram, but Guthrie has used it for introducing an entertaining episode in which a comic duke (a grotesque caricature of General Smuts, short-sighted and falsetto) inspects a comic army (a pair of trousers threaten to fall down, someone catches a sword between his legs, a flag slips from its staff as the general salutes, and most of the words are inaudible); this farce lasts six or seven minutes, in which time less than a dozen of Shakespeare's lines are heard, or partly heard. Similar comic invention was utilized every time the soldiers appeared after this, so that the braggart Parolles is shown up as a coward and liar among soldiers that could never fight a battle, and the audience has to suppose that Bertram achieves 'the good livery of honour' in a crazy-gang army. Of course the whole economy of Shakespeare's play has been altered, its proportions, tempo, tensions, emphases, and its comic spirit.

Shakespeare's progressive presentation of the relationship between Helena and Bertram is particularly subtle, yet Guthrie has freely changed this in accordance with his own conception. In the original, Helena hesitantly approaches each of the King's other wards before she confronts Bertram, and then, realizing the presumption of demanding him as husband, she only gives herself to him:

I dare not say I take you; but I give
Me and my service, ever whilst I live,
Into your guiding power.
                        [II.iii. 102-04]

In Guthrie's version, Helena's choice is made while she engages in a series of lively and sentimental dances: Bertram offers himself, unprompted, as her partner for the last dance and Helena of course is delighted, and, when the dance concludes, addresses him in modest joy, not in fearful resolution; Bertram relinquishes her hand later, only when the King insists that he must call her wife. Here Guthrie has lessened the nervous embarrassment of Helena, and directed the audience's attention away from her and her feelings; he has also introduced some entertaining divertissements and heightened the sense of surprise. When the King demands their marriage, overriding everyone's wishes, Guthrie has directed Bertram to walk right across the stage in a general silence and, after a pause, to say the line Shakespeare has given him, very deliberately: 'I cannot love her, nor will strive to do't' [II. iii. 145] Again this heightens the dramatic excitement through suspense, but it alters Shakespeare's portrayal of Bertram, making him appear so deliberate that it is no longer credible that, in his inexperience, his action is 'but the boldness of his hand … which his heart was not consenting to' [III. iii. 77-8]. Next, Guthrie played confidently for pathos: numerous courtiers take silent leave of Bertram, as if sympathizing with him, and then Bertram and Helena walk together across the empty hall towards the marriage ceremony, and are followed by the far brisker steps of Longaville who has been ordered to conduct them. Shortly afterwards an entirely new scene has been added, the re-entry of Helena and Bertram as from their marriage, holding ceremonial candles and attended by a priest. In all these mute actions, Bertram treats Helena with a quiet, dazed tenderness which is in direct contrast with the brusque, reiterative words Shakespeare has given to him: 'I take her hand. … Although before the solemn priest I have sworn, I will not bed her. … O my Parolles, they have married me! I'll to the Tuscan wars, and never bed her' [II. iii. 176-273]. For immediate dramatic gains of suspense or pathos, or in order to introduce dance and movement, the director has altered the presentation of Helena and Bertram.

Whether he was following Shakespeare's text, or deliberately misconstruing it, or introducing some new incident, Guthrie was continually in command of the whole stage; and if his adaptation fails (like Davenant and Dryden's Enchanted Island) to sustain any comprehensive dramatic interest, it is always (again like the earlier adaptation) diverting, varied and spirited. If this was the full scope of Guthrie's intentions, he has been brilliantly successful—with the proviso that his version is seen once only. The third or fourth time it is seen, the additions and alterations cease to hold the playgoer's attention, and those parts where he has followed Shakespeare most closely tend to dominate everything else: Zoe Caldwell's tense and emotional Helena in the earliest scenes and Anthony Nicholl's unvariedly elegant Lafeu both gain in stature and interest when they are seen without the new distractions, and Edith Evans's Countess still more realizes the human understanding and poetic utterance which have always been the hall-marks of Shakespeare's original plays.


Michael Benthall • Old Vic • 1953


Benthall's production of All's Well That Ends Well focused on the folkloristic origins of the narrative and presented Shakespeare's play as a comic fairy-tale. This atmosphere was achieved in part by Osbert Lancaster's ingenious set designs, which resembled the illustrations found in children's books. While this approach offered a unifying and coherent conception of the drama, critics generally felt that it did so at the expense of the play's serious undertones. This was especially evident in Laurence Hardy's portrayal of the King of France as a figure of fun. Commentators were similarly made uneasy by Claire Bloom's Cinderella-like rendering of Helena, which both J. C. Trewin and Audrey Williamson felt displayed poor taste. Richard David maintained that despite her grace and deft handling of the soliloquies, "her performance made no coherent impression, and the spectator was left in irritated puzzlement as to what exactly the actress had been driving at." Michael Hordern's Parolles, however, won universal praise from critics. David described it as "brimful of vitality, and a masterpiece of comic invention." Commentators further admired the performances of Fay Compton as the Countess; John Neville as Bertram; William Squire as Lafew; and Gwen Cherrell as Diana.


Derek Monsey (review date 25 September 1953)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in The Spectator, Vol. 191, No. 6,535, September 25, 1953, pp. 322-23.

The Old Vic, under its new director Mr. Michael Benthall, last week set out on a five-year programme of presenting all thirty-six plays of the First Folio. After Hamlet came All's Well. Its production obviously set a problem which is going to recur: what is to be done with those plays which are something less than works of genius and not guaranteed box-office successes? On the evidence of All's Well the answer is—ignore Shakespeare's meaning and make a producer's romp of it.

The defence that the only way to get people to come and see this rather unpleasant bitter-sweet play is to turn it into a cross between rollicking pantomime and fairy-tale does not hold water for a moment. No one so far as I know has commanded the Vic to present the whole of the First Folio. If one of Shakespeare's plays is not considered good enough as he wrote it to attract a contemporary audience, the thing for the Vic to do is to leave it alone until a properly subsidised National Theatre can put it on; not, as I shall be accused of meaning, with bardolatrous solemnity and dullness, but with truth and good taste—without undue fear of financial disaster. Most of the good in this production is in Mr. Michael Hordern's horribly real and truly pointed performance as the boastful cowardly militarist, Parolles, and Miss Fay Compton's Countess of Roussillon. Miss Compton's gentle sympathy and sincerity—the Countess is the very model of model mothers—is marvellous against the swamping artificiality of the rest. It is in fact the reality of these two performances which shows up the artistic falsity of the pantomimic approach. It is not good enough for the King of France to be played as a baby-faced buffoon wearing a gilded bowler hat, not because it is vulgar, but because it makes nonsense of his important relationship with Bertram (Mr. John Neville) and Helena (Miss Claire Bloom). It is not possible to shirk the unheroic quality of the heroine without leaving her simply a pretty puppet drifting through the play without a proper motive. Helena weds her husband and beds him too by trap and trickery. This cannot be glossed over with charming insincerity without the disastrous result of making the Countess, and most of the other characters who adore the girl, look plain silly and Bertram almost justified in his ignobleness.

It is surprising to find Mr. Benthall being led up the garden path like this. Prettying up Shakespeare just won't do: it invariably leaves the producer without a play. It has also in this case left him with very Utile poetry (and there are some lovely passages) except principally when Miss Compton is demonstrating that Shakespearean verse requires sincerity and a musical ear, and is quite simply murdered by "elocution." The settings and costumes are in style consonant with the production, and the lighting is in parts ferociously crude. I am still at a loss, after seeing Hamlet and All's Well, to understand the purpose of the permanent facade erected on the stage; a sort of dingy utility Palladian structure which throws all the action forward and necessitates far too much horizontal playing. So far this facade seems to be nothing but a handicap to both designers and actors.

Eric Keown (review date 30 September 1953)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in Punch, Vol. CCXXV, No. 5,896, September 30, 1953, p. 416.

Joining the Hamlet in the current repertory, All's Well That Ends Well is a compromise to which only those will object who follow Shaw in his strange affection for this comedy. The compromise gives the fullest weight to the only two characters who really qualify as adult human beings, Parolles and the Countess; injects a strong dose of near-Hollywood glamour into that wretched couple, Helena and Bertram, thereby helping to mask the shoddiness and tedium of their conduct; and, for the rest, gets as much fun as possible wherever it is to be discovered.

No doubt by this plan some of the finer moments are diminished, but in the lightness of the production we gain a sort of surface plausibility, and laughter is the kindest anaesthetic against the increasing outrage of the plot. Bertram behaves abominably to Helena, while she pursues him without any shame whatever; their final very dubious bliss is quite meaningless anyway, so why shouldn't Miss CLAIRE BLOOM charmingly simulate a starry-eyed heroine, or Mr. JOHN NEVILLE imbue the worthless Bertram with the nobility and dash of a ducal seducer in Technicolor? Miss COMPTON'S study of wise and gracious old age is splendid. Mr. HORDERN seems to have been born for that rich character, Parolles, and among the recruits to sheer farce none is better than Mr. LAURENCE HARDY'S fairy-tale King. Mr. BAILEY'S facade and proscenium, to be with us for the season, continue to please; for this production delightful décor has been provided by Mr. OSBERT LANCASTER, who has also designed some attractive costumes. When his larger architectural additions are on the move one does get a feeling of having strayed into a tram-junction, but it quickly passes.

Roger Wood and Mary Clarke (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in Shakespeare at the Old Vic, Adam and Charles Black, 1954, pp. 12-6, 56-9.

[In the following excerpt, Wood and Clarke provide an overview of Benthall's production of All's Well That Ends Well and of the critical responses that it elicited.]

All's Well that Ends Well was produced at the Old Vic on the second night of the London season, immediately after Hamlet, and was something of a test piece from which it might be judged whether audiences would support the plan to the extent of going to see the lesser-known and indeed inferior plays.

The company were a little nervous of the probable reception on the opening night, but after the first few minutes the play suddenly began to 'go' and was received with laughter and delighted applause. Following a crop of excellent press notices there was quite a run on the box office and the play maintained throughout its 35 performances an attendance record that never fell below 75 per cent of capacity. All's Well was withdrawn on January 1st, primarily in order to make space for new productions, but there were signs by then that attendances were dropping and it seemed fair to conclude that the public for the rarer plays is, as yet, a limited and specialised one. It is, of course, not surprising that the plays with three centuries of popularity behind them should attract larger audiences than plays which for various reasons—but mostly on account of sheer inferiority—have slipped into obscurity.

All's Well that Ends Well is usually dated about 1603, the same year as Measure for Measure, with which it shares some similarity of plot. It offers less opportunity to the actors tors than the other bitter comedy, however, and is far less frequently performed. It seems to have been played only twice in London since 1852 and had last been seen at the Old Vic in 1921. (It was a happy thought of the Vic-Wells Association to mark the occasion of the new production with a sherry party for members of the 1921 and 1953 productions.)

The play is based on Boccaccio's tale of Giglietta di Nerbona in the Decameron (which would have been available to Shakespeare in William Painter's translation) and concerns the single-minded pursuit of a young Count, Bertram, by his mother's ward, Helena. She follows him to the French Court with a carefully laid plan to cure the King of a languishing illness by means of a prescription inherited from her physician father, in order that she may then demand Bertram as husband for her reward. Forcibly married, much against his will, Bertram flies to the Tuscan wars, leaving for his wife a curt note to say that when she can get a ring from his finger that never shall come off, and when she is by him with child, then she may call him husband. Helena, only momentarily dismayed, gives out that she is dead, disguises herself as a pilgrim and sets off for Italy. There she substitutes herself in the bed of an Italian girl who has made an assignation with Bertram. Having fulfilled both conditions, Helena later presents herself before Bertram at home at Rossillion, where he cries 'O pardon!' and presumably lover her for evermore. The Life Force is triumphant and Helena's victory over Bertram is as complete as that of Ann Whitefield over Jack Tanner—which may explain why Shaw once said that All's Well was the best play in the canon.

The character of Helena gives the dominant flavour to the play. If she is admired and accepted in her machinations, as indeed all the other characters and presumably Shakespeare seem to have admired her, then the play itself may also give pleasure. Hazlitt found Helena a character 'of great sweetness and delicacy' and the play 'one of the most pleasant of our author's comedies', and Coleridge described Helena as Shakespeare's 'loveliest character'. More recently, Dr. Edith Sitwell has found her 'irresistible with the force of Spring, the ferment, the mounting sap', a character to be forgiven all because of her force of life in a community of old and shrivelled people. To Mr. Harold Hobson, however, she is a forward and revolting girl, 'a designing minx who grabs a husband through her bullying skill in driving a bargain, and retains him by means of a trick that would give pause even to an American farce-writer'. Mr. J. C. Trewin obviously agrees, calling Helena a 'heroine who has been praised with extravagance, but who, for all her fine speeches, is a calculating little opportunist'.

The hero is hardly more endearing. At the beginning he may win our sympathy with those two cries from the heart,

O my Parolles, they have married me!
                                      [II. iii. 272]


               War is no strife
To the dark house and the detested wife.
                           [II. iii. 292]

But the cowardly lying and dissembling when he is taken to task at the end is not easy to stomach. He has no champions in the play—even his mother calls him 'this unworthy husband'—and few outside. Dr. Johnson spoke for most people when he said roundly: 'I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by false-hood; and is dismissed to happiness'.

The older people in the play have all the warmth and wisdom. The old Countess, the kind Lord Lafew, even the French King, all do their best to promote the general happiness, but they remain but shadowy characters and the one gigantic over-coloured yet real and human personage is the knave Parolles, own cousin to Pistol, moving in slightly higher circles yet victim to the same weaknesses of boasting, lying and dissembling, undismayed even when cruelly scratched by Fortune and making virtue of necessity:

           Being fool'd, by fool'ry thrive.
There's place and means for every man alive.
                                  [IV. iii. 338-39]

In the Old Vic production Parolles was certainly given his head and from peacock-preening start to bedraggled finish he almost carried the play. The emphasis was kept on comedy by the producer in that the more serious scenes were the most heavily cut and the Duke of Florence was omitted altogether. On the other hand, two wordless comic characters were introduced, Lafew's daughter Maudlin, a simpering and quite pathetically ugly damsel, and a servile monk attending the sick King, who burst into terrified chanting at his royal master's every spasm, while the King of France himself was played as a figure of fun, a fretful invalid, bundled up in nightshirt and cap, with crown askew, and attended by doctors who hovered round with potions and basins.

This approach was adopted deliberately by the producer, Michael Benthall, because he found parts of the play bawdy and unpleasant and thought the plot would be distasteful to a modern audience. He aimed, therefore, to remove some of the bitter taste from the play and to give it instead a touch of fairy-tale unreality, tipping it into fantasy in the manner of Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring. With this object in view he invited Osbert Lancaster to design the costumes and the settings to be used with the permanent proscenium arch. The backdrops, clear and bright like cut-outs from a child's picture book, and the fresh colours of the costumes, admirably succeeded in creating a fairy-tale atmosphere.

A pastoral backdrop suggested the estate of Rossillion and a hot Tuscan landscape was used for the Italian scenes. Tall folding doors between the arches created the interior of the Widow's house and Diana appeared on one of the balconies above the side arches for her scene with Bertram. For the scene in the French Court these 'balconies' were filled with stained glass to represent windows and little Gothic buildings were pushed on at the back of the stage, in the manner of toy theatre slides, to make up the background.

The result of this approach was to divorce the play from any semblance of reality and turn it into a quick-moving farce. In this guise it won many laughs and one could hardly take seriously the match-making activities of such a high-comedy King. Yet had the more serious scenes been played with more belief the real comedy might have increased in stature; as it was, Parolles was almost extinguished in the Court scenes.

The old Countess was given her full measure of sweet chiding seriousness, and in the early scenes the Lord Lafew, white-haired and rosy-cheeked, was an endearing meddler and never a bore, but towards the end he too seemed to get rather out of hand, and the introduction of Maudlin—although it won gales of easy laughter and did perhaps enliven the endless riddles and muddles over the ownership of the ring (how clumsy is this scene compared with the end of The Merchant of Venice)—was a rather cruel and unnecessary joke which also belittled Lafew and made him appear ridiculous.

Two critics in particular deplored the comedy treatment. J. C. Trewin, cherishing a personal affection for this King who, in the early scenes, 'should have an autumnal frailty', thought the production was sadly cheapened by a regrettable bit of fooling—'the more regrettable because, elsewhere, Mr. Benthall's handling is often lively and tactful. …'

The Spectator critic, on the other hand, was very indignant about the whole production. 'Prettying up Shakespeare just won't do; it invariably leaves the producer without a play. No one so far as I know has commanded the Old Vic to present the whole of the First Folio. If one of Shakespeare's plays is not considered good enough as he wrote it to attract a contemporary audience, the thing for the Vic to do is to leave it alone until a properly subsidised National Theatre can put it on … with truth and good taste—without undue fear of financial disaster.'

This was a minority view, however, and Eric Keown spoke for the majority when he said in Punch ' … we gain a sort of surface plausibility; and laughter is the kindest anaesthetic against the increasing outrage of the plot'.

The outrage of the plot was glossed over, also, by Claire Bloom's performance as Helena, an April creature of quick tears and laughter in the early scenes and strangely moving in her very stillness and solemnity at the end. By playing Helena quite straightforwardly as if she believed implicitly in the character's behaviour, Miss Bloom suspended our disbelief as long as she was on the stage. As The Times put it: 'Miss Bloom … is the conventional heroine of fairy-tale romance who never stops to think of the ethical implications of the things she does, but does them because she has a natural impulse towards heroism; and her pursuit of the unwilling Bertram is nothing if not heroic'.

John Neville had no hope of making Bertram heroic, but played him with considerable spirit aided by a handsome voice and presence. Fay Compton as the wise old Countess gave a performance of sweet reasonableness and understanding that came as near to the heart of the play as any character. Michael Hordern, given full warrant for clowning by author and producer alike, managed to make Parolles not only a flamboyant figure of wickedness and guile but a lovable rogue as well. The amount of relish he extracted from some of the verbal comedy was extraordinary, and the whole episode of the drum was a glorious example of timing and variety. (The pillars of the permanent set were a great asset in the scenes of the baiting of Parolles: they provided excellent 'cover' for his tormentors and were nicely used for general comic business.) Long after the rest of All's Well is forgotten, we shall remember the contempt with which Hordern inquired

Who cannot be crush'd with a plot?
                                 [IV. iii. 325]

The other characters had less opportunity but Gwen Cherrell was a lively Diana, with a merry wit and sturdy good sense that contrasted nicely with the less cheerful Helena. William Squire contributed one of his quavery, kindly old men as Lafew, and Laurence Hardy gave a good performance of a silly and sickly King who had no real right to be in the play at all. Timothy Bateson's portrait of the shrivelled little clown Lavache—'A shrewd knave, and an unhappy' [IV. v. 63]—was original and as satisfying as anything he did during the season.

Richard David (review date 1955)

SOURCE: "Plays Pleasant and Plays Unpleasant," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol., 8, 1955, pp. 132-38.

To the Old Vic … goes the credit for the one production of the season that was full of interest and excitement throughout—All's Well That Ends Well. By every test it should have been a thoroughly bad one, and I have heard that a young actor-producer of talent walked out half-way through the performance declaring that he had never seen a worse. Faced with a difficult play to put over, Michael Benthall resorted to all the most disreputable tricks of the trade—drastic cutting, transposing, the masking of awkward speeches with music or outrageous buffoonery. Yet it was not only in spite of these tricks but partly because of them that the producer was able to offer a coherent, convincing, and, as far as I know, a new view of Shakespeare's play, at least to those who are prepared to allow that in theatrical affairs the end may justify the means.

The difficulties of the play are rather conceptual than verbal. We have had it drummed into us by every commentator that this is a problem play, and that its subject is 'unpleasant'—in Shaw's sense or worse. No modern audience, we are told, can stomach a hero as priggish and as caddish as Bertram, or sympathize with a heroine who like Helena is determined that a man who does not love her shall accept her as his wife, and who resorts to the most ignoble tricks to cheat him into doing so. The comic sub-plot of the Braggart Parolles is despicable in its barrenness, and the only characters in the play that deserve attention and respect are the King of France and the Countess Rousillon, who both possess a wise nobility worthy of a better play.

Benthall's first step was to take the King and the Countess down a peg. The King became a figure of fun and the affairs of his court pure farce. He was attended by a couple of comic doctors, one fat, one thin, and by a friar who kept up a running Paternoster in a high monotone. His speeches were punctuated by sudden grimaces and yowling cries as his ailment griped him. Even his lucid intervals were diversified by similar 'business'. During the long speech to Bertram in which the King recalls his youth, the courtiers began to chatter among themselves, growing louder and louder until he was driven to shout them down. When he made a joke he would pause until the court had duly acknowledged it with forced laughter. After his cure at Helena's hands he still remained something of a caricature, with the tetchiness of Old Capulet and the blether of Polonius. The Countess was not ragged to this degree, but Fay Compton played the part not as the aristocratic paragon of tradition but as a very human old woman whose nobility appeared rather in what she did than in the doing of it. She was bent and crabbed, her gestures had an arthritic awkwardness, her utterance was creaky, abrupt, arbitrary. By such treatment both King and Countess became more homely, nearer to earth, and their judgements on the action more humanly convincing from their being more than a little touched with human frailty.

To this roughly individual and 'de-idealized' Chorus was added a powerful reinforcement in the shape of Michael Hordern's Parolles, which should have utterly shattered the theory that Shakespeare's Braggart is a more than usually inept version of the dullest of all stock figures. This Parolles was brimful of vitality, and a masterpiece of comic invention. As befits one who is to be found a sheep in wolf's clothing, he began by looking the opposite, his long hungry face in itself a comic contrast to the gay Florentine doublet with its huge hanging sleeves. The wolf soon begins to look a good deal sillier, and Hordern was brilliant in inventing a series of mimes to express Parolles's attempts to maintain his dignity in face of Lord Lafeu's quizzing—hurt, and chilling at the first suspicion, a scraggy cockerel when trying to outface his tormentor, at last swallowing with anguish the sour plum of his inability to answer back without calling down retribution. His gait was as expressive as his face. His entry in procession with the victorious Florentine army, himself in dudgeon over the disgrace of the lost drum, brought down the house—a jobbling, unco-ordinated motion, head bobbing forward between limp shoulders from which the arms dangled, feet flapping carelessly down in the abandonment of utter disgust. Equally satisfying was his return, in apparent eagerness to recapture the drum single-handed, the beaky nose uplifted and seeming to draw the rigid, gawky body after it in over-acted determination. And in the climax to this sub-plot, the interrogation of Parolles by the practical jokers who have ambushed and blindfolded him, every move and every tone was deft and delightful: the anxious gabbling of the numbers as he tumbles over himself to betray the military strength of his own side, the confidential becking of his interrogator in order to impart one extra titbit of lying scandal about his superior officers, the self-hugging satisfaction at getting through the interview, he thinks, so adroitly. When Parolles is finally unblind-folded, and discovers his captors to be his own comrades, Hordern managed an immediate and breath-taking transition from farce to deadly earnest. At the discovery he closed his eyes and fell straight backward into the arms of his attendants; then, as with taunts they prepare to leave him, he slithered to the ground, becoming wizened and sly on the instant, and with "simply the thing I am shall make me live" [IV. iii. 333] revealed an essential meanness not only in Parolles but in human nature as a whole. For effect the moment is akin to Lear's "unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art" [III. iv. 106-07]; but whereas it is the physical insignificance of man that Poor Tom shows us in a flash, Parolles gives us his spiritual degradation. …

Having provided a rough and realistic framework to the drama, the producer could afford to play down the awkward facts of life in its main argument. Accordingly the story of Helena and Bertram was given the remoteness of a fairy-tale, or at least of the medieval fabliau from which Shakespeare took it. The sets immediately suggested the sense in which the story was to be read. Behind the three arches of the permanent facade a backcloth with a country scene that might have come from an illuminated manuscript created Rousillon; an equally stylized view of Florence transported us to Italy. When the action shifted to Paris, sliding panels of Notre Dame quickly blotted out the country, while in Florence the undisguised manipulation of hinged screens composed the Capilet interior. Against such ingenious and delicate stage-contraptions it was appropriate that Claire Bloom should play Helena as Cinderella. Opinions about this actress differ, and I was prepared to find no more than a beginner of talent whom youth, beauty, and an appearance in a notable film had magnified into a star. I am still in two minds about her. She moved with admirable grace, she had an appealing and ingenuous charm, and—except for a few tiresome mannerisms—she spoke musically and with authority, even managing the awkward couplet soliloquy in her first scene with a skill that made an insult of the instrumental accompaniment officiously provided by the producer. And yet her performance made no coherent impression, and the spectator was left in irritated puzzlement as to what exactly the actress had been driving at. Her vehemence in the early soliloquies—was it impulsiveness and the sudden abandon of passion long pent up? Her almost hysterical reaction when trapped by the Countess into revealing her secret love for Bertram (a scene to which Fay Compton's motherly shrewdness gave a rare tenderness)—was this violence the index of a gentle nature torn between love and loyalty, or of a wayward obstinacy? Did the aggressiveness of her rejoinders to Parolles's innuendoes come from the self-confidence of innocence or the hardness of a worldly-wise little bourgeoise? No doubt some of these conundrums are implicit in Shakespeare's lines, but it is the business of the actress to resolve them; and slowly the conviction dawned that Claire Bloom was not even attempting the task, that her emphasis came of nothing more than an eagerness to inject the maximum of feeling into every phrase and word. To be blunt, I think she was ranting—and yet she ranted distinctly, there was music if not meaning in her rant; and again what should have been a blemish turned out to be a positive contribution to the total effect of the play. A fairy-tale princess should not be too closely accountable for her actions, and the wildness of this Helena's regrets, even that trick of making her exit lines trail off on a rising intonation, like a great bird taking wing, gave an other-worldly quality to her story.

Bertram's task was easier. He had only to look like Prince Charming (which John Neville did) and to speak handsomely (which he did also). Such distinction, even unaided, might have overborne all our scruples as to the decency of Bertram's conduct, even to the shameless shifts of excuse to which he betakes himself in the last scene. This Bertram, however, was given every assistance by the producer who, taking a hint from Lafeu's "No, no, no, your son was misled with a snipt-taffeta fellow there" [IV. v. 1], made Parolles responsible for all Rousillon's misbehaviour. Bertram, too much a schoolboy still to be allowed by the French King to go to the wars, was shown taking his cue at every step from his unsavoury pedagogue. It was Parolles whose nods and becks strengthened Bertram in his first resistance to the King's command that he should marry a commoner. Having married her, he appeared to soften towards her, and would have given her the kiss she so pathetically begs at parting had not a "Psst!" from Parolles recalled him to his previous resolution. Shakespeare makes Parolles the factotum in Bertram's arrangements for the disposal of his wife; Benthall made him the prime mover as well.

King and Countess as Disney dwarfs, the hero and heroine reduced to decorative pasteboard. … Parolles taking over the play as a sort of amateurish Mephistopheles—no wonder the orthodox were disapproving. Yet to me at least this lightening and de-personalizing of the story, this removal of the play into the half-world of pantomime and Grimms' Fairy Tales, suddenly revealed its kinship not, as is usually supposed, with Measure for Measure and Troilus, but with the last romances. With these it shares the theme of paradise lost and paradise regained: the penitent Bertram recovers the wife he has cast off as surely as do Leontes and Posthumus, and his restoration to Helena makes her as much amends as the meeting of Ferdinand and Miranda does to Prospero. Here, however, it is themselves that the losers lose and find, and their redemption is their own and not the work of another more innocent generation. The pattern in this condensed form does not perhaps make so good a play as in its extended shape, where the processes are more clear-cut; but it does make a play, a much better play when seen as a first sketch for Winter's Tale than as a botched Measure.

Audrey Williamson (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in Old Vic Drama 2:1947-1957, Rockliff, 1957, pp. 141-5, 162, 173.

[In the following excerpt, Williamson comments on Benthall's production of All's Well That Ends Well, arguing that despite displaying a lightness of touch, the production was cheapened by the presence of bad taste.]

All's Well That Ends Well, the second play of the season, was produced the night after Hamlet on 15th September. "It groups itself undeniably with Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure as one of the bitter comedies", writes Chambers, and indeed its wit has no lightness and its humour a tang of corruption. It was therefore something of a shock to find that the producer, Michael Benthall, had had the play designed by the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster, brightening it into a comic strip fairy tale, and that the scenes with the dying King of France were turned into a "screaming" farce in which both pain and the Last Sacrament were treated as subjects for buffoonery, interspersed with attacks of vomiting in the worst of comic taste.

The play is so little performed that surprisingly few critics (it is obvious critics no longer read Shakespeare) noticed anything odd, but J. C. Trewin at least was explicit: "The King, in the early scenes, should have an autumnal frailty. It is a touching passage when he meets the son of a father who had been his friend in youth. Later, in spite of a rush of chinking couplets, the scene with Helena can take the heart. Maybe this is too simple. So now the King must be mocked. He must appear nightgowned, on a Utter, his crown over a nightcap, and he must be surrounded by a pack of physicians who would seem to be the ancestors of Molière's Dr. Diafoirus, and who must have enraged Helena, herself a physician's daughter. The King's lines are gabbled to nothing, with pauses for comic fainting-fits … A play that has begun well is suddenly cheapened".

Not all the comedy, of course, was cheapened by such bad taste and although hardly what Shakespeare intended some of the production had a zip and lightness that were not in themselves uncharming. Boccaccio's story is at least in part fairy tale and this treatment yielded some results.

Masculine opinion on the character of Helena has always clashed and will always do so—looking on her as the epitome of tenderness, courage and true love or a self-willed, predatory pursuing minx according to personal temperament. It clashed again in the criticisms of this production (Hobson thought her "a revolting girl" and The Scotsman "one of the loveliest and most appealing of all Shakespeare's heroines", extremes of view amusingly echoed up and down the columns of the English press). All were agreed that Claire Bloom, exquisitely young, innocent-eyed and lovely in long blonde hair combed smooth like that of Lewis Carroll's Alice, gilded her with a grave enchantment, disarming the most rigid disapproval. "She looks as silvery and mysterious as moonlight", wrote Derek Granger of The Financial Times, showing that even statistics can bow to feminine magic.

What emerged from this portrait was a girl young enough to be as ingenuous as ardent, light-winged in hope, and pursuing with courage an object dear to her heart which seemed star-crossed by destiny.

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie
Which we ascribe to heaven. The fated sky
Gives us free scope; only both backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.

It is Cassius' "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves …" [Julius Caesar, I. ii. 140-41] all over again, and there is no indication in the text that Shakespeare did anything but admire this kind of human challenge of fate (he would have approved the cry of the deaf Beethoven: "I will take Fate by the throat!"). The loveliness, gentleness, goodness and even wisdom of Helena's nature are everywhere praised; Chambers thinks "the issue of the thing is not Helena's triumph but Helena's degradation"; but it is difficult to see why, if Shakespeare believed this, he did not more explicitly state it, and to ask any Helena to emphasise what Trewin calls "a calculating little opportunist" is like asking the actor playing Bassanio (as Granville-Barker, man of the theatre, pointed out) to present on the stage Quiller-Couch's estimate of him as "fortune-hunter, hypocrite and worse". He and Helena both are romantic "leads" in a fairy tale, and to consider too deeply the implications thrust on Shakespeare by the plot is to distort, surely, his dramatic intentions. Helena's love to him seems one with Juliet's "as boundless as the sea" [Romeo and Juliet, II. ii. 133] and Rosalind's "many fathoms deep" [As You Like It, IV. i. 206] (it is curious how he ran to oceanic metaphor in describing a woman's love—nothing on dry land seems to him deep and wide enough as a parallel): his sympathies are all with Helena and Bertram's defects as a "catch" seem to weigh with him no more, in achieving the desired end, than with his heroine.

If critical opinion on Helena is split, no one has ever had a good word to say for Bertram; yet Shakespeare may well have meant us to pardon him as one youthfully egotistical and led astray by bad company, rather than irredeemably brutish by nature. Elizabethan youth liked to sow its wild oats, and though Bertram behaves like a cad and a snob to Helena and Diana, in both cases there is a suggestion of the fear of one, spoilt from the cradle, who feels himself trapped. The fact that he is not worthy of Helena (and some critics blame Helena even for caring about him) does not seem to disturb Shakespeare greatly—the sense at the end is of ill-led youth growing to grace, and already he has seen through and thrown off Parolles. Shakespeare never sentimentalised about women by pretending they only love those worth their affections—there is, in Measure for Measure, Marianna's significant "I want no other and no better man" [V. i. 426]. More than most men, he seems to have realised that love has no bounds of reason, and to most women a man is lovable with all his faults, even if she wants to preserve and bring out the best in him. Woman, unlike man, is not a perfectionist in love: instinctively practical, she can equate human imperfectibility with an ideal and love a man for his lovable qualities and in a strange way for his flaws too, which are no less a part of him as a human being.

The tricks of the plot which degrade Helena probably did not disturb the Renaissance mind as they do our own: the fact that Helena was virtuous, loving and a wife would excuse her in their morality (which in some ways was rigider in these things than ours). The feminine streak in Shakespeare the artist gave him, too, an understanding of women and their feelings which transcended the instinctive masculine aversion to being pursued and saw no reason to apply different standards to the woman than to the man in love: his real criterion always was generosity and goodness of heart, and that loyalty and single-mindedness in affection that to him was the fine opposite of the ingratitude and promiscuity he hated. As for Helena's apparent blindness to Bertram's faults, she has known him longer than we have and her faith at the end, if not justified, at least is partly so—the graceless is already showing signs of grace, which to her were known all the time. She is shrewd enough in weighing up Parolles, and his evil influence on Bertram was probably not lost on her.

Helena is not difficult to portray radiantly on the stage: it is all in the text, and Claire Bloom's success, with a new touching dignity alongside the youthful optimism, was an assured one. Bertram is a harder nut to crack, but by stressing his youthful dependence on Parolles—sometimes a little going against the grain of nature, when he almost yielded to Helena's plea for a kiss but was stalled by a glance at Parolles for approval—John Neville made him a believable lover for Helena, romantic in appearance, spoilt rather than debauched, good material waiting to be saved. His speech was musical and he sang a serenade with charm.

There were other admirable performances; notably Fay Compton's aged Countess and Michael Hordern's shifty adventurer Parolles, seedy under the plumage, with wit enough to play on Bertram's gullibility for his own ends, yet caught in the end by his own cleverness, cowardice and unscrupulous betrayal of his friends. This was a rogue clever but not wise, abject in terror, yet not without pathos in realisation of defeat. The tattered figure begging from Lafeu at Court was a rogue still, but a chastened one, with a hold on our reluctant pity.

No one else came off very well: the production and cutting hardly allowed it. William Squire's elderly Lafeu was a pippin of a man, bald with fluffy wings of hair, a perpetual half-smile and wide, bright, mocking eyes; an amiable caricature but good to the core (his daughter Maudlin was caricature absolute, a wanton distortion for a cheap laugh). Timothy Bateson as the clown Lavache was defeated by scissors and an odd hunchback make-up, and Laurence Hardy as the King gave a brilliantly wrong, beaming performance to suit the producer's buffooneries. Edgar Wreford and John Dearth made something of the two Lords Dumain, whose text was haphazardly divided between them (the First Lord as Shakespeare wrote him is a not uninteresting character and commentator), with Bruce Sharman in support as bloodcurdling "interpreter" in the scene of the camp baiting of Parolles. Gwen Cherrell, too, shone goldenly as Diana, with Viola Lyel as her mother, the strangely acquiescent Widow of Florence. The rest cut capers to Gordon Jacobs' music; but All's Well That Ends Well, bitter comedy, remained unplayed.


John Barton • Royal Shakespeare Company • 1967-68


Aiming for directness and narrative clarity, Barton's production featured a heavily reduced text and stressed the tension between old and young in the play. The costumes were set in the early seventeeth century and the set consisted of a neoclassically inspired wooden archway. The conflict between generations was accentuated through the depiction of the elderly characters in a state of decrepitude, while "the young," wrote Peter Ansorge, strutted "around the French court like nimble flamingos." Particular emphasis was given to the character of Bertram, played by Ian Richardson. John Peter asserted that Richardson brought to the role "an unobtrusive physical virtuosity, communicating endless masculine distress with a drop of his jaw." For Hilary Spurling, Brewster Mason's Lafew provided a second focal point of the production. She described him as a "master of the graceful insult, the thrust and lazy flick, prodding Parolles as he would a ripe and squashy insect." The least successful performance was generally judged to have been Estelle Kohler's Helena. J. C. Trewin found her "repetitive and mannered," and Spurling argued that "Miss Kohler remains a principal boy at heart, a youthful version of Miss Mary Martin in Hello, Dolly!"


B. A. Young (review date 2 June 1967)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in Financial Times, June 2, 1967, p. 30.

The disease of finding parallels between periods is endemic among theatrical directors, and John Barton hasn't missed his opportunity in All's Well. His points are made more strongly in the programme than in the production, though. He emphasises the similarity of the inter-generation gulf in the play and that which exists to day; but although it's true that there is a cleavage between the generations, the youngsters showing a firm disregard of their seniors and the old ones finding such an attitude as much puzzling as distressing, this isn't the most "contemporary" thing about the play.

Much more so, to my mind, is the vein of black comedy that reaches its peak in the scene where Parolles is humiliated by his own companions. This scene of sustained cruel mockery finds an exact counterpart in much current writing; The Local Stigmatic, for instance, a curious play of senseless violence done twice at the Royal Court on recent Sundays, comes from the very same drawer. It is this unwontedly realistic quality about All's Well that for me sets it so high among Shakespeare's comedies. It is not about humours or puppets; it is about people.

Although John Barton's production sets the play in the middle of nowhere at no particular time, this realistic quality comes out well, largely owing to the strong performances by Estelle Kohler as Helena and Ian Richardson as Bertram. Critics have been arguing about Helena for centuries: Saint or witch? Miss Kohler answers the question convincingly. She is neither. Or both. She is an ordinary inconsistent person. The old countess (Catherine Lacey) loves her, and she is a shrewd judge. But to take advantage of the unwilling Bertram by asking the King to command him to marry her was a dirty trick, and she knows it. The machinations by which she gets herself into Bertram's bed are dishonest, and she knows that. She is a girl determined to get her own way (you might compare her with Linda in The Pursuit of Love): but she is a nice girl just the same, and it is likely that Bertram will be happy with her, with her pretty monkey face, when the complications are done.

She is best likely to be happy with Bertram, who is devoid of any good quality, and clearly shown to be so in an icily correct performance by Ian Richardson that is as good as anything he has ever done. Shakespeare presumably thought the ending a happy one (unless he only added the tendentious title because he knew most people wouldn't); perhaps he saw Bertram as a kind of Prince Hal, with Parolles serving as his Falstaff, able to reform once his evil genius had been removed.

Parolles is given a characteristic Clive Swift performance that starts off modestly in the inhibiting atmosphere of the court at. Rousillon but blossoms into something much better in his misfortunes at the wars. (I'm not sure that Mr. Swift isn't becoming the slave of some verbal mannerisms, though.) He is neatly seen off whenever he tries conclusions with the elegant Lafeu, a part which suits Brewster Mason like a glove.

Sebastian Shaw plays the King of France with his accustomed dignity, and at the other end of the social scale there are enjoyable performances of Florentine trollops by Natalie Kent (Mariana) and Helen Mirren (Diana).

Timothy O'Brien's set is an important factor in establishing the placeless, timeless, yet positively realistic atmosphere. In the mode popular with the Royal Shakespeare Company, it is set on a small stage superimposed on a main one, at the back of which is an ornamental pavilion. This arrangement concentrates the attention to the centre of the stage where most of the action is located. Period fluctuates between the Elizabethan-style costumes to the Crimean complications of arms-drill performed by the troop because the setting never tries to suggest anything too definite, it allows the characters to impose their own real, human qualities.

The play is undeniably a slow starter, but once it's got rolling it remains, for me at any rate, peculiarly attractive right to the end. This production shows it off as well as could be.

John Peter (review date 2 June 1967)

SOURCE: "Producer's Triumph Over Material," in The Times, London, June 2, 1967, p. 8.

This is a sure-footed and thoughtful revival of a flawed but unjustly neglected play. John Barton's production is a triumph of theatrical acumen over unwieldy material: his occasional errors of judgment are made with good intentions, and his interferences with the plot are at least aiming at clarity.

This is anything but easy. The play is a step-child of the theatre: neither heart-rending nor heart-warming, it has a scattered experimental brilliance, which has caused it to be treated as a wayward work leading to later successes.

It is, indeed, overloaded with meanings that make uneasy neighbours. It contrasts gracious age with boorish youth, yet its young heroine becomes a heaven-sent healer of the old. It is a cautionary tale about maturity, and a parable of moral rebirth: and its strictures on snobbery contrast oddly with the mentality of its fairy-tale plot, in which the humble girl makes good by winning a princely husband.

Mr. Barton handles all this essentially as an adventure. The key to this is Estelle Kohler's performance as Helena: a wide-eyed, troubled creature, with a nervous cough, who lifts her head in dignity once she has dared to confess her love. Miss Kohler's playing needs rather more attack in the first scenes; but from then on, she grows in stature without ever losing the air of a daring child. Such an interpretation brings more humanity into the play at the cost of some of its cerebral depth; and it is a fair criticism of Shakespeare's writing here that the text hardly clashes with the performance.

This Helena is confronted by Ian Richardson's excellent Bertram: a dull-faced, supercilious youngster, whose discomfiture earns him the sympathy which his personality would hardly have deserved. This is conventional enough; but Mr. Richardson brings to it an unobtrusive physical virtuosity, communicating endless masculine distress with a drop of his jaw. This is a fine sketch of small-minded arrogance; and the final capitulation, always a thorny point for actors, is done with enormous conviction.

Mr. Barton's cuts in the text have been made with an eye to theatrical fluency. The play needs such treatment here and there, and the last five scenes improve by being fore-shortened; but changing the scenes round in Act I seems unnecessary.

The play is set by Timothy O'Brien in the full Caroline splendour of ruffs, cloaks and tall hats. The whole production has a flowing, consistent style of sophistication and rich baroque grace; and the clarity of the verse-speaking is flawless throughout.

The supporting cast are generally impeccable. Ian Hogg's Clown, though, a sardonic grumbler and a cross between Feste and Thersites, is out of tune with the rest of the play. ("A shrewd knave and an unhappy", Lafeu calls him; but "unhappy" means "mischievous" here.) Catherine Lacey's Countess is full of shrewd, funny charm, making a poised and gracious threesome with Sebastian Shaw (the King) and Brewster Mason (Lafeu). Clive Swift makes a welcome return to the company with a measured virtuoso performance as Parolles.

Hilary Spurling (review date 9 June 1967)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in The Spectator, Vol. 218, June 9, 1967, p. 687.

If the Royal Shakespeare Company invented one style for Shakespeare's histories, they have perfected another for comedy, elegant, decorative, urbane and at its best last week in All's Well That Ends Well at Stratford. John Barton's production is nothing if not suave—easy to see why this play appealed so little to the nineteenth century and so much to the eighteenth. It demands an elaborate stylistic virtuosity which has only recently crept back on to our stage, the same judicious sophistication which marked, also last week, The Farmer's Wife at Chichester.

Neither play is in the least "realistic." Both are exceedingly well-made. And here the audience who, for purely aesthetic reasons, clapped entrances and exits in The Farmer's Wife seemed sharper than the critics who contemptuously dismissed it as a phoney country chronicle, cheap, insincere and not like D. H. Lawrence. On this view, All's Well ought logically to be written off as an arid, schematised fairy-tale which ends in artificial tears: "Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon." The whole centring round a magic virgin and turning less on sentiment or character than on potions, arbitrary tricks and riddles—Shakespeare, in short, turning out something very much like the Iris Murdoch of his day.

But this is to ignore what Mr Barton fastidiously brings out, the play's gravity, its complex architectural and musical beauty. Like Clifford Williams's Twelfth Night last year, this is a Renaissance production, and has the same sober, sweet lucidity. Only where that diffused a sense of Shakespeare looking back to the giddiness of youth, this looks forward to autumn and old age. Timothy O'Brien's set is a severely formal wooden archway, changing colours to reflect the play's elaborate pattern—soft browns and russet, dried leaves and spiky seedheads for the Countess's household at Rousillon; sombre deep blue hangings and a pair of flickering candles for the King's sickbed in Paris; and a brilliant transformation scene for the military in Italy, with drooping scarlet banners, red-tasselled spears, soldiers wheeling and marching in time to the muffled barks and howls of a gargantuan drill-major—fit setting for the energetic middle section, Parolles's downfall, Helena's hard bargaining, Bertram's playing at lust and war.

Ian Richardson's Bertram makes an exquisite pair to his Coriolanus a few weeks ago—basically the same part, man and boy, only Shakespeare left out nearly all Bertram's speeches. But this harsh and haughty lord—'his archèd brows, his hawking eye, his curls' set off to admiration against a Cavalier's lace collar—is also very young indeed. And his extreme youth makes his relationship with Helena both subtler and less sordid than it seems on the page; adds, in fact, a prickling sensuality, the sense of a boy pampered and caressed by women, too tender to be 'the mark for smoky muskets.' It explains, for instance, why the more boorish his behaviour, the more covertable he seems to Helena—for here, as with Orsino, cruelty is inseparable from sexual desire. At the same time, this Bertram has a delicacy and grace which makes Helena's speech on virginity, his own shrinking from the thought of bed, his cold refusal when she pleads for a kiss—half timidity, half physical repulsion—and his lascivious awkwardness with Diana, seem variations on a theme which is resolved only after the long, harsh baiting at the end, in a sudden and benign acceptance.

If Mr Richardson's performance is one pole of this production, Brewster Mason as Lafeu provides the second—another of Mr Mason's indolent, smooth men who watches Bertram's antics with the inscrutable complacency of superior age and wisdom. This Lafeu is master of the graceful insult, the thrust and lazy flick, prodding Parolles as he would a ripe and squashy insect. Clive Swift's Parolles is comic only in the act of being so delicately splodged. Sebastian Shaw's King, Catherine Lacey's Countess are properly solemn in the shadow of the grave, Elizabeth Spriggs is ravishing as the frisky widow, Helen Mirren as her daughter is nicely wanton in her panting, passionate scene with Bertram, and Ian Hogg plays the wry and mournful fool, for reasons of his own, as a thug from an animated Giles cartoon.

The only serious objection, in fact, to this production is the casting of Estelle Kohler as Helena. Miss Kohler has improved out of all recognition since she played Olivia as a boisterous hockey-captain last year, and even since her weepy little wife in Coriolanus; but, though this reading allows tantalising glimpses of Helena's austere and fragile grace, Miss Kohler remains a principal boy at heart, a youthful version of Miss Mary Martin in Hello, Dolly!, with the same sauciness, the same brassy, waggish grin, the same naughty feeling that she is about to wink or slap her thigh. And here Mr Barton also slips into a coarseness—our heroine perched on the bed and rumpling up the blankets to titillate the dying King, for instance—which is positively gruesome in contrast to the subtle, sober richness, the haunting melancholy of what is otherwise an uncommonly civil production.

J.C. Trewin (review date 10 June 1967)

SOURCE: "Setting to Partners," in The Illustrated London News, Vol. 250, No. 6,671, June 10, 1967, p. 31.

Among The Shakespeare Comedies, All's Well that Ends Well is the wryest, the loneliest. Though long ago I acquired a taste for its verse, even for the jingle of the couplets, nothing has reconciled me to its fierce little heroine ("My intents are fixed, and will not leave me"), or to the youth she pursues with a single-minded resolution.

At Stratford-upon-Avon now, in a blessedly direct production by John Barton (with Timothy O'Brien's Caroline décor), Estelle Kohler does very little indeed that could win me to Helena, but Bertram is transformed by one of the finest Royal Shakespeare actors, Ian Richardson: making no excuses for the man's weakness and arrogance, he does get us to listen. Elsewhere, all's nearly well, and apart from an expected exuberance in the Florentine scenes, the revival is a model of restraint and dignity. Alas, it may not be fully recognised, for the comedy was born to be an outsider; Stratford's first audience responded most, and as usual, to the tricking of Parolles, whom Clive Swift—speaking with a metallic precision—presents as the hollowest of braggarts. Pistol would have approved. Even if he collapses at the end into abject servility, one feels that, being Parolles ("Simply the thing I am shall make me live"), he will survive.

I have special pleasure in the early scenes, and, guiltily, in the periphrastic, incantatory couplets with which Helena soothes the weary King; Miss Kohler, otherwise repetitive and mannered, can deal with these, and Sebastian Shaw has a silver wistfulness. I shall remember Catherine Lacey's beautifully autumnal Countess, Elizabeth Spriggs—who can do marvels with a phrase—and Helen Mirren as the Florentine widow and her daughter, and Brewster Mason as the courtier Lafeu. With respect to Mr Barton and his actor, Ian Hogg, the clown Lavache is a part practically impossible: Guthrie, in 1959, cut it altogether, and we cannot blame him.

All's Well, I fear, cannot succeed entirely unless its Helena performs for us a miracle equivalent to her curing of the King, and at Stratford Miss Kohler has not yet this quality. Still, the strange piece must haunt the mind. It never asks for our affections—it goes out of its way to flout them—and yet I think of it more than of some of its famous competitors.

Peter Ansorge (review date August 1967)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in Plays and Players, Vol. 14, No. 11, August, 1967, pp. 36-7.

All's Well That Ends Well is a play which sports afternoon-couplets and blinks uncomprehendingly at the wisdom of the stars. Its most famous lines evoke nothing less than the birthpangs of the modern, scientific world: They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. …' As spoken by Brewster Mason's galloping Lafeu in John Barton's fine and lucid new production at Stratford, these lines were accompanied by a kind of gleeful minuet to the light of Reason on the part of Shakespeare's courtiers. Immediately the old King of France, cured from his sickness by Helena's virginal prescriptions, bounced into the court like a rejected Tory back in favour with the voters at last. His court had discovered an elixir both for old age and the mysteries of the world: a twilight sparkle of hope for a deluded world in which 'all' seemed about to do everything but end 'well'.

Barton's production stressed Shakespeare's depiction of the plight between the generations—the Passionate Pilgrim's grim message that 'Crabbed age and youth/Cannot live together'. The old people in the play are all dying like the King—paralysed by gnarled wisdom or crippled from lusting after the pleasures of the young. The young strut around the French court like nimble flamingos pronouncing public platitudes to comfort their elders but privately harbouring a craving for flight, escape, hallucination. Now the Royal Shakespeare Company is not an organisation likely to miss out on modern parallels—increasingly we learn as much about contemporary, as Elizabethan, England from their productions and programmes. What is important for us, the spectators of Shakespearean drama, is to perceive how this great Company's concern for the present, the immediate, sharpens and clarifies their treatment and vision of Shakespeare's text. The performance of Ian Richardson as Bertram is a subtle illustration of the rewards of this procedure. In Shakespeare's play Bertram is an insufferable creature—refusing to marry Helena because she comes from a poor family, then marrying her and immediately fleeing to the wars and a peasant girl in Florence. In Barton's version, Bertram is a character as precise and unfathomable as a pin-prick: a modern youth with intimations of psychedelia, trapped into staying at home by his King and a girl who has forced the termination of her virginity upon him. After the forced trip to the altar, Richardson waddled onto the stage like a drowning, stoical duck, sighing with resentment and flicking bitter confetti drops from his hat. The court think he is mad like Hamlet: Bertram decides to leave for the wars, like those teenagers at London Airport departing gleefully for Israel: 'War is no strife, To the dark house and the detested wife.'

In fact, Bertram's house is not 'dark' but laced with Rembrandtian light and shadows, effectively pillared by Timothy O'Brien's camp-Renaissance designs. Bertram's mother, the Countess of Rousillon, is played as a raucous, kindly mock-turtle by Catherine Lacey. Unlike the King she does not snarl at the behaviour of the young; she spends her days upon a bench, drenched in Chekhovian melancholy and chatting aimlessly to a bitter, world-hating clown.

The RSC usually present a Shakespearean war in the context of a Brechtian iron-age. Bertram's Florentian war is a red-flamed romp waged as a retreat from the public world (of the new Beatles LP—Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). Richardson becomes a freak Coriolanus playing with toy soldiers—his band invents a private language in order to trap Bertram's lacky, Captain Parolles. Parolles ('Simply the thing I am shall make me live'), in Clive Swift's grasping hands, sucks at the air with opportunistic apathy and whistles with glee as his betrayal of Bertram. His name (Parolles—words) reflects the contortions of his world, the suckling of a modern, nihilistic man.

Estelle Kohler's Helena flouted her virginity with swinging indifference and like Ophelia, in Peter Hall's Hamlet, she seemed more experienced than anyone else on the stage—apart from Helen Mirren as the peasant girl, Diana, who gave a defiant, National Youth Theatre debut. Helena's most effective scenes were with Sebastian Shaw's King. Shaw lay sprawled out on a sofa, like Ibsens' master builder, hiding his ears from Helena's offer of health and life. Then Helena suggests that she might have been sent by God and the old man pricks up his ears: the stars may yet be on his side!

The reconciliation scene is played as a music-box cantata of confusion. Richardson bowed down once more in front of the King whispering the familiar pious platitudes—smiled upon by his mother and a puzzled court. Critics have seen in the precarious balance of this hurried conclusion evidence of Shakespeare's growing inability to find any harmonious finale for his plays. In John Barton's production the young drifted aimlessly off the stage, while the old courtiers remained behind frightened but smiling at death.

Robert Speaight (review date Autumn 1967)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare in Britain," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 4 Autumn, 1967, pp. 389-97.

I have often wondered what exactly is meant by a problem play? Is it a play which teases the audience, or a play which teases the author? In Shakespeare it is generally a play in which two people find themselves in bed together for reasons which the dramatist thinks are right and the audience thinks are wrong. What, we ask, had Mariana and Angelo [in Measure for Measure] in their different ways, deserved that their contract should be consummated? Why was Mariana not allowed her lucky escape? And if Angelo was forgiven, need he have been so liberally rewarded? These questions are of course elementary, and the Shakespearian has his answer to them, even if the answers don't always agree. They are raised, very particularly, by All's Well that Ends Well; and the problematic nature of the play is underlined by the fact that many of us will be inclined to put a question-mark after the title—a liberty which even the program allowed us. When something in Shakespeare offends our sense of justice, we are inclined to put it down to allegory—just as when something of fends our sense of probability we are inclined to put it down to myth, or even to theatrical convention. I am not saying we are necessarily wrong, but I think we do well to remember that Shakespeare was apparently capable of everything except the invention of his own plots, and that when the Globe wanted a play he had to provide one. We must always try to look at his plays—and particularly at this play—through Elizabethan spectacles. Neither to him, nor to his audience, would Helena's conquest of Bertram have appeared so outrageous as it does to us. Having already done more than anyone to give romantic love its marriage-lines, he was no doubt interested to suggest, though doubtfully to prove, that marriage can be based on something other than mutual inclination.

The theme of All's Well that Ends Well is salvation. First, the King must be saved physically, because he embodies the well-being of the realm. Then Bertram must be saved morally, and Helena is the providential instrument of this double cure. It is, therefore, very much to the point that Bertram is an insufferable cad and indefatigable coureur, and the last person to fall in love with a messianic young woman, whose blood was considerably less blue than her stockings. She, it is true, is more immediately interested in securing his scalp than in securing his salvation; the salvation is Shakespeare's business. But if Helena disposes of her heart, the King disposes of her hand—very much as the omniscient Duke disposes of Mariana in Measure for Measure. In each case, the purpose is redemption rather than felicity, and no trick is too dirty to achieve it.

A comparison between Mr. Barton's and Sir Tyrone Guthrie's treatment of the play some years ago was peculiarly instructive. Guthrie daringly put it into modern dress, taking over Shaw's conception of Helena as the first feminist, going after her man and getting him. At the same time, however, he allowed her the charismatic powers which cured the King and excused him for thinking that she might work a similar miracle for Bertram. The part was played with great intensity by Zoe Caldwell. In the present production Miss Esther Kohler was encouraged to make the least of her considerable attractions, to such an extent that Bertram might be forgiven for not finding her irresistible. Nor did her charismatic powers amount to very much more than the application of the right prescription. So, although in many respects Mr. Barton had treated the play more simply and straightforwardly than Sir Tyrone Guthrie, he had also demythologized it. It stood or fell as an example of Shakespeare's tragical-comical vein—and much more comical than tragical.

Mr. Barton would probably argue that he had put the comedy where it properly belongs. With Parolles, certainly, in Mr. Clive Swift's shambling and effective performance; too noisily, I thought, in Mr. Ian Hogg's Lavache. This part was unwisely, and quite unnecessarily, cut by Sir Tyrone Guthrie. Bridges-Adams used to have him played as the gardener; and although, as I know from experience, gardeners can be loquacious and importunate they don't, as a rule, shatter the ear-drums of the people who employ them. On the other hand, the Duke of Florence, who can by no stretch of imagination be described as comic character, was transformed by Guthrie into a nonagenarian general issuing his orders through a microphone. The tiny scene was expanded into a full-scale military inspection, and—inevitably—into the hit of the evening. Mr. Barton would have none of this embroidery, and Mr. Cicciarelli's Duke was a Renaissance portrait, as authentically Italian as his name. But the cue for the production was really given by Mr. Richardson's Bertram—as witty an exhibition of light and near fantastic comedy as he has ever given us. With Guthrie, as I recall, Bertram was no more than a sulky lieutenant in the Brigade of Guards who would have been thanked for his pennies but hardly for his pains in the shadier quarters of Florence—a city not particularly renowned for these amenities. Only a Helena deprived of all sense of humor, and as dedicated as Major Barbara herself, would have put up with him for five minutes. But Miss Kohler has latent comedy in her looks, even if Shakespeare has allowed her none in her performance, and it seemed just possible that she and Mr. Richardson would have made a match of it—for this Bertram was incessantly amusing at his own expense as well as at other people's.

In these circumstances it was wise not to overweight the King and the Countess. Mr. Sebastian Shaw, whose presence and personality are very welcome to Stratford, took illness and health and the duties of unconsititutional monarchy fairly lightly in his stride, but neither with him nor with anyone else did we lose anything of the beautiful verse with which this curious play is intermittently sprinkled. Miss Lacey's Countess did not take things too tragically either—an Olivia, you might have said, grown more sensible with the years, now widowed of Sebastian, with a Feste altogether too big for his buskins. These were among the rare crepuscular moments in a production which generally let in the daylight, and Miss Lacey was beautifully suited. So, needless to say, was Mr. Brewster Mason; his Lafeu could not have put a foot wrong if he had tried to, for Mr. Mason has protocol in his finger-tips. But the greatest contrast with Guthrie's extravaganza was in the sobriety and simplicity of the setting. No autumnal leaves threatened to fall from the beech trees of Languedoc; what we had was essentially an Elizabethan platform with a pair of moveable panels translating us without difficulty from one place to another. It was interesting to see how well simplicity could serve a play which is anything but simple. I don't know whether I have read Mr. Barton's intentions aright—to say nothing of Shakespeare's—but it was an immensely enjoyable evening.

Henry Popkin (review date 18 January 1968)

SOURCE: " 'All's Well' Without a Dark Side," in The Times, London, January 18, 1968, p. 11.

John Barton's production of All's Well that Ends Well, now moved to London from Stratford, surely makes this play the most pleasant of Shakespeare's "unpleasant" comedies. A spirit of avuncular kindliness prevails, embodied in Sebastian Shaw's King of France and Brewster Mason's Lafeu, and, indeed, Ian Richardson's unfledged Bertram is precisely a young man to need a kindly uncle's care.

Consistently, even Clive Swift's Parolles is just a little bit adolescent underneath all his bluster. Catherine Lacey's Countess is less emphatic, but equally fashioned to fit. The one newcomer to the cast is Lynn Farleigh, who has replaced Estelle Kohler in the role of Helena; gaining confidence through the evening, Miss Farleigh makes a promising debut.

Whatever darker sides the play may have are hardly visible here. The king's ailment. Bertram's enforced nuptial and his desertion of his bride, the bed trick that substitutes Helena for Diana, and Parolles's betrayal of the army with which he serves—they may read like a catalogue of horrors, but at the Aldwych they are well wrapped in good humour.

In the months since All's Well opened at Stratford, the actors seem to have found more of the quietly comic moments—Bertram cheering Helena's suitors on, not knowing he is to join them; the recently bedridden king dancing on stage after his cure; Lafeu looking Parolles up and down and inquiring, "Who's his tailor?". And the encounter between Lafeu and Parolles is still a little masterpiece of comic engineering.

John Barton with Gareth Lloyd Evans (interview date 1972)

SOURCE: An interview in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 25, 1972, pp. 63-71.

[In the following interview, Barton discusses his approach to All's Well That Ends Well in his 1967 production and additionally comments on the roles of Parolles and Bertram.]

[Evans:] The evidence seems to be that in the past Parolles was regarded as one of the greatest comic characters, as indeed I believe Shylock was. Would you agree that audiences nowadays don't find him as funny as apparently they did in the past … Parolles I mean, not Shylock?

[Barton:] No, I wouldn't agree with that at all. I think that whether he is funny or not depends simply on how good the actor is who plays it. There are many parts in Shakespeare which may seem to be dreary if they are not brought alive by the individual talents of the actor. But provided that Parolles is well acted, I am sure he is still funny in the theatre today.

I remember with a great deal of pleasureI don't know whether you doGuthrie's production of All's Well. I felt both affronted and delighted at the same time. I suppose it could be said, although I wouldn't necessarily say so myself, that Guthrie seemed to be implying, in the way he directed the play, that it could not really appeal to a modem audience, so something pretty drastic had to be done; so, for example, he introduced an amount of farcical business, including a microphone. Some might say that this kind of behaviour clashed with, for example, great performances such as Edith Evans gave us as the Countess Rousillon. Do you think that All's Well is viable to a modern audience - without gimmicks?

I certainly came to think so after doing the production. At first I was afraid of directing the play, and hadn't originally been going to do it. I had to take it over quickly because a director dropped out. I remember saying to the actors at the outset, 'Let's try and trust this play, explore it and find out how it works, and stage it simply without gimmicks.' We then found after a couple of frightened, doubtful weeks, that the play was coming alive. I believe, from that experience, that the play does work without jazzingup, though I wasn't sure whether it did when I embarked on it. I ended by thinking the play much finer and more cohesive than I, or, indeed, most people had ever suspected. I think that what Guthrie did was brilliant; but he was always more a man of immense theatrical imagination, a giver of great delight, rather than someone who really tried to explore the content of a play. I think he overlaid plays with much creative invention but did not always try to realise their actual contents. As far as gimmicks are concerned, I think the question is whether an individual piece of business is an inventive overlay, or whether it's a truthful bodying-out of what's implicit in the text. But perhaps in the end it rather comes down to a question of taste.

Would you agree that the difference between Guthrie's attempt to make All's Well speak to the twentieth century and your own (or indeed the Royal Shakespeare Company's attempt to make a play speak to the twentieth century), is between what you've described as Guthrie's inventive overlay and what you would accept as a matter of principle? Does that make sense? In other words, whereas Guthrie seems to try to speak to the twentieth century by a kind of sensationalism, or theatrical effect, you personally, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, would attempt to make Shakespeare speak to the twentieth century on the basis of a certain attitude, a certain set of principles, a certain philosophy about the twentieth century, that you yourself or the Company have?

I never personally think very much about the twentieth century. I simply read the play intensively in the study, and then work on it in the rehearsal room by responding to what the actors offer. My response is as often intuitive as it is analytic or rational. I say 'Wouldn't it be good if … ?' and then try to test a particular idea in terms of whether it tallies with what I take to be the play's meaning. I never consciously take a twentieth-century approach to the play. It's very difficult to define the process that goes on in the rehearsal room: instinct is a great matter—directors and actors work together on instinctive ideas which bubble up from day to day, which they then test with their reason. We sometimes cut things out because we think they are an overlay on the text, and sometimes leave them in, hoping and trusting that they are an embodiment of something implicit in the text. This process is certainly influenced by the fact that we are people living in the twentieth century. But as often as not we also try to modify our modern responses by asking 'What does Shakespeare really mean here? Are we distorting him by doing something which we want him to mean, because it appeals to us?'

Do you regard the ending of All's Well That Ends Well as a cynical one, or do you think that Bertram has learnt from experience? Indeed, what has he learnt?

I don't think Bertram's learnt very much; he's grown up a bit, he's learnt to value Helena more than he valued her at first, he's seen through Parolles, but he's still a pretty selfish and stupid man. I think that 'cynical' isn't quite the right word for the ending: the tone is more one of a worldly tolerance of people. There's no certainty that Bertram and Helena live happily ever after. Bertram ends with a couple of very spare lines which don't tell us much: 'If she, my lord, can make me know this clearly,/I'll love her dearly ever, ever dearly' [V. iii. 315-16]. Their surface meaning is clear enough, but in the context of the whole scene, they also contain shame, awe of the King, and a resolve, at that moment, to make the best of things. Whether Bertram did in fact love her dearly ever is something which is surely made questionable by all we know of him from the play as a whole. And the end situation is well summed up in the text itself when the King says 'And if it end so meet/ The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet' [V. iii. 333-34].


Elijah Moshinsky • BBC

Television Adaptation • 1980


Moshinsky's television version of All's Well That Ends Well is considered by many commentators to have been among the most successful productions in the BBC Shakespeare series. Critics particularly praised the director's highlighting of the domestic nature of the play through a sensitive use of lighting and the framing scenes in a manner that evoked seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Reviewers were less united in their appraisal of the production's performances, however. While Kenneth S. Rothwell deemed Ian Charleson "superb as the snotty Bertram," G. M. Pearce maintained that Charleson's sullen portrayal of the young man struck "the only discordant note" in the production. Critics were similarly divided over Donald Sinden's fruity rendering of the King, which Jeremy Treglown characterized as both lecherous and "hammy." Angela Downs's Helena impressed commentators with her crafty intelligence and serenity. Rothwell noted that her "plain, spinsterish, puritanical face with the unruly strands of hair conceals a volcanic disposition." Other favorably reviewed performances were Michael Hordern's Lafew, Celia Johnson's Countess; and Peter Jeffrey's Parolles. In explaining the success of Moshinsky's translation of the play into the medium of television, G. K. Hunter concluded that it seemed "to accept the inevitable diminution in theatrical power that the translation involves, and tries to invent new relationships which will … compensate for that loss."


Jeremy Treglown (review date 9 January 1981)

SOURCE: "Camera Cuts," in The Times Literary Supplement, January 9, 1981, p. 33.

The play seems so calculated to test the limits of our credulity and tolerance that an exceptional amount hangs on actors who are not only convincing but—as in the case of Angela Down's serenely unstoppable Helena in this latest BBC Shakespeare—convinced. Elijah Moshinsky's cast is outstanding and the production—his first for television—correspondingly deft. The Casting Directory was plainly ransacked for a Martin Amis lookalike as Bertram, and the result (Ian Charleson) is so sulkily handsome that it hardly matters if he sounds as if he's over in France on a football excursion from Glasgow. Celia Johnson is his understandably anxious old mother, Michael Hordern the melancholy-wise, genial old Lafeu.

Moshinsky has framed the scenes as a series of calm seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, using mirrors to give depth to his surface and filling the small screen with the interplay of grouping and of light and shade, rather than with elaborate action or tricky camerawork. It works beautifully, and gives a rich visual context to the unexpectedly plausible action itself, from Helena's falling (on the rebound from her father's death) for her shifty childhood friend Bertram, to his miserably trapped duplicities in the arranged marriage which follows.

To some actors, though, nothing can be plausible unless it is overtly sexy. It's a pity that Donald Sinden has been encouraged or allowed to make the French King an old lecher with a voice as fruitily nasal as Kenneth Williams's. His miraculous cure, in this interpretation, looks as if it will involve Helena in some kind of health-farm sauna activities—a plan she seems to go along with, kissing the repellent old satyr compliantly at the end of a gropy II. i which both goes against her performance of the character otherwise and steals attention for the hammy Sinden.

A pity, too, given this brief but damaging meretriciousness, that Moshinsky (or his script editor) should have cut Helena's stern lines on the later bed-trick and on the workings of the sexual imagination: "When saucy trusting of the cozen'd thoughts/Defiles the pitchy night; so lust doth play/With what it loathes for that which is away"—one of a lot of textual tinkerings which an institutional series like this might try harder to do without. It is not just that the actors keep confusing "you" and "thou"—an important difference in Shakespeare—or that ten Unes are dropped here, whole short scenes there, "difficult" classical allusions everywhere. The production also pointlessly removes some crucial thematic passages—one which underscores the seedy pragmatism of Parolles (Peter Jeffrey) early on, for example, or some of Helena's moving speech to the King about human actions and divine help, crucial to her view of life (which is, broadly, that it is when people take their destiny into their own hands that providence is best able to intervene for them). Such abbreviations gain nothing, at some expense.

One is left, though, almost continuously gripped and moved—especially by the play's normally absurd and over-long resolution: here thrillingly unlikely, indefensible, tawdry and miraculous. The camera concentrates remorselessly as Bertram's lies proliferate and are uncovered, as the faces of the older generation grow more wretchedly shocked and confused, and as Helena has her wish-fulfilling way. Health farm notwithstanding, I've never seen the play so well done.

G. M. Pearce (review date April 1981)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in Cahiers Elisabethains, No. 19, April, 1981, pp. 131-32.

Once again, as with the recent B.B.C. production of The Taming of the Shrew, Dutch interiors provided much of the inspiration for the design. In fact, the whole play with its dim interior lighting and costumes in subdued colours with starched ruffs, straight out of Rembrandt, could have been set in Holland rather than France and Tuscany.

Sebastian Shaw, the veteran Shakespearian actor, who gave the preliminary talk on the play in "Prefaces to Shakespeare" on Radio 4 (3 January), admitted that: "Much of the plot of All's Well is frankly incredible." This made his lucid explanation all the more helpful, while Barry Took on "Shakespeare in Perspective" on B.B.C. 2 (3 January) was more concerned with the topical issues raised by the play.

Sebastian Shaw in his reminiscences on previous productions commented on the actability of this infrequently performed play and how actors enjoyed doing it. The B.B.C. assembled an impressive cast for this little-publicized production with well-known actors in many of the relatively minor roles. The only discordant note was Ian Charleson's Bertram, played as a sullen angry young man, only believable in the naked lust he portrayed for Diana, played with subtle delicacy by the attractive Pippa Guard. He did not do justice to the language, even dropping an aitch at one point and was so wooden in the scenes with Helena that it was difficult to see the powerful attraction he was supposed to exert over her. Angela Down was a very cerebral Helena with just sufficient invitation in her behaviour to justify the King of France's submission and attraction to her, a scene in which Donald Sinden as the King took a lusty delight. Donald Sinden's fruity delivery was well suited to the role and he looked splendidly triumphant at the end, attired richly in golden velvet and jewels.

It was a pleasure to see and hear Celia Johnson as the Countess and Michael Holdern as Lafeu, particularly in their scenes together, giving full value both to the language and the interplay of characters. The Countess's clown was played soberly by the enigmatic Paul Brooke, adding spice to the scenes between them, which are perhaps difficult to accept for a modern audience.

When the scene shifted to Tuscany, designer David Meyerscough-Jones moved away from Dutch interiors and much of the action was centred round a splendid old-fashioned kitchen with Rosemary Leach, very good as the Widow, presiding over the chopping of a colourful collection of vegetables. Parolles, played by Peter Jeffrey in suitably villainous make-up, slid insinuatingly in and out of both worlds, until trapped by the First Soldier (Nicholas Grace, a powerful, performance in a minor role).

Parolles, appropriately enough, first appeared reflected in a mirror, and a mirror was also used in the scene where Helena dances with the King at a ball in a lavish castle interior, emphasizing her rise in social status. This technique worked well on the television as, for the most part, did the subtle and varied lighting (by John Summers) with candle and even firelit interiors increasing the sense of intimacy. Particularly effective was the silhouette of Helena sitting at her spinette in the opening scene. Occasionally the back-lighting was rather harsh and at another time the scene was far too dark to tell whether Helena blushed when told by the Countess, For, look, thy cheeks/Confess it, to the other [I. iii. 177]. On the other hand, the low light enhanced the intimacy of that scene between Celia Johnson and Angela Down and the sweet seriousness of the latter's acting carried one through all the improbabilities of the plot to her triumph at the end.

Kenneth S. Rothwell (review date Autumn 1981)

SOURCE: " 'The Shakespeare Plays': Hamlet and the Five Plays of Season Three," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 3 Autumn, 1981, pp. 395, 399-400.

For a variety of reasons, some of them having to do with the play itself, Elijah Moshinsky's All's Well That Ends Well turned out to be the hit of the season. A major cause, I would suggest, was the director's willingness to collaborate actively with technical people like lighting designer John Summers, whose resourcefulness makes the cloning of seventeenth-century Dutch art possible on the television screen. This visual energy, with inspiration from both Rembrandt and Vermeer, strongly supports the verbal wizardry of the Shakespearean text: spilling light from a window silhouettes Angela Down as Helena in profile before her spinet; a high-angle shot of the King of France in bed silently comments on the plight of a fallen monarch; women at domestic tasks come alive in the rich vibrant hues of Flemish masters; doctors peer at the King of France in a grouping borrowed from Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson"; courtiers move through the baroque splendor of a hall of mirrors; and a fire glows richly and warmly in a room occupied by Bertram and Helena. This is a visual feast.

A controlling metaphor is the mirror, used much the same way as in Miller's Shrew. It expands the tiny world of the mise en scène, gives it a third dimension, and at the same time suggests the conflicting planes of perception and reality that make up Helena's and Bertram's fractured worlds. Parolles, for example, is glimpsed in the mirror above Helena's spinet, as though to underscore the fictitiousness of his essential being. The mirror also reminds us that Parolles' willingness to sacrifice any principle to achieve doubtful ends applies as well to Bertram and Helena. Helena pursues Bertram as ruthlessly as Bertram spurns Helena. In this unforgiving city comedy, there is no magic forest where an Oberon can restore a Helena to harmony through the agency of a love potion. In their lying and deceit, Helena and Bertram can match Parolles in craft. These bitter truths, too painful for firsthand viewing, are best but glimpsed in a mirror.

Angela Downs plays Helena as though she were possessed, a witch in fact. The plain, spinsterish, puritanical face with the unruly strands of hair conceals a volcanic disposition, a point nicely punctuated when Downs's Helena exchanges an erotic kiss with the King of France. Ian Charleson, superb as the snotty Bertram, returns her proffers of affections with the arrogance of a Guards officer bawling out orders to the troops at Buckingham Palace. The veteran Michael Hordern turns in his usually polished performance, this time as Lafeu, the scourge of Peter Jeffrey's pathetic Parolles. Generous portions of the text, mostly prose passages steeped in the inimitable scurrilities of Jacobean satire, have been deleted. The sacrifice of such details as Lavache's learned commentary on the "pin" and "quatch" buttocks seems a reasonable trade-off for the pace and energy generated in this memorable performance.

G. K. Hunter (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in Shakespeare on Television: An Anthology of Essays and Reviews, edited by J. C. Bulman and H. R. Coursen, University Press of New England, 1988, pp. 185-87.

[In the following essay, Hunter analyzes the success of Moshinsky's television adaptation of All's Well That Ends Well, praising this production's "capacity to think out visual coordinates for itself and not simply to follow the stage tradition."]

In choice of actors and actresses, the cutting of the text, the tempo of speech and action, the invention of stage business, the use of props—in all these respects the criticism of Shakespeare on television deals with the same matters as appear in theatrical or film criticism. To collapse television Shakespeare into this larger prospect is to lose what is unique or essential to it and to find material too rich and too divergent for treatment in this brief consideration of the BBC All's Well That Ends Well. I wish instead to focus on what television, as a unique medium with its own particular strengths, has brought to All's Well.

Before I reach that play, however, I must raise for inspection what I see as a basic problem about the presentation on television of plays designed to take advantage of the three-dimensionality of the stage. I use this clumsy location to exclude some plays undoubtedly appropriate for the stage (I think of Beckett), part of whose hunger for renunciation expresses itself as a hankering for two-dimensionality. Stage dramatists who draw on conventional social life (as Shakespeare does) seem to except us to see (in both the literal and the transferred senses) members of their stage society set before us on a series of planes of recession. Irony and sophistication derive in part from the mobility of these planes, their threat to collide or over-ride one another. But television finds it difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce the visual component of this kind of structure, since it seems (technically?) incapable of showing us a convincing third dimension. What I take to be a locus classicus is television's apparent attempt, and total failure, to achieve the stage effects of the most celebrated passage of stage business in Twelfth Night—the gulling of Malvolio. In the BBC version of this scene the actors did what actors always do, and probably ought to do. They tried to make comedy out of the proximity of the two planes visible on the stage—the plane of the watchers (Andrew, Toby, Fabian) and the plane of the watched (Malvolio)—and the constant danger of their collision. They tried to show their superiority to Malvolio by running forward to stand (unseen) just behind him; and then, as he seemed about to turn around, they had to run back. But when there is no true third dimension in the scene, such movement by the actors is quite incapable of conveying the comic tension between achievement and loss, superiority and inferiority. On the small screen it was never entirely clear when the conspirators were really close to Malvolio or when they were safely distanced. For all the time, and of necessity, they were jammed against their victim inside the narrow confines of the camera's frame.

What we are given here is a dismal plastic reproduction of a brilliant theatrical object, stage-actors doing what they have every reason to suppose will work, inside a medium which ensures that it won't. My praise for All's Well in the BBC series is that it seems to accept the inevitable diminution in theatrical power that the translation involves, and tries to invent new relationships which will (to some degree) compensate for that loss. Of course it is only a spasmodic and half-cocked kind of compensation. There is still too much dependence on that kind of triangulation in which A faces B on the frontscreen position while C, slightly out of focus, contrives to keep his face always visible between the other two, until the camera finally rewards his persistence, unmists the focus, invites him into the foreground and sets up a new dialogue. But the opening scene, with its Dutch interior out of Vermeer and its open door through which characters come and go, and beyond which we see minuscule servants packing Bertram's tuckbox, gave us an excuse for thinking in painterly terms of artificial space instead of the theatrical vocabulary of real stage depth. Throughout the production, mirrors, windows, candlelight, firelight and deep shadow, obliquely angled shots, insisted on the "composed" quality of what we saw and so reduced our identification with the individual inside society and his movement through it.

That this did not work all the time was made evident in the second scene. Here we meet the French king, strongly lit and prostrate in bed. The scene reminded me of Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp." But where Rembrandt's composition is carefully balanced between the prostrate body, the elegant Dr. Tulp and the excited students, the All's Well scene was concentrated on the body. The court ("divers Attendants" in F1) consisted of two persons, and they barely able to squeeze inside the frame. I do not know if the rather fruity performance by Donald Sinden was cause or effect of the absence of social diagram, but certainly the scene was one of the lapses in a usually cool and contained production, and seemed to be asking us for responses that were irrelevant to the rest of the play.

The production's capacity to think out visual coordinates for itself and not simply to follow the stage tradition may be discussed usefully in terms of the scene of the ambushing of Parolles (IV. i), which can be set against the scene of the gulling of Malvolio, already discussed. This time the relationship of watcher and watched was organized in terms of above and below rather than upstage and down-stage. The watchers on a roof (or something such) look down on Parolles as he prepares to nap-out the time of his exploit. The viewpoint corresponds neatly to the pattern of dramatic advantage and disadvantage; but no attempt was made to exploit this further by suggesting the instability of the visual relationship (near or far). Much of the fun of to-and-fro that I seem to remember from Tyrone Guthrie's production was lost; and I suspect it has to be lost when we watch the play on television. It is worth nothing that this scene came across more effectively than the more famous one which follows (IV. iii)—the scene of Parolles's interrogation, which seems, in reading, to offer many more possibilities. In this case the constant change of charactercentre, the tripartite organisation, with the officers on one side, blindfolded Parolles on the other and the "Interpreter" going between them, was too complex to manage as a series of close-ups. As the camera swung from face to face we seemed to be given more disconnection and more distance than the scene could stand. The comic anticipation of answers was lost and the repeated shift in balance between different members of the group, as now one, now another, tried to take advantage, was hard to follow. Looking at Parolles on his own, one saw his terror rather than his social discomfiture; as commonly happens in television plays, psychology usurped the place of social reality.

I should like to finish with what seemed to me the best moment in the production. The last scene in All's Well is a famous set of puzzles, as Bertram tries to lie his way back into favour and actually succeeds. The scene sharpens intolerably the play's basic problem of real people caught up in a fairy tale—a tale for which a single ending will cure everything, the resurrection of Helena being magically transformed from a trick (which is what we know it is) to a miracle (which is what they think it is). The play comes to rest, that is, on the magical transformation of their world, and to this the director in some way has to subordinate our knowledge. What they see is that the light that shone on them while Helena was alive is recoverable. On the stage, as the tension builds up through the intrigue, the reservation of Helena for a miraculous knot-cutting entry places an intolerable burden on that entry: can one simple step through the door cause all this? We see her as she is and not as she is received. The television production solved the problem, brilliantly I thought, by concealing the entry. The family and its supporters have lined up imperceptibly, facing the door through which Diana is being taken to prison. At the door she stops and pleads her final stay of execution: "Good mother, fetch my bail" [V. iii, 295]. As the cast looks through the door music begins to play. "Behold the meaning" [V. iii, 304], says Diana. But the camera does not allow us to behold. Instead it does what the camera does best—it shows us a set of mouths and eyes. As it tracks along the line we are made witness to a series of inner sunrises, as face after face responds to the miracle and lights up with understanding and relief. I confess to finding it a very moving experience.


Trevor Nunn • Royal Shakespeare Company • 1981-82


Opening the play with a waltz, Nunn's production set All's Well That Ends Well in the Edwardian England and fin de siècle Europe. Commentators praised John Gunter's set designs, which consisted of structures of articulated glass and wrought-iron and served variously as a café, a conservatory, a gymnasium, and a train station. The martial trappings of the production evoked the Crimean War and highlighted what Benedict Nightingale called the officer "caste's callow preoccupation with military glory." For several commentators, this atmosphere added depth to the characterization of Bertram as portrayed by Mike Gwilym. Nicholas Shrimpton argued that "everybody's least favourite Shakespearian hero appeared as an overgrown adolescent desperate to escape from home and mother, and live in a world of men." Stanley Wells argued that Bertram's "evident immaturity assists the credibility of his response to Helena's choice of him for a husband," and maintained that the most interesting relationship in the play became that between Bertram and Parolles. The latter role, rendered by Stephen Moore, received particular praise. Sheridan Morley characterized Moore's performance "as the Parolles against which all others in our lifetime will have to be measured—a marvelous mix of braggart and tragic buffoon, whose subplot unexpectedly takes over and controls the whole of the second half of the evening." Additionally commended was Harriet Walter's Helena, whom Nunn had conceived as being motivated rather by an all-encompassing love than by social ambition. The majority of the critics lauded the production as a whole; Roger Warren praised it as "the finest and most illuminating interpretation of a Shakespeare play for many years." The cast also included Peggy Ashcroft as the Countess; Geoffrey Hutchings as Lavatch; John Franklyn Robbins as the King; and Cheryl Campbell as Diana. In 1982 the production was transferred to the Barbican Theatre in London, where Philip Franks enacted the part of Bertram. The following year the production ran for a short time at the Martin Beck Theatre, New York.


John Elsom (review date 26 November 1981)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in The Listener, Vol. 106, No. 2,737, November 26, 1981, pp. 664-66.

When you see the All's Well that Trevor Nunn has provided at Stratford, you wonder why it should have been considered for so long as a problem play, not funny enough for a comedy, not sentimental enough for a romance, not bitter enough for a moral satire. Nunn's production, so beautiful to watch, so clear in its intentions, floats many of the difficulties away, so that we can feel the underlying tug of ironic realism. This process of clarification has been helped, believe it or not, by placing the play within a very recognisable context, a kind of fin-de-siècle mishmash, a glossy Edwardiana, more hindsight than Forsyte.

The past trouble with All's Well was that we had the wrong expectations. The story looks so much like a fairy-tale. Helena, the daughter of a poor physician and a mere dependant, marries the man she loves, Bertram, who just happens to be the heir of the Rousillon estates. And, of course, she has to go through hell for him, like Richardson's Pamela, but she triumphs in the end. She is a nice, as well as determined, girl, and we cannot understand why Bertram should not recognise her qualities immediately, despite her lowly station. In the end, however, he comes to his senses and all's well.

What goes wrong with this plot, from a romantic point of view, is that Helena's methods are unscrupulous and that Bertram's response is unchivalrous. When Bertram finally swears to 'love her dearly, ever, ever dearly', it is about as convincing as a deathbed repentance, and Edwardian critics, who for the most part considered the play in bad taste, were not slow to point out that such changes of heart are not to be trusted. What else could Bertram say? The King, whom Helena cured, had ordered him to marry her and when, as a gesture of defiance, he refused to consummate the marriage, Helena had substituted herself for one of his amours and accordingly become pregnant. The man was clobbered.

Nunn spotted the connection between this unelevating theme and the preoccupations of Edwardian theatre, notably in Shaw's Man and Superman, where the device of the anti-sentimentalists was to have the woman chasing the man. Having thus settled upon the context, Nunn explores the other parallels between the periods—such as the public-school brotherhood among the men for whom wars were a natural extension of Eton's playing fields, the roaming around Europe in search of sex without too much trouble, the humiliation of Parolles as the Billy Bunter within the ranks—and to set the seal on this conjunction, he persuaded John Napier to provide a superb conservatory set, where the slender arches and filtered light evoke both the splendour of Victorian iron-and-glass architecture and the glories of the Renaissance palaces which the Ruskinites so loved.

It is marvellously effective, but bright ideas (and, yes, it has been tried before) do not necessarily lead to good productions. This Edwardian All's Well, however, brings out those nagging questions which, although embarrassing, are the strength of the play. In a society where so much has been given to men like Bertram, isn't Helena entitled to use her wits to redress the balance? All's Well harps on matters of class and sexual antagonisms in a manner which, through our ignorance, we are inclined to think modern. The two moral laws, for there are at least two, which pervade our sexual behaviour still, only seem to be reconciled at the end of All's Well; and the title is as wry a joke as can be found in the annals of courtship.

The acting needs a column to itself. There are two performances which pull the production into perspective—Peggy Ashcroft's Countess who represents a mature gentility, prepared to moderate life's inequalities in the interests of a natural order, and Stephen Moore's Parolles, the self-indulgent exploiter of an unmerited privilege. Mike Gwilym's Bertram is a tough and attractive male rebel, while Harriet Walter's Helena is not too sweetly submissive to belie the resolve in her character. I do not wish to overpraise, but this production seems strong enough even to draw the public to the new Barbican theatre, where it must eventually arrive.

Benedict Nightingale (review date 27 November 1981)

SOURCE: "Officer Class," in New Statesman, Vol. 102, No. 2,645, November 27, 1981, p. 35.

The heroine of All's Well crams the ailing King of France with late-medieval antibiotic, then sends him the bill for his cure, which turns out to be her marriage to a young nobleman she's no reason to suppose is more enamoured of herself than of his horse; and the hero, Bertram, seems even less admirable. As Dr Johnson bluntly put it, he's

a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she [seems to be] dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness.

And it isn't just a question of botched and bungled sympathies. Several times one feels the plot is making grossly unreasonable demands on characters too strongly individualised plausibly to submit to them; and nowhere more so than at the end. Helena inveigles a ring and a pregnancy from Bertram by slyly exploiting his promiscuity, and the 'young cub' is promptly transformed into the once and future Darby to her Joan, passionately promising to love her 'ever, ever dearly'. How's a director who refuses to see the play as a symbolic study of providential reconciliation and regeneration (the sort of interpretation that always works better on the page than the stage) to prevent us rejecting its people as inconsistent, obnoxious, and worse?

Well, Trevor Nunn's first expedient is to make it clear that his Helena is actuated, not by any social ambition, but by a love that engulfs convention, tact, common sense, everything; and in this he's hugely helped by Harriet Walter, half-fighting the husky longings that insist on competing with the grief she wants to feel for her recently-dead father, yet increasingly managing to convince herself that the quality and quantity of the passion she has to offer Bertram make marriage with him feasible. Why not? Besides, isn't there a suggestion, the sort wishful thinking can easily magnify, that the might just care for her? We understand, assent, as Nunn also persuades us to do when he comes to Mike Gwilym's Bertram, whose excuses include the instinctive arrogance of his class ('a poor physician's daughter my wife!!!!'), his caste's callow preoccupation with military glory, and, of course, the perversity of the way the king pays his debts. Why should a spirited young blood submit to having his name substituted for the pounds, shillings and pence on the cheque an old man sends his doctor?

Here, Nunn gets what help he can from Lindy Hemming's Edwardian-Ruritanian costumes and John Gunter's splendidly adaptable set, a great Victorian conservatory capable of becoming a ballroom, a gymnasium, a cafè, Florence railway station and (it seems) the field of the battle that occurs on or around Platform Two. This was a period when the officer code would permit or even encourage Bertram to behave as he does; and, thanks to Mr Nunn's unerring feel for detail rather subtler than the planes, trains and cars we hear buzzing or puffing offstage, it also turns out to be a period so rich in atmosphere, so evocative and captivating, that it seems almost ungrateful to point to the one place where the production does not work.

The problem, God knows, isn't Bertram's mum, who is Peggy Ashcroft serenely exuding a melancholy benignity. It isn't Bertram's caddish fellow-officer Parolles, played by Stephen Moore first with a swaggering growl, later with a rueful, self-recognising shrug, both keeping him safely this side of caricature. Nor is it the unusual affection Gwilym is allowed to show Moore, and, hence, his greater-than-average disillusionment after his chum's exposure as a cheat, drone and coward. Nor is it even the suggestion that Bertram, having spotted the dross behind Parolles's gold, becomes maturer, more clear-sighted, better able to recognise the gold behind Helena's apparent dross. All this is intellectually admirable, and more; but it still fails to solve the eternal problem of the ending, at which our hero needs, not just to see the heroine's value, but actually to love her. Indeed, the production is so admirable that it tends to prove the ending unworkable, the fault Shakespeare's.

The production's excellence leaves me little space either for Natasha Morgan's sensitive and visually arresting tone-poem about mothers and motherhood, or David Rudkin's more coarsely comic handling of some of the same ambiguities and contradictions. Having recently read a Siberian version of the same myth, in which the Hansel-surrogate gobbles the dying witch's streaming fat, only to be transformed into a kid and eaten by the witch's daughter, I expected something robust; and, on the whole, I got it. But Rudkin isn't content to suggest that Brenda Bruce, playing the demon-mother, represents dark and baleful forces which our 'rational' society ignores at its peril. She also seems meant to be the unacceptable face of feminism, the arrogant British establishment, Lady Bountiful, and much else. I was held, entertained, intrigued; but not quite enough to convince me that the confusions I felt were worth disentangling.

Stanley Wells (review date 27 November 1981)

SOURCE: "When the Music Stops," The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,104, November 27, 1981. p. 1,392.

Trevor Nunn celebrates Peggy Ashcroft's return to Shakespeare and to Stratford with a brilliant, confident production of one of Shakespeare's more subdued and troubled comedies. The costumes are Edwardian both in design and in lavish multiplicity. John Gunter's elegant basic set of white arches with glass panels and roof, initially suggesting a conservatory, is marvellously adaptable. Each episode is firmly localized. The first court scene takes place in a gymnasium, the young lords fencing and vaulting, their rude health contrasting with the King's physical weakness; but they listen respectfully to his analysis of the virtues of Bertram's father. For the second court scene we are in club-land—the men in evening dress; green shaded lamps, brandy glasses and soda syphons on the gaming tables. "Firenze", a sign announces, and the set becomes a railway station which is also a transit camp—tents appear in the background—and later a field-hospital noisily close to the firing-line. There is a splendid, on-stage band for the procession of the French army ("Drum and colours. Enter Count Rossillion, Parolles, and the whole army" says the Folio direction). Then we are in a café, the dishes of the day chalked on a black-board; here the blindfolded Parolles is interrogated, horrific instruments of torture suggested by the scratching of a fork on a tin plate. All is elegance again for the final scene, as champagne flows for the King's visit to the Countess.

Transitions between scenes, helped by Guy Woolfenden's evocative musical pastiches, are smooth and ingenious. Travelling becomes a visual and aural motif. We realize how full of comings and goings the play is as cars rev their engines and characters dress for journeys, depart with their suitcases, and re-enter with them, too, even into the royal presence.

Such specificity is inherently entertaining, and often illuminating. It suits the play's psychological naturalism, the qualities that caused Shaw to compare it with A Doll's House and its heroine with Nora. We are made acutely aware of its concern with embarrassment: Helena's as she is provoked to confess her love for Bertram, the courtiers' at Bertram's rejection of her, Parolles's when the bandage is removed from his eyes and he sees that he is in the presence of those he has slandered, Bertram's at his parting from Helena, refusing her request for a kiss, and, climactically, when faced with the evidence of his own perfidy. A place is created within the play's updated structure for the clown, Lavache. At Stratford in 1959 Tyrone Guthrie, also updating, funked him altogether. Nunn has Geoffrey Hutchings play him as a physically deformed appendage of the Countess's household, sweeping the floor, occasionally entrusted with messages. Peggy Ashcroft exquisitely defines an indulgent tolerance of his winking and blinking presence, treating him as a simpleton with his own kind of shrewdness and a power to amuse. For once, and with her help, his set-piece on "O Lord, Sir" becomes genuinely comic.

The precision of Dame Peggy's characterization shifts the balance of her role away from poetic generality to personal expression. "Even so it was with me when I was young" is not (as Edith Evans made it) a meditation but a statement. This is a practical woman, warm in her sympathies but capable of ironic detachment, most moving in the little scene (3.4) with her Steward (Bert Parnaby) in which she expresses the dilemma of her divided affections and confesses her grief.

Best of all, perhaps, the naturalism works in the relationship of Bertram and Parolles, which becomes the most interesting in the play. Mike Gwilym portrays Bertram initially as a callow cad, affectionate and respectful towards his mother but over-dominated by Parolles. His evident immaturity assists the credibility of his response to Helena's choice of him for a husband. The director builds to this moment with great skill and care. The King, in high good humour, stage-manages a parade of the young lords before Helena, and in an enchantingly pretty sequence of dances she eliminates them one by one each time the music stops, until only Bertram remains. He has joined cheerfully in the game, but anger and resentment supervene as the King enforces Helena's decision; Bertram's submission is petulant. The scene, excellent though it is, would be stronger if Helena's humiliation were more forcibly conveyed. At its end Bertram takes Parolles's cheroot from his mouth, tries to smoke it, but chokes and gives up. The handling of the exposure of Parolles is notable no less for the subtlety of its comedy than for the grief and disillusionment it arouses in Bertram, and for the reality which Stephen Moore gives to Parolles's determination to survive.

If, until the play's last moments, Bertram seems more interesting in relation to Parolles than to Helena, it is partly because the production style is less than ideally suited to some aspects of Helena's role. Harriet Walter's performance, carefully studied, graceful, often touching, nevertheless misses some of its poetic power. She is not helped by having to deliver the incantatory couplets with which she works upon the King across a table full of brandy glasses. John Franklyn-Robbins makes a fine moment of the acknowledgement of weakness in his subsequent acceptance of her help.

Diana, too, is diminished by being carefully particularized; the role loses some of the symbolical aspects hinted at in the name. It is not impossible that an attractive girl who sings seductive songs, dances and shows her petti-coats to soldiers in a café should take pride in her chastity, but it is difficult to believe that she should be "of a most chaste renown" in the camp. In the final scene, however, Cheryl Campbell gives Diana a dignity which rebukes the coarseness of Bertram's taunts. Here the production's psychological realism reaps its rewards in a complex counter-pointing of emotions. Parolles is despicable, yet Lafeu (a beautifully poised performance by Robert Eddison) is generous to him; Bertram is contemptible, but we have seen that he can learn from experience, and Helena, forgives him. If his progress to maturity is halting, yet he is willing at last to accept Helena as a wife in reality as well as in name, and to ask her pardon. The Epilogue is dropped in this production. As the lights fade, Helena and Bertram are left alone, tentatively touching hands. There is still no kiss. A precarious rapport has been achieved; the ending may also be a beginning.

Michael Billington (review date 29 November 1981)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in Manchester Guardian Weekly, Vol. 125, No. 22, November 29, 1981, p.20.

Stratford's main house productions this year have been very patchy. But Trevor Nunn's production of All's Well That Ends Well, strikes me even in the breathless rush induced by a late curtain, as an incipient masterpiece. It takes a dark difficult play and turns it into that rarest of things: a realistic fairy tale.

Very like Guthrie in his ecstatic 1959 version (which I never thought to see bettered) Nunn distinguishes clearly between the play's separate worlds. The Countess of Rossillion (Peggy Ashcroft playing with a wealth of humorous silver-haired compassion) occupies a Chekhovian world of wicker chairs, towering fern and chiming clocks. The fistula-stricken French King inhabits a Novello court packed with peacock captains who vault, fence, dance, and sport like Ruritanian princes. And when the action moves to the Florentine wars we are in a world of brass bands, smoke filled estaminets and peachy nurses who might have stepped out of Oh What A Lovely War!

But although the action—framed by John Gunter's pillared Victorian conservatory set—floats anachronistically between several periods and worlds, it has in this production a binding emotional reality. Thus Harriet Walter's tender Helena is not a ruthless Shavian go-getter but a love stricken medico's daughter, seemingly always on the verge of tears and bursting with passion.

At first there is a teasing playfulness about her selection of Bertram as a husband through the process of an elimination dance at court. But Nunn turns this to naked anguish when Mike Gwilym's ferocious Bertram spits out, "I can't love her" with Strindbergian intensity. You feel she can't help loving this utterly worthless man; and the end acquires a bitter irony as tentatively holding hands, they fade into dusk and the pain of an unequal relationship.

What is impressive, however, is the way Nunn throughout keeps the balance between comic hoopla and emotional pain. Stephen Moore's Parolles is, for example, a splendidly conceived braggart dandy decorated in white scarves like a walking Christmas tree. Yet the famous scene when he is literally hoodwinked and exposed is both funny and uneasy.

We laugh as a fork is scraped against a silver salver to produce the sound of torture instruments. Yet when he describes Bertram as "a foolish, idle boy but very ruttish" we realise he speaks the blunt truth. And the realism of his interrogation even down to the proffered cigarette and glass of water, has something of the cruelty of the dulling of Malvolio.

What Nunn has done is to reconcile the diverse elements of a "mingled yarn" of a play. There is something wholly modern about Helena's reckless pursuit of a man who is an unredeemed monster. Yet when in the elegiac final scene the conservatory doors are flung wide open and she returns apparently from the dead to claim her man, we also seem to be in the realm of some twilit fairy tale. This is pure theatrical alchemy and it is achieved by putting real, suffering people into an unreal situation.

It is also the result of some very good acting to which I would add the names of John Franklyn Robbins, as a tetchy monarch transformed from chairbound invalid to epauletted dancer and of Robert Eddison, who surrounds Lord Lafew with an aura of benign wisdom. By the end you have been taken into a world of magic; but one in which the lovers live painfully ever after.

Sheridan Morley (review date 14 July 1982)

SOURCE: "Gay Liberation," in Punch, Vol. 283, No. 7,391, July 14, 1982, p. 64.

To the Barbican from last winter at Stratford has come Trevor Nunn's enchanting All's Well That Ends Well, though in promoting Philip Franks to the key role of Bertram (in place of a curiously absent Mike Gwilym) it would perhaps have been more tactful if the management had also removed his name from the understudy list in the programme. But the utter delight of this production lies in fact in its senior casting: Peggy Ashcroft as the Countess, Robert Eddison (the actor with the most melodious voice in the British theatre, Gielgud notwithstanding) as Lafeu and Griffith Jones as the Gentleman all give vintage classical performance of a kind that have for too long been absent.

Like the late Tyrone Guthrie in his 1959 Stratford revival, Nunn also assumes that All's Well needs a considerable amount of stage help: thus we get a production set somewhere halfway from the Cherry Orchard to Oh What A Lovely War! and filled with star turns, not least Cheryl Campbell playing Diana as a World War I cafe chanteuse and Stephen Moore as the Parolles against which all others in our lifetime will have to be measured—a marvellous mix of braggart and tragic buffoon, whose subplot unexpectedly takes over and controls the whole of the second half of the evening. John Franklyn-Robbins may lack the absolute monarchical control to get us through the "Proud scornful boy" speech and the longest wrap-up in the whole of Shakespeare, but elsewhere the balance is just about perfect, not least in Harriet Walter's understanding of Helena as the great martyr-bitch.

And while she is away at the wars with the menfolk, back home in Rossillion waits the Countess in a Chekhovian twilight; Peggy Ashcroft's extraordinarily lyrical, unusually maternal performance manages with rare perfection to highlight Nunn's realisation that this is a play about the parting of two worlds, both doomed to eventual extinction, one by its own inertia and the other by the guns of war. Here as in his celebrated musical Comedy of Errors, Mr Nunn has taken Shakespeare at his shakiest and come up with a resounding if anarchic triumph.

Mark Amory (review date 17 July 1982)

SOURCE: "The Pursuit of Love," in The Spectator, Vol. 249, No. 8,036, July 17, 1982, pp. 24-5.

Harriet Walter is peculiarly skilful at conveying an agony of uncertain emotion, often a love not confident that it is returned. Her sentences fidget as much as her gestures, neither reaching completion without a break, her head bobs, the warm distinctive voice hurries and halts. After one enigmatic sentence in All's Well that Ends Well we know that she is all of a dither and probably in love; in a moment she is pouring it all out in the best known lines of this lesser known play. An orphan, the daughter of a doctor, she has been taken in by a kindly countess (Peggy Ashcroft) and fallen unsuitably for Bertram, the son of the house: "Twere all one that I should love a bright particular star and think to wed it, he is so above me.' The date has been moved to the beginning of this century (klaxons constantly sound to summon slow leavers) so when she pursues her man to court, she is in immediate descent from the more active Victorian heroines and totally sympathetic. What else could the poor girl do, moulder at home as a companion? That sympathy is stretched thin through the evening and, Miss Walter often absent, almost snaps. She cures the sick king only so that he should give her Bertram as a reward. If he were pleased to be won, all would have ended well at the interval, a fairy story concluded; but there are real emotions and straggling, untidy characters to contend with. Bertram, married against his will (he is very young) flees to the wars uttering one of those cryptic conditions that have to be repeated in slow tones so that the audience can get the hang of it and, unlikely though it seems, are infallibly fulfilled. If Macbeth had been at all well read in this sort of thing he would have kept a constant eye on Dunsinane knowing that Birnam Wood was sure to pop up sooner or later. This one concerns the exchange of rings and entails Harriet Walter relentlessly pursuing the reluctant Bertram still further and arranging to substitute herself in his bed without his noticing, as in opera.

Shakespeare's plots seldom sound promising in synopsis but much of the credit for turning this into an evening of elegance and even wonder belongs to Trevor Nunn and John Gunter, the designer. At the outset two half-seen figures meet, twirl and part beneath a sort of high-class greenhouse and the result is enchanting. However, this comedy is not at all funny. Captain Parolles, a braggart, has his moments as he is Stephen Moore but his exposure is humiliating and painful, not funny. They do all they can with Lavache, one of those word-spinning clowns; Geoffrey Hutchings is cast and plays it in a comic voice (yokel) and a funny position (bent double), singing the worst bits. Not a smile. Peggy Ashcroft looks amused to show us the way, then grows impatient, which makes us feel better about doing the same. I am told the way to make a London audience laugh at bad jokes is to translate them into French. Never mind, they hardly mar the evening.

Russell Jackson (review date October 1982)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well that Ends Well, in Cahiers Elisabethains, No. 22, October, 1982, pp. 97-9.

They say miracles are past, says Lafew in Act II, scene 3 [II. 1-3] of All's Well That Ends Well, and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless. By choosing to set the play at the end of the nineteenth century and (at times, it seems) the beginning of the twentieth, Trevor Nunn has evoked an age when Shavian philosophical persons were crying down the supernatural and causeless and finding in humanity itself the Life Force that changes the world and gives its inhabitants what they want. The spirit and enterprise of Helena, Parolles' optimism that simply the thing he is shall make him live and the success of the old doctor's 'receipt' are part of this world. This Parolles is an amiable realist, a coward still, but with shades of Bluntschli the 'chocolate soldier' about him. Helena is now reminiscent of Ann Whitefield in Man and Superman, who inspires confidence as a person who will do nothing she does not mean to do, but she does not (as Shaw's character does) inspire the fear that she will probably do everything she means to do without taking more account of other people than may be necessary and what she calls right. At the same time, Nunn's production has a Chekhovian quality. Its impressive, beautiful, shifting scenes move from country house to gymnasium, palace ballroom, Florence railway station, trattoria—and back again to the conservatory of the Countess's house, with its subtle autumnal lights and shadows. There is a strong sense of a journey that brings Bertram and Helena back where they belong: at the beginning of the play we see two shadowy figures dancing a tentative waltz in silhouette, before the screens slide across and the furniture of the countess's drawing-room is brought in; as the lights fade before the interval Helena stands, one arm raised against the door-jamb, gazing into the world outside the château; at the end Bertram and Helena move, hesitant and not quite holding hands, towards a new life. Without convincing the audience that there is something deeply unsatisfying in the conclusion, the production respects the conditional mood of the king's All yet seems well …

In the first scene Bertram leaves a world of love—the giggling troubled chambermaids suggest that he has been the observed of all observers in this little community—in which the Countess is the central figure, linking in her affections youth and age. The fine balance of her opening words (In delivering my son from me I bury a second husband) is maintained: this world is wistful, not melancholic. We sense throughout that Rousillon is an accommodating home, in which it is affection that is remembered, and where Lavatch has his place as well as Lafew. The bond between Peggy Ashcroft's Countess and Geoffrey Hutchings' clown is succinctly conveyed in the care with which she straightens his muffler as he sets out for Paris, and the pat on the head she gives him before he shuffles off. The courtesy of her talks with Lafew illuminates our sense of a considerate, kindly woman at ease with her contemporaries and able to make the young feel easy in her presence. It is a community of solicitude in which even Rinaldo, with his notes on Helena's overheard intentions, seems considerate rather than nosey. Nunn extends this to the army and the diplomatic corps, making the Dumaine brothers earnest and compassionate spectators of Bertram's career. Their discussion is IV. 3 of Bertram's dealings with Diana and Helena (for they are given the 'first' and 'second lords' Unes) is the culmination of observation that has run through the play. This gives As we are ourselves, what things we are! [IV. iii. 20] a fresh authority: reinforcing its connection with Parolles' acceptance of the thing he is and with the play's central 'problem'—what sort of thing is Bertram?

Mike Gwilym plays Bertram as a callow, often graceless youth, sometimes awkward (he doesn't even put his case down to shake hands with the King), often spiteful (especially in Here comes my clog [II. v. 53]) and, for all his preening himself after the event, distinctly unskilful in handling Diana. He offers her a chair, but she sits in another one; he pours champagne, but she doesn't drink; he tries to deny the ring as an honour 'longing to his house [IV. ii. 42] but can't argue when she flings his own words back at him. This Bertram's embarrassment is disturbing and inescapable, from his callous partings with Helena to his boggling shrewdly under the interrogation of the King. People are constantly offering affection, but a confused, adolescent sense of his need to assert his own worth drives him away. The affair with Diana looks to him like a triumph, but Parolles' shameful unmasking is Bertram's as well. Then, just when we think he has been chastened by experience, he starts lying to the King. This Bertram is beginning an education when he takes up his marriage again. In a final scene where he is driven into isolation by his deceit, crushed by what he insists (like Parolles in his hour of crisis) is a plot, he is at last offered redemption through Helena. His silence seems (at least, to this observer) to come from astonishment as much as from a fixed habit of callousness. Bertram's if seemed wondering rather than sceptical, admiring rather than conditional. Nunn—with the help of his lighting designer—gives us the picture of Helena, upstage, bathed in rose light, radiant in herself, a figure returned like Hermione and Thaisa from the dead, but he holds the moment only for the time it requires, before moving back to the explanations required by our philosophical persons. The actress herself—Harriet Walter—has the ability to project passion and reason, so that Helena's 'revival' is a mystery of human resourcefulness rather than divine intervention. From her first-act discussion of virginity,—when Parolles speaks directly to her own feelings without being himself aware of anything other than the pleasure of talking bawdy to a maid—to the stratagems in Florence, she seems capable of being innocent without needing to be ignorant of sexuality and the world. Her pilgrim's dress suggests a red-cross nurse rather than a religious enthusiast, a pardonable sleight of the costume-designer's hand. Her selfless determination to leave Rousillon (at the end of III. 2) seems an appalling self-sacrifice but a logical one, given the selfless quality of her love: She does not suggest cunning, or the desire to find Bertram out, but at the same time she does not seem mawkishly devoted. She is a 'New Woman' of the 1890s in love, not a mid-Victorian heroine.

The cohesion and persuasiveness of the production are remarkable: it does not forfeit the Shavian realism, but avoids the cocksure, throw-away cynicism that can attend it; it maintains its wryness, but achieves the satisfaction of en ending which one recent critic has summed up as "a mood of hope and promise, satisfying our expectations and leaving us with a belief in the possibility of future joy." The final contrivance is Helena's, time's and intellect's and is to be rejoiced in—not the dramatist's, to be caviled at.

Some details jar. The scenes in the trattoria behind the front line are amusing, but do not quite fit with the widow's reputation as landlady to pilgrims (surely the noise from downstairs disturbs their devotions?). Diana (Cheryl Campbell) is a cabaret artiste with a good line in saucy songs for soldiers (one of Miss Campbell's own composing, entitled Je m'en fous!), and this sorts uneasily with her reputation for chastity. But other incidental matters are satisfying to a remarkable degree—notably the relationship between Lafew (Robert Eddison) and Parolles and the shrewd, unhappy Lavatch. It seems entirely appropriate that Lavatch should be the last to leave the stage before the formal exit of Bertram and Helena—a touch of scepticism, but no more than that.

This is a handsome and illuminating production, leaving the audience convinced that there is a problem in All's Well, but that it is a problem of life, not of an imperfection in the playwright's art. We accept that it is against the odds, but we applaud the miracle of Helena's triumph.

John Simon (review date 25 April 1983)

SOURCE: "Dubious Blessings," in New York Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 17, April 25, 1983, pp. 89-92.

All's Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare's more mystifying plays. The date of composition is uncertain, but even more so is the meaning. Academic debate still thrives on whether this is dark comedy, related to Measure for Measure, or a sunny whirligig, akin to Twelfth Night. The very heroine, Helena, who stops at nothing to win the unloving and unlovable man she loves, is seen by Hazlitt as having "not one thought or action that ought to bring a blush into her cheek," and, antithetically, by the eminent E.K. Chambers as passing "from dishonor to dishonor," and, in the "degrading" pursuit of Bertram, "trail[ing] her honor in the dust." Certain it is that Bertram is a fool, and that he abhors Helena; can we, then, respect a woman, however plucky and resourceful, who thinks to find happiness with such a one for "his arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls"? By today's standards, scarcely.

But if we consider the story's origins—via Boccaccio and Painter—in ancient folk tales (cf. Cupid and Psyche) about a diligent and intrepid girl earning some mighty husband the tough way, All's Well makes at least historic sense. Yet even with Shakespeare's "modernizing" improvements this Bertram and Helena are harder to take than the Decameron's Beltramo and Giletta, who, thanks to the brief narrative's rapidity and translucency, remain innocent enough archetypes rather than clammily alive, censurable human beings. So a sensible production would push All's Well as far back in time as possible, to make its unpalatable elements take on a mythic disembodiedness. Trevor Nunn, the director of this Royal Shakespeare Company revival, chooses the opposite tack: He updates to vaguely World War I times, which affords him all kinds of nostalgic cutenesses but clashes painfully with the play's language, mores, and inner logic.

This is, however, glossed over by every sort of farcical, romantic, and visually titillating (as in Nunn's Nickleby and Cats) strategy, which obscures the meaning—or meanings—in favor of an extravaganza midway between The Student Prince and Balanchine's shoddy Vienna Waltzes. If this kind of slick nonsense—not to say contresens—is to your taste, All's Well will start, continue, and end well for you. The physical production has a nice blend of meandering and sweep to it,' even if John Gunter's scenery is routine, Lindy Hemming's costuming hit-or-miss, and Robert Bryan's lighting too clever by half. There remains, though, Guy Woolfenden's engaging music, polished albeit undistinguished ensemble acting, and Shakespeare's second-best, and thus still champion, writing.

The acting, alas, is that kind of rote, civilized, accomplished but likewise second-best, British acting that goes down effortlessly but unthrillingly like the better English cuisine: Most actors have fine moments among others that are merely respectable. Standing out from this jolly gelatin are only, for good, Margaret Tyzack's quietly intense Countess and, for ill, Philip Franks's singsongy if not actually dithering Bertram and Harriet Walter's ungainly Hexlena. Ho hum—or fo fum—I smelled the bloodlessness of an English mummery.

Roger Warren (review date Spring 1983)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare in Stratford and London, 1982," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 79-80.

The Royal Shakespeare Company staged several interesting new productions in 1982, both in London, where Henry IV opened the company's new theatre in the Barbican Centre, and at Stratford-upon-Avon, where the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre had once again been remodeled. The outstanding Shakespearean achievement of 1982 was not a new production, however, but the transfer of Trevor Nunn's 1981 Stratford production of All's Well That Ends Well to the Barbican, where it blossomed into the finest and most illuminating interpretation of a Shakespeare play for many years.

Trevor Nunn believes that All's Well is "Shakespeare's most Chekhovian play" (The Times, 19 November 1981), and John Gunter's brilliantly imaginative Edwardian sets established a very strong sense of the general period and of each of the play's very specific, sharply contrasted locations. Within a framework of elegant metal arches, sliding glass panels enabled the action to move swiftly and flexibly between the airy conservatory at Rossillion, the King's formal court at Paris, the station platform at Florence as the troops arrived there, and the marvelously atmospheric down-at-heel café run by the Widow and much frequented by the troops, which became the appropriate setting for both of the shady transactions of the second half: Bertram's pursuit of Diana, and the interrogation of Parolles.

At Stratford the general tone of the production had been intimate and conversational. The Barbican version gave fuller value to the variety of mood and human experience the play contains—from the urbane poise of Peggy Ashcroft's Countess and Robert Eddison's Lafew to the passionate resentment with which John Franklyn-Robbins' King responded to his illness, from the relaxed confidence of Stephen Moore's Parolles to the despairing intensity of Harriet Walter's Helena. The company displayed a remarkable control of rapidly changing moods within single scenes, especially in the scene when Bertram rejected Helena and in the finale.

Helena chose Bertram during a dance from which the other suitors were eliminated as in a game of musical chairs, to humorous effect. But whereas other productions have allowed the audience's laughter to continue, disastrously, during Bertram's humiliation of Helena, here the mood changed sharply: the fluttering fans which had earlier suggested social frivolity now expressed the court's recoiling from Bertram's scorn for "a poor physician's daughter" [II. iii. 115]. Bertram looked Helena straight in the eyes to say very deliberately "I cannot love her, nor will strive to do't" [II. iii. 145]; she, for her part, was furious as well as desperate as she tried forcibly to prevent the King from joining their hands: "That you are well restored, my lord, I'm glad. / Let the rest go" [II. iii. 147-48]. And Bertram's very emphatic delivery of "she, which late / Was in my nobler thoughts most base" [II. iii. 170-71] made it quite clear that he had not changed his attitude, even in the act of capitulating to the King. The mixture of compliance and stubborn individuality which emerged from this speech was a very interesting anticipation of his notorious final couplet: this was demonstrably the same man who could say "If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly, / I'll love her dearly—ever, ever dearly" [V. iii. 315-16].

And, indeed, this Bertram was consistent right to the end. When Helena finally appeared, he went to take her hand, but didn't actually do so; instead he spoke that cryptic, conditional couplet. This wary meeting between husband and wife contrasted strikingly with Helena's intensely moving reunion with the Countess, which in its turn contrasted with Robert Eddison's impeccable timing of the line in which Shakespeare releases all the pent-up tension: "Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon" [V. iii. 320]. Left alone, Bertram and Helena walked upstage together, their hands still apart, the final image of an unequal marriage.

This ending could be presented in all its unsentimental complexity because it had been so thoroughly prepared for, and particularly because the central performances contained within themselves the variety which distinguished the whole production. Whereas Mike Gwilym had been a rather monotonously loutish Bertram at Stratford, at the Barbican Philip Franks was young, attractive, and not wholly insensitive. He did not soften Bertram's cruel refusal to give Helena the kiss she asks for; but in his next phrase, "Go thou toward home" [II. v. 90], resentment gave way to pain in his face and voice on the word "home," momentarily expressing his desolate sense of the world he was giving up. This of course gave even greater force to the moment when Helena calls him by his family name as she prepares to leave so that he may return: "come thou home, Rossillion" [III. ii. 120]. Moments like these meant that one's interest was divided more equally than usual between the two of them. They both learned hard truths during the intrigues in Florence. Philip Franks was visibly shaken by ParoUes' betrayal, another scene in which the company moved easily between humorous invention and disturbing human reality. Harriet Walter realized the full bitterness of "O strange men! / That can such sweet use make of what they hate" [IV. iv. 21-2]. But it was typical of the balance of the production that she should go on to give equal emphasis to Helena's hopes for the future:

  the time will bring on summer,
When briars shall have leaves as well as thorns,
And be as sweet as sharp. [IV. iv. 31-3]

The blend of sweetness and sharpness in that image, as in the whole play and in this production, was embodied in Peggy Ashcroft's superlative performance as the Countess of Rossillion. The Countess' bittersweet "remembrances of days foregone" [I. iii. 134], which make her so sympathetic to Helena's love ("This thorn / Doth to our rose of youth rightly belong" [I. iii. 129]) were delivered with a haunting lyrical beauty; and she brought an exquisitely compassionate humor to her scenes with Helena and with Lavatch. After Helena's "Can't no other, / But I your daughter, he must be my brother?" [I. iii. 166] the beautifully timed pause before she replied "Yes, Helen" was so eloquent that she scarcely needed to add "you might be my daughter-in-law" [I. iii. 167]. Both here and in her wry testing of Helena—"This was your motive / For Paris, was it?" [I. iii. 231]—humor and tenderness were inseparable, as so often in Shakespearean comedy. Lavatch's jokes on "O Lord, sir!" [II. ii. 41] may show no great wit, but Peggy Ashcroft took the wish for the deed, laughing and patting Geoffrey Hutchings affectionately. The warm human relationship established here between employer and clown was precisely what was fatally absent from the Stratford King Lear. …

The very clarity of this production threw its rare moments of excess into sharp relief, especially the RSC's current fetish for intrusively busy backgrounds. The court gawping in curiosity at the hunchbacked Lavatch, a bevy of parlor-maids giggling, weeping, and finally being ushered out of the room to prevent them from hearing about the young master's peccadillos—these distracted from more important considerations and were a tiresome example of Trevor Nunn's irritating habit of trying to create a "company" feeling artificially by pretending that the minor actors are as important as the major ones.

Roger Boxill and Arthur Ganz (review date Winter 1983)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare in New York City," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 472-74.

A problem comedy, a late romance, and a history play were the most notable Shakespeare offerings in town during the spring and summer of 1983. The RSC's All's Well packed them in at the usually hard-luck Martin Beck, an outpost of Broadway on a block dominated by the tenements of Hell's Kitchen. …

At least one auditor at a preview of the Royal Shakespeare Company's heralded production of All's Well That Ends Well (which opened at the Martin Beck on April 13th) found himself recalling Chekhov's annoyance at Stanislavsky's persistence in introducing bird calls into the exterior scenes of his plays. This reaction was not really irrelevant, for the artfully arranged cooings and twitterings that seemed to greet the ear whenever the scene shifted to Rossillion suggest more than one might expect about the tone and style of this production. A Chekhovian hint was, in fact, intended, the director, Trevor Nunn (of Nickleby and Cats fame), having begun with the idea of "a 19th-century or early 20th-century world, a house from Chekhov's Seagull' in the country and a belle époque exuberance when the action moves to Paris" (quoted in the 19 April 1982 New York Times). Moreover, the obsessive attention to such evocative detail, supportive of Nunn's reading—e.g., that the Countess is not an elegant aristocrat but a member of the landed gentry, whose baggy sweater tells us that she does a good deal of her own gardening, getting her hair quite unstuck in the process—was at once this production's glory and its curse.

"Surrender to the romance," the slogan on the newspaper advertisements invited us, and we did, especially when the panels that delineated the gentle, gray, closed-in world of Rossillion slid back to reveal the full set (designed by John Gunter), a grand, open evocation of Crystal-Palace architecture in the form of a white metal and glass conservatory cum railroad station, which easily converted into a behind-the-front-lines bistro and various other locations. And when the Paris action began with the elder Dumaine—clearly having just leaped from his Nieuport bi-plane to deliver a message to the King—arriving on stage, splendid in puttees, goggles, silk scarf, and leather flying jacket, we were only at the beginning of a parade of costumer's delights and scenic ingenuities of a sort that few recent Shakespearean productions can have equaled. But finally, it was these effects that we waited for. Whether the Italian uniforms would surpass in nostalgic charm those of the French became the critical question. So delightfully whimsical were these military maneuvers that we would hardly have been surprised, and certainly not offended, if Snoopy had fluttered over the stage, his doghouse trailing its inevitable plume of smoke, vowing vengeance on the Red Baron. But inevitably these scenic and directorial treats drew us away from the darker elements of the play.

The sterile world of All's Well, the betterment of which remains in doubt after the snaring of Bertram by Helena, was not made clear by this decorative production in which the wicked satire that the fairy tale is interfused with was turned to pleasant foolery and the hard questions Shakespeare raises were submerged. There was nothing to make one question whether all does indeed end well, except perhaps for the two dancers in silhouette who waltzed in the middle of the dimly-lit stage before going their separate ways prior to the commencement of the elegiac first scene.

Philip Franks solved the problem of Bertram's scoundrelly behavior by looking very young and playing with the misplaced assurance of impetuous youth. His thin body, his round boyish face, his short haircut (with unsubdued cowlick), bis rushed delivery, his eager gestures, his slightly awkward stances projected a character of forgivable adolescent shallowness. Why Harriet Walter as Helena would follow him all over Europe was made comprehensible by her own slightly gawky characterization. With her long face and tall figure, her percussive movements, her sudden vocal attacks, and her quick-changing emotions, she established a comedic effect at the beginning that was never altogether lost.

As the mother to them both, Margaret Tyzack took everything very seriously indeed. Her earnest and compassionate Countess contrasted directly with Stephen Moore's Parolles, a smiling, jovial sportsman with massive strawberry-blond sideburns. The tall, ruddy-faced Moore, with his physical agility and wide vocal range, created an affable gladhander out of Bertram's cowardly and delusive comrade in arms. Geoffrey Hutchings made Lavache, clownish servant to the Countess, into a wry north-countryman whose body had been bent by deformity into a rigid right angle. As the King of France, John Franklyn-Robbins had a habit of dropping to one knee for an intimate chat with someone in the corner of a crowded stage, a posture that suggested that he was rather born to sue than to command. Admittedly, his Edwardian attire prevented him from establishing much regal authority to begin with. Nor was it Deirdra Morris' fault that her Diana was rendered unintelligible by the discrepancy between the bawdy French song she was given to sing for the soldiers in Florence and the spotless reputation she had to defend for the sake of both her family's honor and the play's denouement.

Nicholas Shrimpton (review date 1983)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare Performances in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, 1981-2," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 36, 1983, pp. 149-55.

All's Well That Ends Well, the masterly production which closed the 1980-I season, was explicitly and persuasively Edwardian; Proust rather than Dickens was its tutelary novelist. Rossillion was here very much provincial France, hot, dusty and contentedly remote. The Countess interviewed her clown (a rustic Toulouse-Lautrec) against a background of grey shutters and potted orange trees, while a distant bell and a twitter of bird song sketched in the landscape of Provence. Marcellus was Marseilles Station in the era of the steam train, and the King of France in the final scene looked like nothing so much as Napoleon III on a private visit to the Riviera. Throughout, the vivid sense of life in a late nineteenth-century French country-house was reinforced with touches of Upstairs, Downstairs. In the gaps between scenes a covey of maids romped or tidied, and when Helena returned from Paris in 3.2 her late arrival got them excitedly out of bed to let her in (a piece of atmospheric timing which led to some discreet rewriting—this Helena proposed to 'steal away' not with the 'dark' but with the 'dawn').

Trevor Nunn and his designer, John Gunter, carried off this chronological transposition with immense assurance. But the distinction of the production was that the striking décor was not merely picturesque. Helena's uncomfortable self-assertion was given an intellectual context by dressing her as a nineteenth-century New Woman. And, more subtly still, the sleepy sense of eternal afternoon which hung about this rural Rossillion made it possible to feel a degree of sympathy for Bertram.

At Stratford everybody's least favourite Shakespearian hero appeared as an overgrown adolescent desperate to escape from home and mother, and to live in a world of men. The manifest charm and comfort of Peggy Ashcroft's Rossillion ménage merely made this need more imperative. A teenage crush on a flashy cad like Parolles was natural enough when life as a mother's boy loomed and the only other models of male behaviour were an elderly steward and a crippled clown. Mike Gwilym's Bertram, consequently, treated Helena less as a social inferior than as one of the apron strings which he needed so urgently to sever, and played the first scene in a breathless rush to get out of the front door before he was stopped.

The nineteenth-century setting brought faint memories of Julien Sorel or Lucien Chardon to this eagerness to shake the dust of the terroir from his feet and make a career in Paris. The cluster of solicitous maids underlined his hunger for the company of men. Suffocating in a provincial boudoir, he clearly could not wait to breathe the sour air of the locker-room.

By one of this production's most brilliant touches, a locker-room was precisely where he next found himself. The King of France, though confined to a wheelchair, was in the gymnasium with his officers when the young Count Rossillion arrived at court. Their fencing and vaulting were so exciting that Bertram could scarcely keep his eyes on his monarch; the delivery of urgent dispatches by a pair of pioneer aviators brought an intoxicating whiff of the great world outside. An exquisite transition from this electrifying activity to the remoteness and tedium of the country, at the beginning of 1.3, brought the point unforgettably home.

Back in the country, meanwhile, a very remarkable performance was being given by Peggy Ashcroft, returning to the Stratford stage after an absence of thirteen years. Her hands flickering with the nervous precision of pointers on a dial, she handled Harriet Walter's raw and uneasy Helena with surgical delicacy. This, one felt, was a woman who had suffered and remembered the sensation, and who could combine worldly wisdom with profound personal engagement. 'Yes, Helen, you might be my daughter-in-law' [I. ii. 167] was delivered with extraordinary warmth and weight while a distraught Helena, unable to face such frankness, stared desperately into the audience.

A mother of this emotional power and intellectual skill might indeed drive a Bertram, however incoherently, to flight. And when, the gymnasium having given way first to an officers' mess and then to a belle époque ballroom, he was picked out by his bride in an elegant version of musical chairs, a sense of being dragged home to mother lay behind his dismay. In this production 'the dark house and the detested wife' [II. iii. 292] seemed, simultaneously, an absurd description of domestic life with Helena on the Countess's sunny and gracious domain, and an entirely reasonable account of how a young man in Bertram's position might see it. Helena did not seem wrong to want Bertram. But she did seem wrong to want him so soon.

This remarkable transformation of an unsympathetic play about worth rewarded into a sympathetic play about growing-up involved, of course, a certain amount of playing against the text. When the production transferred to the Barbican in July 1982, and Philip Franks replaced Mike Gwilym, the interpretation became more coherent but less exciting. Franks offered adolescent weakness rather than adolescent self-assertion. The benefit of this was that it came as less of a shock when, in the final scene, Bertram's horror at the prospect of marrying Diana reveals him to be a snob after all. The cost was a distinct lowering of the erotic temperature. Gwilym's rude and reckless Bertram might be immature, but he was clearly worth waiting for, even suffering for, as a sexual partner. This, importantly, meant that the customary contradiction between Helena's public intelligence and private stupidity was for once abolished. The New Woman seemed no more a fool when picking a husband than she had done when curing fistulas.

Trevor Nunn gave Helena's final entry an appropriate air of the Late Plays—an orange evening glow and a hush as absolute as that which greets the waking of Hermione's statue. But the sanctified atmosphere, magical though it was, rapidly modulated into something else. At the end of the play (the Epilogue was cut) Bertram and Helena were left nervously together, just touching hands. Shame and shyness were the predominant emotions. But under them was a distinct sub-text of aroused curiosity, and turbulent memories of a night spent together in Florence some months before. A prologue had shown two shadowy figures waltzing together. It combined excitingly with the final tableau to suggest a couple both together and apart.

Two other aspects of this important production demand to be mentioned. The Florentine wars were played as an exuberant version of the First World War on the Italian Front (Caporetto, after all, was very much Parolles's sort of battle). Cheryl Campbell's Diana, at some peril to her 'most chaste renown' [IV. iii. 15] appeared as a popular chanteuse in a crowded soldiers' estaminet, stray shells interrupted Bertram's promotion, and Helena's pilgrimage was to serve as a VAD in a casualty clearing station. The other matter of note was Stephen Moore's astonishing performance as Parolles. Arriving silently on Florence Station, at the end of 3.1, equipped for the war with his golf clubs, he survived a genuinely disturbing interrogation (spoons scraped against the estaminet's tin trays cruelly suggesting instruments of torture) to give a riveting account of 'Simply the thing I am' [IV. iii. 333] Standing motionless in a cold, blue light, Moore seemed on the verge of tears, yet judged and aimed the moral language of his self-analysis with cold precision. This was Trevor Nunn's last production at Stratford before the opening of the Barbican absorbed his energies. It combined sympathetic intelligence and emotional daring in a way which will make it a landmark in the company's history.

Geoffrey Hutchings (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Lavatch in All's Well that Ends Well," in Players of Shakespeare: Essays in Shakespearean Performance by Twelve Players with the Royal Shakespeare Company, edited by Philip Brockbank, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 77-90.

[In the following essay, Hutchings examines his approach to the character of Lavatch in Nunn's RSC production of All's Well That Ends Well.]

In 1926 fire almost totally destroyed the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. George Bernard Shaw sent a congratulatory telegram. The part left standing and incorporated into the new building is now used as a rehearsal room and is known as the Conference Hall. In 1979 the Royal Shakespeare Company had plans to convert this space into an intimate theatre for the performance of relatively rarely seen Shakespeare plays and other Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. The inaugural production was to be All's Well That Ends Well, directed by Trevor Nunn with Judi Dench as Helena and Dame Peggy Ashcroft as the Countess. I was asked to play Lavatch. £250,000 was needed for the initial conversion. On two or three occasions security of the sum seemed possible. One eccentric elderly millionairess offered the whole amount, provided the opening production was Hamlet—and that she could play Ophelia. In the end, the money was not forthcoming, the plan was shelved and the production cancelled.

In 1981, I was invited to rejoin the Company to play Lavatch in a production of All's Well destined for the main auditorium, directed by Trevor Nunn and, by great good fortune, with Dame Peggy as the Countess. I had just finished the previous season in London, playing Feste, and was to start this season with Autolycus, followed by Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Clown in Titus Andronicus, Launce, and ending with Lavatch. My early glances at the plays and the parts confirmed a vague suspicion that Lavatch was going to be the real challenge of the season.

During his initial, introductory talk to the Company about All's Well, Trevor Nunn described the reasons why he had wanted to do that particular play in the converted Conference Hall Theatre, had it come into being. He believed it was probably originally performed not at the open-air Globe Theatre but at an indoor theatre, much smaller, not far from the site of the RSC's new London home at the Barbican. He saw it as an intimate 'chamber' piece. The language is conversational rather than declamatory or rhetorical, and there is a finely-woven and rich subtext making comparisons with Tchekov obvious and frequent. These, then, were the reasons fro wanting to do that play in that space.

However, we were now to do it in the sixteen-hundred-seat main auditorium. One thing that most literary critics and students of Shakespeare agree on is that All's Well is not one of his most popular plays nor his most successful. One scholar goes so far as to suggest that it was written when the author was not in full possession of his faculties. The theatre history of the play has been chequered, to say the least. There had only been two productions of the play, prior to this one, by the RSC, in the past twenty-five years. It is described as a dark comedy, a problem play, but Nunn saw in it a quality of redemption, love and joy which because of its lack of exposure is seldom seen on stage. His intention was that it should be a bitter-sweet celebration of joy and hope. As rehearsals progressed we read the play aloud, scene by scene, analysing the text and discussing the narrative and the action. It became abundantly clear from the start that most people, some greatly experienced in working with Shakespeare texts, were having basic difficulties in understanding what they were reading and therefore in conveying the meaning to others equally bemused. However, thanks to annotated editions of the play, some painstakingly long discussions about differences of interpretation and, above all, the guidance of our skilful and articulate director, we arrived at a level of comprehension which, on rereading, made the scenes so clear that we wondered why initially we had thought them so difficult. This is the fascinating thing about the text of All's Well. It is dense. It is complex and convoluted, but once understanding has been achieved, it is so well constructed that it acquires a naturalness and almost modern conversational quality that is not apparent at first. It is also rich in variety.

The first scene opens with 'high' prose, a discussion of the merits of Helena and her father, Gerard de Narbonne, the King's illness and the passing away of the Count of Rossillion; a sensitive prelude to the Countess's farewell to and blessing of Bertram which is in irregular, halting blank verse, in close keeping with the emotion of a mother saying farewell to her only son. After a brief exchange in prose, Helena has her first soliloquy. She knows what she is feeling, there is no uncertainty, and this is reflected in the strong regular verse. Parolles enters and the scene reverts to prose, but of a far less stilted style than that at the opening of the scene. Here are two equals, both from 'below stairs', talking together, and although Helena speaks verse for a dozen lines, the scene continues in conversational prose, until she is left alone for her final soliloquy, which is in regular verse echoing her resolve to go to Paris after Bertram.

Shakespeare uses the variants of prose and verse at his disposal to change and match the mood of the scene. It was from this dense and complicated text, that I had to glean something of the character that I was eventually to portray. The work of an actor on a text is like that of a detective. You have to look for clues to the character's behaviour in what he says, to a certain extent in what others say about him, in what he does and the way in which others react to him. You then have to interpret those clues and bits of information and create in your mind an 'identikit' picture, which is then processed through your senses. Using your own experience, talent and ability, you hope to arrive at a comprehensible and recognizable human being as near as possible to the dramatist's original intentions.

There are essentially three types of Shakespearean clown. First, the Clown himself, whose origins are found in Spanish drama of the sixteenth century in the character of the 'bobo' (cf. booby). He is the archetypal village idiot, the simpleton, epitomized by the character of Peter Simple in The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Clown or Young Shepherd in The Winter's Tale also displays similar characteristics. Second, the Servant, typified by the Dromios in The Comedy of Errors and Launce and Speed in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Having a particular job or function which they perform reasonably competently, their value is enhanced by their wit and humour but their livelihood does not depend upon these skills. Finally, the Fool, the professional jester, who earns his living and maintains his position in the court or household by singing, jesting, mocking and entertaining. Of these there are only four in the whole canon: Feste, Touchstone, the Fool in King Lear and Yorick.

I fought hard to convince myself and others that Lavatch fell into this last category. The Countess says of him, that the late Count, her husband, 'made himself much sport out of him; by his authority he remains here, which he thinks is a patent for his sauciness; and indeed he has no pace, but runs where he will' (4.5.64-7).

This readiness to exceed the licence afforded them was common among professional jesters. Indeed, the opening scene between the Countess and Lavatch is strongly reminiscent of Feste's first encounter with Olivia in Twelfth Night. In both, the fools avoid severe reprimand by making light of the situation and joking. Remember, too, that Feste had been originally employed by the late head of the household; he was 'a fool the Lady Olivia's father took much delight in' [II. iv. 12]. What offences have been committed by the two characters are unknown but with skill and dexterity they avoid the wrath and censure of their respective employers.

What does Lavatch himself imply when asked directly by Lafew?

Lafew Whether dost thou profess thyself—a
   knave or a fool?
Clown A fool, sir, at a woman's service, and a
   knave at a man's.
Lafew Your distinction?
Clown I would cozen the man of his wife, and
   do his service.
Lafew So you were a knave at his service in-    deed.
Clown And I would give his wife my bauble,
   sir, to do her service.
Lafew I will subscribe for thee; thou art both
   knave and fool. (4.5.2-32)

Despite my original thoughts, more and more evidence of this kind suggested that he was in fact a combination of Clown and Servant, fulfilling some unspecified function at Rossillion, but having the licence to speak his mind in a witty and often outspoken way. Dame Peggy believed that he was the illegitimate son of the Count and a cook they once had. However, we do know that his roots are more likely to be rural than urban. The language he uses suggests a life spent on the land.

He that ears my land spares my team and gives me leave to in the crop. (1.3.44-5)

I am a woodland fellow, sir, that always loved a great fire. (4.5.47-8)

The word Clown ought to give us a clue but does not give us the whole answer. Throughout the play he is called 'a witty fool', 'sir knave', 'your worship', 'sirrah' (three times), 'sir' (five times), 'knave' (eight times), and finally, in the last scene with Parolles, and the only time in the play that he is referred to by name, 'Good Master Lavatch' [V. ii. 1]. The name itself is often a good clue to Shakespeare's characters. There are rural connections both in the French (la vache) and in the anglicized version. I live in Stroud in Gloucestershire and across the Slad valley from my house is a small collection of houses called the Vatch. I discovered, from research in the local library, that on the site once stood a mill which was used for the storing and processing of animal fodder from vetch, a plant of the pea family used, wild or cultivated, for forage. Lavatch's domicile at Rossillion in provincial France suggests country roots, and his attitude to the court and all that it stands for is seen in the following exchange with the Countess:

Clown I know my business is but to the court.
Countess To the court! Why, what place make
   you special, when you put off that with such
   contempt? But to the court!
Clown Truly madam, if God have lent a man
   any manners he may easily put it off at
   he that cannot make a leg, put off's cap,
   his hand, and say nothing, has neither leg,
   hands, lip, nor cap; and indeed such a fel-
   low, to
   say precisely, were not for the court. (2.2.4-

Incidentally, I wonder if the Elizabethan audience was quicker than our modern day audiences to pick up on this marvellous piece of 'sick' humour? The language is obscure to our ears, but the idea of a lipless, handless, legless person not really being suitable for court strikes me as high-quality black comedy.

Lavatch's contempt for the court is also shown when he describes the courtiers that have arrived at Rossillion with Bertram: 'Faith, there's a dozen of 'em with delicate fine hats and most courteous feathers which bow the head and nod at every man' (4.5.104-6). We also know that he is in service:

Service is no heritage, and I think I shall never have the blessing of God till I have issue a'my body; for they say barnes are blessings.


That man should be at woman's command, and yet no hurt done!


Many a man's tongue shakes out his master's undoing.


And Lafew directs him to let his horses be well looked to (4.5.58).

So having read aloud through four acts of the play, with discussion, I knew that Lavatch was rustic rather than urban, and was more likely to be primarily a servant rather than a professional fool. At this point in rehearsal Dickensian commitments took Trevor Nunn to Broadway for ten days. Just before leaving, he revealed his plans for the setting and historical context of the production.

There is a strong military presence in the play and to set it in Elizabethan times presents the problem of finding a recognizable and consistent design for the uniforms. To update the play too much would not be totally successful either. In our sophisticated world of nuclear and anti-nuclear warfare there is little room for the attitude displayed by the young bucks at the court of France, longing to prove themselves and seeing the battlefield as the ideal opportunity for them to win their spurs. The optimum historical setting seemed to be 1910, the Belle Epoque: Europe just after the turn of the century and just prior to the first major world confrontation. The importance of class in the play and the emergence of women in society were both helped by this choice. The set, designed by John Gunter, and the costumes by Lindy Hemming were spectacular, rich and extravagant, underlining Trevor Nunn's resolve to make the play work well in a larger space than that for which he had originally intended it.

Cicely Berry, the RSC's Director of Voice, had been taking regular classes with the Company in work connected with the play, reading and studying the metaphysical poets and looking at poems about war. In Trevor's absence we were left in her care and under her expert guidance. We continued to finish the reading and discussion work and then worked through the scenes in smaller groups, experimenting and trying them in various different ways. Dame Peggy had not yet joined the Company from Canada and another actress, Juliette Mole, very kindly volunteered to read the part of the Countess, and we had some exciting and lively sessions experimenting with the scenes - from rolling over and over on the floor (no mean feat reading a text at the same time!) to doing a scene with the Countess seated on my lap. The purpose of these exercises was to free the actor from any automatic or preconceived responses to the text and it brought to light important character attitudes which had nothing necessarily to do with the way in which we were doing the exercise. The one thing which was becoming more and more clear was the importance of the relationship between the Countess and Lavatch. A relationship which went beyond that of a mistress and her servant, a very deep understanding and love of the one for the other, which makes nonsense of Tyrone Guthrie's cutting the part of Lavatch totally from his 1959 production at Stratford-upon-Avon.

All through this initial period I was working without an accent. The choice of the right accent for a character is difficult. It's easy to do an accent, any accent, and then justify the reason for using it; but to find the right accent you must first know the character and be sure that the accent you choose fits that knowledge. Already this season I was using a London (Cockney) accent for Autolycus, a Northern (Leeds) accent for Bottom and a West Country accent for the Clown in Titus and Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I suspected, erroneously, that I should find a new accent for Lavatch. The error of my thinking lay in the fact that Lavatch is himself and not any other character, and it would be perfectly possible and right to play four different characters in the same accent (provided that it fitted each character) but still make them different. After all, my physical appearance is the same in all the other productions. I eventually decided to use my own original accent, South Dorset.

Where did the updating of the piece leave me? I had to find a modern function for the character that would allow him to behave in the way that he does. One of the recurrent topics of his conversation is religion; there are more than a dozen references to the Bible and the clergy:

I'm no great Nabuchadnezzar, sir; I have not much skill in grass.


I am for the house with the narrow gate.


Some are mocking or scurrilous:

One, that she's not in heaven, whither God send her quickly! The other, that she's in earth, from whence God send her quickly!


young Charbon the puritan and old Poysam the papist.


as the nun's lip to the friar's mouth.


But others have a certain weight:

I think I shall never have the blessing of God till I have issue a'my body.


I have been, madam, a wicked creature, as you and all flesh and blood are, and indeed I do marry that I may repent.


There seems to be within him a continual battle between the forces of good and evil. His general level of thought and reference is very crude and low, resorting continually to very basic bawdy and sexual humour. Nevertheless, through this there shine occasional moments of enlightenment, displaying a spiritual maturity belied by his normal behaviour. It was wondering about this internal conflict that led me to what was probably the most important decision in my development of the character. I had toyed with the idea of making him a defrocked priest. Sir Peter Hall expounds a theory in which he endeavours to find a link between Shakespearean clowns by proving them to have had training for holy orders and for some reason not to have followed their vocation. I couldn't find sufficient justification here for doing that.

I began, though, to think about other ways of setting him apart, and wondered if he should be in some degree physically abnormal. The history of professional fools is full of references to dwarfs and hunchbacks being used as a butt, a figure of fun and, in time, they developed a reputation and skill in providing their patrons with a constant and ready source of wit and invective. When confronted by some physical deformity it is natural for most people who believe themselves to be normal to extend towards that person an element of generosity and licence that would not be granted to a so-called equal. This would allow Lavatch the freedom to express himself without fear of censure.

When I next met Trevor, he too had thought that we might experiment with some physical disability. May I point out at this stage that the only conclusion drawn was that 'there might be something physically wrong with him'. The next day I was called to the wardrobe for a fitting. When I arrived, mystified, for no fittings had been arranged for other members of the cast, I enquired as to the purpose of my privileged summons. 'Oh', they said, as if they fitted them to all actors as a matter of course, 'It's for your hump!' In rehearsal, the following week, I experimented. I launched boldly into a character whose shambling gait and incoherent diction made Quasimodo seem like the Queen Mother. This became eventually modified into a recognizable human being as I began to draw on sense-memories. As a boy in Dorset, I often used to see a farmer taking his milk churns from his farm on a cart: a small figure with a stick, walking by his horse, his back bent and his legs bowed with age and labour. I remember from his knees to his boots he wore very shiny leather gaiters. Other such memories of people I had known or seen helped me to establish a kinesthetic picture in my mind of how the character moved and felt. I have been asked if the germ for the idea of making him a 'hunchback' had come from his line on leaving for the court, 'I am there before my legs' [II. ii. 70]. I can only say that it did not. Such was the organic growth of the character that I hadn't perceived this as being funny in that way until I actually did it before an audience. I'd thought it a witty line purely in terms of its word-play and not connected with his physical appearance.

As I have hinted, the most important relationship for him is that with the Countess. She says that he is tolerated because the late Count was so fond of him and enjoyed his company, but there is an underlying, unspoken respect which she herself extends to him which almost approaches a need.

She tolerates his quips and his vulgarity, and encouraged by his foolery is eventually persuaded to join in. 'To be young again, if we could, I will be a fool in question, hoping to be the wiser by your answer' (2.2.38-9). Like the younger Countess in Twelfth Night 'for want of other idleness' she 'bides his proof [I. v. 64]. This is a vital scene in the development and understanding of the relationship. It is the only scene that Shakespeare writes for just the two characters and it is essential to see why he has done this. It is a short scene, some 65 lines long; but it could have been shorter. After all, Lavatch is going to Paris to deliver a letter, nothing more. Why is he going? The Countess has just buried her husband; first her son and then her favourite gentlewoman have left her. Her household is dwindling; presumably there is no one else. But why is the scene the length it is? What does it tell us? Apart from developing Lavatch's repertoire of jokes, it shows us two people enjoying each other's company and, by implication, suggests strongly that they are both delaying the moment of separation. The Countess's final 'Haste you again' [II. ii. 71] is a cry of loneliness and sadness.

This brings into question the sincerity or levity of his initial request (1.3) to leave her service. I think he asks to leave in order to prevent the possibility of being dismissed. Although she says 'I'll talk with you more anon' [I. iii. 65], the subject is never referred to again.

It also brings us to the question of the reality or otherwise of Isbel, the woman. In this production, she exists and appears on stage, pursued by Lavatch in the scene-change that precedes 1.1 and, again, rejected by him, in the change prior to 5.5. This obviously works visually and is a help to the audience, but I have an unreasonable suspicion that she only exists in the mind of the Countess and Lavatch. She is part of some verbal game of sexual jealousy that they play together. He alludes to her only twice, once at the beginning: 'If I may have your ladyship's good will to go to the world, Isbel the woman and I will do as we may' (1.3.17-19), and again on his return from the court:

I have no mind to Isbel since I was at court. Our old ling and our Isbels a'th'country are nothing like your old ling and your Isbels a'th'court. The brains of my Cupid's knock'd out, and I begin to love as an old man loves money, with no stomach. (3.2.12-16)

I feel that if the relationship was really important the character would be written into a scene or, at least, she would be referred to by another character. It is similar in feel to, but not entirely the same as, Dromio of Syracuse's experience with Nell, the kitchen wench in The Comedy of Errors. There the off-stage meeting only serves as a spring-board for one marvellously funny scene between servant and master. This is not the case with Isbel; whether the character exists or not is unimportant, but I think the real reason for references made to her is muddled if she is actually included on stage in the action. Isbel is there, I think, to show Lavatch's attitude towards women and to enrich his relationship with the Countess.

His reason for marriage is partly founded on lust: 'My poor body, madam, requires it; I am driven on by the flesh and he must needs go that the devil drives' (1.3.28-30). He encourages unfaithfulness in a wife, hoping that this infidelity will provide him with children:

The knaves come to do that for me which I am aweary of. He that ears my land spares my team and gives me leave to in the crop; if I be his cuckold, he's my drudge. He that comforts my wife is the cherisher of my flesh and blood; he that cherishes my flesh and blood loves my flesh and blood; he that loves my flesh and blood is my friend; ergo, he that kisses my wife is my friend. If men could be contented to be what they are there were no fear in marriage. (1.3.43-51)

He sees the state of cuckoldry as acceptable and inevitable:

Your marriage comes by destiny;
  Your cuckoo sings by kind.

But he believes it no easy task to find a good woman;

And we might have a good woman born but or every blazing star or at an earthquake,' twould mend the lottery well; a man may draw his heart out ere'a pluck one. (1.3.86-9)

And he corrupts a popular song of the day to prove his point.

There is one other peculiarity which relates to his dealings with the Countess. He seems to prepare her for what is going to happen. Not necessarily in a clairvoyant way but as some sort of protective measure. On several occasions he attempts to lessen the blow of news of events which are likely to disturb her. He interrupts the conversation between her and Reynaldo (1.3) before the steward has time to get to the crux of his speech, namely that he believes Helena to be in love with Bertram; Lavatch proceeds to talk about marriage and infidelity and, when asked to fetch Helena, recites a verse about the paucity of good women. On his return from court, he intimates that all is not well with Bertram. Seconds later, the Countess receives news that her son has run away to the wars. The strongest moment of their mutual bond is possibly in the last scene they have together (4.5). In this scene they have no exchanges at all. Lavatch talks with Lafew but not with the Countess, and even at the end of the scene, when he announces Bertram's return, she does not reply. The understanding they have of each other makes words unnecessary.

I must try to put into words the feeling of privilege and pleasure I have experienced from working with Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Her continually probing mind during rehearsals, her willingness to experiment, her total unselfishness and the dignity, radiance and economy which she brings on stage is a joy to share. She has the freshness and flexibility of approach to each performance that are a lesson to any actor.

Of Lavatch's other relationships in the play—he obviously likes Helena. When they believe her dead, he provides a touching and fitting epitaph:

She was the sweet-marjoram of the sallet, or rather, the herb of grace. (4.5.16-17)

He encounters only two other people in the course of the action: Parolles and Lafew. Both he exposes, Parolles for being a pretender to what he is not:

To say nothing, to do nothing, to know nothing and to have nothing, is to be a great part of your title, which is within a very little of nothing.


And he seems to hint at what will happen eventually to Parolles: 'many a man's tongue shakes out his master's undoing' (2.4.23-4). The other, the Lord Lafew, he condemns for being a courtier, implying that as such he is beyond salvation:

let his [the devil's] nobility remain in's court, I am for the house with the narrow gate, which I take to be too little for pomp to enter; some that humble themselves may, but the many will be too chill and tender, and they'll be for the flow'ry way that leads to the broad gate and the great fire. (4.5.49-55)

Some critics have suggested that Lafew thinks little of Lavatch and is unperturbed by him. Robert Eddison who played Lafew in this production responded beautifully to the searing look I gave him at the end of that speech, and was obviously unsettled by the experience. He describes Lavatch just after this as 'A shrewd knave and an unhappy' (4.5.63), possibly the most accurate description of the character.

Having created the character, discovered his attitudes to life, found the logic behind his thinking, his motivations and drives, it doesn't seem to me difficult to make the humour work, particularly with such a superb writer of comedy as Shakespeare. The wit of his first exchange with the Countess, 'No, madam,' tis not so well that I am poor' [I. iii. 16], leaves the audience in no doubt from the outset as to their expected relationship with the character. The keen sense of rhythm and timing found in his writing of 'jokes' makes them easy to play even if the exact meaning of half the words is not understood by the modern audience. The sequence of thought processes leading from 'He that ears my land spares my team and gives me leave to in the crop' [I. iii. 44-5] to the culminative 'ergo, he that kisses my wife is my friend' [I. iii. 49] is perfect comic structure. The audience is led skilfully through a tapestry of explanation to a succinct and sure-fire punch Une. Audiences love vulgarity and laugh at it, particularly when it is introduced so unexpectedly as 'the barber's chair that fits all buttocks' [II. ii. 17]. They also like a character who is outspoken and cheeky, whether the attack is harmless or incisive.

I was apprehensive of the 'Oh, Lord!' sequence and on the page it is not easy to see how it could be funny. However, when acted out, the scene immediately comes to life. The willingness of the Countess to involve herself, the skill with which both she and Lavatch invent and react to the variations and the final defeat of Lavatch by the Countess at his own game, are, at once, charming, witty, funny and touching. The business of Parolles 'smelling of Fortune's strong displeasure' is brilliantly wittily written and my reaction to his state was heightened by seeking fragrance from a rosebud that I wore in my buttonhole, rather like Cardinal Wolsey sniffing at his pomander.

I have taken a little licence of my own. I'm sure that the reference to 'jade's tricks' would have evoked some response from an Elizabethan audience which is totally lost today. During the scene prior to this exit line I busied myself, discreetly, in sweeping leaves into a neat and prominent pile at the back of the stage. At the end of the sequence 'own rights by the law of nature' [V. v. 61] I destroyed the pile with one anarchic sweep of my broom as I went off. This physical gesture provided a laugh at exactly the point where Shakespeare intended it to be elicited verbally.

POSTSCRIPT During the performance of All's Well, bent double as I was, I experienced no physical discomfort whatsoever. But I got the most awful back-ache typing out my thoughts on Lavatch.


Peter Hall • Royal Shakespeare Company • 1992


After a twenty-year absence form the RSC, Peter Hall returned to direct All's Well That Ends Well in 1992. This was a brisk and fluent production that sought to underline the play's ambiguities rather than resolve them. Most critics agreed with Michael Coveney that the choice of Caroline costumes and John Gunter's use of architectural models in the set design complemented the director's "emblematic, austere approach" and took the audience "right to the heart of every knotty speech and twist of plot line." For Martin Dodsworth, however, the production's coherence was purchased at the expense of comedy and characterization, particularly in Sophie Thompson's portrayal of a child-like Helena and in Michael Siberry's uncomic rendering of Parolles. Taking the contrary view, Coveney appreciated the tragic nuances which were thus revealed in Parolles's character, maintaining that the braggart's torture and humiliation became "the most powerful sequence in the play, and one where Bertram sees the turpitude of the times." Played by Toby Stephens, Bertram was depicted as maturing from a callow youth to an individual wise enough to abandon Parolles and follow Helena. Other notable performances included Barbara Jefford as the Countess, Alfred Burke as Lafew, Anthony O'Donnell as Lavatch, and Richard Johnson as the King. Despite certain qualifications, critics found much to commend in the production. Dodsworth concluded: "It all makes for an enthralling three hours of theatre, and for the most part it convincingly holds together the odd blend of realism and folk-tale in the play."


Malcolm Rutherford (review date 2 July 1992)

SOURCE: A review of All's Well That Ends Well, in Financial Times, July 2, 1992, p. 19.

The only common view about All's Well that Ends Well is that it is not Shakespeare's best play. It lacks both a central character and an identifiable central theme and although it cannot be categorised as anything other than a comedy, it is not very funny. Having some fondness for the piece, my own view has been that the best way to approach it is to play up the part of Helena, the woman who cures the King of France of his near-fatal illness, and is allowed to pick the husband of her choice (Bertram) as a reward only to find that he rejects her and goes off to the wars. She catches up with him in the end by conceiving his child while he thinks he is in bed with another woman.

That is emphatically not the view of Sir Peter Hall, making a return to the Royal Shakespeare Company after 20 years absence. Hall's approach is to play the piece slowly, even ponderously, warts and all, just in case we miss anything. At the end of the first half, I thought that he was overdoing the literalness at the expense of enjoyment. The second half, in which he developed an anti-war theme, is very good indeed. In the end he has directed the play at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in the way it appears to have been written: an imperfect, puzzling piece full of reminders of characters in other Shakespeare plays, but none of theme developed.

Hall's central figure is Parolles, a follower of Bertram, who claims to be full of military expertise and magnificently played here by Michael Siberry. There is a touch of Malvolio in him, but also of characters from Ben Jonson. In the first half he is teased for being extravagantly over-dressed. However, there is more than a touch of Falstaff: not Falstaff the drinker of sack, but the cowardly braggart who ultimately realises the horrors of war more than his fellows. The contrasts between Siberry in his early finery and later tatters and the changes in his physical movements are breathtakingly stark.

By stressing the role of Parolles, Hall has not solved the problems of the play. The chief riddle is Bertram. It is understandable that he should object to having a wife foisted on him by the King of France, but that is no reason why he should be so grotesquely rude to her. There are elements of Coriolanus in him, even to having a similar kind of mother.

Bertram is an impossible part to play convincingly and it is a tribute to Toby Stephens (as it is to Hall's direction) that he gets better as the play goes on. As his mother, Barbara Jefford is impeccable throughout. Richard Johnson's King looks strikingly sick at the start, but becomes a dominant figure towards the end. And if you want an example of how to play a small part to perfection, watch Andrée Evans as the widow who helps to arrange the bed-trick on which the plot turns.

Helena, as played by Sophie Thompson, comes out as a mousy-looking woman, whom one can well understand Bertram wishing to avoid. There is little evidence for this in the text and indeed it would add to the magic of the play if she were allowed to be one of Shakespeare's most vivacious heroines, making Bertram's rejection of her more inexplicable and therefore more interesting. After all, she is an intelligent, inventive woman. Why can't she be attractive as well?

Benedict Nightingale (review date 2 July 1992)

SOURCE: "Hall Thrives on Moral Ambiguity," in The Times, London, July 2, 1992, p. 2.

Meet Helena, our heroine. She crams the sickly King of France with Renaissance antibiotic, and then presents him with the bill for his cure, which is the hand of a nobleman she has no reason to suppose likes her any better than his horse. When he leaves the wedding reception in dismay, she follows him disguised as a nun, and tricks her way into his bed.

There she spends one of those curious Shakespearean nights in which the man has licit sex with his wife in the belief that he is enjoying an illicit fling with a mistress. Flaunting his ring, pregnant with his child, she then reclaims him in what everybody sees as a nice, romantic ending.

Meet Bertram, her husband and our hero. Dr Johnson, aghast at his lies and evasions, summed him up well: "a man noble without generosity and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward and leaves her as a profligate; when she seems dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness."

No wonder All's Well is numbered among the "problem plays". The truth probably is that Shakespeare altered Boccaccio's original story either too much or too little. He seems to expect our sympathy for people who might pass moral muster in a fairy-tale, but look pretty shoddy when they are as realistically treated as here. And that creates difficulties for the play's directors, the latest of whom is Peter Hall, returning after a 20-year absence to the Royal Shakespeare Company, the ensemble he founded.

His solution is to perform it all briskly, fluently, coolly and without obvious prejudice. If we regard Helena and Bertram as heroes, that is fine. If we don't, that is fine too if we conclude that, as one lordling says, people are "of a mingled yarn, good and bad together", that is best of all Shakespeare probably wrote All's Well after Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida, not a time when he dealt in blacks, whites, likes, hates, or anything easy.

There is too much of The Decameron left in All's Well for this argument fully to wash; but it helps to turn the play's internal strains into interesting ambiguities. No matter that Sophie Thompson is not the passionate, handsome Helena of tradition, but an intense girl who sometimes seems awkward to the point of being gawky, and ingenuous to the brink of gormlessness. That is presumably how she is meant to be. It is the same with Toby Stephens's Bertram not the usual emotional firebrand, but a supercilious, pouting cub, as lacking in charm as maturity.

Indeed, Hall invites a parallel between him and his army chum the cad and liar Parolles. Michael Siberry's braggart warrior lacks coherence—shouldn't he suggest an embryonic bitterness inside the fantasist if he is to evolve from Don Quixote into a raging Thersites? But his humiliation is decidedly uncomic, and seems meant to prefigure Bertram's own unmasking. Stephens may not be wearing rags weirdly plastered with straw, like Siberry, but it is an abject shattered husband Helena takes home.

That is not a happy ending, but it is striking—as is the whole production. Barbara Jefford, Bertram's mother, exudes gimlet-eyed aggression rather than the usual serenity. Anthony O'Donnell, her clown, is a daunting blend of Mr Punch and flaking skinhead. Richard Johnson's King—arm in gold splint, voice as thick and fuzzy as beard, but authority undimmed—is more conventionally excellent. Oh, and the period is Louis XIV or thereabouts, which explains the phalanx of white and maroon, lace and feathers. Altogether, a play to see.

Michael Coveney (review date 5 July 1992)

SOURCE: "All's Well That Comes Up Freshly Minted," The Observer, July 5, 1992, p. 60.

In the Swan, Peter Hall's revival of All's Well That Ends Well is the RSC's most lucidly exciting close contact reappraisal since Deborah Warner's of King John. Hall's classical puritanism, often a neutralising factor in his born again, scrupulous phase, here delivers fresh-minted goods.

Helena, whom Coleridge considered Shakespeare's loveliest creation, cures the King of France's fistula, chooses the socially superior Bertram from a youthful parcel of noble bachelors' as her reward, and pursues him to the Italian wars where she snares him in a bedtrick.

Hall's actors, like Jonathan Miller's at Greenwich in the mid-1970s, are clothed in stately Caroline costumes. Richard Johnson's palsied Sun King sets the gruff tone of peremptory choice and moral finality. John Gunter's tilted, frosted screen is a discreet background from which are suspended architectural models of the Rossillion country pile, the Parisian palace and the Tuscan churches.

Whereas Trevor Nunn painted All's Well in a gorgeously Chekhovian cinematic gloss 10 years ago, Hall's emblematic, austere approach takes you right to the heart of every knotty speech and twist of plot line.

The speaking is of a bell-like, revelatory clarity. Sophie Thompson's Helena is beautifully poised between innocent fervour and inventive righteousness, while Toby Stephens makes of Bertram an emotionally clenched and shifty cry-baby finally saved by Helena's example. Anthony O'Donnell succeeds in making something both sinister and funny of the thankless clown, Lavatch, and Barbara Jefford as the Countess and Alfred Burke as Lafew exude experience and twinkling dignity.

The production is especially good at suggesting an erosion of moral standards between the generations. Michael Siberry's brilliant and rasping Parolles is no more despicable than his contemporary Bertram.

Parolles's torture and humiliation becomes the most powerful sequence in the play, and one where Bertram sees the turpitude of the times. In the past, Parolles has been generally played as a bemedalled ninny. Siberry's great performance, wreathed in anxieties and evasions, reveals a more complex and tragic character.

Martin Dodsworth (review date 10 July 1992)

SOURCE: "Grace Notes," in the Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,658, July 10, 1992, p. 18.

Its unattractive young hero—silly, selfish, snobbish—makes All's Well That Ends Well a notoriously difficult play; there seems to be so little in Bertram for Helena to love. By a desperate stratagem she forces him to marry her, but after the ceremony he will have nothing more to do with her; she remains faithful, suffers humiliation and indignity for his sake, and in the end is reunited with him. Readers of the play are apt to ask why this should have to be; Bertram hardly seems worth all the trouble he causes. The challenge for actors and directors is to show us that it does have to be. One of the many virtues of Sir Peter Hall's new production is that it manages to bring out an underlying necessity in the action.

For one thing, this Helena is not quite a paragon. Sophie Thompson plays her as a wide-eyed innocent, slightly awkward in bearing, wholly intent on getting what she wants, wanting nothing that can be discreditable to her because she is so innocent, but quite capable of wanting what will harm her. She is very close to a child and has the power to impose her childish conviction on others. When, at the end of it all, she has fulfilled the impossible conditions for her reunion with Bertram, she has the absolute faith of a child in the written word: "And look you, here's your letter. This it says. …"

Bertram and she are kneeling face to face, he because he has been utterly disgraced before the king, she because kneeling makes two of them alone together as she feels they should be. She starts to read the letter, pointing with her finger at every significant word: "When from my finger you can get this ring, And are by me with child. …" Then suddenly, and at last, an adult understanding takes over, the rest of the letter is summed up in a comprehensive and dismissive "etcetera" and she tears it in half, cancelling the bond to which Bertram had subscribed, inviting him at last to commit himself to her freely and afresh. It is a beautiful moment, but also an enabling one for the whole of the play, because it turns out to be about beginning as well as ending; a future comes into sight that has the power to dissipate all our impatience with what the young people have been. They had to be as they were for us to experience this as it is.

The production is intense and powerful. The bare stage of the Swan puts all the emphasis in how characters relate to one another. Body language throughout is significant.

It rarely signifies happiness. Of the major characters, only the old courtier Lafew, very well played by Alfred Burke, is unoppressed by life. Bertram's mother wears mourning throughout the play; her love for her son is tempered by irritation, her love for Helena by anxiety. Bertram is insecure, neither a child nor a man. The king's sickness makes him self-conscious and moody. If this is a comedy, we are infrequently reminded of the fact.

In this production something perverse in human nature has to be extirpated. The comic scenes which Shakespeare wrote for the subplot of Parolles, the braggart whose cowardice is exposed when his companions persuade him that he has been seized by the enemy, were never, perhaps, very funny; they smack too much of the enjoyment of cruelty. But in this production they are hardly funny at all; Parolles undergoes an agony of humiliation, roaring out his self-shame in shameful betrayal of his own side. It is an anticipation of the process which Bertram undergoes in the very last scene, a kind of burning-out of the moral canker. Reynaldo, the steward to Bertram's mother, is presented as a Puritan; he appropriately inhabits a play of such dark moral colouring.

God seems to be on Helena's side; she uses a kind of religious chant when she promises the King that he will have his health restored, "the greatest grace lending grace"; and there are other touches that suggest a providential involvement in her affairs. If there is, the sense of this production is that man very nearly disposes of what God proposes.

It all makes for an enthralling three hours of theatre, and for the most part it convincingly holds together the odd blend of realism and folk-tale in the play. Nevertheless, there are limitations. The price paid for coherence is a certain thinning-out of character. Parolles's "Simply the thing I am/Shall make me live" loses the hint of human resilience of which it is capable; Helena is made to seem simpler than she is. When she talks of Bertram's "bright radiance and collateral light", there should be a sense of her intelligent imagination reaching out to define the quality of her love—but these words sound beyond the simple single-mindedness of Peter Hall's heroine. It is a virtue of his production, however, that it makes you think that the fault might be Shakespeare's rather than the director's.

Comparisons And Overviews

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20206

Harold Child (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: "The Stage-History of All's Well That Ends Well," in All's Well That Ends Well, Cambridge at the University Press, 1929, pp. 187-89.

The stage-history of this comedy is brief and inglorious. There is no record of its performance (or of any performance of Love's Labour's Won) before the closing of the theatres; and although it appears in the list (of January, 1669) of plays allotted to Killigrew for the King's Company … , he seems to have made no use of it. The first known performance was at Goodman's Fields Theatre on March 7, 1741, seven months before 'a Gentleman (who never appeared on any Stage),' in other words David Garrick, made theatrical history by appearing on those same boards as King Richard III. The play was given for the benefit of Mrs Giffard, the manager's wife, who acted Helena, her husband taking Bertram, with Peterson as Parolles and Miss Hippisley as Diana. The novelty was evidently liked, for it was given four times more in as many weeks. Just about that time Shakespeare's long-neglected comedies were coming into public favour; and in January, 1742, All's Well that Ends Well made its first known appearance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with Mills as Bertram, Theophilus Cibber as Parolles, Mrs Woffington as Helena, Mrs Butler as the Countess and Macklin as the Clown. Mrs Woffington was taken ill and fainted on the stage. Milward, as the King, caught the cold of which he died not many days later. Theophilus Cibber had stolen the part of Parolles from Macklin, to whom it had been promised; and there was ill-feeling as well as illness in the company. But in spite of this untoward start the play had good success when it was tried again in February, and it reached ten performances that season. Cibber liked acting Parolles, and had brought the part into notice; but succeeding performances of the play seem to have been determined by the fancy taken for the part by Woodward, who, during nearly thirty years from 1746, acted Parolles in whichever of the two theatres he happened to be engaged at and also in his own management at Dublin. Mrs Pritchard, who began by being Helena, changed about 1756 to the Countess, and made it one of her best and best-liked impersonations. But at this period the comic elements in the play were given prominence over the romantic theme; and although Helena was acted by Miss Macklin, Mrs Palmer, Mrs Mattocks and Miss Farren, and Bertram by Palmer and Lewes, these parts were shorn of their poetry in order that more attention might be paid to Woodward as Parolles and to Yates, or Shuter, or Edwin as the Clown.

In or about 1794 John Philip Kemble took the play in hand and made a judicious version of it which brought it back pretty nearly to the original. At Drury Lane on December 12, 1794, he produced it, playing Bertram himself, with King for Parolles, John Bannister for the Clown, Mrs Powell for the Countess, and Mrs Jordan for Helena. Even with these players, the comedy cannot have been well received, for John Kemble did not try it again; and in 1811 Charles Kemble only got two performances out of it (May 24 and June 22) when he presented the same version at Covent Garden, with himself as Bertram, Fawcett as Parolles, Munden as 'Lefeu,' Blanchard as the Clown, Mrs H. Johnston as Helena (though from the printed acting edition it seems that that part had been intended for Sally Booth), and Mrs Weston as the Countess. We find Mrs Weston 'every thing that could be wished' in the same part at Bath in May, 1821, when the play had the good fortune to reach a third performance. But all readers of it will share the surprise of Professor Odell [in his Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, 2 vols., 1921] … at discovering that on October 12, 1832, All's Well that Ends Well was given at Covent Garden as an opera. Laporte had recently assumed the management of the theatre; and the playbill (which is in the collection of the Garrick Club) shows that he boldly gave the piece the sub-title, Love's Labour Won, got music for it from Rophino Lacy and scenery from the Grieves, cast Wilson for Bertram, Bartley for Lafeu, Jones for Parolles, Mrs Lovell for the Countess, Miss Shirreff for Diana (here surnamed Capulet) and Miss Inverarity for Helena, freely culled songs for the medley from other works by Shakespeare, and made a vaunted attraction of a masque of Oberon and Robin Goodfellow, more or less from A Midsummer-Night's Dream, with Miss Horton as Oberon and Miss Poole as Robin. Twenty years later, on September 1, 1852, the unhappy play, as found in the Folio, was given a trial by Samuel Phelps (who played Parolles) in his ninth season at Sadler's Wells; but more than half a century was to pass before anyone had the courage to try it again. In 1916 the Benson Company did the play at the Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. In May, 1920, the Elizabethan Stage Society, under Mr William Poel, gave two performances of it at the Ethical Church, Bayswater; and in 1922 the New Shakespeare Company made it the 'Birthday Play' at Stratford-upon-Avon. It is, of course, in the repertory of the Old Vic. I have found no record of its ever having been staged in the United States of America.

Joseph G. Price (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "The Director and the Search for Unity" and "All's Well in America and in the Minor Theatres," The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of All's Well That Ends Well and Its Critics, University of Toronto Press, 1968, 43-72.

[In the following excerpt, Price examines the stage history of All's Well That Ends Well in the twentieth century, maintaining that it is characterized by "the attempts of directors to thread the brilliant parts with a unifying, appealing theme." The critic further discusses productions in America and the minor theaters between the years 1799 and 1964.]

A Statistical summary of the theatrical history of All's Well that Ends Well prior to the twentieth century offers little encouragement to the modern producer. We have no record of a production in Shakespeare's time nor in the entire seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, the theatres of London presented only 51 performances in contrast to 274 performances of As You Like It, or 133 performances of Measure for Measure. Of these 51 performances of All's Well, 19 were given in the first two seasons of its revival, possibly as a result of the play's novelty. Of the remaining 32 performances, 25 appear to have been prompted by the extraordinary success of Harry Woodward as Parolles. In the nineteenth century, the play had 5 revivals and only 17 performances, 11 of which were presented in the 1852-3 Phelps production. All five revivals used altered texts. Despite the extensive cuts and transpositions, despite the expurgations, the play was so distasteful to audiences that none of the revivals escaped harsh criticism. The shift of emphasis from farce and the dominance of Parolles to sentimental comedy and the dominance of Helena failed to placate critics and audiences. The judgement of the age is apparent in the forty years of silence which the play endured from 1852 to 1895. Even the enthusiasm of Shaw was tempered by his belief that All's Well could not be popular on the stage until an audience had been prepared for it and like experiments in realism. As late as 1928, he wrote: 'In Shakespeare there are parts—like that of Helena in All's Well for instance—which are still too genuine and beautiful and modern for the public' [quoted in E. J. West (ed.), 'How to Lecture on Ibsen', Shaw on Theatre, 1959].

Yet since its revival in 1741, elements of All's Well have proved popular with audiences, and critics have expressed surprise, sometimes delight, at the dramatic interest of a scene, a character, a speech which quickened on stage. In separate instances, Helena has pleased audiences with the humility and sincerity of her love, with the courage and determination of her will, with the eloquence and passion of her poetry. In separate instances, audiences have responded to the amusing braggadocio of Parolles, to the farcical comedy of the drum scenes, to the moral satisfaction of his exposure. At various times, critical approval has been claimed by almost all the minor characters: Lafeu and the Clown particularly in the eighteenth century; the Countess and the King in the nineteenth; Diana throughout the stage history of the play. Even Bertram has had his defenders when he is acted in the theatre. And repeatedly, critics have been struck by the dramatic excitement of the last scene—a scene which the reader often finds tedious in its complications.

The stage history prior to 1900, then, has demonstrated dramatic potential in particular elements of All's Well; it has not shown a sustained theatrical success for the play as Shakespeare wrote it. It is not surprising that, in the twentieth century, the new voice in the theatre, the director, should turn to the play as a challenge. If the play, as Mr. Trewin noted in his review of a 1935 production, was 'more brilliant in its parts than in its whole' [T. C. Kemp and J. C. Trewin, The Stratford Festival, 1953], then was it not the precise function of the director to blend the parts into a theatrically successful whole? The stage history of All's Well in the twentieth century is, with a few exceptions, a record of the attempts of directors to thread the brilliant parts with a unifying, appealing theme. But theatrical tradition offered only remnants as guides, and scholarly analysis had failed to fashion a coherent pattern. The threading was difficult, and early experiments did little to change the general distaste for the play. Only in the last two decades have the parts been unified in successful productions.

Sickness and death had attended several productions of All's Well in the eighteenth century and shrouded the play with superstitions. Royal honours attended two revivals in the early twentieth century and proved equally distracting. The play was not produced until the spring of 1916. The Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford on Avon had been founded thirty-five years before to establish a permanent site for the dramatist's plays. By 1916, only Titus Andronicus and All's Well remained unplayed at the theatre. Frank Benson, who had enjoyed great success as manager of the company, decided to produce the long-neglected comedy and elected to play Parolles. His wife was cast as Helena. Both enjoyed such reputations that All's Well seemed assured of a fortunate trial before an audience devoted to Shakespeare. Once again, however, circumstances surrounding the production obscured the potentiality of the play. Just prior to the first performance, Frank Benson was summoned to London to be knighted by the King for his services to the theatre. The award and the accompanying ceremonies so dazzled the Bensons and others in the company that Lady Benson wrote [in her Mainly Players, 1926]: 'The next day we were to appear at Stratford in "All's Well that ends Well". … A business like rehearsal of the new production … seemed very tame after all this delightful adulation.' The delight in Benson's honour spread to the audience as well, and little attention was paid to the addition of All's Well to the Stratford repertory. The play was held up for some minutes by the unrestrained applause which greeted the appearance of the Bensons on stage. And Lady Benson noted that the audience joined with the cast in singing 'Auld Lang Syne' at the end of the play. Understandably, All's Well could not compete with its celebrated cast.

Benson is not representative of the producers of All's Well in the twentieth century, for he was still part of the tradition of actor-manager rather than a member of the theatre's new profession, the director. His dual function as actor-manager and the distraction of his recent honour negated any forceful direction of the play. More typical of experiments in finding a theme to thread the 'brilliant parts' is the production of William Poel on 20 May 1920, at the Ethical Church, Bayswater. Poel had already established a reputation by his revivals of Elizabethan plays. But Poel's interest in All's Well went beyond that of the antiquarian. He saw in the play a social theme with modern significance. Through this theme, he hoped to produce a social morality play. He imposed upon the characterizations and plot an interpretation more extreme than Shaw's:

He saw a plea for the removal of class barriers where the affections between men and women were in question. He believed that the play might have been inspired by the imprisonment of Shakespeare's patron, Southampton, in 1598, for having secretly married Elizabeth Vernon, one of the Queen's Maids of Honour. Helena's wooing of Bertram was free from any restraint of code; it was the expression of a love, religious in impulse, which no convention could repress. For Poel the play had an ethical significance which gave it a place in the history of woman's emancipation; in 1919 this freedom had at last been won and the exploits of Miss Sylvia Pank-hurst were a recent memory [quoted from Robert Speaight, William Poel and the Elizabethan Revival, 1954].

If this interpretation had an ominous ring, the preparations for the production sounded more dismal tones. For the role of Captain Dumain, Poel selected Miss Evans, an actress who was making a career of male impersonations. Winifred Oughton accompanied her as a second French lord. On the night of the performance, 'she and Miss Evans played one of their scenes in the dark to give the impression that they were sleepily talking after "lights out". But an even more amazing example of Poel's casting is reported by Mr. Speaight:

For the part of Parolles Poel tried to secure the services of Clare Greet. Miss Greet was a delightful character actress who had endeared herself to a large public by her performance of Cockney landladies, charwomen, and mothers-in-law. What possessed Poel to imagine that she could play Parolles is beyond the boundaries of surmise. However, she duly turned up to rehearse, but was not unnaturally dismayed by the character she was expected to interpret and the language she was called upon to speak. She had not read the play and for once Poel's blue pencil had remained in his pocket. She quickly burbled her excuses and left him to his fantasy. Frustrated and chagrined, he eventually played Parolles himself.

Poel also added a modern but eccentric touch to the stage business. At one rehearsal, he called for a bath chair; when asked why, he replied: 'I want the King to be wheeled on to the stage by a nurse in V.A.D. uniform in order that the audience may be in no doubt about the condition of his health.'

With such an interpretation, cast, and stage business, we are not surprised that 'the unrelieved humility' of Helena made the play 'curiously devoid of humour', nor are we surprised by the director's devices of a sombre setting and dull lighting to strengthen the thread of his theme. Unfortunately, Poel had dimmed even the brilliant elements of All's Well in his attempt to portray the emancipation of woman and her love. The tone of the production may have prompted the dramatic critic of the Athenaeum to his remark, 'Helena has her counterpart in Hamlet' [T. Moult, 'All's Well that Ends Well at Bayswater', Athenaeum (4 June 1920)], for certainly there was much more of problem drama than comedy in the Poel revival.

A more traditional presentation was offered by the Old Vic on 28 November 1921. This was the first of three productions of All's Well directed by Robert Atkins, who had a great fondness for the play. His approach to the comedy was threefold; he revived the comic emphasis of the eighteenth century; he restored the 'indelicate' passages which had been deleted in the various alterations; but he retained the sweetness and delicacy of the nineteenth-century Helena. Interestingly, his success varied with each. The comic scenes won high praise; the restored text had a qualified success; the heroine failed to please. Such uneven merit made the play 'well worth while', but the director had not imposed a unity on the parts; All's Well was still not a 'convincing play'.

Much more convincing than the production itself was a review written by John Francis Hope for The New Age [15 December 1921]. In the stage history of All's Well, it is one of the few excellent critiques which analyse the nature of the play. Its value lies in its clear analysis of the revival, its commonsense rejection of earlier subjective critical standards, its provocative interpretation of characters, and its anticipation of later critical judgements. Hope called the production 'both interesting and disappointing'. He agreed with the stress placed upon the comic and the restoration of the text, but he was disappointed that Atkins did not give scope to his convictions. Parolles was played 'far too lightly'. He was too much the courtier; the Shakespearian Parolles 'is a sort of younger brother of Pistol, and should exhibit much more of his Mars, even if it were retrograde'. Atkins restored the indelicate passages to the text but seemed embarrassed by them. He failed to give them the sweep of broad humour demanded by the play:

Much of these comic scenes are definitely and distinctly 'smutty' a characteristic quality of English humour; Parolles discussing virginity with Helena, for example, although expressing sound common sense in his reaction against ascetic ideals, is definitely playing for the guffaws. We ought to be as shocked and amused as we are by, say George Robey, who embodies our national type of humour, which is Elizabethan not only in parody but in very nature. But Mr. Ernest Milton got through this scene without once provoking a laugh; he played it like someone skating on very thin ice, as though he were trying to spare Helena's blushes instead of provoking them. The scene is not merely illustrative of the frankness with which men and women discussed sexual matters in those days; it is comic, and is intended to be comic, in the grouty, fleshly English fashion. Shakespeare was a popular playwright tickling the ears of the,groundlings in such passages; and it is absurd to bowdlerise him in spirit while giving the text.

If Atkins failed to develop the humour, he was even more guilty in not developing the characterization. Objecting to 'what a sculptor calls "one-view studies" ', Hope condemned the lack of internal conflict and passion in the Atkins revival and in the interpretations of Victorian critics. He maintained that the characters in All's Well 'are quick and extreme in feeling'. He cites the physical change in the King from the extremity of his sick-bed to his dancing a coranto with Helena; he cites the emotional change from his pleasing affection for Bertram to his blazing wrath at the refusal to marry Helena. The same extremities are apparent in the Countess and Helena. The Countess has not only a maternal dignity but a quick, autocratic temper displayed in her forcing Helena to a confession of love and in the banishment of Bertram from her parental benevolence. She has a merry nature as well, as indicated in her repartee with the Clown. In fact, the Clown 'set up a conflict in the Countess between her will to maintain morality and her unregenerate interest in natural human desires; he makes her laugh herself out of her judgement'. Helena, too, displays a great deal of variety; 'she is not simply a one-view study of sweetness and delicacy'. Her emotional range includes her sorrow in the opening scene, her merry banter with Parolles, her shyness and affection with the Countess passing to confidence and purpose, and her grand manner reserved for the King. If Helena is at times shy, she is also 'a woman who knows what she wants, and how to get it, and uses every faculty of a very capable nature to achieve her purpose. One is sorry that she wasted herself on Bertram—but that is her affair.'

Hope's objection to the bowdlerizing spirit of the revival is just; his interpretation of the characters is interesting; his judgement that the Atkins production lacked passion appears valid. But his cry for delight in the comic and for passionate vitality in the dramatic was too advanced for an age that had just restored the text and now saw in it the dark problems of Shakespeare's bitter mood. It was a cry, however, that would be heard some thirty years hence.

There was little vitality in the second production of All's Well at Stratford on Avon. The play was selected as the Shakespeare 'birthday play' for April 1922, and was directed by Bridges-Adams. As in 1916, the production was dwarfed by ceremony; for the first time since the Garrick Jubilee of 1769, the King sent a special representative to Stratford. The first-night audience included a number of celebrities who were presented a refined production of the 'seldom revived All's Well That Ends Well'. Mr. Trewin described Maureen Shaw as a 'decorative, red-haired Helena' and reported: 'Someone said that Maurice Colbourne's Bertram looked like an armoured knight in a Burne-Jones window: a figure too beautiful to be taken seriously.' Still, he termed the play 'a pleasant performance'. The revival had a moderate success. Including repeat performances in the Summer Festival, it was played ten times during the season at Stratford. And part of its success again was due to Parolles; St. John Ervine called Baliol Holloway's representation 'a piece of comic acting as fine as I have seen for some time'.

Despite the refinement of the Bridges-Adams production, the praise for Parolles is another indication that the comic elements were regaining some of their past fame and were creating new interest in the play. All's Well was revived at a new theatre, the Maddermarket, September 1924, and the review in the London Times, 27 September, gave special mention to the Clown, a part which had not drawn favourable notice for over a century. Interest was also stirred by a production in modern dress at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1927. The play opened 'in a delightful French atmosphere with the Countess swathed in the crepe so beloved of Gallic widows' [quoted in Sir Barry Jackson, "Producing the Comedies," Shakespeare Survey VIII (1955)]. What appealed to Shaw, however, was the 'buoyant humour' of Parolles, who was played as 'an amiable, too smart young man, a sommelier's scourge' [quoted in J. C. Trewin, The Birmingham Repertory Theatre: 1913-63, 1963]. The youthful actor was Laurence Olivier. Robert Atkins demonstrated his continued concern by a second production of All's Well at the Arts Theatre Club in November 1932. Although Atkins repeated the interpretation of Helena as all 'sweetness and delicacy', E. H. Williams expressed the contemporary view that the play was 'a bitter, cruel piece of work' [Four Years at the Old Vic, 1935]. Yet he thought the play was rather excellent medicine and should be acted more frequently because 'it makes an acid test for much modern thought'. The interest in all these productions, however, was due to experiment rather than accomplishment. None of them succeeded in changing the essential view of scholars and theatre-goers. James Agate left the Arts Theatre Club 'with no idea in [his] head except that it was Shakespeare botching and bungling at his worst' [quoted in Brief Chronicles: A Survey of the Plays of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans in Actual Performances, 1943].

All's Well, now produced by Mr. B. Iden Payne, was repeated as the 'birthday play' at Stratford on Avon in 1935. Despite the fact that the production failed in the totality of its effect, it was this revival which suggested to Mr. Trewin that the play was 'more brilliant in its parts than in its whole'. Special attention was given to the individualization of each character. Bertram's moral defects were mollified by the physical attractiveness of the actor. Miss Catherine Lacey, as the Countess, strove for that loveliness which Shaw attributed to the role. Lafeu, as he had been played in the eighteenth century, was depicted as a humorous old man, though not a buffoon. Contrast was set up between the charm of Helena and the boisterous vulgarity of Parolles. Perhaps influenced by the 'bitter comedy' charge of the critics, the Clown lost much of his broad humour:

The Clown in this play is really rather a bore, and Kenneth Wicksteed rubbed this in by giving, in a dry, sententious manner, a life-like portrait of a professional funny man who is not very successful in his profession [quoted from Gordon Crosse, Shakespearean Playgoing: 1890-1952, 1953].

Diana was most sharply delineated; Rosamund Merivale played the role with a 'gay and joyous' spirit; she 'had an acceptable air of modernity which brought a welcome breath of life'. Through this spirit, she dominated the last scene. But this fact may only illustrate that the characters of this production were travelling their separate ways; the audience saw no coherent relationship among the players. To Gordon Crosse, the play in its total effect, was comparatively dull.

So many of the revivals of All's Well were marked by circumstances which marred the performance or obscured the production that it seems an ironic necessity that the play should have its most favourable setting produced by a war. As if he seized the opportunity to thrust an old favourite upon a theatrically starved public, Robert Atkins presented his third revival as the only production in London's West End in October 1940. Ivor Brown, in a review in Punch [16 October 1940], recorded the 'fortunate' opportunity of the comedy:

Professional productions of All's Well happen once in a lifetime, and it is an odd chance which has just given to this unregarded piece the sole tenancy of the West End stage. Now, it might be thought, is the ugly duckling's chance to prove itself a true cygnet of Avon. It has no rivals in its region and anyone intending 'to see a show' becomes the conscript of Helena and Bertram.

But neither ugly duckling nor true cygnet emerged from the production. Atkins at last achieved the sense of loveliness in Helena which he had sought in previous productions. Miss Catherine Lacey, who had won applause for her portrayal of the Countess in 1935, now as Helena, prompted Mr. Brown to conclude that Shakespeare had 'lost his heart to his heroine. Such losses are infectious. When genius adores, all must capitulate. … You need not believe in her, but love her you must—and love her you will.' But again, the total effect of the production was disappointing. Atkins attempted to use Lafeu as his thread to hold the 'brilliant parts'. He played the role himself 'and made him the central character of the play, a kind of grave Sir Toby'. The comic scenes were toned down, and All's Well became melodrama. The mood of World War II and two air-raids during the performance (Parolles added an 'all-clear' to one of his lines) perhaps cancelled any advantage which the production enjoyed as London's only play. For Mr. Brown, only Helena and the poetry of the play made the production worthwhile. Mr. Alan Dent denied even this [in his Preludes and Studies, 1992]: the play was 'too grim, unwitty, and disconcerting to be called comedy at all; … anybody heard defending its poetry should be asked point-blank to quote two consecutive lines'; All's Well 'may be put by for another twenty years without great loss'. Mr. Dent's prescription was very nearly carried out. It was not until 1953, thirteen years later, that All's Well was granted another major production in London.

Although the experiments conducted by Poel with his social drama, Bridges-Adams with his stylized refinement, Barry Jackson with modern dress, Payne with highly individualized characterization, and Atkins with emotional intensity failed to produce a successful play, they did eliminate stultifying stage traditions and attitudes. Most important, the full text was restored. This, aided by the increasing tolerance of the audience, brought back the comic force of Parolles, the intricacies of the plot, and the long-neglected Clown. No single production satisfied the demands set up in Hope's review for complex, rounded portrayals, but the variety of approaches to All's Well suggested the potentiality for more dramatically exciting depictions of Helena and Bertram, the Countess and the King, Lafeu and Diana. The leading figures of the London stage had not yet been attracted to these parts, but others had won approval for competent performances. At last, All's Well was being tested in the theatre. In the first forty years of the century, there were eight major productions of the play; only in Woodward's day with a stereotyped interpretation had that number been surpassed.

But the experiments of directors had not resolved what critics considered the jarring elements of the full text. Could the romantic and realistic portions ever blend in the theatre to satisfy any one of the numerous critical interpretations of the play? Could the full text produce a coherent comedy, a sentimental romance, a modern problem play, a dark and bitter satire, a philosophical commentary? Regardless of approach, could Bertram ever be played as an attractive mate for Helena? Could Helena herself ever yield to a consistent interpretation when the 'ribaldries' of her repartee with Parolles on virginity are enclosed by two soliloquies of touching beauty? Should the surprising deceits of Helena be applauded, ignored as mere convention, or decried? Should the unpleasant deceits of Bertram be treated comically or tragically? Should the humorous deceits of Parolles suffer a tragic denouement or a flippant reconciliation with life? How should the minor characters be played—Lafeu as the meddling buffoon or the King's confidant, Lavache as the playful clown or the bitter fool, the King as the impulsive tyrant or the fatherly ruler, Diana as an impudent schemer or virtuous maiden, the Widow as the greedy opportunist or the maternal sympathizer? To such problems the directors of the 1950s turned.

They continued the search for unity; more intensely, they sought focus which would at least cast into deeper shadows the disparate elements of the play. And in a Canadian town removed by distance but not by influence from the London stage, the focus produced a theatrical success.

On 13 July 1953, in the first year of the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario, Tyrone Guthrie followed the initial production, Richard III, with All's Well that Ends Well. Technically, the production is American, and I have reserved consideration of its critical reception until my treatment of All's Well in the American theatre. So too, I have postponed analysis of Mr. Guthrie's specific purposes and techniques until they were given a second test at Stratford on Avon in 1959. Nevertheless, the production deserves mention here as a provocative success managed to a great extent by a staff recruited from the London stage. Mr. Guthrie's general intention was to produce a high comedy free of the 'bitter' unpleasantries without altering the text. Rather than purging the play of either its romantic or realistic elements, he wanted to build the romantic machinations of the plot upon the realistic motives of the characters. Stage business was to provide the focus for his audience. To cite one example, he staged the play in Edwardian costume. The fantastic turns of the plot, of Helena's traps, became much more acceptable in modern dress to a contemporary audience which had been saturated with aggressive heroines, often 'career women' who had won reluctant males in innumerable romantic comedy films during the 1930s and 1940s. In addition, the modern audience accustomed to feminine allurements publicized as necessities by the advertising world, has accepted entrapment as a condition of romance. Critics debated the success of such innovations, but clearly the production was a substantial contribution to the stage history of All's Well. For the first time, an approach was attempted which extracted as much as possible from the play rather than pruned it to a particular shape. The eighteenth century had cut deeply into the comic. In this Canadian production, Mr. Guthrie attempted a balance.

Two months later in Great Britain, another attempt was made to impose unity upon the seemingly jarring elements of the play. In the words of one reviewer [Richard David, 'Plays Pleasant and Plays Unpleasant', Shakespeare Survey VIII (1955)], 'the producer was able to offer a coherent, convincing, and as far as I know, a new view of Shakespeare's play, at least to those who are prepared to allow that in theatrical affairs the end may justify the means'. Michael Benthall gained coherence in his Old Vic production at Edinburgh on 15 September 1953, by staging the play as a comic fairy-tale. As with the Guthrie production, the focus was provided by stage business, but this time the serious moments of the play suffered badly. Shakespeare's characters became caricatures out of Grimm. Cinderella and her wayward Prince Charming were played off against pasteboard figures cut with physical quirks and comic deformities. The Countess lost that aristocratic decorum so long associated with the role; 'she was bent and crabbed, her gestures had an arthritic awkwardness, her utterance was creaky, abrupt, arbitrary'. In his illness, the King became 'a figure of fun, a fretful invalid, bundled up in night-shirt and cap, with crown askew, and attended by doctors who hovered round with potions and basins' [quoted in Mary Clarke and Roger Wood, Shakespeare at the Old Vic, 1954]. Lafeu appeared as an aged Polonais who was made ridiculous in the last scene by the appearance on stage of his daughter Maudlin, 'a simpering and quite pathetically ugly damsel'. Lavache shuffled about as a whitehaired little hunchback who spoke timidly. In the bright contrast which fantasy allows, Helena was played by Claire Bloom as the fairyland princess, straight long blonde hair, wide-eyes, an ethereal tone of voice—'even that trick of making her exit Unes trail off on a rising intonation, like a great bird taking wing, gave an otherworldly quality to her story'. If Bertram is not the ideal hero of fairy-tale, still John Neville managed the role 'with the nobility and dash of a ducal seducer in Technicolor' [quoted from Eric Keown in Punch (30 September 1953)]. An unpleasantness in his character was blamed upon Parolles, who assumed a greater influence upon the youth than the text assigns. A significant example of this occurred when Helena requested a kiss from Bertram at her departure for Rousillon. Bertram was about to yield when a whisper from Parolles hurried him away. Indeed, the fairly-tale approach to the plot was reinforced by a morality pattern of the goodness of Helena vying with the demonic influence of Parolles. Both themes were acted out against Disney-like sets, and strangely artificial lighting.

The undermining of the serious elements of the play by comical stage business may be illustrated by Mr. Benthall's management of the King. No longer the dignified and authoritative figure of stage tradition, he was treated as a butt of contempt and coarse humour. In his first scene at court, the young lords tolerated the whims of the sick old man with ill-concealed boredom and disrespect. Just before Helena's arrival to cure him, the King was attended by a monk 'who burst into terrified chanting at his royal master's every spasm'. The contortions of the King and the farcical bungling of his doctors created a scene in which 'both pain and the Last Sacrament were treated as subjects for buffoonery interspersed with attacks of vomiting in the worst of comic taste' [quoted in Audrey Williamson, Old Vic Drama, 1957]. Helena's mission could not escape the vulgarity.

I have treated Mr. Benthall's direction of the play with more severity than is warranted by the reaction of both critics and audience. On the one hand, an understanding of his approach may be gained more simply by recording the extravagances of the production, those details that were often condemned even in favourable reviews. Such extravagances show clearly the extent of the director's attempt to create a tone, a unity, in a play which so challenges the imposition of a single theme. On the other hand, I do not think the Old Vic production was the artistic success ascribed to it by a majority of the drama critics. It is true that the play had its most successful run in the theatrical history of the play in England, a total of thirty-five performances in a single season. It is true that the audiences laughed at the farcical gimmicks. The justification for those gimmicks, however, is much like the critical attitude of the nineteenth century towards the Kemble text. If All's Well must be played, then play it as removed as possible from the original. If the public is to be lured to All's Well, then this defective play of Shakespeare's must be garnished with entertaining business to divert them. The defence of Mr. Benthall's interpretation was phrased for the majority of the critics in a review by Eric Keown:

No doubt by this plan some of the finer moments are diminished, but in the lightness of the production we gain a sort of surface plausibility, and laughter is the kindest anaesthetic against the increasing outrage of the plot. Bertram behaves abominably to Helena, while she pursues him without any shame whatever.

As happens so often in criticism of All's Well, the reviewer reveals his personal prejudice against the play. To accept the gimmicks, we must believe that Bertram behaves abominably to Helena and Helena shamelessly to him. We must believe that the plot becomes outrageous before we accept the need for anaesthetic laughter. Moreover, we must believe with Mr. Benthall that the play is unpleasant and unnecessarily bawdy before we accept the need for his alterations in text and tone.

My objections to Mr. Benthall's production are not directed against the insertion of extensive stage business by the director. But when the stage business obviously distorts a meaning, a character, a mood inherent in the original text, then we can object that the director is fashioning a new play. Audrey Williamson objected that 'All's Well that Ends Well, bitter comedy, remained unplayed'. We might object that All's Well that Ends Well, Shakespearian comedy, remained unplayed. For, the addition of Maudlin makes Lafeu a different character from that drawn by Shakespeare, even if one allows a certain touch of meddle-some old age in the original. A charming insincerity in Helena makes ridiculous the affection of the Countess and of others for the heroine, as Mr. Derek Monsey pointed out in his review [The Spectator (25 September 1953)]. Shakespeare obviously intended this affection as justification for Helena since it is his addition to his source. Commenting upon this production, Professor Harbage wrote, 'No sane observer has ever mistaken … the King of France for a buffoon'. To make the King a buffoon is to weaken his authority over Bertram, to rob Helena's cure of any dramatic value, to damage Helena's cause since it is dependent upon a fool, to undermine the entire trial scene, and to make hopelessly absurd Bertram's final acceptance of Helena. Keown may conclude, 'Among the recruits to sheer farce none is better than Mr. Laurence Hardy's fairy-tale King', but his is a recruit serving under the banner of Mr. Benthall rather than Shakespeare.

Both productions in 1953 demonstrated that All's Well that Ends Well, with shaping, could be produced successfully on the modern stage. Both drew large and receptive audiences; both were reviewed favourably by the majority of the critics. In both cases, credit for the successes was ascribed primarily to the directors: the touch of Mr. Guthrie had shown All's Well to be 'a great and beautiful play'; the touch of Mr. Benthall had given 'a coherent, convincing, and … new view to Shakespeare's play'. The touch of each man was felt most heavily in the addition of farcical stage business. But the search for unity, the experimentation in finding a thematic thread, was not complete. If the fairy-tale approach of Mr. Benthall suggested to Mr. David that the comedy was a forerunner of The Winter's Tale, the bulk of twentieth-century criticism had linked it with the 'bitter' plays, Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida. It was in this spirit that All's Well was next produced.

On 26 April 1955, the play was again produced at Stratford on Avon. The comedy had not been presented there for twenty years, and it appears that the motive for this production was none other than a sense of duty to the Shakespearian canon. The virtues brought out in the 1953 productions were ignored entirely, and critical comment reverted to traditional judgement. Mr. Noel William, in his first assignment at Stratford, directed the play as a dark comedy. Helena dominated the stage, not with her vivacity, nor indeed emotional variety, but by a moral earnestness which prompted frequent appeals to heaven. Her righteousness was conveyed by a distracting chanting of her lines; the 'dark designs' of her plot to win back her husband were slurred over in rapid speech as if to conceal their significance from the audience and preserve the reputation of the heroine. Throughout, she behaved 'like some ghastly Shavian woman … [demonstrating] a pertinacity worthy of the Royal North-West Mounted Police' [Peter Fleming in The Spectator (6 May 1955)]. Mr. Willman did repeat one innovation of Mr. Benthall's; he made Lavache an oddly deformed hunchback, a cripple. The pathos made even more sombre the mood of the play.

But Mr. Willman complicated his approach by his sets, his stage business, and his interpretations of Bertram and Parolles. He placed the play in the late seventeenth century against ponderous scenery and sumptuous costumes. The heavy representative sets robbed the stage of a starkness better suited to the mood; the prettiness of the costumes conflicted with the darkness of the theme. With the director's controlling idea, there was even less justification for elaborate stage business. Yet the walls of Florence were constructed before the eyes of the audience; a complete crew of citizens 'with hurdy-gurdy and incidental pastimes' were assembled for Helena's initial meeting with the Widow of Florence; much time was spent packing Helena's trunk on the front porch of the Widow's house; and throughout there was much pompous bowing and parading. The costume alone so stamped Bertram as a young dandy that he could not be taken seriously as a partner in this 'dark comedy'. He emerged not as a man whose strong desires struggled against the moral force of Helena but 'as the end of the tennis club' [Sunday Times (11 May 1955)]. The sinister potentialities of Parolles were ignored as well; Mr. Worsley regretted that the part was placed 'in the hands of a natural romantic juvenile', Mr. Keith Mitchell [T. C. Worsley, 'The Dark Not Dark Enough', The New Statesman and Nation, (30 April 1956)].

Mr. Willman's failure to develop his theme consistently doomed the production. But the very application of the 'dark comedy' interpretation to the stage seemed to justify the traditional condemnation of the play. Critics were disgusted anew with the characters and the plot. Mr. Brown suggested that once again the play could be stored away at Stratford 'and the emphasis restored to work in which Shakespeare was himself again' [quoted in Ivor Brown, Shakespeare Memorial Theatre: 1954-56, 1956]. Mr. Fleming was even more harsh:

The main ingredients of the plot are sex, snobbery and deceit; the principal characters are cads or gulls or bitches; and the whole thing is dished up in a cold, perfunctory, take-it-or-leave-it way which suggests an inefficient or temporarily distracted fishmonger displaying his leftovers on a slab.

For Mr. Worsley, who had enjoyed the Helena of Claire Bloom in the Benthall production, the evening was tedious:

What a ridiculous, badly written, ill-constructed play All's Well that Ends Well is! So one comes away thinking from a production that has misfired. Only piety keeps it in the repertoire, and that piety is surely misplaced. If Shakespeare were not semi-sacred, and if every production of his plays didn't borrow weight from the whole corpus, no audience of sensible people would solemnly tolerate such rubbish. And, indeed, if we can detach ourselves from the aura which surrounds 'Shakespeare', it is the best laugh of the evening that thousands should assemble—and pay!—to pretend not to be bored by it. … Personally, I think it is acceptable only as the lightest of light tales, impertinently lighthearted rather than solemn, rattling along with a certain uninhibited salacity, not dragging in a stately measure.

Mr. Alan Downer concluded: 'The conventional director can only attempt to smother it in verisimilitude and trust that the audience will accept its conventional edified boredom as a cultural experience' [Alan Downer, 'A Comparison of Two Stagings: Stratford-upon-Avon and London', SQ VI (Autumn 1955)].

At Stratford, Ontario, in 1953, Mr. Guthrie had demonstrated that he was not a conventional director of All's Well, and his audience reacted not to a cultural experience but to delightful theatrical entertainment. On 21 April 1959, at Stratford on Avon, he demonstrated the same unconventionality in his second production of the play. The audience reacted with the same delight. His unconventionally, however, split the critics into much the same camps as did Mr. Benthall's unrestricted means to a theatrical end.

Basically, the production employed the same contrivances as the Ontario revival. Again, the costumes and settings were Edwardian. The same freedom with time and place was taken in assigning the war scenes to a World War II locale in the North African desert. As before, these scenes were turned to farce; but the farce was even more extreme:

The comic soldiers in baggy shorts, black socks and berets are lined up under a blazing sky by the side of a ruined desert viaduct. The Duke of Florence, a goateed parody of General Smuts, dodders along the line with his officers falling over him every time he halts to peer at a mysterious medal. When he turns suddenly his sword becomes entangled between the legs of his staff officer. When he tries to make a speech from the top of an observation tower, the microphone gets a fit of metallic coughing. When he attempts to salute the flag, it slides slowly down the post again. Meanwhile every man on the stage is improvising some ludicrous pranks such as few amateur entertainers at a Stag Night at the Sergeants' Mess could hope to equal. [Alan Brien, 'All's Well that Ends Well', The Spectator (24 April 1959)]

Diana suffered more grievously, for Mr. Guthrie robbed her not only of dignity but, by implication, of chastity too. Despite Bertram's admission that Diana is 'honest', Alan Brien reported that she was played 'as a wartime factory tart who sits on the doorstep in nightgown and housecoat, with a turban on her head and a lollipop in her mouth, giggling the lines in coffee-bar cockney'. Her mother, the Widow of Florence, received much the same treatment. A strong strain of vulgarity ran through her speech, the cheap beads and dress of her costume, and her emphatic movements; she drew her greatest laugh as she waddled across the stage in search of Helena at the trial scene.

Despite the farcical additions through stage business and character changes, Mr. Guthrie still sought the spirit of high romance which he had attempted in his first production. To achieve this, he focused the serious elements of the play, through character, plot, and sets, upon Helena. If he intended that Diana and the Widow should be painted in broad splashy sweeps, Helena was to be etched in fine, precious lines. He was fortunate in his actress. Miss Zoe Caldwell received critical acclaim for the beauty of her portrayal. She played the role as a young girl whose determination sprang entirely from the zeal of youthful love. The Countess, the King, and Lafeu reacted to her accordingly. When the needs of the play demanded a maturity in action, Mr. Guthrie enhanced the loveliness of her innocence with the stateliness of his sets. The dramatic suspense in her choice of a husband was heightened by staging the scene as a formal ball. At the rear of the stage, a small orchestra played. Helena danced with the King on a spacious stage overhung with chandeliers against a background of gowns and dress suits. The regal elegance which she shared with the King strengthened the horror of Bertram's impulsive rejection most dramatically. So too, in the opinion of several critics, the final scene achieved the emotional effect which was intended by Shakespeare. Mr. Guthrie had prepared for the difficulties of the reconciliation by managing Bertram as a youth guilty of insipid faults rather than strong vice. As Helena was ecstatic in girlish love, Bertram was callous in boyish indifference. Such pliable traits were moulded more easily under the swift strokes of the last scene. The indifference whitened to desperate anxiety; the anxiety melted to relief and reform at the feet of his ardent saviour. To many, the reconciliation was credible. Mr. Harold Hobson declared [Sunday Times (26 April 1959)], 'It is not often that we come away from the comedy with this conviction'.

The 1959 production at Stratford on Avon revealed in every aspect the strong hand of the director. All's Well, quite literally, was shaped by Mr. Guthrie to blend high romance with burlesque. Critical reaction to this shaping split into three views: the first insisted that the farcical stage business was essential to the success of this defective Shakespearian play; the second admitted the value of the original play and thought that the stage business worked with that value—'the production … is about as perfect as we are likely to see. … By some miracle Elizabethan braggadocio becomes common or garden bull, and the jokes, for perhaps the first time since Shakespeare's day, are jokes' [A. Alvarez, 'My Fair Helena', The New Statesman, (25 April 1959)]; the third view condemned the business as absurd intrusions. For the Spectator's critic, Mr. Guthrie had turned a 'mediocre play' into 'bad pantomime.' Mr. Kenneth Tynan was 'beguiled and fascinated' for the first half of the evening 'until Mr. Guthrie's love of horseplay obtrudes' [New Yorker, xxx v (26 Sept. 1959)]. In speaking of the omission of the Clown, 'who has some of the most haunting prose in Shakespeare', Mr. Tynan concluded, 'to cut a play yet make what remains last longer than the whole must argue, I suppose, a kind of dotty genius'.

An issue in this production, as in other highly interpretive approaches to Shakespeare, is whether Mr. Guthrie has worked with or against the text. The issue is complicated by the relatively little investigation which Shakespearian scholars have made into the nature of All's Well. Opponents of Mr. Guthrie argue that the vulgarity of Diana cheapened Helena's cause as much as the buffoonery of the King had weakened it in the Benthall production. The excesses of the military scenes undercut an obvious Shakespearian device to make impressive the military qualities of Bertram. The waddle of the Widow was as damaging to the last scene as the stage presence of the pathetically ugly Maudlin. By the final scene, the farcical contrivances had made any interest in Helena impossible. In effect, high romance could not be blended with farce.

The best defence of the production and an invaluable document in the critical history of All's Well is a long review written by Miss Muriel St. Clare Byrne for the Shakespeare Quarterly. [X (Autumn 1959)]. Much of the review is an interpretation of the play and consequently is treated later in this study. Of pertinence to the stage history, however, are the dramatic insights which she ascribes to the direction of Mr. Guthrie and the additions to the theatrical traditions of the play. Through his relatively modern setting, the director has made credible the long-maligned characters of All's Well. Bertram comes to life as the handsome, self-conceited, athletic under-graduate who is 'too normal to be basically unlikeable: one simply has to wait for him to grow up'. Parolles is perfectly comprehensible in his twentieth-century world: 'in our time he has again become the propper-up of bar counters. He pushes in with his betters. … He must sing for his supper whatever tune they call, unless he has a Bertram in tow.' So too, the warmth and robustness of the Guthrie characterizations add credibility to Shakespeare's Florentine women. Rather than working against the dramatist's intention, the contrast between the earthy Diana and the noble Helena points out the reason for Bertram's immature choice. This is not to say that Miss Caldwell's Helena lacked passion, for Mr. Guthrie relied upon her vitality repeatedly to break the mood which he had set. Thus, in the first scene, the audience feels that the vitality of Helena's love will dispel the tone of mourning which broods over Rousillon. In the final scene, it is her intensity which breaks the strain and growing ill-humour of the trial:

I saw nothing but Helena and what she did, heard nothing but what she had said, accepted the gesture of contrition and perhaps of the beginnings of love with which he knelt and clung to her. It was her moment: her words and the stage picture had said all there was to say. And from Dame Edith down, every single member of the cast acted that moment: you did not watch them, you felt them feeling its impact. There was no need for Bertram to speak, and if his words had been adequate they would have been out of character. (Actually, of course, the 'impossible' couplet was spoken simply and firmly. The literary eye is often deceived until the ears gain theatrical experience.)

Whether the Stratford on Avon production accomplished all of these effects is controversial. For some critics, the burlesque had made impossible the emotional impact ascribed by Miss Byrne to the last scene. Certainly, her defence of the farcical additions does not come to grips with their effect upon the nature of the play. To justify the military burlesque upon the grounds that it places Bertram in the world of men is only a defence of Shakespeare's military scenes, not of the burlesque, not of a 'glorious stag party'. Such a justification assumes that the tone of the wars is 'mock-heroic and deflationary of military honour and glory'. But the mood of the wars, darkened by the moralizing of the young lords, the reported death of Helena, the intense seduction of Diana, and Bertram's reaction to the exposure of Parolles, is scarcely that of a carefree stag party. Still if Mr. Guthrie did not accomplish all the effects suggested by Miss Byrne, there is little doubt that many of his insights belong to the 'ideal' production of All's Well. Even opposing criticisms of the production are moderated in the provocative summary of Mr. Patrick Gibbs [New York Times (22 April 1959)]:

As a result, it was often an hilarious but hardly a completely satisfying interpretation. One was left with a lingering curiosity about this rare play and a feeling that were its problems to be solved rather than glossed over, as here, something almost as rewarding as The Winter's Tale might emerge.

The stage history of All's Well that Ends Well in America is astonishingly brief. In the 'New Cambridge Edition' of the play published in 1929, Harold Child reported: 'I have found no record of its ever having been staged in the United States of America.* In 1939, Mr. Alfred Westfall concluded [in his American Shakespearean Criticism: 1607-1865, 1939] that five Shakespearian plays, All's Well, the three parts of Henry VI, and Pericles, had 'rarely if ever been given on the American professional stage'. In 1936, in the publication of an address before the City Historic Society of Philadelphia, Mr. John Haney included Troilus and Cressida with these five as Shakespearian plays which had not been recorded as produced. 'Although', he continued, 'visitors to the Chicago Fair during the summer of 1935 had an opportunity to see an abbreviated version of All's Well that Ends Well excellently played in the Elizabethan manner.' The version was certainly abbreviated and can hardly be classified as a production of Shakespeare's play. The acting time was forty minutes. It was one of a number of abbreviated revivals of Shakespeare's plays acted in a reconstructed Globe Theatre as a fair attraction at the 'Century of Progress'. Surprisingly in such a form, the director, Thomas Stevens, retained all the characters and kept the virginity scene! In the introduction to the published text of this condensation, Stevens made the claim that this was the first professional production of All's Well in America. A much earlier claim had been submitted by William Winter [in his Shakespeare on the Stage, 1911], who recorded a performance in New York on 3(?) October 1789. He was mistaken in assuming that it was Shakespeare's play. Seilhamer lists an All's Well that Ends Well written 'by a citizen of the United States' for the John Street Theatre, New York, and produced on 1 October 1789; 'it was never heard of afterwards' [George O. Seilhamer, History of the American Theatre During the Revolution and After, 1889].

The first American production of All's Well took place on 8 March 1799 at the Federal Street Theatre, Boston. It is not surprising that the acting version employed was Kemble's since Helena was acted by Mrs. Elizabeth Kemble-Whitlock, sister to the Kembles. An advertisement in J. Russell's Gazette on 7 March announced the performance as a benefit for Mr. Whitlock and noted:

The comedy … is one of the few very celebrated pieces of Shakespeare, which have not been represented on our stage; and we are the more surprised at this omission of our theatric managers, as it is universally allowed to possess as much diversity of character, variety of incident, interest of fable, and poetic beauty, as most of the productions of that immortal author. … The underplot is chiefly founded on the whimsical character and adventures of 'Parolles'.

There are no reviews of the production, but a description of Mrs. Whitlock by a Boston critic [H. I. Jackson] promises little for Helena. 'Her defects were her person, which was short and undignified, and her heavy, thick voice; but she had the family face, and a genuine passion, which could hold the sympathies.' With an uninspiring heroine and the Kemble text, the production is significant to the stage history only in fixing the date of the first American performance.

An intriguing problem involves the Elizabethan revivals of Augustin Daly, nineteenth-century producer. Again, it is William Winter who states that All's Well was produced, this time by Daly between 1887 and 1899. The assertion is repeated by Hazleton Spencer in The Art and Life of William Shakespeare published in 1940. But again Winter is in error, although here he certainly should have known the facts. Augustin Daly printed a number of the acting versions of his Shakespearian revivals; in each case he listed himself as the adapter on the title page. Actually, all the adaptations were done by Winter, who sold the versions to Daly. There is no published version of a Daly All's Well, but on 27 November 1882, Winter wrote to Daly:

Here are the other acts of 'All's Well.' I will, if you like, pass a day with you shortly, & we will discuss the piece, scene by scene. You will observe that I have cut the text very freely, & made several transpositions, etc.: but I have not added more than ten lines, altogether. The scenic part will be easy & not expensive. We can have a fine military pageant, & a beautiful moonlight view of Florence.

In a second letter dated 21 June 1883, Winter acknowledged payment from Daly for his acting version. Perhaps the most significant characteristic of the text is that Winter considered the play more in need of expurgation than the English Victorians did. Not only did he omit the virginity scene, the condition of the child, and the bed-trick, but he removed all dialogue which touched in any way upon sex. In the margin adjacent to the Clown's 'O Lord, sir!' scene [Act II, scene ii] with the Countess, Winter jotted, 'This will be a frank scene'; then he crossed out such words as 'buttocks' and 'cuckold'. In Act v, the Clown's 'fortune's displeasure is but sluttish' [V. ii. 6] was changed to 'is sorely decayed'. In all, Winter cut just short of 400 lines from the original. The emphasis of the resultant text, as in the 'Kemble Edition', was upon Helena, and to her was given the epilogue.

Yet the play was never produced. The reason can only be conjectured, for Daly's continued interest in a revival of All's Well is demonstrable in a second alteration apparently prepared by Daly himself. On the inside cover of this unpublished prompt-book is a handwritten note by Winter dated 14 May 1911: 'The hand-writing of this rearrangement of the Comedy is, throughout, that of my old friend Augustine Daly. Take good care of this book, for it is valuable.' The text is considerably different from the earlier Winter version and is akin to, but by no means identical with, the 'Kemble Edition'. It contains detailed stage directions and elaborate set descriptions. The wording of Winter's note does not make clear whether Daly is the author of the alteration. There is nothing, however, in the Winter-Daly correspondence to indicate a second commission to Winter, nor is this second prompt-book merely a reworking of the first for publication in the series of Daly prompt-books. Indeed, this second alteration is still a working copy in that items are crossed out and marginal notes inserted. My supposition is that Daly made his own adaptation, incorporating ideas of both Winter and Kemble. He had an extraordinary interest in reviving the plays of Shakespeare. Ada Rehan, his leading actress, shared this interest; she was 'devotedly fond of Shakespeare, and all the Shakespearean characters allotted to her were studied and acted by her with eager interest and sympathy' [quoted from William Winter, Ada Rehan, 1898]. We would imagine that Daly planned a distinguished production with an ideal Helena. Yet, despite the money paid to Winter, the details of stage sets and business in the prompt-books, the existence of a second alteration, and the assertion by Winter that the play had been performed, All's Well was not produced.

The fact in itself could be ascribed to a variety of reasons ranging from Daly's dissatisfaction with both alterations to production difficulties. It may be, however, another of the ironies of the stage history of All's Well that musty superstitions frightened Daly from producing a play which had consumed so much of his time. Daly had been strongly affected by his interest in Peg Woffington, whose biography he had written. 'One suspects that Daly consciously modeled Miss Rehan's repertoire on Peg's. … This identification of the two actresses who played so many of the same roles was so prominent in Daly's mind that he seemed constantly to have confused one with the other' [quoted from Marvin Felheim, The Theatre of Augustin Daly, 1956]. Peg Woffington had played Helena in the 1742 Drury Lane revival. It was this production which suffered so many mishaps, including Mrs. Woffington's fainting in the first act, that earned for the play its epithet, 'the unfortunate comedy'. It may be that Daly, despite the attractiveness of the role for his protégé, simply could not assign to Ada Rehan a part which had been a failure for Peg Woffington. Whatever his reason, All's Well lost its only opportunity for professional production in nineteenth-century America.

One of the surprising revelations of the stage history, then, is that the first significant performance of All's Well in America is the Canadian production of Tyrone Guthrie in 1953. Indeed, its unfamiliarity contributed to its selection as the companion piece to Richard III for the premier season of the Stratford, Ontario Festival. Since the cast was comprised of Canadian and British actors, Mr. Guthrie hoped to improve 'team-feeling' with a play equally new to both. His plan succeeded, for the critical reviews of the cast were overwhelmingly favourable. Eleanor Stuart was praised for her portrayal of the Countess as 'the Aristocratic Old Lady of High Comedy … [who] ruled the stage without imperiousness … a quality of spirit rather than of mannerism' [Robertson Davies, 'The Players', Renown at Stratford: A Record of the Shakespeare Festival in Canada, 1953, 1953]. Alec Guinness 'played a polished King of France in a quilted dressing gown from a wheel-chair'. [Arnold Edinborough, 'A New Stratford Festival', SQ, V (January 1954)]. Douglas Campbell combined the farce and pathos of Parolles so well that Walter Kerr [in New York Herald Tribune (19 July 1953)] concluded: 'You come away with that rare feeling that you don't particularly care whether you ever see another actor in the role or not.' And, for the first time in the stage history of All's Well, critics agreed that an actress had fulfilled the potentialities of Helena. If Mr. Guthrie's intention was to shape a high comedy combining the unbelievable machinations was executed largely through the performance of Miss Helen Worth. She was the determined woman, but there was no offence in the blithe, smiling innocence of a girl who believes that 'nothing could be more reasonable than her simple request'. She turned 'the nasty business of her amorous pursuit into a sweetly logical wifely manoeuvre'. Her disconcerting simplicity was so effective that Mr. Kerr commented: 'Helena is, if anything, a rather more dangerous character to have around than Richard III. By an act of conscienceless sorcery, Miss Worth has made her endearing.' Mr. Guthrie had made the play a box-office success.

As I have noted earlier, the approach with even more comic stage business was repeated at Stratford, England in 1959. It is an interesting conclusion to this stage history of major productions that, at the same time Mr. Guthrie was broadening the farce within the play, Mr. John Houseman was moulding a tragi-comedy out of its serious scenes. From the first revival in 1741, interpretations had fluctuated between farce and melodrama; in 1959 both extremes were produced in the theatre. On 1 August 1959, Mr. Houseman directed the American Shakespeare Festival production of All's Well at Stratford, Connecticut. Surprisingly, the reception by critics and audiences was almost as enthusiastic as that won by the Guthrie revival. The direction was called one of Mr. Houseman's 'finest achievements' [Claire McGlinchee in "Stratford, Connecticut, Shakespeare Festival, 1959," SQ X (Autumn 1959)] and the play the most encouraging work yet done by the Connecticut group.

As in the nineteenth-century melodramatic approaches to All's Well, Helena was the centre of the play to the exclusion of all other character. Miss Nancy Wickwire played the heroine with intensity. In the first scene, she suffered visibly at the departure of Bertram, who kissed her lightly on the brow and waved pleasantly as he made his exit. Alone on stage, she appeared much older and more mature than the brash youth who had just departed for the adventures of court. After a humourless scene with Parolles, she walked about the stage, sobbed, pondered, and finally elaborated her scheme to win Bertram through the cure of the King. Throughout the first act, her dominant quality was a force, a determined strength. Although she displayed tenderness with the Countess, still it was her enthusiasm which aroused the Countess to agree with her plan.

In Helena's introductory scene with the King, the audience became aware that this intense woman had more in her favour than Lafeu's intercession. There was the suggestion of divine assistance in her cause. The King, in halting tones spoken from his cot, agreed to see Lafeu's 'Doctor She'. Helena descended a staircase as if heaven-sent. The entire scene was played slowly, quietly, with great stress upon the 'help of heaven' [II. i. 152]. At the end of the scene, Helena helped the King gently from his bed as if his consent to the miracle had already begun the process of the cure. Thereafter, the force of her character assumed a tragic intensity with Bertram's rejection of her. Her horror at the thought that she was responsible for Bertram's flight to war and at the potential danger which the war threatened to him suggested that the 'dark comedy' was in fact a very dark tragedy. The mood was sustained in Helena's arrival at Florence as a haggard pilgrim. Only the last Unes of the play which record Bertram's surrender saved Helena from being added to the ranks of Shakespeare's tragic heroines.

Mr. Houseman made several points in his direction to prevent Bertram from emerging as the tragic villain. His kiss and wave to Helena in the first scene suggested a pleasantry about him that won sympathy. His conduct at his presentation to the King was dignified as were the actions of the young lords who surrounded the King. This kind of stage business was even more effective after the marriage when Bertram sent his bride back to Rousillon. He was not unkind to her. Somewhat overwhelmed by the force of her passion, he turned to say something to her, some kind word, but she had already begun her exit. He checked himself, showed dismay at hurting her, then recovered quickly and shouted his youthful boast. In Florence, there was no sport between Bertram and Diana. He was not prompted by a soldier's lust nor the waywardness of youth but by a passionate response to her. Both played the scene seriously. This distorted Diana's motivation, but their embrace and final kiss seemed an attempt to justify Bertram's conduct now and his earlier rejection of Helena. His sincerity made more difficult his lies in the trial scene and more confused Diana's delays. But the difficulty did not lose much sympathy for him as he lied; he was obviously anxious, troubled, almost overpowered by his accumulation of evidence which endangered his newly won favour. The realistic approach to the play won credibility for Bertram.

Mr. Houseman's direction of All's Well was bold. He accepted the loss of the comic potential of the play. He ignored the cuts and alterations of the nineteenth century which resulted in merely sentimental romance. For in preserving the text, he accepted the unsentimental determination of Helena, the unromantic deceit of the bed-trick, and the 'offensive' dialogue. The result was a dark comedy, but not a bitter comedy. The dramatic treatment of the story of Helena and Bertram could not avoid a somewhat melodramatic conclusion, but most critics expressed views similar to Mr. Hewes, who wrote in the Saturday Review that the production had 'made this unpopular play work by filling it with genuine passion, and allowing the characters to be naively unaware—except for brief moments—of the horror of their behavior'. Mr. Houseman, however, paid a heavy price for his tragi-comedy. The infusion of passion changed Parolles from the braggart-soldier to a coward-villain who failed to draw his first real laugh from the audience until his capture. Even then, the turnabout of his exposure was pathetic as he was knocked about by each of the departing lords in what became a repugnant scene.

The Guthrie and Houseman productions are the only major American theatre productions of All's Well that Ends Well. They represent relatively extreme approaches to the play. Shakespeare has not yet been exhausted in either the work of scholarship or the theatre when a play from his mature period has only recently received the attention and experimentation of the theatrical world in America.

In the twentieth century, the play has had a number of minor productions in Great Britain and the United States, minor in status, though frequently not in quality. Undoubtedly, the directors and performers in these productions have seen dramatic effects which would be invaluable to this history. Even a necessarily brief and incomplete survey, however, justifies two conclusions. The play has been made entertaining theatre, not simply a curious Shakespearian failure, for the modern audience. As a result, the number of minor presentations of All's Well is growing. A second conclusion is that the entertainment has resulted usually from a light approach in interpretation. The Shakespeare Festival Company at Ashland, Oregon, produced the play in both 1955 and 1960. Under the direction of Robert Loper, the first production turned the play 'into a delightful comedy' in which the vices of the characters were minimized in order to make the theme one of forgiveness' [Horace W. Robinson, 'Shakespeare, Ashland, Oregeon', SQ VI (Autumn 1955)]. In 1961, 'Ashland's most distinctive triumph was again affirmed in the notoriously ignored or scorned All's Well. Like others of the barely tolerated plays in the canon, the outdoor performance on an Elizabethan stage blossomed into a work of delightful verve and flash' [R. D. Horn, 'Shakespeare and Ben Jonson-Ashland, 1961', SQ XII (Autumn 1961)]. 'A general liveliness and a successful emphasis on the comedy' were noted in the Cambridge University Marlowe Society's production in 1950 [The Stage, 1950]; that long-maligned clown, Lavache, came off particularly well. The Clown was given an excellent representation as the eternal low comedian in a performance at William and Mary College, Virginia, 1959. Mr. Howard Scammon, the director, achieved an interesting effect by placing the Clown on an upper porch throughout the trial scene. Lavache's obvious and natural delight over the discomfiture of Parolles, the entrapment of Bertram, and the confused consternation wrought by Diana's ambiguities lightened the tone of the entire scene and suggested a reaction to the audience. A range in experimentation may be noted in the contrast between the Merton College, Oxford, production directed by Nevill Coghill in which the stage was bare and the actors sat by the sides in full view of the audience and a production at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, which noted in its press release:

We hope to offer to our audience a love story, the fascination of a suspenseful intrigue plot, engaging character studies, wit and bawdy humor, the colorful pageantry of a royal court and a military campaign, together with much exquisite poetry.

A 1956 production at Antioch College contributed an interesting effect with its Parolles. In his review, Judson Jerome ['Shakespeare at Antioch', SQ, VII (Autumn 1956)] notes that Parolles became hysterical in the exposure scene; the officers strained to revenge themselves on this 'babbling ape'; the lords and Bertram were shamed in the vileness of the man; Bertram hurled himself off stage 'with a desperate need to reform'. The treatment, 'in this surprisingly quick-paced yarn', produced this effect:

This emphasis upon Parolles in the central and hilarious scene of his capture and questioning does a great deal to remove the problem of unity in the play. Beat the scapegoat, and the rest of the play is somewhat absolved of its mood of undefined evil. Reveal to Bertram the depths of Parolles' character, and he is motivated to begin his shuffling repentance.

In a production at Bryn Mawr College in 1963, Bertram's conduct became surprisingly plausible as he balanced a natural affection for his childhood companion and an equally natural revulsion at the prospect of marrying her.

Perhaps the most amusing fact in the stage history of the play in the minor theatres is its popularity as a burlesque in American vaudeville. If Augustin Daly hesitated to produce All's Well as drama for nineteenth-century America, the minstrels did not hesitate to present travesties of it. Three such were actually submitted for copyright; one was published under the title The Serenade and was also known as 'All's Well that Ends Well' and 'Nip and Tuck'. Some of the more severe critics of the play might be willing indeed to substitute for the denouement of the original the ending of this version which 'depends for its working out on the discharging of firecrackers to frighten the actors off the stage'.

… [Earlier] I reviewed the stresses which the previous centuries had placed upon their interpretations of All's Well. I discussed those elements of the play which had delighted particular audiences. I suggested that the task which the theatre of the twentieth century assumed in producing the play was the discovery of a principle of unity which could blend the 'brilliant parts'. This task was placed in the hands of the director. Throughout the past sixty years, the director has commonly shaped the play to a Procrustean bed by stretching the comic or the serious. …

Throughout its stage history, All's Well has rarely been presented as Shakespeare wrote it. In the midst of its popularity in the eighteenth century, the play with an emphasis upon farce was produced as altered by Garrick. In the nineteenth century, the Kemble version was dominant until an even worse text was prepared by the Irving Dramatic Club in 1895. In the twentieth century, the play has been altered occasionally; more often, it has reflected the intention of the director rather than of the original play. I am not concluding that the text itself will prove All's Well a great play upon the stage. I am concluding that, on the stage, there have been few attempts to trust to Shakespeare for the dramatic functions of each character, each scene. I am concluding that, in the scholarship of the play, very few of the critics have ever seen a performance of All's Well in any form. Both of these disturbing facts have left their marks on the criticism of the play.

A second point is one that has been apparent throughout the stage history—there is a strain within All's Well resulting from the seeming discord of romance and realism, of the serious and the comic. The problem of romance and realism springs up in many issues but perhaps most obviously in these two: the love of the noble Helena for the ignoble Bertram, and the realistic trap of the substitution of one woman in the seduction of another, which follows a fairy-like miraculous cure of the King. One answer to the first problem which rings most effectively throughout the stage history is an emphasis upon the clear vision of Helena which sees a nobility in the still boyish Bertram. To the second, the stage history replies that both the cure and the bed-trick must be unreal. Neither must be examined closely; both spring from the distracting loveliness of the heroine, from a fairy-tale treatment of the entire plot, or from the supernatural assistance given the heroine in justification of her goal. The problem of the serious and the comic has been more swiftly but perhaps less satisfactorily solved. There is nothing unusual in the mixture of the grave and the humorous in drama. But here the problem is just what should be serious and what should be comic. Are Parolles, the Clown, and Lafeu really funny? Are they satiric? Are they bitter portrayals of human society? Nowhere is the problem better illustrated than in the exposure of Parolles. Is he to be played comically or tragically or at some mid point? The theatrical history of All's Well shows that the decision on this point will usually determine whether the production is to reveal a 'light' or 'dark' comedy. And the productions of the past are about equally divided on this touchstone of interpretation.

The third point to be remembered in the examination of the critical history is really a conclusion from the first two. No really satisfying production of All's Well has yet been accomplished in a major theatre. Is such a production possible? Certainly, the challenge is there for both critic and director. In his review of the 1959 Guthrie revival [22 April], the drama critic of the London Times wrote:

The key needed to unlock the full meaning of this difficult comedy has yet to be found. Commentators have so far given theatrical producers little help. Professor Wilson Knight recently has striven prodigiously to fashion a key that might work, but his essay obviously came too late for it to have any influence on Mr. Guthrie's present production. We shall have to wait—probably for a long time—to see Helena brought to the stage as Shakespeare's supreme expression of a woman's love, a humble medium for divine power which out of a contention on equal terms of male and female values achieves a mystical union between them.

Whether the key is Professor Knight's or one with simpler notches, the excitement of opening a Shakespearian lock, long rusted, is there. Perhaps, to quote Mr. Patrick Gibbs again [in New York Times (22 April 1959)], 'something almost as rewarding as "The Winter's Tale" might emerge'.

J. L. Styan (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Issues of Performance: A Play Without a Past," in Shakespeare in Performance: All's Well That Ends Well, Manchester University Press, 1984, pp. 1-6.

[In the following excerpt, Styan provides a stage history of All's Well That Ends Well, arguing that "the 'indelicacy' of the central story … has ensured that the play has had not theatrical history worth mentioning until a few years ago."]

All's Well That Ends Well is for us virtually a new play, and in this it is not unlike another problem comedy that has only recently found an audience, Troilus and Cressida. The 'indelicacy' of the central story, in which a woman pursues a man all the way into his bed, has ensured that the play has had no theatrical history worth mentioning until a few years ago. It therefore comes to us largely unencumbered by the débris of stage tradition, and because of the ambiguities surrounding the woman in question, it also comes with few of the critical preconceptions which can stultify productions and performances (not counting its reputation for commercial disaster). If we hold that a play lives and grows for as long as it is being played and seen, in the case of All's Well we are privileged to be mid-wives to its birth.

In spite of Hazlitt's perverse verdict in his Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1817) that All's Well was 'one of the most pleasing of our author's comedies', there were few who subsequently agreed with him. In 1929 Arthur Quiller-Couch concluded his introduction to the New Cambridge edition by saying, 'In fine, we hold this play to be one of Shakespeare's worst'; and in the same edition Harold Child began his story of the production of the play with the chilling comment, 'The stage-history of this comedy is brief and inglorious'. At that date he was right. There was no record of a production of All's Well before 1741, when it saw the light for five performances; and then in 1742 Peg Woffington as Helena fell and fainted on the stage, while the King of France died of a cold in the head soon after. However, the play was sustained for several performances after 1746 by the Harlequin talents of Harry Woodward as Parolles, but it flopped under John Philip Kemble in 1794 and under his younger brother Charles in 1811. It emerged again at Covent Garden in 1832 as an opera, even though The Theatrical Observer found its plot 'objectionable to modern refinement' (17 October), and it achieved eleven performances under Phelps at Sadler's Wells in 1852 in spite of the judgment by The Athenaeum that 'the manners represented are exceedingly gross' (4 September). Doubtless a Victorian Helena should more properly have had a fit of the vapours at the mention of a fistula. Thereafter the play sank into oblivion for more than half a century, unheard of in late Victorian England or America. It took on perfunctory and fitful life with the development of the Stratford-upon-Avon festivals, under F. R. Benson in 1916, W. Bridges-Adams in 1922 and Ben Iden Payne in 1935, and made a fleeting appearance under Robert Atkins at the Old Vic in 1921. Joseph Price tells this miserable history in his book, The Unfortunate Comedy.

By the middle of this century the play had all but been written off as an acceptable offering for the commercial stage. Its content and style had virtually defeated all attempts to revive it successfully, and it is merely amusing to read the obligatory comments that surround the earlier productions. At best, Benson's work in 1916 had attained the 'success of curiosity', since The Birmingham Daily Post believed the play had 'never been performed in Shakespeare's native place' (1 May). After the Old Vic production of 1921, The Observer echoed the long chorus of detractors by declaring that the play 'was very nearly the worst play its distinguished author ever wrote' (4 December), and after the Birthday performance at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1922, The Morning Post decided that it was no more than 'a scamped pot-boiler'. The Sunday Times seemed to settle the matter once and for all by immortalising in print the stern verdict,

This is one of Shakespeare's earliest and worst efforts. It was misconceived, misbegotten and misnamed. Its ending is far from well. It finishes deplorably. What possible satisfaction can there be to anyone in the reunion of such an ignominious pair? A more unsympathetic hero and heroine it is impossible to find in the whole gallery of Shakespearean portraits. (4 December 1921)

Of course, All's Well is not now taken to be an early play, but to fall in the mature sequence of Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure. It is another of Shakespeare's extraordinary experiments for the stage, but in spite of Kenneth Muir's belief in his Shakespeare's Sources of 1957 that 'it is a play that acts much better than it reads' (p, 101), such derogatory sentiments continued to be expressed. In his introduction to the New Arden edition of 1959, G. K. Hunter was still troubled by the reasons why the play was not often read or performed (p. xxix), and in Shakespeare Quarterly in 1964, Jay Halio continued to write of it as if it were 'a failure' (p. 33).

One reason is that the play has more than its share of the seamier side of Elizabethan wit, and the text has usually been cut to spare our blushes. The collation of sixty-three acting editions and prompt-books of All's Well in William Halstead's Shakespeare as Spoken indicates that the scissors did heavy duty in this play. The unmentionable discussion on virginity (I. 1.104-74) was never heard until recently, and throughout the nineteenth century lines were obliterated when they seemed too explicit to some manager. Lines lost in this way included Bertram's to Diana, 'give thyself unto my sick desires' (IV. 2.35), and Diana's riddle,

He knows himself my bed he hath defil'd;
And at that time he got his wife with child.
Dead though she be, she feels her young one
So there's my riddle: one that's dead is quick.

And until recently Helena was sanitised out of recognition, together with much of the bed trickery of III. 5, III. 7 and IV. 4. John Philip Kemble began the Victorian tradition of making the production of the ring, and not the baby, the only condition named in Bertram's letter of III. 2.55.

Coherence in the story itself must have been imperceptible, and so the audience for Benson's production found: The Birmingham Daily Post actually suggested that the play should be done as 'a wild and jolly farce' like The Taming of the Shrew, but with 'a female Petruchio' to tame her husband (1 May 1916). Worse, reviewers and commentators were unable to identify a characteristic tone and idiom for the play: All's Well appeared to lack even the dark comic unity of Measure for Measure. Thus, in the years since World War II, Michael Benthall treated the play as a fairy tale, with Claire Bloom's beautiful Helena blessed with the long blonde tresses of a Cinderella. Noël Willman arbitrarily introduced a new shade of revulsion by making his clown Lavache a dwarf and a hunch-back. John Barton sugared over the bitterness in the story a little with the fey charms and big round eyes of Estelle Kohler as a precocious schoolgirl Helena.

Nevertheless, by the time of Barton's production of 1967, All's Well had become another play. The Birmingham Mail found it 'one of the season's pleasures' and Herbert Kretzmer in The Daily Express could represent the popular verdict with a statement that would have been unbelievable a hundred years before: 'It is a lovely and a loving play and I adored every moment of it' (both 2 June). In 1981 the television production by Elijah Moshinsky proved to be one of the most successful of the BBC's series, a spell-binding experience for millions of viewers, and Trevor Nunn's production at Stratford-upon-Avon later that year was the most assured of the season, sending its audience home, in Michael Billington's words, 'filled with a radiant over-powering happiness' (The Guardian Weekly, 18 July 1982). What had happened? The change could possibly be put down to the broadening of public taste in matters of sex. But by the test of performance stylistic virtues in the play had also begun to reveal themselves.

In a nutshell, two elements in the play had governed its presentation and reception over the years, both mutually dependent: its controversial content and its unusual style. In this century, time and the change in social taste, with a greater understanding of the realism in character and situation, have taken care of much of the first, and developments in the production of Shakespeare, a more open stage and a more imaginative theatre, have demonstrated the second. Our play may today claim a more secure place in the theatrical canon, some 350 years after it was written.

Before the war, the newly-appointed director of the Stratford Memorial Theatre in 1935, Ben Iden Payne, had introduced a 'fit-up' Elizabethan 'inner stage' set behind a traverse curtain. This curtain was hung between two pillars which also served to support a penthouse roof erected inside the proscenium arch. He thus in part rejected the old sense of illusion and achieved a new pace and rhythm in the action. However, he was not able to escape the limitations of the proscenium arch, and lacked the spatial freedom which was to mark post-war productions: The Yorkshire Post decided that the 'curtains constantly travelling across a false proscenium arch' resulted only in 'swiftness, continuity, and monotony' (24 April). The production of the play by Tyrone Guthrie on the newly constructed thrust stage of the Stratford, Ontario Festival Theatre in 1953 now appears to have been a watershed in the history of the play. It was a stage, Guthrie wrote in his autobiography, A Life in the the Theatre, 'planned upon the theory that illusion is not the aim of performance' (p. 301). This production was revived and adjusted for the proscenium stage of the Memorial Theatre in 1959, and managed to retain some of its original spirit of non-illusion. The Guthrie production proved to be the one which opened up the play, identified a unity of theme and style, and suggested possibilities for future productions. In his use of Ontario's open stage Guthrie may have managed to recapture something of the style that Shakespeare conceivably intended for the Globe.

Guthrie's contribution to the play was a free choreography of such imaginative range that the play's quality of fantasy and wit could be mixed with its element of realism in characterization. In Shakespeare's Problem Plays E. M. W. Tillyard observed that 'Shakespeare had at his call a rather clumsy and heightened style in rhyme which he used from time to time to mark certain passages in his plays violently off from the rest', but in All's Well he considered that Shakespeare in using this style was 'deliberately evading drama and substituting ritual and cloudy incantation' (pp. 101-2) when Helena cured the King. Tillyard was closer than he knew to the sense of ritual conferred on the play in performance by the couplets, and Guthrie made them work, not only for the scenes of curing the King and choosing a husband, but in order to promote the magical side of Helena's role.

John Barton, working in Stratford-upon-Avon and the Aldwych in a comparable spirit of non-illusion in 1967 and 1968, had his designer Timothy O'Brien superimpose a simple wooden stage on the main one and backed it with a pavilion. And he also found an appreciative audience for a less romantic analysis of class distinction and the sexual relationship in the play. So it was that, under Barton, a play that had once been pronounced the least attractive of Shakespeare's comedies was played for its wit and wisdom, and was found to be 'much the most enjoyable of Shakespeare's comedies' (B. A. Young in The Financial Times), and 'no longer a problem play', but 'delightfully tongue-in-cheek' (Eric Shorter in The Daily Telegraph); this was 'All's Well without a dark side' (Henry Popkin in The Times, all 18 January 1968). Style and content were working together.

Russell Fraser and Philip Brockbank (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: An excerpt from The New Cambridge Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 28-34.

[In the following excerpt, Russell Fraser gives a chronological survey of All's Well That Ends Well on the stage; Philip Brockbank further discusses productions of the play from 1967 to 1980.]

Stage history

In the seventeenth century, Jonsonian comedy was in, Shakespearean comedy was out, and All's Well That Ends Well failed to get a hearing. 'No man', said Charles Gildon [in The Life of Betterton, 1710], 'can allow any of Shakespear's comedies, except the Merry Wifes of Windsor.' Subsequent auditors have been less severe, but All's Well has remained an unpopular play in the theatre.

In the eighteenth century, it received only 51 performances in the London theatre, as against 274 performances for As You Like It and 133 for Measure for Measure. Such success as it enjoyed turned mostly on its supposed character of rudimentary farce. In the nineteenth century, five revivals are recorded but only 17 performances. All five revivals made a hash of the text. The twentieth century has done better but not a lot better until quite recently. It took thirty-five years for the new Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon to get around to All's Well (leaving only Titus Andronicus still to be played at that time). As late as 1929, Harold Child, in the New Shakespeare, could find 'no record of its ever having been staged in the United States of America'.

The early English theatre shows the same dismal blank. There is no record of a production of All's Well in Shakespeare's time and no record in the century that followed his death. We cannot be certain, however, that there were no performances, and we are free to speculate about possibilities. … When the play came to be performed, in the eighteenth century and later, it was generally trivialised almost beyond recognition. This isn't surprising. All's Well, said M. C. Bradbrook [in Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry, 1951], 'is a play which is of its age rather than for all time'. Over the centuries, that has been the accepted view, and stage directors have no doubt appealed to this view to justify their maladroit reading of the play. 'If All's Well must be played', said Joseph Price satirically in his account of the stage history [The Unfortunate Comedy, 1968], 'then play it as removed as possible from the original.' By and large, that is how it has been played.

The first recorded performance of All's Well took place on 28 September 1741 at Henry Giffard's theatre in Goodman's Fields. Where Giffard was more or less satisfied with Shakespeare's text, his successors received it as a blank page and filled the page as they pleased. The eighteenth century saw All's Well as a comic vehicle for 'Monsieur Parolles', and Theophilus Cibber and Charles Macklin contended for this part in the Drury Lane production of 1742. 'Young Cibber's exhibition' - Macklin having had to settle for the role of Lavatch - elicited from the poet Shenstone 'as sincere a laugh as I can ever recollect'. [quoted in The Letters of William Shenstone, 1939]. Peg Woffington, 'the most captivating comedienne of her time', [quoted in George C. D. Odell's Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, 1921] played Helena. But in the eighteenth century the part of the heroine attracted little attention, the part of Bertram still less, and no leading actor ventured to perform it between Giffard in 1741 and John Philip Kemble a half century later.

During the first five years following the 1741 performance, All's Well was played 22 times in four different theatres. Then for ten years it fell from the stage. David Garrick engineered a second major revival on 24 February 1756. For this performance at Drury Lane, Garrick prepared an acting version which held the stage for eighteen years. In his reductionist view, All's Well was exhausted in the comedy of ParoUes, and the comedy itself was pure and simple. 'One of the greatest on the English stage', said the London Chronicle (1 December 1757) of the character of Parolles as personated by Harry Woodward, who made the part his own for the next generation. Woodward played Parolles at the Crow Street Theatre in Dublin on 24 October 1760, and again at Covent Garden in 1762. Abruptly the play was popular, and Garrick, Woodward's erstwhile employer, mounted a rival production at Drury Lane with Thomas King as the cowardly soldier.

The popularity of All's Well depended substantially on eviscerating the play. Frederick Pilon's adaptation of 1785 for the comedian John Bannister suggests how this was so. The adaptation was played at the Haymarket, a house of farce, and the smoking of Parolles was the centrepiece of the play. To heighten this business, Pilon cut the first three acts almost in their entirety.

A new reading of All's Well is evident in its third stage incarnation. For this, responsibility belongs to John Philip Kemble. In 1793, Kemble published his adapted version in which the focus shifts to Helena and her selfless love. Kemble's All's Well, produced at the new Theatre Royal in Drury Lane on 12 December 1794, is a sentimental comedy. In the early years of the nineteenth century, the literary essayist Nathan Drake [in Shakespeare and His Times, 1817] filled out the portrait which Kemble had sketched in outline:

Helen, the romantic, the love-dejected Helen, must excite in every feeling bosom a high degree of sympathy; patient suffering in the female sex, especially when resulting from ill-acquitted attachment, and united with modesty and beauty, cannot but be an object of interest and commiseration.

Musing on Helena's flight from Rossillion, this writer concludes: 'how does she, becoming thus an unprotected wanderer, a pilgrim barefoot plodding the cold ground for him who has contemned her, rise to the tone of exalted truth and heroism!'

Though Kemble took the part of Bertram (where his predecessors would have chosen Parolles), All's Well failed to please and closed after a single performance. The damage to Shakespeare's text proved more enduring, however.

Seventeen years later, Charles Kemble, the manager of Covent Garden, revived his older brother's lachrymose adaptation. Performances were scheduled on 24 May 1811 and again on 22 June. Then Covent Garden dropped the play, and a revival at Bath ten years later did nothing to persuade the public that All's Well was worth serious attention.

As the taste of the Regency was displaced by that of the Victorians, it was not the sentimentality of Kemble's version that gave rise to objection but its carnality. 'The plot', said The Theatrical Observer in 1832, 'is in itself so objectionable to modern refinement, that it has long been acknowledged not to be fit for representation.' In this year the dramatist Frederic Reynolds did his best to make amends for Shakespeare's plot. He created an operatic version at Covent Garden (11 October 1832), admitting nothing offensive and nothing farcical either. A sweetly suffering Helena was acted, and also sung, by Miss Inverarity. 'I am Saint Jaques' Pilgrim' [III. iv. 4], this Helena sang. Material from other plays was grafted to this stock. A Midsummer Night's Dream provided a chorus of fairies. Songs were set from verses in Othello, Love's Labour's Lost and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, to music by Rophino Lacy. Taking his cue from Romeo and Juliet, Bertram sang how 'Love is a smoke' [I. i. 190]. The entire chorus, accompanied by Helena, Diana, the Gentle Astringer and assorted Falconers, rendered the lines from Twelfth Night: 'If music be the food of love' [I. i. 1].

Still the critics declined to be mollified. 'The revival at all, at this time of day', said the Court Journal (20 October 1832), 'of the only play of Shakespeare that is really exceptionable in its moral tone and tendency, is a sufficient blunder.' The blunder was compounded by uniting All's Well 'in a forced marriage with the most touchingly pure, innocent, and pastoral, and at the same time most exquisitely and exclusively poetical, and most divinely human and beautiful, of all the same author's plays'. This was A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Two decades later, Samuel Phelps tried again. For the production of All's Well in 1852 at his theatre, Sadler's Wells, Phelps relied on J. P. Kemble's adaptation. He left nothing to chance, though, further expurgating the text and further refining the character of Helena (no reflections on 'my virginity'): He eliminated the bed-trick. But the critics found him out or they found Shakespeare out. Alter the play as you will, said John Bull (4 September 1852), it cannot 'be made presentable to an audience of which decent females form a portion'.

For almost half a century, that was the last of All's Well. In 1895, for only the fourth time on the London stage in the nineteenth century, the Irving Dramatic Club put on a performance. This prompted a review by Bernard Shaw, who thought the play had been 'vivisected' - an intolerable fault to the anti-vivisectionist - and the fragments mutilated in the interest of accessories 'which were in every particular silly and ridiculous'. When the Florentine army passed beneath the walls of the city, 'a few of the band gave a precarious selection from the orchestral parts of Berlioz's version of the Rackoczy March'. The dresses of the ladies 'were the usual fancy ball odds and ends, Helena especially distinguishing herself by playing the first scene partly in the costume of Hamlet and partly in that of a waitress in an Aerated Bread market' [Saturday Review, 2 February 1895].

Later Shaw wrote that in Shakespeare there were parts 'like that of Helena in All's Well for instance - which are still too genuine and beautiful and modern for the public' [Letter to Janet Achurch, 23 April 1895]. That of the Countess was among them, he said, 'the most beautiful old woman's part ever written'. All's Well stood out artistically by virtue of the sovereign charm of the young woman and the old woman, 'and intellectually by the experiment, repeated nearly three hundred years later in A Doll's House, of making the hero a perfectly ordinary young man, whose unimaginative prejudices and selfish conventionality make him cut a very mean figure in the atmosphere created by the nobler nature of his wife [quoted in John F. Matthews (ed.), Shaw's Dramatic Criticism (1895-98), 1959].

The nobler nature commended itself to the actor-manager Frank Benson in his production for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon in the spring of 1916. Benson's ignoble Bertram was redeemed by Lady Benson in the role of Helena. For William Poel, the celebrated revivalist of Elizabethan plays, Helena's wooing of Bertram manifested a love, 'religious in impulse, which no convention could repress'. In Poel's production on 20 May 1920 at the Ethical Church in Bayswater, the play acquired 'an ethical significance which gave it a place in the history of woman's emancipation' [quoted in Robert Speaight, William Poel and the Elizabethan Revival, 1954].

There was more comedy than social history in the Old Vic performance of 28 November 1921, directed by Robert Atkins, and in the Bridges-Adams revival at Stratford in 1922. Interest in Parolles was on the upswing again and brought with it renewed attention to the long-neglected role of the Clown. This role got special mention in a revival at the Maddermarket, a new theatre in Norwich, in September 1924. Three years later, a production in modern dress at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre featured young Laurence Olivier as Parolles; 'an amiable, too smart young man, a sommelier's scourge', said Bernard Shaw. [quoted in J. C. Trewin, The Birmingham Repertory Theatre: 1913-63, 1963]. None of these productions was especially convincing to the critics, however, and when Robert Atkins repeated his version at the Arts Theatre Club in 1932, they went away, said one of them, 'with no idea in head except that it was Shakespeare botching and bungling at his worst' [James Agate, Brief Chronicles: A Survey of the Plays of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans in Actual Performances, 1943].

The idea persisted. 'Dull' was the judgement passed on the Stratford 'birthday' production in 1935, presided over by B. Iden Payne. When Atkins offered a third revival in the fall of 1940, the ugly duckling had another chance to prove itself 'a true cygnet of Avon' [Ivor Brown, Punch, 16 October 1940]. It failed this chance. The play was 'too grim, unwitty and disconcerting to be called comedy at all', and 'anybody heard defending its poetry should be asked point-blank to quote two consecutive lines' [Alan Dent, [Preludes and Studies, 1942].

Tyrone Guthrie made a notable defender, though not of the poetry and not of the play as Shakespeare conceived it, and he chose All's Well (and Richard III) to inaugurate the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Ontario, in 1953. Alec Guinness in a wheel-chair presented the King of France, and the play went off to stormy applause. Six years later, at Stratford-upon-Avon, Guthrie broadened the farce and repeated his initial success (see illustrations 1 and 5). The costumes and settings were Edwardian except for the war scenes, which Guthrie located in the North African desert. There was a lot of suppositious, spurious fun in the desert. Diana, whom Bertram found chaste to a fault, was played 'as a wartime factory tart who sits on the doorstep in nightgown and housecoat, with a turban on her head and a lollipop in her mouth, giggling the lines in coffee-bar cockney' [Alan Brien, 'All's Well that Ends Well', The Spectator, 24 April 1959]. For one scholar-critic with a turn for understatement [Joseph Price], this 1959 production 'revealed in every aspect the strong hand of the director'.

The director who brooks no interference from the playwright was fully realised by Michael Benthall in the Old Vic production at Edinburgh on 15 September 1953. This comic rendition, distinguished by 'drastic cutting, transposing, the masking of awkward speeches with music or outrageous buffoonery', struck Richard David in his review for Shakespeare Survey (1955) with the force of revelation. 'King and Countess as Disney dwarfs, the hero and heroine reduced to decorative pasteboard, Parolles taking over … as a sort of amateurish Mephistopheles'—this, David thought, made a play. No doubt, said another reviewer [Eric Keown, 'All's Well that Ends Well', Punch, 30 September 1953], some of the finer moments were diminished, 'but in the lightness of the production we gain a sort of surface plausibility, and laughter is the kindest anaesthetic against the increasing outrage of the plot'.

The pendulum swung back in Noel Willman's production at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955, in which Helena, far from acquiescing in the role of a pasteboard heroine, demonstrated 'a pertinacity worthy of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police' [Peter Fleming, 'All's Well that Ends Well', The Spectator, 6 May 1955]. It moved backward still further, perhaps in the general direction of Shakespeare, in John Houseman's tragi-comic reading of 1959 for the American Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Connecticut. Houseman was humble, and also eccentric; he took the text as Shakespeare wrote it. This revolutionary gesture of acceptance inspired and animated the great production at Stratford, Ontario, in 1977, directed by David Jones. William Hutt defined the King and Margaret Tyzack the Countess, and the result was among those incandescent evenings when all the myopic conceit of reviewers and the bumptiousness of poor players and the bustle of vulgar directors falls away, and we participate in that communal experience which is the drama at its highest pitch.

In the last generation, directors have been willing to let the play be seen without cosmetics, and the reward for their scrupulousness—or say their humility—has been the emergence of a great play. That the greatness of All's Well has rarely been evident to previous generations of theatregoers is owed to the fact that we see only so far as our cultural conditioning allows. Brander Matthews, a distinguished Shakespearean, estimating Helena's conversation with Parolles [in Shakespeare as a Playwright, 1913] found it 'reeking with vulgarity and quite impossible to a modest-minded girl'. Essentially, he is asking: How can we find the concord of this discord where tears mingle with laughter? How could Helena, a chaste woman, engage in smutty discourse, or give her love to a cad? How can Parolles, knowing what he is, be what he is? The governing psychology from the mid seventeenth century to the second half of the twentieth century has precluded answers to these questions. It seems presumptuous to conclude that only in our time has Shakespeare recovered the audience once available to him. But the history of All's Well in the theatre appears to support this conclusion.

Recent years

In 1967 John Barton for the Royal Shakespeare Company set out, as he put it, to 'trust the play', and the result, it was said, 'was a blessedly direct production' [Illustrated London News, 10 June 1967]. It was achieved at the cost of some five hundred lines, including the whole of Act 3, Scene 4, and a number of telescopings and transpositions.

The gain in economy and clarity of narrative line did not wholly atone for the loss of some emotional subtleties and tensions, but in one reviewer's judgement [Harold Hobson, Sunday Times, 21 January 1968] the play was 'raised to the head of the corner' of Shakespearean comedy. Lavatch, omitted from the play by Tyrone Guthrie, was admitted in a much reduced role by Barton, and played by Ian Hogg as if his devotion to the Countess were dangerously simple-minded. A certain responsiveness to the mood of the 1960s ('Crabbed age and youth cannot live together' [The Passionate Pilgrim, 12.1]) was offset by graces of style and by costumes that recalled the early seventeenth century. The set, by Timothy O'Brien, evoked a neo-classic stage-upon-a-stage, 'patterned like French marquetry', it was said, and 'elegant and functional as a huge musical instrument' [Ronald Bryden, The Observer, 4 June 1967]. The only staging extravagance was a 'red flamed romp' at the start of the Florentine campaign, with soldiers 'wheeling and marching in time to the muffled barks and howls of a gargantuan drill major' [Peter Ansorge, Plays and Players, August 1967]. War became a gentlemen's game played with toy combatants, and more was made of the elegant, humorous ironies of the play than of its moral astringency and weight. Brewster Mason's Lafew, for example, was described as 'master of the graceful insult, the thrust and lazy flick' [Hilary Spurling, The Spectator, 9 June 1967], and he was clearly a better swordsman than Parolles. Helena persuaded the King to yield to therapy with a mesmeric tenderness that kept a tactful distance from sexual enticement. The unmasking of Parolles … was cruelly executed (with drum rolls and a falling axe at the moment of revelation) while that of Bertram was more generously hilarious. Helena's entry was a moving event to which Bertram responded with a passionate cry on the words, 'Both, both. Oh pardon!' [V. iii. 308]; his 'ability to collapse', in R. L. Smallwood's phrase, was 'his salvation' ["The design of All's Well that Ends Well," Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972)].

Trevor Nunn's 1981 production for the RSC opened with a waltzing couple in silhouette, recalling the music of Vienna and the art of John Singer Sargent. It was the prelude to an English Edwardian and Imperial European rendering of the play which was comprehensively retentive of the text and attentive to its significances. Fewer than a hundred lines were cut and, as in 1967, Act 4, Scene 3 was recast to bring Parolles's discovery to a climax in the reading of the letter to Diana. The transmutations of time and place did more to sharpen than to diminish the play's social and historical impact. The Countess (Peggy Ashcroft) and Lafew (Robert Eddison) were enlightened and cultivated survivors of a Victorian dispensation, looking critically but solicitously upon their heirs. But the play's tensions were not naively expressed as a conflict between generations. Lavatch's cryptic, reductive wit was consistent with deep devotion to his mistress; the Dumaine brothers (the First and Second Lords) sustained traditions that Bertram flouted; and Helena's daring, new-style deceptions were endorsed by the Countess and served at once a divine and human comic purpose. The itinerant form of the play, scattering events and colloquies all over Italy and France, was served by a beautifully articulated glass and wrought-iron set (by John Gunter …) which made a conservatory, a gymnasium, a railway station (for the Florence battle scenes) and a wartime canteen. The war was reminiscent of the Crimea and prescient of 1914, with Helena's speech about 'tender limbs' and 'smoky muskets' spoken with great conviction. The deaths were actual enough, and Bertram owed his promotion to 'general of our horse' [III. iii. 1] to a manifestly high casualty rate. But the drums and colours on parade were an engaging show, the soldiery (Parolles in the rear) in its element, under the searching gaze of the pilgrim Helena. War-delight and woman-delight kept festive company in a scene (insinuated before 4.2) in which Diana's seductive vivacity was expressed in song and Bertram looked like its easy prey. As in Measure for Measure, however, his passion was the more excited by her resisting virtue, much to the disgust of his fellow officers; the words 'he fleshes his will in the spoil of her honour' [IV. iii. 16] were spoken with vehement contempt. The production allowed the audience to reflect, however, that it is in this 'ruttish', 'dangerous' and 'lascivious' state that he goes unaware to consummate his marriage. Bertram, like Parolles, was clearly 'crushed with a plot' [IV. iii. 325] but he was not allowed the same resilient power of recovery. No attempt was made to charge his last words with great feeling and very little of the man was left for Helena to take by the hand and lead away. The golden harmonies prefigured at the start were restored as the waltz resumed, but they had been bought by 'expense of spirit in a waste of shame'—by 'lust in action' [The Sonnets, 129.1-2].

Between the two RSC versions there appeared Jonathan Miller's BBC production in 1980, directed by Elijah Moshinsky. It used the constraints of the medium to remarkable effect, revealing through close-up much of the emotional intensity latent in the play. The creative, generative energies of sexuality were fully expressed in word and symbol, as in the firelight that literally plays upon Helena's face as she speaks for her 'flame of liking' [I. ii. 211] and in her cure of the King we saw 'grace lending grace' [II. i. 160] with something of 'a strumpet's boldness' [II. 171], The play's resolution was accomplished with great confidence in the romance tradition—Bertram, said Moshinsky, 'has achieved a potential for change'. It may be coincidence that when the television cameras in recent years have given us an All's Well that does indeed end well, the theatre has left us a touch more sceptical—'All yet seems well [V. iii. 333].

Sheldon P. Zitner (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "The Stage History," in Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989, pp. xv-xviii.

The title of All's Well That Ends Well seems prophetic of the play's fate in the theatre. Until three decades ago the stage history of All's Well made for short and simple annals indeed. Although the play was one of sixteen entered in the Stationer's Register by Blount and Jaggard in November, 1623 before they published the First Folio, its earliest recorded performance was at Henry Giffard's theatre in Goodman's Fields on 7 March, 1741. It was touted as a novelty, 'written by Shakespeare and not acted since his time', and its eight-performance run was a modest success. All's Well was chosen to lead off the following season, but William Milward, who played the King, died of a recurring respiratory disease and, when the run was resumed, Peg Woffington, his Helena, fainted in the wings and could not go on; hence the epithet 'unfortunate comedy' which has dogged the play ever since. Despite all this the play had ten performances. Apparently audiences were pleased by the comedy centring on Parolles, who was played by Theophilus Cibber. All's Well was revived in 1746, less successfully since Harry Woodward had to be substituted for Cibber on too short notice. Yet between 1741 and 1746 All's Well had been performed 22 times in four theatres. Joseph Price, whose Unfortunate Comedy (1968) is the authoritative study of the play's early stage history, informs us that this compares well with the runs of other comedies revived at the time.

Although there were some provincial productions of the play in the early 1750s, its next London revival was in 1756. The play was adapted, probably by Garrick, into a farcical vehicle for Parolles, who was played by Woodward, by now an accomplished comic actor. After further revision for a second performance, the adaptation had seven performances in all between 1756 and 1758. It was revived for two performances in 1762 at Drury Lane. A rival Covent Garden version was performed late in November of that year and after that occasionally (17 times in all) until 1774, the attraction once more being Woodward's Parolles.

All's Well was less successful in revivals by the brothers Kemble, John Philip late in 1794, and the younger Charles in 1811. John Kemble's adaptations, however, became the 'French's Acting Edition', used in London productions as late as 1852. Rejecting Garrick's emphasis on farce, Kemble transmogrified All's Well into sentimental comedy. Helena's selfless love dominated his 1811 version; gone were smut, bed-trick, ambition and ambiguity. Here was Coleridge's Romantic 'loveliest' Helena. Yet again the play was cursed: John Kemble fell ill during the production and hence was as 'merry as a funeral'; Mrs Jordan as Helena was awkwardly pregnant in all five acts. The next performance, in 1811, with Charles Kemble as Bertram, was repeated only once. The play was produced at Covent Garden in 1832 as a kind of opera, and embellished with a masque, song and dance. Yet still it did not suit; it was insufficiently purged of a plot that was thought 'objectionable to modern refinement'. There was an eleven-night revival of the operatic version at Sadler's Wells in 1852, after which the play lay dormant for half a century, a silent tribute to Victorian high-mindedness. All's Well received only 17 performances during the nineteenth century, 11 of them as opera in 1852-3.

There were several attempts to rehabilitate the play after the First World War, largely in response to the needs of the Stratford-upon-Avon festivals. In 1916, 1922 and 1935 Benson, Bridges-Adams and Iden Payne offered productions, none of great interpretative distinction. There were some glimmers of a social rethinking of the play in William Poel's 1920 revival at the Ethical Church, Bayswater; the beginnings of a restoration of the play's 'indelicacies' in Robert Atkins's Old Vic production of 1921; and an attempt at balance between romance and realism in his third production of the play in 1940. However, the onset of the war (a performance was interrupted by air raids) dampened the play's comedy and seemed to move its plot toward melodrama.

The modern stage history, some would say the stage history, of the play properly begins with Tyrone Guthrie's Stratford, Ontario production in 1953 (1959 at Stratford-upon-Avon). The play was a grand success, with Irene Worth as Helena ('a rather more dangerous character to have around than Richard III', according to one reviewer), with greatly effective comic business and an exploration of the play's realism of motive and romanticism of plot, all of this placed in a handsome Edwardian setting designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch. Since then the play has entered the flow if not the mainstream of the Shakespeare repertory. Critical laments that it is a stage failure, heard throughout the first half of the century (from Quiller-Couch in 1929 to Jay Halio in 1964) have given way first to surprised or grudging admissions that All's Well 'acts better than it reads', and then to the now widely shared certainty of its New Cambridge editor, Russell Fraser, that All's Well is a play whose time has come.

Among the productions that are both products and causes of this change of mind are Michael Benthall's fairytale production of 1953 for the Old Vic, with Claire Bloom as Helena, and John Barton's productions of 1967 and 1968 with their sensitivity and intelligence in realising the play's ironic observation of class and sexuality. Two subsequent productions deserve special notice, the first because it provided and still provides the most substantial audiences for the play. Elijah Moshinsky's elegant BBC All's Well offered all one could wish in conveying the profound intimacy between Angela Down's Helena and Celia Johnson's Countess, though some doubts have been expressed about Moshinsky's cutting, Donald Sinden's flamboyance as the King and the elevated sentiment of the last scene. Another distinguished recent production was Trevor Nunn's All's Well of 1981-2, with its sharp playing off of the romantic and the realistic, its surprisingly effective visual suggestions of World War I (both affirming the element of class friction in the play) and its nostalgic use of music and song. Harriet Walter's Helena and Peggy Ashcroft's Countess were deeply moving.

The excellence and diversity of productions in recent years is a just reward for the play's earlier paltry stage history. But plays performed often (as many of Shakespeare's plays are) sometimes ossify into acting or interpretative traditions, and these in turn call forth the challenge of useless high jinks. Ralph Berry records an interview with a Polish avant-garde director whose All's Well cast its leading males in a homosexual quadrille and had Lavatch utter his thoughtful follies while insinuating his hand up the Countess's skirt. For the most part, however, professional and amateur productions alike are still discovering the diversity of Shakespeare's 'unfortunate' comedy.

Staging Issues

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 42531

Thomas Davies (essay date 1784)

SOURCE: "All's Well that Ends Well," in Dramatic Miscellanies, 1784, pp. 4-6.

[Davies was a bookseller and actor, as well as the author of a Life of David Garrick (1780) and Dramatic Miscellanies: Consisting of Critical Observations on Several Plays of Shakespeare (1784). Below, Davies comments on the handling of several roles in eighteenth-century productions of All's Well That Ends Well, including Theophilus Cibber's Parolles.]

A Physician's daughter curing a king, distempered with a fistula, by a recipe of her dead father, is the history on which this play is founded; a plot strange and unpromising. But the genius of Shakspeare meets with no obstacle from the uncouthness of the materials he works upon. Action and character are the chief engines he employs in this comedy, and he raises abundance of mirth from the situations in which they are placed. Parolles and Lafeu are admirable contrasts, from the collision of whose humours perpetual laughter is produced.

Helen's scheme, of gaining her husband's affections by passing on him for a mistress, has been adopted with success by other dramatists; particularly by Shirley in the Gamester, and Cibber in his first comedy of Love's last Shift.

All's well that ends well, after having lain more than an hundred years undisturbed upon the prompter's shelf, was, in October, 1741, revived at the theatre in Drury-lane. Milward, who acted the King, is said to have caught a distemper which proved fatal to him, by wearing, in this part, a too light and airy suit of clothes, which he put on after his supposed recovery. He felt himself seized with a shivering; and was asked, by one of the players, how he found himself? 'How is it possible for me,' he said, with some pleasantry, 'to be sick, when I have such a physician as Mrs. Woffington?' This elegant and beautiful actress was the Helen of the play.

His distemper, however, increased, and soon after hurried him to his grave.

So pleasing an actor as Milward deserves more than a slight remembrance. In the Memoirs of Garrick's Life, I spoke of him as one who was not without a great share of merit, but was too apt to indulge himself in such an extension of voice as approached to vociferation. He prided himself so much in the harmony and sweetness of his tones, that he was heard to say, in a kind of rapture, after throwing out some passionate speeches in a favourite part, that he wished be could salute the sweet echo, meaning his voice. His Lusignan, in Zara, was not much inferior to Mr. Garrick's representation of that part—Milward chose Booth for his model; and, notwithstanding his inferiority to that accomplished tragedian, he was the only performer in tragedy, who, if he had survived, could have approached to our great Roscius; who, though he would always have been the first, yet, in that case, would not have been the only, actor in tragedy. Milward died about a fort-night after Garrick's first appearance on the stage.

The part of Parolles was, by Fleetwood, the manager, promised to Macklin; but Theophilus Cibber, by some sort of artifice, as common in theatres as in courts, snatched it from him, to his great displeasure. Berry was the Lafeu, and Chapman the Clown and Interpreter. All's well that ends well was termed, by the players, the unfortunate comedy, from the disagreeable accidents which fell out several times during the acting of it. Mrs. Woffington was suddenly taken with illness as she came off the stage from a scene of importance. Mrs. Ridout, a pretty woman and a pleasing actress, after having played Diana one night, was, by the advice of her physician, forbidden to act during a month. Mrs. Butler, in the Countess of Rousillon, was likewise seized with a distemper in the progress of this play.

All's well that ends well, however, had such a degree of merit, and gave so much general satisfaction to the public, that, in spite of the superstition of some of the players, who wished and entreated that it might be discontinued, upon Mr. Delane's undertaking to act the King after Milward's decease, it was again brought forward and applauded.

Cibber's Parolles, notwithstanding his grimace and false spirit, met with encouragement. This actor, though his vivacity was mixed with too much pertness, never offended by flatness and insipidity. Chapman was admirable in the clowns of Shakspeare. Berry's Lafeu was the true portrait of a choleric old man and a humorist. Milward was, in the King, affecting; and Delane, in the same part, respectable.

Under the direction of Mr. Garrick, in 1757, All's well that ends well was again revived. Mrs. Pritchard acted the Countess; Miss Macklin, Helen; Mrs. Davies, Diana. Parolles, Woodward; Lafeu, Berry; and Davies, the King. With the help of a pantomime, it was acted several nights.

G. G. Gervinus (essay date 1849-50)

SOURCE: "Second Period of Shakespeare's Dramatic Poetry: 'Love's Labour's Lost' and 'All's Well That Ends Well'," in Shakespeare Commentaries, translated by F. E. Brunnètt, revised edition, Smith, Elder, & Co., 1877. Reprint by AMS Press, 1971, pp. 147-86.

[Gervinus was a noted exponent of "philosophical criticism," a critical school developed in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century, who discussed Shakespeare's works as expressions of a rational ethical system independent of any religion. In the excerpt below, he examines the ways in which actors should approach the roles of Helena and Bertram.]

In few plays do we feel, so much as in All's Well that Ends Well, what excessive scope the poet leaves open to the actor's art. Few readers, and still fewer female readers, will believe in Helena's womanly nature, even after they have read our explanations and have found them indisputable. The subject has at once repelled them; and so far would we gladly make allowance for this feeling, that we grant that Shakespeare might better have bestowed his psychological art upon more agreeable matter, and that he has often done so. But even he who, by the aid of our remarks, may have overcome his repugnance to the subject, will seldom find himself able by reflection to imagine it possible that such bold and masculine steps could be taken in a thoroughly feminine manner. Only by seeing this work of art and by trusting the eye, can we be sensible of its full and harmonious effect. But that even the eye may be convinced, a great actress is required. Bertram also demands a good actor, if the spectator is to perceive that this is a man capable of rewarding efforts so great on the part of a woman, a man whose painful wooing promises a grateful possession. That this unsentimental youth has a heart, this corrupted libertine a good heart, that this scorner can ever love the scorned, this is indeed read in his scanty words, but few readers of the present day are free enough from sentimentality to believe such things on the credit of a few words. The case is entirely different when, in the acted Bertram, they see the noble nature, the ruin of his character at Florence, and the contrition which his sins and his simplicity call forth; when, from the whole bearing of the brusque man, they perceive what the one word 'pardon' signified in his mouth, when they see his breast heave at the last appearance of Helena bringing ease to his conscience. Credence is then given to his last words; for the great change in his nature—of which now only a forlorn word or two is read and overlooked—would then have been witnessed. Seldom has a task so independent as the character of Bertram been left to the art of the actor; but still more seldom is the actor to be found, who knows how to execute it. To Richard Burbage this part must have been a dainty feast. About the time when it received its present form (1605-8), Shakespeare had prepared for him also Pericles and Petruchio [in The Taming of the Shrew] as equally attractive tasks. Thus arrived at the height of their respective arts, both the actor and the poet seem to have delighted in mutually craving and affording these faint sketches of character, as if for the sake of practising their common work, of drawing outlines and finishing them, or of supplying riddles and solving them.

Arthur E. Case (essay date February 1927)

SOURCE: "Some Stage-Directions in All's Well that Ends Well," in Modern Language Notes. Vol. 43, No. 2 February, 1927, pp. 79-83.

In the absence of any early separate edition of All's Well that Ends Well, the text of the play derives solely from the corrupt version of the Folio. One notable fault of that version is the frequent omission of stage-directions. In at least a dozen instances it is necessary to supply "Exit" or "Exeunt": entrances, on the other hand, are always correctly indicated, unless, indeed, two of the problems discussed below involve exceptions to the rule. One reservation to this general statement should be made,—when a principal character enters, those in attendance are not always enumerated.

There is a good reason for this discrepancy in the accuracy of the stage-directions. All's Well belongs to the group of plays whose texts derive, mediately or immediately, from theatrical prompt-copies. Accuracy in the notation of entrances is an absolute necessity in such a script. An actor off-stage, not following the course of the play, must be notified by the prompter of his approaching entrance. Once on the stage, however, it is not likely that he will forget the moment of his exit: indeed, in most cases he is "cued off" by his own Unes or those of a fellow-actor. The indication of exits in the prompt-copy is therefore not a matter of such vital importance. For an analogous reason, it is not absolutely necessary to catalog the names of the attendants of an important character on the occasion of his entrance: notice to the principal actor of the group is generally sufficient.

With these facts in mind let us examine the crux which occurs in Act II, Scene I. The problem here is the disposition of the King between lines 23 and 62. During this interval Bertram, Parolles and the two Lords conduct a conversation in which the presence of royalty seems to be ignored. Something must be done to avoid the awkward spectacle of a king sitting silent and unattended while his courtiers discuss their private affairs among themselves. The Folios give no stage directions at this point, and the solution of the difficulty must be deduced from the lines of the actors.

Pope solved the problem by making the King leave the stage after line 23, and in this he has been followed by most subsequent editors. The King's last words, "Come hither to me," have been variously interpreted as being addressed to his attendants, who carry him away upon his couch, or to Bertram, who is about to follow him, but is prevented by the First Lord's exclamation, "O my sweet lord, that you will stay behind us!" There is a difference of opinion as to the moment of the King's re-appearance. The majority follow Pope in placing it just before line 50: others make it coincident with Lafeu's entrance at line 62. Capell, unwilling to remove the King from the stage without express warrant from the text, makes him retire to a couch at the back of the stage at line 23 and rise to come forward again at line 50.

There are serious objections to all of these interpretations. If the King's "Come hither to me" is addressed to Bertram, it is scarcely conceivable that he should disobey the command in order to talk with the Lords. If the King re-enters at Une 50 the object of his removal from the scene has not been attained, since the courtiers carry on the remainder of their private conversation in his presence. Moreover, his unmotivated retirement is patently an artificial device to permit the remaining characters to talk undisturbed. Finally, there is no indication of his re-entrance in the stage-directions.

The following arrangement is suggested as avoiding the difficulties enumerated above without doing violence to the text of the Folio. At the opening of the scene the King enters in a chair or upon a couch, and remains in the center of the stage throughout the scene. At line [22] he dismisses the lords who are departing for the Florentine war, and turning to still another lord, says, "Come hither to me." The two engage in pantomime until Lafeu's entrance. Bertram and Parolles, who were not included in the King's address at the beginning of the scene, have remained in the background near one of the side entrances. The departing courtiers pass them on their way off the stage and linger to make their farewells. This exchange of farewells in a far corner of the chamber is, under the circumstances, not unnatural, nor is the subsequent departure of Bertram and Parolles in the wake of the Lords. The King is engrossed in his talk, and there is nothing to show that he has ever been aware of the presence of the gentlemen from Rousillon. As they leave the stage Lafeu bursts in, drops upon his knee, and interrupts the King and his counsellor with "Pardon, my lord, for me and for my tidings" [II. i. 61].

A second problem is found in Act II, Scene v. Lines 94 and 95 read, in the Folio:

Hel. I shall not breake your bidding, good my
        Where are my other men? Monsieur, fare-
          well. Exit.

Many modern editions give the second line:

Ber. To Parolles. Where are my other men, mon-
    sieur? To
Helena. Farewell. Exit Helena.

The editors who retain the reading of the Folio point out that it makes perfect sense as it stands, since Helena may well have an attendant to whom her question is addressed.

One argument in favor of this view seems not to have been adduced, however. The scene is closely connected with the preceding one,—in fact, the two take place in neighboring rooms and are so close in time that they may possibly overlap. Parolles goes directly from Scene IV to Scene V, and Helena follows him after a short delay occasioned by the necessity of taking leave of the King. Her last words, as she left the earlier scene, were a command to the Clown to attend her. He would naturally be still in her company when she enters Scene V, and he is probably the person of whom she inquires, "Where are my other men?" although the real purpose of her question is to convey to Bertram her intention to obey his command at once.

The last problem to be considered occurs in the final scene of the play. The stage-direction at line 158 reads, in the Folio, "Enter Widow, Diana and Parolles." Parolles neither speaks nor is spoken to, however, until line 240, and in the interval, at line 232, appears the direction, "Enter Parolles." It has been tacitly agreed by all editors that the earlier direction is an error, and that Parolles does not appear until he is brought on at line 232. This view is founded on the assumption that no purpose is served by his presence during the first part of the scene, and on the fact that there is no direction for his exit between the two entrances. The first argument fails to take account of lines 201-204:

King.                       Mesthought you said
        You saw one here in court could wit-
                ness it.
Dia.    I did, my lord, but loath am to produce
               So bad an instrument: his name's

It may be urged that the phrase "in court" means the palace as a whole, and not the royal court in session. But Diana, apparently, has just arrived at the palace: if she has seen Parolles at all it must have been either in the audience-chamber or on the way thither. Moreover, it is dramatically desirable that the audience should know that Diana has seen Parolles, in view of her reliance upon his testimony. As for the second argument, it has already been pointed out that exits are frequently omitted from the stage-directions, especially where some speech acts as a cue for the actor's departure. Such a cue, in the writer's opinion, exists in the present instance. Parolles has been led to enter the audience-chamber on the heels of Diana, out of curiosity, but in his new-born spirit of humility he remains on the fringe of the crowd near one of the entrances. When he hears Diana name him as a witness he realizes his awkward predicament and slips hastily out of the door, unobserved by the characters on the stage, but not by the audience. The situation affords one of the few opportunities for laughter in the course of the sordid exposure of Bertram's baseness.

Osbert Lancaster (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: An introduction to All's Well That Ends Well, in Introductions to Shakespeare, Michael Joseph Ltd., 1978.

[Lancaster was a noted English cartoonist and writer who designed the sets for Michael Benthall's 1953 staging of All's Well That Ends Well at the Old Vic. In the essay below, he explores the issues facing a producer of the play, maintaining that "the overriding problem … is how best to retain [the] audience's attention in the long sections when Parolles is off-stage."]

It would, manifestly, be foolish to try to maintain that All's Well That Ends Well is among the more successful of Shakespeare's works. While not wholeheartedly subscribing to the view put forward by certain critics that it is, in fact, a straight 'potboiler', it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that for once the dramatist has succumbed to the temptation, from which not even the greatest are wholely immune, to give the public what he thought it wanted.

The plot, creaking and groaning with improbabilities, which can only be resolved by that hammiest of all Elizabethan gimmicks, the GREAT BED TRICK, can barely have sufficed to hold the reader's interest in the original Boccaccio conte; transferred to the stage it demands of the audience a suspension of disbelief which even Shakespeare's skill and language are powerless to achieve. Nor, with one exception, are the characters sufficiently interesting or sympathetic to enable us to overlook the nonsensical circumstances in which they find themselves.

Not all the author's partiality can for one moment persuade us that the heroine, Helena, regarded dispassionately, is anything but a tough and ruthless little operator, determined at all costs to marry the boss's son. For an actress the role must be one of formidable difficulty as in order to maintain some sort of balance she has to endow the character with an overweight of personal charm, with little or no support from her lines, to compensate for the invariably unattractive nature of her actions.

From Bertram, on the other hand, who is presented as an obstinate young snob, incapable of realizing where his own best interests lie, it is impossible wholly to withdraw our sympathy. Admittedly a fool, there is still no denying that he finds himself in an intolerable situation, for which, as far as we can see, he is not in any way responsible. Why should he wed this bossy little orphan with whom he has been brought up and of whose company he is by now, likely enough, heartily sick? Particularly at a time when he has not yet had an opportunity of judging what alternatives the Court of France might offer. But finally, and with a scarcely credible inconsistency; by the tame way he accepts his fate, and the drivelling ineptitude with which he conducts his interview with the king, he succeeds in changing our pity to contempt.

If the character of the countess is perfectly consistent and skilfully presented it is certainly no more attractive. One needs no Freudian support to appreciate the significance of the lines with which she opens the play. 'In delivering my son from me I bury a second husband [I. i. 1]. She provides throughout the perfect case history of the dominating mother figure. Determined at all costs to retain her son as a substitute for her departed husband, the ceaseless repetition of whose virtues encourages the belief that in life he had had a pretty thin time, she is prepared to force Bertram into marriage with her beloved protegée, who is in many ways simply an extension of her own personality. The teasing aspect of the case lies in the ambivalence with which her creator regards the old monster. For it would be foolish to suppose that Shakespeare was unaware of the deeper motives which underlie her actions, although he gives us no hint either of disapproval or extenuation.

The king presents no such problems. He is simply a lay-figure, a necessary part of the machinery of the plot, and nothing more. Adversely to criticize the Old Vic production of 1952 for making him a hypochondriacal figure of fun, mumbling unexceptionable platitudes, seems therefore, unjustified. Without some such element of the farcical the tedium of the Court scenes would be almost unbearable.

Nor can it be said that the secondary characters add much to the excitement. Lafeu, that stock Shakespearean figure 'an old Lord', is a more sensible, less garrulous, and therefore less theatrically effective, Polonais, and Lavache must come very high on the list of the more intolerable of Shakespeare's clowns, the majority of whose wise-cracks are always likely, mercifully, to be abandoned in production.

Fortunately there remains Parolles. While the rest of the cast, with the partial exception of the countess, have little or no relevance to Ufe as we know it today, and must, even within the accepted conventions of the Elizabethan stage, always have seemed remote, Parolles is vital, three-dimensional, timeless. He is the eternal fixer, whose combinazioni are always doomed to go wrong; the wide boy so sharp that he must always cut himself. Fertile in invention, tireless in name dropping, forever wearing a club tie to which he is not entitled, he is far too familiar a figure for us to feel for him in his hour of humiliation the embarrassed pity which Malvolio excites. Parolles we know will always bob up again, for Malvolio there can be no real future.

Moreover, like Falstaff, Parolles has the gift of self knowledge, and his great speech in Act 4, 'Simply the thing I am shall make me live' [IV. iii. 333], is certainly, given an actor of Mr Hordern's merit, the most effective moment in the whole play. But the comparison with Falstaff, although inevitable, can be pushed too far; Falstaff for all his cowardice, trickery and self-indulgence remains a gentleman by birth, to whom some tattered vestiges of dignity still cling, even when exploding the whole concept of'honour', but Parolles' claims to nobility are not for one moment to be believed either by him or us, and could not possibly carry conviction with anyone less dismally stupid than Bertram.

The difficulty created by the tameness of most of the characters and the overwhelming vitality of one are not unfortunately resolved or redeemed by any outstanding poetic merit in the text. In this play Shakespeare is at his most gnomic, and the verse varies from the tiresomely-elaborate to the distressingly trite. In particular, there is an over-abundance of the flattest rhyming couplets.

More should I question thee, and more I must,
Though more to know could not be more to
From whence thou camest, how tended on: but
Unquestioned welcome and undoubted blest.
Give me some help here, hoa! If thou proceed
As high as word, my deed shall match thy deed.

After a few minutes of this sort of thing one begins to wonder whether, in fact, 'Savanarola Brown' has not had a hand in the composition.

It will be readily appreciated that All's Well That Ends Well is not, therefore, an easy play to mount. The overriding problem which faces the producer is how best to retain his audience's attention in the long sections when Parolles is off-stage. To accomplish this he is surely perfectly justified in using every trick of the trade and every elaboration of setting, for of all Shakespeare's plays, All's Well That Ends Well is the least likely to suffer from overproduction.

There is, however, one line of approach for which sufficient justification exists in the text and which the intelligent producer—and his designer—will exploit to the utmost—the contrast of the two main settings. On the one hand Rossillion and the Court of France, medieval old fashioned, hierarchic; on the other Renaissance Florence, tough, realistic modern. The whole ridiculous situation can only receive some degree of rational support if we conceive of it—as Shakespeare well may have—as a conflict between two ways of life, one doomed, the other expanding. The static, strictly-graded world of sixty-four quarterings into which poor Bertram was born, controlled by a semi-sacred sovereign with absolute power to interfere in the private lives of even the most exalted of his subjects, and the go-getting, uninhibited world of swift-moving condottieri where all actions are judged by results. The only possible theatrical justification for Helena is that she provides the link between the two; while paying lip-service to the conventions by which the countess and the king are guided, she is, nevertheless, a sufficiently contemporary character to have no hesitation in employing stratagems for which Parolles is soundly condemned. Seen in this light her move to Florence acquires a symbolic significance. In the same context moreover, Parolles himself becomes more meaningful; he is no longer an isolated 'character' in the Jonsonian sense but one whose attitude can be regarded as providing, by way of contrast and exaggeration, a sharp commentary on that of his noble companions. The little stratagem over the lost drum fails ludicrously; Helena's impersonation trick comes off. But in both cases the object of the exercise is purely selfish and the means employed unquestionably ignoble.

Fundamentally All's Well is therefore a profoundly cynical play, and is best treated as such. Unhappily, the producer's task is rendered almost impossible by Shakespeare's reluctance openly to define his attitude. The happy conclusion so firmly proclaimed in the title and so unconvincingly arrived at must be accepted at its face value; all doubts must be implied, never stated. On one plane we must not question the assumption that all is well that ends well; on another we must remain uneasily aware that it is highly questionable whether this end does justify these means. But the fact that a perfect balance is unlikely ever to be achieved in performance, that the underlying ambivalence cannot properly be stated in theatrical terms, is hardly the fault of the producer.

Joseph G. Price (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Parolles and Farce" and "The Kemble Text: Sentiment and Decency," in The Unfortunate Comedy: A Study of All's Well That Ends Well and Its Critics, University of Toronto Press, 1968, pp. 3-42.

[Focusing on the early stage history of All's Well That Ends Well, Price examines eighteenth-century approaches to the character of Parolles and the play's comic elements. The critic further explores the impact in the theater of J. P. Kemble's 1793 adaptation of the text.]

Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well probably was written and first acted between 1601 and 1604. There is no record of a subsequent production until 1741. A gap of approximately a century and a half in the production of a Shakespearian play may seem startling to the modern reader who, in the past fifteen years, has had opportunity to see the entire canon on the stages of Shakespearian repertory companies. But the gap is not so surprising when we consider the tastes of the seventeenth-century audience, especially in comedy. Within the first forty years of the century, the imaginative freedom of the Elizabethan Age had been checked by the critical, often cynical, probings of the Jacobean. The realistic and satirical comedies of Jonson, Fletcher, and later Jacobean dramatists were evidence in the theatre of those same forces which were fashioning a 'metaphysical' poetry. Interest in the early romantic comedies of Shakespeare waned. Whatever the satirical connotations of the term 'dark comedy' which modern critics have applied to All's Well, the play, with its miraculous cure of a king, with its fabulous fulfilment of a wifely task, with its optimistic title and happy ending, certainly differed in tone from the popular comedy of Jonson and his disciples. The tone of All's Well was no more appealing in the moral and social rebellion of the Restoration after the theatres were reopened in 1660. Audiences 'demanded a reflex of their own gay immoral lives as well as a series of plays full of personal satire. The comedy of manners was the answer to this demand, faithfully reproducing the upperclass wit, licentiousness and social ideas of the time' [Allardyce Nicoli in his A History of Restoration Drama: 1660-1700, 1923]. When theatre managers sought old plays to supplement the new comedy, they turned back less frequently to Shakespeare than to Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher whose plots and satirical characters of humours satisfied the taste of the age. Few Shakespearian comedies were produced and these were for the most part altered. Off stage as well, the plays were regarded indifferently; there are relatively few extant allusions to them in the seventeenth century.

Restoration preference for the comedy of manners and the plays of Ben Jonson continued into the early eighteenth century. Theatrical records for the first forty years confirm as representative the judgement of Charles Gildon, who concluded that there was very little comedy in English drama before Jonson, [in his The Life of Betterton, 1710] 'for no Man can allow any of Shakespear's Comedies, except the Merry Wifes of Windsor'. An examination of the repertory at Drury Lane during this period gives a rather accurate guide to the tastes of the times. None of Shakespeare's comedies was played at that theatre in its original form until a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor in December 1734. Two of his more realistic comedies, The Merry Wives and The Taming of the Shrew, had been produced in alterations throughout the first few decades, along with an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Productions of The Tempest, as altered by Dryden and Davenant, and then by Shadwell, and Troilus and Cressida, as altered by Dryden, demonstrated the compromise between Shakespeare and Restoration interests. Only Love in a Forest, a blending of parts of As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was produced in 1723, sought the spirit of fantasy intended by Shakespeare in his romantic comedy.

Although the offerings at Drury Lane reflect the popular taste, there is some evidence of interest in Shakespearian comedy during this period. In 1720, The Merry Wives and Measure for Measure were revived in their original forms at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Odell [George C. D. Odell, Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving, 1920]. suggests that the productions were due to a less popular theatre seeking to attract an audience by revivals of rarely performed plays. But the comedies enjoyed sufficient success to remain in the theatre's repertory. In 1733, both plays were acted for the first time at Covent Garden, and the productions initiated a policy of Shakespearian revivals at that theatre. Between 1736 and 1738, the original text of Much Ado was performed as well as the full texts of the histories, Henry V, King John, and Richard II. In 1737, Drury Lane added Measure for Measure to its repertory. It was not until the 1740-1 season at Drury Lane, however, that a deliberate effort was made to revive the romantic comedies. As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and The Merchant of Venice were produced perhaps at the prodding of Charles Macklin, who played Malvolio, Shylock, and in the following year Touchstone. It was in this first revival of the original Merchant that Macklin surprised the dramatic world with his interpretation of a villainous Shylock and won such acclaim for himself and the play. The Drury Lane productions were an immediate success, and interest in the romantic comedies of Shakespeare blossomed. In the same season, a minor theatre in London attempted to capitalize on this interest by offering two Shakespearian comedies which had not been acted in over a century.

Henry Giffard had reopened his theatre at Goodman's Fields after a lapse of five years. In his bid for the London audience, he presented in the first three months of the 1740-1 season the five most popular Shakespearian plays of the age: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Henry IV, and The Merry Wives. Whether he was unable to compete with the rival productions of these plays at Drury Lane and Covent Garden or whether he saw greater advantage in the appeal of romantic comedy, Giffard challenged the first-night performance of Twelfth Night at Drury Lane by introducing on the same night, 15 January 1741, The Winter's Tale. Then, on 7 March 1741, he presented All's Well that Ends Well, 'written by Shakespeare and not acted since his time' [quoted from John Genest, Some Account of the English Stage from the Restoration in 1660 to 1830, 1832]. Both plays proved attractive; each had a run of eight performances throughout the season; each was added to the repertory of a major theatre in the following season. Giffard, in fact, selected All's Well as his first Shakespearian production of the 1741-2 season on 28 September. But any plans for a season of comedy were hastily discarded by the happy manager when, a few weeks later, he introduced to the London stage a young man, David Garrick, as Richard III. The acclaim which greeted the performance dictated a repertory of tragedy for Goodman's Fields.

We know very little about this first revival of All's Well beyond the cast of characters. From the cast and from Odell's analysis of similar revivals, however, two points of historical interest to the play emerge. First, it is most probable that the text was kept intact. This is significant in that, apart from the few following productions, All's Well was not performed again as Shakespeare wrote it for 170 years, not until Benson restored the text at Stratford on Avon in 1916.

Second, the response of the audience may have surprised Giffard; it certainly indicated the appeal which the play would maintain throughout the eighteenth century. In casting the play, Giffard and his wife quite naturally took for themselves the roles of hero and heroine. Parolles was assigned to Joseph Peterson, an actor who had been entrusted with only minor parts. But, we may conjecture, Parolles delighted the audience and dominated the play. For Peterson enjoyed such success that he took the part to the provinces in later years; Theophilus Cibber and Charles Macklin fought for the role in the Drury Lane production in the following year; and no other leading actor in a London company chose to play Bertram again until John Philip Kemble attempted the part in 1794. Until that date, the interest of the audience was in the comedy of the play, and the eighteenth-century theatregoer shared the earlier view of King Charles I, who had penned in 'Monsieur Parolles' next to the Shakespearian title in his copy of the second folio.

The success of this first production was such that the play was added to the Drury Lane repertory in the following season. A stroke of ill luck had already fallen upon All's Well when it had been supplanted at Goodman's Fields by the tragedies produced for David Garrick. The difficulties which the Drury Lane revival now encountered foreshad-owed the turbulent history of the play on the stages and critical pages of later generations. It was performed on 22 January, but Davies records [Thomas Davies in his Dramatic Miscellanies, 1783]: 'All's well that ends well was termed, by the players, the unfortunate comedy, from the disagreeable accidents which fell out several times during the acting of it.' After the first night, scheduled performances were cancelled because of the illness of the vastly popular Peg Woffington, who had played Helena. The management then listed the play for 27 January, but the sickness of William Milward who was cast as the King forced another postponement. All's Well belied its title and earned its epithet, 'unfortunate comedy', when a second attack proved fatal to Milward. He had played his role, we might well imagine, with gracious nobility:

Milward, who acted the King, is said to have caught a distemper which proved fatal to him, by wearing, in this part, a too light and airy suit of clothes, which he put on after his supposed recovery. He felt himself seized with a shivering; and was asked, by one of the players, how he found himself? 'How is it possible for me,' he said, with some pleasantry, 'to be sick, when I have such a physician as Mrs. Woffington?'

A new attempt was made at production on 16 February, but in the first act, Mrs. Woffington 'fainted away, as she stood at the scenes, ready to come on; after a proper Apology being made, the Audience with great Humanity and Patience, waited till another person dress'd to read the part'. By 1783, Davies had added two more illnesses, but the evidence suggests that theatrical legend and superstition had magnified the misfortunes of this production.

The difficulties of the play were not limited to sickness and death. The revival was also threatened by a dispute over the casting of Parolles. Theophilus Cibber had enjoyed the leading comic roles at Drury Lane for a number of seasons. In 1738, however, he had joined Covent Garden after attempting to stir a rebellion among the players against the manager, Charles Fleetwood. In Cibber's absence, Charles Macklin had not only assumed the comic roles but also ingratiated himself with Fleetwood through his theatrical knowledge. Cibber returned to Drury Lane in the autumn of 1741 after Macklin's great success in Shylock. Despite Macklin's strong position in the company, despite the fact that Fleetwood had promised the role of Parolles to Macklin, Cibber insisted on the part and 'by some sort of artifice, as common in theatres as in courts, snatched it from him, to his great displeasure'. Macklin settled for the role of Lavache, the Clown.

Even with the illness of the cast, the death of Milward, the quarrel over casting, and 'the superstition of some of the players, who wished and entreated that it might be discontinued', All's Well enjoyed its second successful season. It was given ten performances at Drury Lane that year. The objections of the players were overruled, according to Davies, because the play 'had such a degree of merit, and gave so much general satisfaction to the public'. The satisfaction appears to have been derived primarily from the comic elements of the play. Concerned with neither the romantic melodrama of the plot nor the moral tone of the bed-trick, audiences responded with delight to Parolles and farce. In his comments on the production, written in 1783, Davies devotes more space to the braggart-soldier than to any other part: 'Cibber's Parolles, notwithstanding his grimace and false spirit, met with encouragement. This actor, though his vivacity was mixed with too much pertness, never offended by flatness and insipidity.' Much more enthusiasm is registered by Cibber's contemporary, William Shenstone. In a letter to Richard Graves concerning the 1742 production, Shenstone wrote [Marjorie Williams (ed.), The Letters of Wm. Shenstone, 1939] what is probably the first recorded criticism of All's Well on stage:

If you enquire after the stage,—I have not seen Garrick; but, more fortunately for you, your brother has. Me nothing has so much transported as young Cibber's exhibition of Parolles, in Shakespear's 'All's well that ends well. 'The character is admirably written by the author; and, I fancy, I can discover a great number of hints which it has afforded to Congreve in his Bluff. I am apt to think a person, after he is twelve years old, laughs annually less and less: less heartily, however; which is much the same. I think Cibber elicited from me as sincere a laugh as I can ever recollect. Nothing, sure, can be comparable to this representation of Parolles in his bully-character; except the figure he makes as a shabby gentleman. In his first dress he is tawdry, as you may imagine; in the last, he wears a rusty black coat, a black stock, a black wig with a Ramillie, a pair of black gloves; and a face!—which causes five minutes laughter.

Comic possibility was exploited in other roles as well. Davies comments that 'Berry's Lafeu was the true portrait of a choleric old man and a humourist'. Lafeu has been played very differently in many later productions. Lavache may have been played by Macklin with 'humour, vulgarity, rusticity, and cunning' [quoted from William Cooke, Memoirs of Charles Macklin, 1804].

There are a few pieces of negative evidence as well which suggest that the appeal of the play was in its comedy. The demand for the continuation of this production was most insistent after the second performance, but it was in this performance that Mrs. Woffington fainted in the first act and the part of Helena was merely read. The audience was attracted to other elements in All's Well than its heroine. Even after Peg Woffington, 'the most captivating comedienne of her time', returned to the role, her representation of Helena inspired no critical comment. There is abundant material on her career in biographies and in memoirs of fellow actors, yet none records any success for her in a play whose plot stresses the heroine. The testimony of the following forty years confirms the evidence that it was Parolles, not Helena, who delighted eighteenth-century audiences.

Once again, the addition of David Garrick to a theatrical company forced All's Well from the repertory. When Garrick joined Drury Lane in 1742, emphasis shifted to tragedy and history plays. The Giffards, whose theatre was threatened under the Licensing Act, closed Goodman's Fields and moved to Lincoln's Inn Fields for the 1742-3 season. As their only offering in Shakespearian comedy, they produced All's Well on 2 and 4 February 1743. Success was insured with the appearance of Cibber as Parolles. Peterson, who had played the role in the original revival, yielded to the reputation of Cibber.

Because of frequent disputes with managers and actors, Theophilus Cibber moved from theatrical company to company. In March of 1746, he was appearing at Covent Garden. It was probably at his suggestion that the management decided on the first revival of All's Well at that theatre. The first performance was scheduled for the night of 20 March 1746, for the benefit of Cibber. John Rich, the manager of Covent Garden, had gathered an excellent cast for the production. Theophilus Cibber, of course, was given the part of Parolles. Oliver Cashell, a man who had played a great number of Shakespearian roles, was cast as the King; Lafeu was assigned to Bridgwater, an actor of like experience. Sacheverel Hale was designated Bertram. Thomas Chapman, whom Davies describes as 'admirable in the clowns of Shakespeare', drew Lavache. The role of the Countess was given to an experienced actress, Mrs. Horton; and, most fortunate, Helena was to be played by a leading actress of the age, Mrs. Pritchard. But once again, the 'unfortunate comedy' suffered serious problems. Cibber advertised that the play would be temporarily postponed because of 'an Assembly'. Within the next few days, however, Cibber left Covent Garden and returned to Drury Lane. All's Well had lost its major attraction.

Despite the desertion of Cibber, the rehearsal of the cast and perhaps the production expenses forced a presentation of the play. An actor in the company was trained hastily for the part of Parolles, and the revival took place on 1 April. Whether the actor had too little time to master the role or whether the cast, disgruntled by the betrayal of Cibber, objected to additional performances, or whether the play simply failed to please, All's Well was given only a single performance and it was not added to the repertory of the theatre. Yet the actor who substituted for Cibber was Harry Woodward, the comedian who soon would dominate All's Well and its braggart-soldier Parolles for thirty years. We may wonder if the tag 'unfortunate comedy' was not tied more firmly to the play by the actors of this production. Cibber's betrayal was an ominous sign. Probably within the month of the single performance, Sacheveral Hale died. Within a year, Thomas Chapman died. These deaths surely recalled the death of Milward within the month of the first performance at Drury Lane in 1742. It is not unlikely that superstitions enveloped the play. Whatever the cause, All's Well was not repeated in a London theatre until 1756, a span of ten years.

During the first five years of its revival, 1741-6, All's Well compared favourably with other Shakespearian comedies in stage productions. It was performed 22 times in 4 theatres in 4 separate seasons. A very popular comedy, As You Like It, received 65 performances during the same period in 3 theatres in 6 seasons. But Twelfth Night had only 10 performances in one theatre in 2 seasons. The Winter's Tale had been revived originally at the same time and by the same theatre as All's Well; it was dropped, however, after 14 performances in 2 theatres after its second season. The statistics for All's Well assume additional significance when coupled to Odell's discussion of the revival of these neglected Shakespearian plays:

But note that, just as the day seemed won, appeared, in 1741-2, David Garrick, the greatest of tragic stars, and brought back to Hamlet, Lear, Richard and Macbeth something of the glory they seemed to have lost in the passing of Booth and Wilks. … None of the newly revived works of Shakespeare quite disappeared from view, again, but none experienced entirely the success it deserved unless the all-eclipsing David took part in the performance.

David Garrick did not act in the play; yet All's Well's success was at least moderate.

Although the play was not produced again on the London stage until 1756, its initial popularity spread through the provincial theatre. Between 1750 and 1758, the Norwich Company performed the play nine times. Among Shakespearian plays in the company's repertory, All's Well shared second place in number of productions with Hamlet and King John; Romeo and Juliet led the list with 18 performances in this period. Measure for Measure, a play frequently regarded as a companion piece to All's Well, had only 4 performances. Of the 4 leading plays, then, All's Well was the sole comedy; its rank may have been caused by the success of Joseph Peterson as Parolles. Peterson, as I have noted, acted the part in the original London revival in 1741. Elsewhere in the provinces, the appeal of the play was likewise in its braggart-soldier. In York, Bridge Frodsham, whom Miss Rosenfeld notes was known as the 'York Garrick', played Parolles in 1763. Despite his reputation as a tragedian, Frodsham also played young sparks in comedy. In Parolles, he may have represented both comedy and tragedy.

In 1756, All's Well was produced in a second major revival on the London stage in an altered form which catered to the eighteenth-century delight in Parolles and farce. The alteration, in all probability, was prepared by David Garrick who was then manager at Drury Lane. As early as 1752, Garrick had been at work on a text of the play. On 24 February 1756, he produced an acting version which became the standard adaptation of All's Well in the theatre for the next twenty years. The adaptation is of interest not only to the stage historian but also to the literary historian as well, for it gives insight into the changing standards and tastes of an age which even then felt the birth pangs of Romantic concepts and Victorian ethics.

As an adapter, Garrick's chief concern seems to have been the pacing of his plays. To quicken the pace of All's Well and to focus upon Parolles simultaneously, Garrick cut sharply into the poetry, the motivation, and the dramatic force of the original play. The result is a series of scenes which highlight Parolles as he struts to his downfall, but all else is lost in shadows. The deep incisions make more difficult those controversial points of plot and character in Shakespeare's play; with neither romantic justification nor psychological realism, the characters are one-dimensional and the plot is hopelessly inane. Nowhere is the loss of motivation and credibility more apparent than in the heroine. Garrick has drawn the character in miniature. Interestingly, what he has discarded are just those marks of determination and aggressiveness so highly regarded by Shaw but so blindly neglected by the Romantics. If Garrick's Helena was not yet the sentimental heroine, the Shakespearian ideal of womanhood which the Romantics imagined, it was only because he had so reduced her role and importance in the play. But the seed was planted; Helena in this alteration is a colourless heroine, but she suggests the passive, long-suffering wife who will dominate the play for over a century.

Garrick's technique in adjusting the play to Parolles and farce may be traced in the altered characterization of Helena. The omissions shift the balance of a scene repeatedly. In the first scene where Shakespeare constructs the character of his heroine by emphasizing her virtue, Garrick deletes the substance and is content with mere outline. In relating this virtue to a dominant theme of the play, natural goodness and inherited nobility, Shakespeare stresses in the speech of the Countess:

I have those hopes of her good that her education promises her dispositions she inherits—which makes fair gift fairer; for where an unclean mind carries virtuous qualities, there commendations go with pity; they are virtues and traitors too. In her they are the better for their simpleness: she derives her honesty and achieves her goodness. [I. i. 38-45]

Garrick reduces this to the bald statement, 'I have those hopes of her good that her education promises her'. Again, the adaptation sacrifices not only substance in characterization but dramatic force and poetry as well in the compression of Helena's first soliloquy to nine lines; it eliminates the intensity of her love and the obstacles to that love:

I am undone; there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away; 'twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me.
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
Th' ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love.
                                [I.i. 84-9]

The virginity duologue between Helena and Parolles is brought to a close not by the reverie of Helena, 'Not my virginity; yet …'(I. i. 161-82), but by the entrance of the page seeking Parolles. The first scene ends with 'little Helen' merely walking off stage behind the swaggering Parolles, with the audience still laughing at his jests on virginity. Thus Garrick accomplishes his two goals: he hands the scene to Parolles and he reduces his heroine to passive sentimentality by omitting entirely her closing soliloquy:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie …
                                        [I.i. 216-29]

Such is Helena's fate throughout the alteration. In the scenes which follow, Garrick continually undermines the force of his heroine's character and the depth of her love. Her dramatic and spirited wordplay with the Countess on the term 'mother' is condensed; in the same scene, her touching confession of love at the knees of the sympathetic Countess is reduced by eighteen lines (I. iii). In the next act, instead of dominating the attention of the assembled court as she deliberates over the choice of husband, Helena merely announces her selection of Bertram (II. iii. 65-101 omitted). Because the audience is already aware of her decision, the adaptation sacrifices characterization and theatrical suspense to move along the plot. So uninterested is Garrick in the heroine that he ignores lines which aid his interpretation of her; he omits her maidenly hesitation:

Please it your majesty, I have done already.
The blushes in my cheeks thus whisper me:

'We blush that thou should'st choose; but be re-
Let the white death sit on thy cheek for ever,
We'll ne'er come there again.'
                                 [II. iii. 68-72]

He likewise omits her less maidenly but affecting plea for a kiss from her departing husband at the end of the act (II. V. 78-87). Illustrative of his intention and technique is his rearrangement of Helena's final soliloquy. In the Shakespearian scene, Helena, the Countess, and the two lords discuss the news of Bertram's desertion. While Helena, distracted, ponders Bertram's letter, the Countess questions the lords and condemns Parolles's part in her son's conduct. Then the Countess and the lords leave the stage to the grieving Helena, who expresses her love, her fears, and finally her plan to flee France for her beloved's sake. The soliloquy ends the scene. In the Garrick adaptation, after a few words with Helena, the Countess turns away and talks quietly with the lords while Helena, in an aside only half as long as the soliloquy, announces to the audience her plan. The heroine leaves the stage and the scene ends with the Countess speaking aloud her condemnation of Parolles to the lords. Again, the emphasis has been shifted from the heroine to Parolles.

Deletions in characterization may have speeded up the play and focused attention upon Parolles, but they weakened the structure of the plot at the same time. Garrick has severely compressed the dialogue in which Helena persuades the King of her power to cure him. The resultant minimal reference to the medical skill of her father and the intercession of heaven strip away Shakespeare's attempt at credibility (II. i). Here and elsewhere, the structural parallel between the seemingly impossible cure of the King and the seemingly impossible fulfilment of Helena's love is obscured. So too, the omission of the Duke of Florence scenes (III. i and iii) and several references to the Florentine war makes less credible Bertram's appearance as the general of the troop. The character of the King is weakened by the deletion of his remonstrance against modern youth (I. ii. 31-45) and his jests about 'those girls of Italy' (II. i. 19), but there is a structural weakening as well in the loss of Shakespeare's forewarning of Bertram's actions. The elimination of the Clown's ironic 'That man should be at woman's command …' [I. iii. 91-98] strikes at a theme of the plot, as the elimination of Diana's ironic 'You have won / A wife of me' (IV. ii. 64-65) strikes at a technique of the dramatist. Perhaps, the very tone of the play, even in its comic elements, suffers in the omission of the final lines of Parolles's soliloquy. For the comedy of Shakespeare's Parolles is sustained through his easy acceptance of the conditions of life. But the farce of Garrick's adaptation crushes the braggart harshly. Garrick ends the exposure scene with the lines:

                  for it will come to pass
That every braggart shall be found an ass.
                              [IV. iii. 335-36]

But Shakespeare adds:

Rust, sword; cool, blushes; and Parolles live
Safest in shame; being fool'd by fool'ry thrive.
There's place and means for every man alive.
I'll after them.
                                  [IV. iii. 337-40]

Apart from this effect, the character of Parolles undergoes little change. He does lose some of his bawdiest lines in the virginity scene. But Garrick appears to have satisfied any new moral standard not by deleting Parolles's puns but by reducing Helena's participation. The Shakespearian duologue becomes almost a monologue, and we can imagine the actress standing aloof, perhaps musing on her departed Bertram, while Parolles jests with the audience. In addition to this preservation of Helena's decorum, decency dictated some changes in the language of the play: some of the Clown's double entendres are gone; overt references to sexual acts, such as 'take possession of the bride' (II. V. 25) are omitted; 'courted her' is substituted for 'boarded her' (V. iii. 210). And discreetly, the King's disease is no longer identified as a fistula. But both Parolles with his virginity jests and the bed-trick remain; these are targets for a later age. Garrick emphasizes the intention of his adaptation by assigning the epilogue to Parolles rather than to the King as Shakespeare had written it.

For the first performance of the Garrick adaptation on 24 February 1756, the Drury Lane playbill gave top billing to 'Capt. Parolles by Mr. Woodward'; this was printed just below the title of the play. The playbill indicates the appeal not only of the character but of the actor as well. Very probably, Garrick had prepared his adaptation as a vehicle for Harry Woodward, who had substituted for Cibber in the part of Parolles in the ill-fated 1746 production at Covent Garden. Since that time, Woodward had become the leading comedian at Drury Lane. Parolles became one of his great successes. From 1756 to his retirement in 1777, Woodward led the rascally braggart from theatre to theatre. He dominated the part on the London stage and was responsible for the enthusiastic response which All's Well received during this period. Characteristic of critical reaction is Davies's description of Woodward in the drum scene:

The unbinding Parolles, who looked about him with anxious surprize and terror, redoubled the bursts of laughter which echoed round the theatre. Woodward was excellent in the whole scene, but particularly in characterizing Bertram and the Dumaines, whose feelings, upon the unexpected heap of slander which he threw upon them, served to heighten the scene. Bertram was most angry, because Parolles deviated very little from the truth in what he said of him; his lasciviousness, and his intrigue with Diana, he could not deny.

In all our comic writers, I know not where to meet with such an odd compound of cowardice, folly, ignorance, pertness, and effrontery, with certain semblance of courage, sense, knowledge, adroitness, and wit, as Parolles. He is, I think, inferior only to the great master of stage gaiety and mirth, Sir John Falstaff.

Despite the comic talent of Woodward, the first performance of Garrick's All's Well appears to have been unsuccessful. Richard Cross, Sr., the theatre's prompter, merely noted in his diary, 'Play went off dull'. Difficulties in the plot may have been responsible, for Garrick made changes in his adaptation before the second performance. The omission of the Duke of Florence, with perhaps other modifications, lessened the importance of the major plot. Garrick then offered to the public in sharper focus what had probably attracted them in the first performance, 'Capt. Parolles'. All's Well was added to the repertory and was given seven performances from 1756 to 1758.

Garrick had assembled an excellent company at Drury Lane, and the cast for this production was superior. Berry, who had played Lafeu in the 1742 revival, repeated the role. Richard Yates, famous for his portrayals of Shakespearian clowns, acted Lavache. The celebrated Mrs. Pritchard, who had played Helena in 1746, now assumed the part of the Countess. As a young actress, Maria Macklin, daughter of Charles Macklin, impersonated Helena. Of the cast, Miss Macklin was the weakest. Although the altered role offered only limited potential, 'unfortunate' may again be applied to the play in its heroine. Miss Macklin represented Helena for the next twenty years in London, yet her talent as an actress was such that at no time did she bring the role into prominence. A Helena of ability equal to that of Woodward might have restored the text of the play and perhaps have established a reputation for All's Well which would have altered its rather dark stage history. But both the warmth and resoluteness of Helena were beyond Miss Macklin:

Though Maria had achieved a modest success on the stage, her contemporaries, without exception, found her chilly and remote. She was somewhat small, like her mother, with a good figure, an agreeable, light voice, and her father's expressive eyes. Yet she was evidently colorless, almost cataleptic in manner, both on and off stage. … Until 1759 she remained an exemplary member of Drury Lane but from the time of her transfer to Covent Garden until her retirement in 1776 she became increasingly languid and diffident [William Appleton, Charles Macklin: An Actor's Life, 1960].

It is as well that Miss Macklin was not exposed to the irony of Helena's analysis of Parolles, for Garrick had dropped the lines:

Yet these fix'd evils sit so fit in him
That they take place when virtue's steely bones
Look bleak i' th' cold wind.
                                          [I.i. 102-04]

That 'these fix'd evils' did 'take place' over 'virtue's steely bones' is evident from a rather long and interesting review of All's Well which appeared in the London Chronicle on I December 1757. The review has particular value as the first theatrical criticism of the play in a London newspaper. It has more general interest as an exception to Mr. Gray's summary of theatrical criticism in London that as late as 1770 newspaper criticism was usually limited to short notes added to plot summaries of new plays. The reviewer for the Chronicle not only discussed Woodward's success but commented upon the character Parolles and a scene which troubled him:

There is not one of Shakespear's Comedies where he has exerted a greater share of the Vis comica than in this, and I do not imagine there is to be found in all that great Master's Works, if you except his Falstaff, a truer, pleasanter, and more striking Character than that of Paroles. Yet one thing I have observed in it which I never could answer to myself; it is when, after one of his Scenes with Losen [Lafeu], the Bragart in a Soliloquy talks of wiping out the disgraces put upon him by that old Lord by fighting his Son, and a good deal more to that Purpose; everywhere else Paroles is thoroughly sensible of his Cowardice; why then should be just at that Instant lack that Consciousness, and strive, as it were, to cheer himself into a Notion of his being brave? Besides that it answers no Purpose, and breaks off the Continuity of the Character, is not this perverting the End of Soliloquies, which are in themselves but too absurd, and have only been allowed for Conveniency, that by their Means the Audience may get an Insight into Characters and Designs of a Nature that requires a Theatrical Secrecy; that is to say, a Secrecy relative only to the Business of the Play and the Parties concerned in the Plot? This only I offer as my Doubt, and rather incline to think it my Mistake, than imagine that incomparable Writer defective in that very point which was always esteemed his particular Excellence. However, that Character, even admitting that Reproach to be well grounded, is one of the greatest on the English Stage; and Mr. Woodward's exhibition of it fell in nothing short of its Beauties and Humour; as to the rest of the Parts, they are rather just than striking, and, I think, as much may be said of the performance.

We may wonder at the failure of the critic to see the dramatic effectiveness of Parolles's soliloquy when it is followed by the reentrance of Lafeu and the dissolution of Parolles's brave front. But we can believe that his observations on the excellence of Woodward's Parolles and the mere 'just' presentations of the other performances reflect the nature of this production.

It is not surprising that Woodward dominated the play and was responsible for its appeal. The audience of this age associated parts with actors. A play's success depended upon the appeal of a particular actor in a particular role. The audiences of the mid century went to see Garrick as Hamlet, Barry as Othello, Macklin as Shylock, Quin as Falstaff, and Woodward as Parolles. Woodward's hold upon the entire play remained unchallenged because the role of Helena was not identified with an actress of artistic stature. Whether the altered text discouraged the actresses, whether Miss Macklin's association with the part deterred them, or whether the comic force of Woodward resisted the competition, Helena did not become a vehicle of success.

As You Like It was saved to the stage by a succession of great Rosalinds—Mrs. Pritchard, Mrs. Woffington, Mrs. Barry, Mrs. Yates. Measure for Measure was revived at times to give these same fair ladies an opportunity to appear as Isabella.

The comedy in All's Well, unlike that of As You Like It, was masculine; and the tragic potential of Isabella was not matched in the emaciated Helena of Garrick's text. Consequently, the All's Well of the eighteenth century was shaped by the comic force of Parolles.

At the end of the 1757-8 season, Woodward left Drury Lane and joined Spranger Barry in opening the new Crow-Street Theatre in Dublin. A rather turbulent rivalry broke out between the new theatre and the Smock Alley Theatre. A truce was reached just prior to the opening of the 1760-1 season. To show that all was well between the theatres, Woodward seems to have selected Shakespeare's comedy as the first production for the sake of its title. The play was performed at Crow Street on 24 October 1760, but 'the house was far from being crowded' [quoted in Robert Hitchcock, An Historical View of the Irish Stage, 1788]. The partnership with Barry failed, and in 1762 Woodward returned to London and signed with Covent Garden.

Perhaps incensed that Woodward had joined the rival theatre, Garrick decided upon a daring revival of All's Well at Drury Lane. Since Miss Macklin, too, was now with Covent Garden, Garrick relied upon a new cast. Thomas King was given the role of Parolles, Mrs. Palmer that of Helena. The production was performed on 23 October 1762, and repeated on 25 November. Woodward and Covent Garden took up the challenge. On 29 November, All's Well was produced for the first time at Covent Garden in eighteen years. Woodward was featured as 'Capt. Parolles'; Miss Macklin appeared as Helena; the famous clown, Edwin Shuter, was cast as Lavache; and a rising sixteen-year-old actress, Miss Hallam (later Mrs. George Mattocks), was assigned the role of Diana. The competition between the two rival productions was short-lived. Garrick withdrew the play from his repertory, and it was not seen again at Drury Lane until the Kemble production of 1794. The Woodward production enjoyed a highly successful season; performances were repeated in December, January, February, March, and April. It remained in the repertory at Covent Garden until 1774, three years before the death of Woodward. During that time, it was performed seventeen times in seven seasons. The attraction of All's Well was Woodward, and it is significant that only the names of Mrs. Ward as the Countess and Miss Hallam as Diana are added occasionally to Woodward's name in newspaper advertisements for the play.

Woodward had continued to use the Garrick adaptation of All's Well even after joining the rival company at Covent Garden. Evidence of this is included in the two editions of the adaptation which have come down to us. In 1774, the 'Bell Acting Edition' of All's Well was published; it printed the text of the play 'As Performed at the Theatre-Royal, Drury Lane'. The edition listed the cast for the last production at that theatre, that by Garrick in 1762. In addition, it gave the cast for the most recent production of All's Well at Covent Garden, that in which Woodward played Parolles in 1772. The implication is that both casts used the adaptation printed therein. More conclusive, however, is the title-page of a second edition published in the Theatrical Magazine in 1778. This edition presents the play, 'As it is Acted at the Theatres Royal in Drury Lane and Covent Garden'. In substance, the texts of the adaptation are the same in both editions, but there are differences in the stage directions. The 1778 edition records the stage business of the productions at Covent Garden. For example, Parolles is led on stage by the Clown in the last scene rather than by guards as the 1774 direction reads. In general, the presence of the Clown serves to lighten the oppressive mood of the trial; in particular, the direction brings back on-stage at Covent Garden the extremely popular comedian, Edwin Shuter. We can conclude then, that although there were separate traditions of stage business at each theatre, Woodward did use the Garrick text, and that text was the sole acting version of All's Well on the London stage from 1756 to 1774.

The first recorded criticism of the adaptation is contained in the 'Bell Acting Edition' in an introduction and notes written by Francis Gentleman [in 1774]. His comments provide a contemporary verdict upon the acting version in the very year in which it was last produced; they reveal as well attitudes which would soon alter the treatment of All's Well in the theatre. First reflecting the popular taste of the previous twenty years, Gentleman defends the emphasis which the adaptation has given to Parolles, Shakespeare's 'chief object, and inducement to undertake this piece'. He gives high praise to the comedy of the play:

It is a stroke of humour to represent Parolles making so much ado about the loss of a drum, though victory has been on their side. (p. 334)

The sonorous jargon uttered in this scene, to rouse the timidity of Parolles, is well introduced, and extremely farcical. (p. 342)

The terrible, but just dilemma, Parolles appears in, through this scene, the progress of his interrogation, his treacherous, slanderous, pusillanimous answers, all combined, give great scope for comic merit, and are excellent food for mirth. (p. 345)

But his approval of the comedy is not without qualification, for Gentleman has already been affected by the trend toward sentimentality and prudery. Of the virginity scene, he writes, 'This scene, as it stands originally, is not only indelicate, but trifling: above half of it is omitted, and indeed the whole might very well be spared' (p. 302). He would eliminate such offensive lines as Diana's 'his wife grew big with child' (p. 358) and the 'impertinent quibbling matter, between the Countess and Clown' (p. 315).

Especially in his remarks about Helena do we foresee the dilemma which All's Well presented to the nineteenth-century stage. On the one hand, Gentleman imagines the sentimental heroine fashioned by the Romantic critics. Helena confesses her love of Bertram to the Countess 'in terms of the most modest, pleasing sensibility' (p. 310); of her proposed pilgrimage, he writes: 'The idea of Helena's mitigating, by chaste prayers, the errors of her husband, is exceedingly beautiful' (p. 329). On the other hand, he cannot reconcile her aggressiveness with this concept. She wins her husband, 'it must be confessed on terms very ungracious to delicate or generous feelings' (p. 319); after Bertram's desertion, 'Helena, resolving to have the man, whether he will or not, somewhat abates our pity for her situation' (p. 327). Gentleman is forced to conclude that the play, in its original form, 'can hardly live on the stage; yet we are of the opinion, that by judicious alterations and additions, it might be made much more tolerable' (p. 297). For a century, the stage history of All's Well records the attempts at 'judicious alterations and additions'.

The farcical approach to All's Well was attempted once more in the eighteenth century; the result was an even greater distortion of Shakespeare's play than Garrick's version. On 26 July 1785, the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser announced that there 'will be revived a Comedy, in Three Acts (altered from Shakespeare) called All's Well that Ends Well' that same evening at the Haymarket. The alteration was prepared for John Bannister, who was 'the chief support of farce, and of course of the Haymarket—the House of Farce' [quoted in John Roach, Authentic Memoirs of the Green Room, 1796]. The first performance was a benefit for Bannister who played Parolles. The adapter, Frederick Pilon, had compressed the material to highlight the role. Reviews of the production generally credit Pilon with giving Bannister a tour de force. Unfortunately, the text of the alteration has not been preserved, and we are dependent upon the reviews for our knowledge of the version. Seemingly, the plot was reduced to two incidents, the exposure of Parolles and the exposure of Bertram. Helena, as a passive instrument in these incidents, hovered in the background; 'the most interesting picture can hardly be imagined of grace, dignity, and beauty' [The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser (27 July 1785)]. It was not Shakespeare's picture, however, for Pilon omitted almost all of the first three acts:

The whole of the story of the King's cure, and all the circumstances preliminary to the marriage of Bertram and Helena are past over, and the piece commences with the entrance of Helena in her pilgrim's dress. He [Pilon] has properly reserved, however, many of the poetical beauties of the first three acts, which he has connected by some sentences of his own writing [Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (27 July 1785)].

Genesi does not give a full cast, but a playbill lists a sufficient number of actors to suggest that Pilon retained the major characters of the original play. One clue to the fashioning of minor roles is the introduction of Lafeu with Bertram in Florence; Lafeu absorbs the role of one lord and participates in the exposure of Parolles.

The character was admirably adapted to his talents, and beneficial to his reputation. In the first part he had to display a vain coxcomb, an empty traveler, a bragging coward, and an obsequious sycophant, patient of affronts, and enduring to be termed an imposter and a knave. In all these scenes Bannister exhibited the pertness, presumption, and uneasy bustle of such a mind, with the pretended fever of simulated indignation, when reproach touched him too nearly to be misapprehended or devade. His dress was that of a point-de-vice soldier; and his bearing alert, petulant, and confident. In a subsequent scene, where his presumptious folly leads him into an ambuscade, he is captured and blindfolded by a party of his friends, bent on disclosing him in his true colours, who speaking a pretended language (a good specimen of the unknown tongues) through the organ of a mock interpreter, draw from him all the secrets of his meanness, and leave him overloaded with disgrace and scorn. Degraded and baffled, he still attempts to be considered as an adherent of those with whom he had before claimed equality; and in a mean habiliment, and with corresponding humbleness of speech and gesture, he so far works on the good feelings of an honourable old lord, the great contemner of his former pretensions, as to be retained in a very humble situation. In this portion of the play, the actor's style was no less masterly than in those which preceded: there was a base humility in his address, a prompt alacrity in his complaisance, a total extinction of everything like pretension which made the spectator well pleased that the wretch should find a comfortable though servile refuge in the charity of the old Lord Lafeu. Bannister received, throughout the piece, warm and well-deserved applause [quoted in Memoirs of John Bannister, Comedian, 1839].

The majority of reviewers praised the alteration. The Morning Post & Daily Advertiser considered it an improvement, 'a compression of matter, too diffusely disposed of, for the strength of its humour, its character, and interest'. Yet we may suspect that the extravagant praise was caused more by the attraction of Bannister at his own benefit than by the text. At least one critic [in European Magazine and London Review (August 1785)] objected to the 'mangling' of Shakespeare, to the negligible parts assigned to Helena and Bertram, and to the 'injudicious omissions' even in Parolles. He concludes that only 'the liberty allowed in such benefits' justified the alteration. His judgement was validated by the fate of the play; the Pilon All's Well was repeated two nights later, but was never acted again.

In 1793, a third adaptation of the play was published under the title, Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well; With Alterations by J. P. Kemble, As it is performed by His Majesty's Servants, of the Theatre-Royal, Drury Lane. The title is deceiving, for the adaptation had not yet been produced in the theatre. The old Drury Lane had been demolished in 1791. From 1791 to 1793, the company performed at the King's Theatre and at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. It is probable that Kemble prepared his version of All's Well during this period. But the company was disbanded for the 1793-4 season while it awaited the opening of the new Drury Lane, and Kemble was unable to produce his alteration. With a production date uncertain, Kemble, we may conjecture, published his text. The play was performed for the first time on 12 December 1794. Undoubtedly, the production followed the published version, for a second edition of the text was printed in 1795 with only two, perhaps careless, changes in stage directions.

The Kemble alteration has had a long history in the theatre. A revised version which was used as the acting text for a Charles Kemble production at Covent Garden in 1811 was published in the same year. This text was reprinted in 1815 and, with only a few additional stage directions, was published in 1838 as the 'Cumberland Acting Edition'. The Cumberland, in turn, was reprinted exactly in 'Lacey's Acting Edition'. The Kemble tradition has been brought down to modern times in the 'French Acting Edition' of All's Well, which reproduces Lacey's with only one change, the shifting of a single stage direction. Conceivably, the text is still used by amateur producers of the play. In the professional theatre, it was used in a performance at Bath in 1821, and most probably, in the Samuel Phelps production in London in 1852.

There are differences between the Kemble versions published in 1793 and 1811. The 1793 text is closer to the original play; its cuts are determined primarily by Kemble's interest in compression; it is more concerned with plot than character, unlike the later version; it is less governed by the demands of 'decency'. Nevertheless, the approach and technique are the same in both editions. These are sharply delineated if the 1811 edition is considered the basic Kemble text. Not only does it represent his final concept of the play, but also it incorporates the stage experience gained in the 1794 production.

Kemble's approach to All's Well reflects the trend which the theatre and the age were following. Where Garrick had moulded a farce, Kemble now fashioned a sentimental comedy. He was much more interested in the plot of the play, in the heroine, in the potentiality for theatrical pomp than Garrick had been. Kemble focused his adaptation upon Helena and the plight of her selfless love. He cut severely into the comic elements of the play by diminishing the parts of Parolles and the Clown. To avoid any distortion of his focus, he reduced the roles of the Countess, the King, and Lafeu to mere instruments in the attainment of the heroine's love. But that attainment is not the result of an aggressive Helena; on the contrary, Kemble deleted all dialogue and action which might be offensive in the long-suffering, virtuous heroine of romance. In effect, the adapter presented to his audience a Helena as she was conceived by the Romantics and epitomized by Coleridge twenty-four years later as Shakespeare's 'loveliest character'.

Helena dominates the first act of the alteration, yet without a semblance of that aggressiveness which many critics of Shakespeare's play have attributed to her. Kemble makes her love less forward in the first scene by narrowing the gap between the young lord of the household and the poor dependent. In his departure for the Court, Bertram takes leave of Helena warmly. In lines usually addressed to his mother, Bertram bids farewell to Helena: 'The best wishes, that can be forg'd in your thoughts, be servants to you, Helen!' (I. i. 74-75). Kemble deliberately obscures the heroine's position as an inferior at Rousillon by the deletion of Bertram's charge: 'Be comfortable to my mother, your mistress, and make much of her' (I. i. 76-77). His exit is marked by only five lines of Helena's original soliloquy in which she first expresses her love for him; the remaining lines which convey the hopelessness of her love are postponed to the end of the scene. This brief expression of love is followed by the entrance of Parolles, who interrupts her reverie, as he does in Shakespeare's play fourteen lines later. But the interruption is momentary, for the entire virginity duologue is omitted (I. i. 102-86). Instead of dominating the scene as he did in Garrick's version, Parolles merely exchanges a few lines with the virtuous heroine before he follows Bertram to Court. Helena returns to her reverie and concludes the scene as the unloved heroine of melodrama musing on the obstacles to her love. In Shakespeare's play, Helena had pondered these obstacles before the entrance of Parolles. Perhaps prompted by her word-play with Parolles on the loss of virginity, Helena concludes the scene with a second soliloquy which reveals her determination to attain her love. Kemble transposes any hint of such action until after the Countess has encouraged his heroine.

To maintain his focus upon Helena, Kemble transposes Bertram's arrival at Court (I. ii) to his second act. Thus, the heroine's revelation of her love is followed by the confession of that love to Bertram's mother (I. iii). The compression of dialogue in this scene has three effects. The expurgation of the Clown's reasons for marrying rejects an anticipatory parody and preserves the decorum of the confession (I. iii. 25-61). The elimination of forceful lines in the interrogation of Helena by the Countess weakens, but makes more modest, the characterizations of both women: Helena offers so little resistance that the Countess's charge of 'hellish obstinacy' is understandably cut (I. iii. 175). Finally, the strength of Helena's resolution is modified in keeping with her docility. She commands attention at the end of Act I not by her determination but through a change in stage business. Unlike Shakespeare's All's Well where the Countess and the heroine go off stage together, the adaptation leaves Helena alone to form her plan in a sharply curtailed and enigmatic soliloquy:

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to chance. Who ever strove
To show her merit, that did miss her love?
The king's disease—my project may deceive me:
But my intents are fix'd, and will not leave me.
                                         [I. i. 216-29]

Kemble balances the roles of hero and heroine by the transposition of one scene and the compression of two others in the beginning of his second act. As Helena dominates the two scenes of Act I, Bertram dominates the first two scenes of Act II. To forewarn the audience of a flaw in his romantic hero, Kemble opens the act with Bertram's refusal to accept Lafeu's caution against Parolles (II. V. I-II). But the brief scene is only a forewarning, for it is followed by a favourable impression of the hero in a blending of the two Shakespearian Court scenes (I. ii and II. I). For Kemble's purpose, the blending is an effective compression. In a single scene, Bertram is introduced to the King; mention is made of the Florentine war; the King inquires about the physician at Rousillon, Helena's deceased father; the lords leave for the war; and the young hero bravely vows to slip away after them. Kemble has balanced the roles and the opposing forces of his romance: as Helena has determined to seek out love, Bertram has determined to seek out war.

After the crowded action of the first four scenes, Act II, scene iii provides the first interlude. Probably for comic relief, Kemble advances the 'O Lord, Sir' jest between the Countess and the Clown (II. ii); he places the scene before the King's acceptance of Helena's cure instead of after it. The acceptance is substantially the same as in the original play. The deletions are intended to make less bold Helena's persuasion of the King; she remains in character as the submissive heroine of melodrama.

That character is amplified in Act III. In the first scene, Kemble's only significant omission is Helena's deliberation before each of the young lords prior to her choice of Bertram (II. iii. 76-102). Garrick appears to have cut the scene because of his focus upon comedy; Kemble's motive is the preservation of maidenly modesty. In the second scene, lines are deleted to maintain the sobriety of the heroine. As Helena had been denied her repartee on virginity with Parolles, so here she is denied her quibbling with the Clown (II. iv. 2-7). Only minor cuts are made in the third scene, but, in the fourth scene, the conception of a child is expurgated from Bertram's letter of conditions (III. ii. 57-58). The moral taste of the age demanded a heroine consistent with its notion of purity, and the sexual pursuit of a male was outside that notion. Kemble satisfied the moral taste and the dramatic taste as well by closing the third act with a soliloquy in which Helena vows to sacrifice herself for her beloved (III. ii. 99-129).

Perhaps indicative of the age's satisfaction with the mere appearance of morality, the expurgation of the condition of a child does not alter the plot. For the removal of this explicit charge does not spare the heroine the 'shameful deceit' of the bed-trick. Kemble has eliminated any overt mention of the bed-trick and the conception of a child, but only a naïve or wilfully blind audience would miss the implication in the alteration that Bertram sleeps with his wife in an attempted seduction of Diana. Besides more discreet Shakespearian allusions, Kemble retains Helena's proposal to the Widow, Bertram's wooing of Diana, and Diana's subsequent charge that Bertram has misused her (V. iii. 139-45). Nineteenth-century morality read into the plot what Shakespeare had made specific.

After eliminating the second Duke of Florence scene (III. iii), in which Bertram is commissioned general of the troop, Kemble composed a fourth act of seven scenes which follow rather closely the parallel scenes in Shakespeare (III. iv-IV. iii). There are omissions and compression, but they are dictated by Kemble's general intentions: a focus upon romantic melodrama and an inoffensive text.

Thus, Helena's letter to the Countess in which she explains her flight is dismissed as unnecessary repetition (III. iv. 4-18); the moralizing of the lords is reduced for pacing, and consequently, the thematic speech, 'The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together', is lost (IV. iii. 71-74); indelicate lines such as Bertram's plea, 'But give thyself unto my sick desires' (IV. ii. 35), are dropped; Parolles loses his irrepressible acceptance of life after his exposure (IV. iii. 326-9). Farce had crushed the ambushed soldier in the Garrick adaptation; morality demanded the chastisement of the evil companion in the Kemble text.

Unlike the original play, the 1811 All's Well places all the events which lead immediately to the reconciliation in the last act. Act V begins with Lafeu's defence of Bertram before the Countess (IV. v). To build swiftly to his climax, Kemble eliminates most of the quibbling between Lafeu and the Clown. The omissions forfeit the touching explanation by the Countess of the Clown's presence in her household (IV. v. 61-64) and the Clown's characterizing lines: 'I am a woodland fellow …' [IV. v. 47-55]. Instead of two scenes depicting the journey of Helena, Diana, and the Widow (IV. iv and V. i), Kemble combines them as his second scene and sacrifices both realism and characterization. The final two scenes of both plays correspond except for the usual compression of dialogue and expurgations. But despite these expurgations, as I have noted above, the seduction of Diana is implicit in the trial of Bertram. The entrance of Helena is not preceded by Diana's lines:

He knows himself my bed he hath defil'd;
And at that time he got his wife with child,
                               [V. iii. 300-04]

but the effect of the entrance upon Bertram is the same in both plays. It is a desperate and repentant husband who falls before the heroine. There is a difference, however, in the character of the heroine. In the Kemble version, it is not the clever wife, but the long-suffering, scorned wife who raises her husband to his redemption. The bright world of Shakespeare's romance has been shaded by the moral tone of sentimentalism. As Virtue Rewarded, the Kemble Helena turns to the audience and delivers the epilogue.

Again, we see the assignment of the epilogue as a touch-stone of the alteration. For Garrick, the epilogue and the play belonged to Parolles; by the end of the century All's Well that Ends Well was Helena's. In the view of most critics, the change in focus and the adaptation itself were improvements. The London Star, on 29 December 1794, reported, 'The alterations chiefly consist in judicious compressions and transpositions.' The verdict echoes through the centuries. In the nineteenth century, Genest wrote:

His alteration is very judicious—he has omitted the weak parts, and transposed some speeches with good effect—by not attempting to do too much he has fitted this C[omedy] for representation without injuring it.

In the twentieth century, Harold Child [in 'The Stage History', All's Well that Ends Well, ed. Sir Arthur Quiller Couch and Dover Wilson, Cambridge, 1929] agreed: 'In or about 1794 John Philip Kemble took the play in hand and made a judicious version of it which brought it back pretty nearly to the original.' Among the commentators, only Halliwell-Phillips in 1857 [J. Q. Halliwell-Phillips, Memoranda on All's Well that Ends Well, 1879] attacked the adaptation: 'It is scarcely a matter of surprise that the performance of the drama, in this vitiated form, should not have met, at any recent period, with the success that it probably commanded on the Shakespearean stage.' Kemble had discarded motivation, characterization, comedy, and poetry; only a melodrama remained. But the nineteenth century gave a grudging preference for the sentimentality of Kemble to the indelicacy of Shakespeare.

Although production of the Kemble adaptation was delayed until the completion of a new Drury Lane in 1794, the text published in 1793 included a cast of characters as 'performed by His Majesty's Servants, of the Theatre-Royal, Drury Lane'. The emphasis which All's Well now reflected may be noted in Kemble's assignment of Helena to Mrs. Siddons and Bertram to himself. For the first time since the play's revival in 1741, the 'stars' of a company were cast as hero and heroine. The casting of Mrs. Siddons as Helena suggests, as it would have suggested to the London audience, a serious, perhaps a tragic heroine. From about 1790, the leading female roles in Shakespearian plays at Drury Lane had been divided between Mrs. Siddons, who acted the tragic heroines, and Mrs. Jordan, who acted the comic. Earlier, in 1786 and 1787, Mrs. Siddons had challenged the reputation of Mrs. Jordan in comedy by appearing as Rosalind in As You Like It, Mrs. Jordan's most famous part. But the challenge had failed. In the first few months of the 1794-5 season before All's Well was finally produced, Mrs. Siddons played in Macbeth, Henry VIII, and Othello; Mrs. Jordan acted in As You Like It and Twelfth Night. The audience was prepared for a melodramatic Helena. Surprisingly, at the first performance of the play on 12 December 1794, Mrs. Jordan appeared as Helena!

Why Kemble substituted Mrs. Jordan for Mrs. Siddons is open to unlimited conjecture. Did Kemble or Mrs. Siddons decide the comic characters of Parolles, Lafeu, and Lavache still restricted the tragic potential of the heroine despite the tone of the adaptation? Did Mrs. Jordan insist on the part as a comic role? Did Kemble prefer Mrs. Jordan for the part once the play moved from his imagination to the stage? Or was the change made simply out of some theatrical necessity? One other fact qualifies a conclusion. All's Well was followed by another Shakespearian revival on 30 December 1794. Kemble produced Measure for Measure, which, like All's Well, had not been seen in London since 1785. Mrs. Siddons, who had played Isabella very much like a tragic heroine in 1785, repeated the role. Since the two 'companion' plays were revived in the same month by the same theatre after the same lapse of years, we may conclude tentatively that Measure for Measure was considered more suited to the dramatic talent of Mrs. Siddons, despite the earlier publication of her name as Helena. It is of some significance that Helena and All's Well, in spite of the comic deletions, were considered to be brighter than Isabella and the 'dark comedy', Measure for Measure.

We should imagine that All's Well that Ends Well was at last fortunate in the casting of its heroine. The play had been altered to spotlight Helena, and, here at last an actress of great beauty and merit might 'create' a character which would live in theatrical memory. In tragedy, Mrs. Siddons had done this with her portrayal of Lady Macbeth; why not Mrs. Jordan with Helena? Her charm as an actress blossomed into legend among Romantic critics. Hazlitt thought of her as 'the child of nature, whose voice was a cordial to the heart' [William Hazlitt, 'Dramatic Essays from the London Magazine', The Collected Works of William Hazlitt, ed. Arnold Glover and A. R. Waller, 1903, Vol. VIII]; Leigh Hunt rhapsodized, 'In the girl, what hey-day vivacity, what bounding eagerness, what tip-toe spirits and expectation, what exquisite ignorance of received habits!' [Lawrence H. and Carolyn W. Houtchens (eds.), Leigh Hunt's Dramatic Criticism: 1801-1831, 1949]. Perhaps most pertinent to the qualities in Helena is the comment of Lamb: 'Her childlike spirit shook off the load of years from her specators; she seemed one whom care could not come near,—a privileged being sent to teach mankind what he most wants, joyousness' [quoted from Brander Matthews (ed.), The Dramatic Essays of Charles Lamb, 1891]. Here was a Helena, then, who might well teach Bertram love and the audience acceptance of that love.

Yet, a set of circumstances similar to the misfortunes of the first Drury Lane revival some fifty years before haunted the play. As the first performance of that revival was marred by the illness of Peg Wolfington, so this production was hampered by the illness of Kemble—which must have made more emphatic Bannister's description of Kemble in comedy, 'He was as merry as a funeral, and as lively as an elephant' [quoted from Oxberry's Dramatic Biography, 1825]. So too, this production was troubled by a dispute in casting Parolles. King had played the role in the 1762 performances at Drury Lane after Woodward's departure; Bannister had played the role in the two performances of 1785. Each wanted the part. Years later, Bannister's biographer [John Adolphus, Memoirs of John Bannister, Comedian, 1839] records the comedian's magnanimity in yielding the role to King, but this is not true. Contemporary reviews show that Bannister won the part. Finally, Mrs. Jordan, at the time, was undergoing a wearying pregnancy; of a performance two weeks before, she wrote to the Duke of Clarence, 'I was very unwell and cd not speak the epilogue.' She appeared infrequently on the stage until the birth of her baby on 16 April 1795. If these circumstances did not recall the superstition surrounding All's Well in the theatre, both cast and audience were reminded by a review in the London Star [(29 December 1794)] which gave a brief history of the play and its epithet, 'unfortunate comedy'.

Perhaps because of the political and military events of the time, there are few dramatic reviews of the production, but all are favourable. The European Magazine and London Review [(January 1795)] reported that the play was revived 'in a style very creditable to the Manager'. On the day following the performance, the Star noted that the revival 'received much applause'. In a more detailed review on 19 December, the Star praised the alteration and the cast:

Bannister is deficient in nothing but personal importance—Woodward certainly surpassed him in figure, but not in conception of the character. Mrs. Jordan's appearance,' tis true, bespeaks not the virgin bride of Bertram; but her tones and manner are irresistibly interesting … King makes the Fool a 'kind of wit' and insinuates his jokes successfully through the house.

The Sun [(13 December 1794)] reported that the house was very respectably filled, applauded the revival of old comedies, singled out Miss Miller, who had recently been raised from the chorus and now appeared as Diana, and promised, 'Of the propriety of the alterations we shall speak hereafter'. The promise implies that the reviewer fully expected the play to be added to the repertory of the theatre. But All's Well was given only one performance; Kemble dropped the play.

Kemble's illness explains why All's Well was not repeated immediately; he does not appear in Genest's list of casts until 30 December. But it does not explain why the play was dropped entirely from the repertory. The pregnancy of Mrs. Jordan certainly operated against the plot of the play; the longer a second performance was delayed, the more ludicrous her appearance as Helena would be. Yet, this only increases our wonder at Kemble's replacing Mrs. Siddons with Mrs. Jordan in the part. Furthermore, Kemble had much at stake in the production. The adaptation was his work; the acting edition had been published a year in advance of performance. He produced the play 'with his usual care' [quoted from James Boaden, Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble, Esq., 1825]. At a new theatre with new stage machinery, the phrase 'usual care' implies considerable expense. For a production of Macbeth in the same season, 'Among the novelty of scenery that efficiently rose and smoothly descended upon the stage of the new Drury Lane, Kemble had introduced a lake of real water, to the admiration of all spectators' [quoted from Yvonne French, Mrs. Siddons, Tragic Actress, 1936]. Production costs would necessitate repeat performances even for a play which had been poorly received. Yet, receipts for the single performance show that the play drew a larger audience than had the premieres of eight of the ten previous Shakespearian productions. Its box-office receipts were larger than the first night of the succeeding revival, Measure for Measure with Mrs. Siddons. Despite this, Measure for Measure was repeated; All's Well was dropped. All this would be quite comprehensible if the play had proved a wretched failure, but the evidence of contemporary critics refutes this. The evidence is scant; nevertheless, it receives some support in later years in the delight with which Lamb recalled the performance of Mrs. Jordan as Helena—if we can trust his memory. We can only conclude that circumstances other than the reception of the play closed this carefully prepared production. It may well be that the illness of Kemble, the apparently forced withdrawal of Mrs. Jordan, and the dispute over casting revived the superstitions of the theatre.

Seventeen years later, on 24 May 1811, a second attempt at a successful production of Kemble's alteration was made. Charles Kemble, the younger brother of John and manager of Covent Garden, produced the play and published the acting text shortly after. Charles Kemble had acquired a reputation for lavish productions:

At no theatre, and during no season, have so many of the best Plays of Shakespeare, and of our great English Dramatists, been revived, and brought forward with so much elegance and magnificence, as at Covent Garden, during the last Winter and Spring [Bell's Weekly Messenger (7 July 1811)].

In the revival of All's Well, he surpassed his own standards and the meticulous care displayed by his brother in 1794:

We observed, that, upon no similar occasion, had greater attention been paid to the due preparation of a Play than was evinced upon this occasion. The performers were all perfect in the dialogue. The Florentine costume of the age was well attended to in the dresses of the character; and the scenery was illustrative of the subject [European Magazine and London Review LIX (June 1811)].

Comparable care was given to the selection of the cast. As his brother had done, Charles Kemble played Bertram. Helena was acted by Mrs. H. Johnston. The charming Mrs. Weston represented the Countess. Two of the greatest character actors of the age, Joseph Munden and John Fawcett, Jr., played Lafeu and Parolles respectively. Charles Lamb's famous tribute to Munden suggests a wonderful portrayal of Lafeu:

He, and he alone, literally makes faces; applied to any other person, the phrase is a mere figure, denoting certain modifications of the human countenance. … But in the grand grotesque of farce, Munden stands out as single and unaccompanied as Hogarth. … Can any man wonder like he does?

That sense of wonderment must have been particularly effective in All's Well where Lafeu must express amazement at the cure of the King, the arrogance of Parolles, and the revelations of Diana and Helena in the last scene.

The imaginative impression which we can paint of Munden in the role of Lafeu is of more interest to the 'ideal' production of All's Well, however, than the actual performance was to the refined sensibilities of the 1811 audience. Even the relatively tolerant attitude of the reviewer in the European Magazine and London Review suggests a spirit of sentimentality fatal to the play:

Though we are far from considering this Comedy as one of those upon which the renown of our immortal Bard is eminently dependent, yet there are such instances of superior merit, in various parts of it, as leaves but little doubt that he was the Editor of it. The character of Parolles is wrought up with the hand of a master, and the situations of Helena are so delicately supposed and finished, that the auditor follows her, in the vicissitudes of her fortunes, with sympathy. In the enclaircissement, which occurs in the fifth act, there is so much mystery and enigma, that the judgment is not entirely satisfied, though the reconciliation which so happily ensues between Bertram and his maltreated wife, is so perfectly satisfactory and pleasing, that we are inclined to turn aside from analysing the mode in which that event is brought about; and content ourselves with the knowledge that the virtue of Helena is eventually rewarded in the necessary repentance of her unfeeling husband. The Performers deserve much credit for the ability and ardour which they exhibited; and this praise is strongly due to Mr. Munden, Mr. Fawcett, and Mrs. H. Johnston, whose characters required greater exertion than the rest of the Dramatic Personae.

There is not yet the objection to Helena and her boldness; Kemble has presented the long-suffering heroine whose methods are lost in 'mystery and enigma', whose methods need no analysis since virtue is rewarded—the maltreated wife has redeemed her erring husband. But we find no delight in the comedy, no vivid descriptions of Parolles, no interest in the comic scenes. In fact, Genest disputes the reviewer's praise for the performance of Parolles:

Yet Fawcett is said to have been hissed—when he came off the stage he put the part in Kemble's hands, and declared that he would not play it again—'then,' said Kemble, 'you will knock up the play'—Fawcett was however prevailed on to act Parolles a second time on June 22.

If the story is true, it points up most dramatically the swing of taste from the broad comedy of the Woodward era. The play was repeated on 22 June, but it was then dropped by Covent Garden. Almost a century of darkness was beginning for All's Well. Both its comedy and theme offended an audience whose judgement was based upon a rigid code of decency and a sentimental criterion of drama. Not only All's Well suffered from that judgement. A clear warning was sounded for the theatrical world in the Examiner's summary of Charles Kemble's season at Covent Garden: 'The New Theatre closed on Tuesday last after a season more degrading to the views of the Managers and the indulgence of the public, than has been known for many years.'

The play was next presented on 23 May 1821 at Bath. It may have been suggested by Mrs. Weston, who had played the Countess in the 1811 performance and now repeated the role. Genest praised the management for reviving All's Well but commented that the play 'has rarely proved attractive—it was acted on this evening in a respectable manner—Mrs. Weston was everything that could be wished' (ix. 131-2). What is intriguing about the production is that Genest himself apparently prepared the prompt-book which he based upon the 1793 Kemble rather than the 1811 edition. In the prompt-book manuscript notes include stage directions, call signals, lighting effects, change of costumes, changes in act divisions, time of production, and the initials of the Bath cast pencilled next to the appropriate character in Kemble's dramatis personae. The prompt-book appears to be unique among Genest's theatrical interests.

If Kemble's adaptation had not sufficiently purified All's Well for nineteenth-century audiences, still the play was written by Shakespeare, and the Romantic veneration of his genius would not permit the play to die. If the play was defective, then revitalize it with healthy tissue grafted from the Shakespearian corpus! Cover the blemishes with 'beauties' from other plays; inject song and dance into its veins! Thus, on 11 October 1832, The Times and the Theatrical Observer posted advertisements for a performance of All's Well that Ends Well as an opera. The notice in the Theatrical Observer boasted inaccurately, 'It has, since the death of Garrick, been almost entirely laid on the shelf, it having been acted at Drury Lane only twice in 1793, and once at Covent Garden in 1807.' The critic for the Court Journal [13 October, 1832], who had not yet seen the performance, wrote enthusiastically:

The comedy of All's Well that Ends Well has been arranged for representation at Covent Garden by the most successful of modern dramatists, Frederick Reynolds. The music introduced … does not interfere with the plot or leading characters of the play; among which Parolles is to be personated by Jones, and is likely to form a pendant to his unique delineation of Mercutio.

The play was performed on 12 October 1832. Despite the absurdity of the attempt, the production does have importance for the stage history of All's Well. The attempt, of course, shows the attitude of the age to the play, but the purpose of the adaptation has wider significance. Frederick Reynolds, the arranger, strove to blend the comic with sentimental elements against a background of romantic fairy-tale. He is the first of several producers who adopted this approach in their productions of the play. He purged the play of all 'bitter' plot machinations, realistic character motivations, offensive dialogue, and farce. To reinforce the sentimental and comic, Laporte, the manager, engaged the celebrated Miss Inverarity to act (and to sing) the role of Helena and induced the famous actor Jones to return to the stage after six years' absence to play Parolles. To create a background of fairy-tale, Oberon, Robin Goodfellow, and a chorus of fairies were whisked from A Midsummer Night's Dream and dropped into the opera. To lighten the 'dark' motives of the original and to replace offensive lines, songs were composed from verses in the sonnets, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Love's Labour's Lost, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Twelfth Night. We can create a rather vivid image of the production if we imagine Bertram singing 'Love is a smoke …' (R & J, I. i. 196-200); Helena intoning mournfully, 'I am St. Jacques' Pilgrim … ' [All's Well, III. iv. 4-17]; and the entire chorus accompanied by Helena, Diana, the Astringer, and Falconers (!) bursting into 'If music be the food of love …' (77V, I. i. 1-5).

The critic for the Theatrical Observer was momentarily deceived. On 13 October, the day following the performance, he gave a brief summary of the plot (since the play 'as an acting Drama' is unknown to the 'present race of playgoers'), praised the loveliness and singing ability of Miss Inverarity, and concluded:

The Play has been got up with great care, and was on the whole well acted; its announcement for Tuesday [October 16th] was hailed with considerable applause, mixed with hisses.

In justice to the critic, he did condemn a masque in the first act as unbearable. Upon reflection, however, his entire view hardened. On 17 October he wrote:

We know not to whom the merit of having selected this play for revival belongs, but this we do know, that it shews extreme ignorance of the taste of the town, on the part of the person choosing it, for though the original Comedy contains some beautiful poetry and several cleverly drawn characters, the plot is in itself so objectionable to modern refinement, that it has long been acknowledged not to be fit for representation. … It has been said the play was got up almost expressly for Jones, if so, that was an error, for that lively comedian does not appear to advantage as Parolles; he lacks humour for the part, and in vain tries to make up for the deficiency, by blustering and swagger.

We might suspect that a moral wave of wrath against All's Well even in this purified form prompted the reversal of the critic's evaluation. For the other major reviews follow the same pattern. The Times of 13 October, with some objectivity, ascribed part of the blame to the age: 'It has, however, long been felt, that with reference to the taste of the times in which we live, it is not an acting play.' The reviewer also notes the dilemma of any producer of the play, 'To leave out all that makes it unfit for representation would be to leave a little behind', and he regrets 'that the scissors of the adapter have been so liberally applied' to Parolles. But such regrets were not the sentiments of the majority of the reviewers. More typical is an attack in the Court Journal [(20 October 1832)] which laid All's Well to rest for twenty years. Because it is representative of critical opinion and indicative of the fate of the play in any alteration, I quote extensively from it:

Miserable blunders in taste and feeling are not always miserable failures in effect; but the revival, or adaptation, or alteration, or what you will, of All's Well that Ends Well, is signally as it ought to be in this particular. The revival at all, at this time of day, of the only play of Shakespeare that is really exceptionable in its moral tone and tendency, is a sufficient blunder; to unite that play in a forced marriage with the most touchingly pure, innocent, and pastoral, and at the same time most exquisitely and exclusively poetical, and most divinely human and beautiful, of all the same writer's plays, A Mid-summer Night's Dream, was a still further stretch of that art of doing wrong, in which some people so remarkably excel;—and to reach the climax of ill-doing, nothing was needed but to set the divine verses of Shakespeare to that peculiar class of musical composition which may be taught as readily as 'reading, writing, and the use of the globes.'

That all this has been the work of so experienced and once popular a dramatist as Mr. Reynolds, we cannot persuade ourselves; … Conceive of an enquiring foreigner hastening to witness and judge of the All's Well that Ends Well of Shakespeare and listening to the farrago of mingled dullness and indecency presented to him by Mr. Laporte! What must be his impressions of us, and of our idol bard?

There are few instances, I think, when the history of the stage criticism of a play acts as such a valid documentary of the ethical and sociological attitudes of English culture. To the interest in sentimental melodrama, to the objections to broad comedy, to the refinement of moral taste, we may add a growing nationalistic pride as characteristic of this period of the nineteenth century. The impression which this production gives the 'enquiring foreigner' is insulting to England. With All's Well considered as an affront to each of these attitudes, only a daring manager would risk a new production. Until the last decade of the century, only one manager dared that risk—Samuel Phelps.

Samuel Phelps revived the play at his theatre, Sadler's Wells, on 1 September 1852, twenty years after the operatic version. It was daring, and the press emphasized the risk. The issue of 4 September of the Illustrated London News reported, 'The mere announcement was calculated to excite great curiosity. It is one of those perilous adventures which, on this stage, have furnished the most remarkable successes'. The Critic [(15 September 1852)] called it 'a bold experiment: … Four times has this comedy been reproduced, and four times has it fallen'. But such risks were common to Phelps, whom John Bull [(4 September 1852)] described as 'a diligent laborer in the vineyard of old plays'. His reputation in the theatrical world of London is delineated in a review of The Times [(2 September 1852)]:

At any other theatre besides Sadler's Well, we should be surprised to see a revival of All's Well that Ends Well, but the Islington establishment is a sort of museum for the exhibition of dramatic curiosities, and we have no more right to be astounded at finding some Elizabethan crudity within its precincts than at finding a Buddhist idol in a missionary collection.

And the Spectator [(4 September 1852)] shifts the image somewhat to describe the particular audience which attended Sadler's Wells:

There we have a public soundly educated in the faith that the Elizabethan fountain is all of pure if not medicinal water, and that the manager's judgment is infallible. A piece that is odd or dull beyond the ordinary level no more startles the genuine Islingtonian, than an extraordinary miracle in the Romish Church disturbs the devotion of the faithful.

Despite the reputation of Phelps and the 'cultivated tolerance' of his audience, the risk remained in presenting a play whose plot was universally condemned. In the view of the Athenaeum [(4 September 1852)], 'The rude nature of the plot has banished this play … from the modern stage. The manners represented are exceedingly gross'. The Critic thought the plot so indecent that it should not be introduced to any modern audience and concluded that, if All's Well were the work of a contemporary dramatist, 'it would have been hissed off the stage on the first night of its production'. The Times attacked the plot as 'indelicate, even beyond the limits usually conceded to Elizabethan dramatists'. Furthermore,

If a young lady were to ask a gentleman to give her some notion of it, the latter would be given at once to a nonplus, unless he took refuge in the evasive reply that it resembled the episode of Angelo and Mariana, in Measure for Measure.

Phelps attempted to forestall such objections to his production of All's Well by three methods: the expurgation of the text, the refinement of his heroine, and an extremely dignified style. In all probability, he used the Kemble text. If he did not, he at least made the same concessions to the taste of the audience. He eliminated the bed-trick and the preliminary demand for the conception of Bertram's child; he omitted offensive lines. The Times commented, 'The offensive peculiarities are kept so far in the background that nothing is left to shock the ordinary spectator.' In spite of the considerable weeding in the text, Phelps did not succeed in smoothing the moral irritations of the press. The Critic felt the plot to be so offensive that the play could never meet with success. Bell's Weekly Messenger [(4 September 1852)] expressed a similar belief, 'But no amount of cutting or transposition can eradicate the main idea, which crops up at every turn, and in every scene. John Bull termed it 'the most utterly hopeless' of all Phelps's revivals because the plot was not a fit subject in female society, nor could the play, 'alter it as you will, be made presentable to an audience of which decent females form a portion'.

But if Phelps did not forestall criticism with his expurgated text, he was more successful with his other methods. In these instances, he was aided by the taste of his audience. Miss Cooper, his choice for Helena, played the role with the modesty of a heroine so pleasing to the age. Bell's Weekly Messenger reported that 'genuine outbursts of applause' interrupted her characterization which was marked by 'great delicacy, feeling and effect'. The Athenaeum had high praise for the sentiment of Helena and the Countess, and the grace with which it was expressed:

There is much natural refinement in the persons of Helena and the Countess. The purity of these two characters sheds an influence over the entire drama, and breathes about it a poetic atmosphere. The success of the present representation must in a great measure be referred to the delicate and efficient manner in which these parts were impersonated by Miss Cooper and Mrs. Ternan.

The sentiment was accentuated by a style unusual in its formality and dignity. It was achieved both by the staging, 'picturesque' in its decorum, and by the ceremonial delivery of dialogue:

The whole drama had evidently been carefully rehearsed,—and a calm, quiet, and dignified tone prescribed to the different elocutionists. The parts were rather spoken than acted, and an air of polite reserve appeared to have been imposed on all the actors, save one [Parolles].

If such polite reserve and decorum glossed over the unseemly details of the plot, if it created an aura around the 'loveliest character' of Shakespeare, by deliberate contrast it brought out the indecorous conduct of Parolles. Despite the predominant interest in romance, the contrast partially restored Parolles to the glory of the Woodward era. Phelps was so successful in the part that critics unanimously predicted that it would be regarded as one of his best impersonations. Typical of the praise and illustrative of Phelps's method is the review in the Illustrated London News:

The feature of the evening was the Parolles of Mr. Phelps, whose nervous temperament well expressed the comic uneasiness of the braggart, whose tongue outruns his thoughts and deeds, even sometimes its words, which it has to borrow from others' mouths. The continual propelling of the arms was as curious as it was artistic and provocative of mirth. In the affair of the drum he was admirable; and, in the scene of the exposure, acted with an aptitude which realised the situation most thoroughly.

But the Parolles of Phelps was not the Parolles of Woodward. Against the background of romantic melodrama and before an audience of inflexible ethical standards, farcical jauntiness was transformed into 'empty vaunting' and the will to live into 'abject servility'. The difference in portrayals is indicated in a remark by F. G. Tomlins, who said of Phelps's performance, 'that he would rather it had had a little more of the Falstaff in it and less of the Pistol' [quoted in W. May Phelps and John Forbes-Robertson, The Life and Life-Work of Samuel Phelps, 1886]. The arm-swinging poltroon does suggest the ranting of Pistol in the tavern, and Pistol's exit before the sword of Falstaff has the same smack of degradation that we find in Phelps's exposure scene. 'The picture of the coward turned traitor was complete. The mental prostration of the culptrit was fearfully true. There are touches in this dramatic portrait which are eminently Shakespearean' [Athenaeum (4 September 1852)]. This 'dramatic portrait' is not the comic interpretation of Woodward.

The enthusiastic reception of the first-night audience for this tempered version of All's Well insured a moderately successful run. The play was performed eleven times during the 1852-3 season. Critics had equal praise for the performers and the careful detail of the production. The Times concluded: 'The applause of the audience, which was bestowed on the revival of the piece last night, showed that the manager's exertions had not been in vain.' The entire cast was praised by Bell's Weekly Messenger. After commending the delicacy and feeling of Helena and the cleverness of Parolles, the reviewer wrote:

Mr. Bennett, as the King, was emphatic and forcible. Mr. Barrett, as Lafeu, was characteristic and pointed. Mr. Mellon was judicious in the little he had to do as the Steward. Mr. Lewis Ball was quaint and pointed as the Clown. Mr. F. Robinson, as Bertram, rather under-acted the violent young Count. Mrs. Ternan, as the Countess, was sensible and lady-like; and Mrs. Marston, as ever, clever and characteristic in the old Widow of Florence. Miss Bassano gave a spirited emphasis to the speeches of Diana.

We might assume that, with concessions to the taste of his audience, with the meticulous attention given to the details of production, with the general capability of the cast, with the 'incessant roars of laughter' [The Times (2 September 1852)] for the modified buffoonery of Parolles, Phelps had at last lifted the tag, 'unfortunate comedy', from the play. Indeed, the drama critic of the Illustrated London News assumed just that, for he called this version 'one of the most pleasing of plays'. He thought that 'the success of this experiment will, no doubt, give rise to amended criticism on this play, the elements of which have been much mistaken'.

But the plot of All's Well, so universally condemned in all the reviews and so offensive to the audience in spite of the Phelps purgations, could hardly win approval in the Victorian Age as the basis for 'one of the most pleasing of plays'. And although an 'amended criticism' had already begun a defence of 'elements' of the play among Shakespearian scholars, only Gervinus, a German critic whose pronouncements had little effect upon the contemporary English stage, defended All's Well in the theatre. Scholars of the mid century were expressing guarded praise for the particular aspects—the loveliness of Helena, the realism of Bertram, the lofty theme of the supernatural, the social theme, the humour of the Clown, the soft regality of the Countess—but these disparate elements lacked a catalyst which might persuade a manager to undertake another risky production. After the qualified success of the 1852-3 season, Phelps dropped the play from his repertory, and it was not produced again until 1895. Rather than the hopeful promise offered by the Illustrated London News, All's Well finally fell before the verdict of the aptly titled John Bull, which dismissed this 'most utterly hopeless' revival:

The play is bad. Bertram, the hero of the piece, exhibited as a preux Chevalier, and made the chief object of interest, is a sneaking, paltry, odious scoundrel whose whole character can inspire nothing but disgust; and Helena, the heroine, is a love-sick fool, whose affection is wholly irrational, and therefore can inspire no sympathy. The plot, too, [already described in the review as grossly indelicate] is in the highest degree confused and incoherent.

Not only does the review reflect the opinion of the early Victorian audience, but it foreshadows a new objection to the heroine—Helena—the love-sick fool. As the century turned slowly from romanticism to realism, the 'wholly irrational' love of Helena offered a new target to the critics of the 'unfortunate comedy'.

On 22 and 24 January 1895, All's Well was presented for only the fourth time in the nineteenth century on the London stage. The Irving Dramatic Club produced a poor version which revealed a continuing concern for moral taste and an increasingly realistic approach among the critics. The expurgation failed to please, for 'the text had been so carefully bowdlerised for the Irving Club that the story would scarcely have been comprehensible to any one who did not know it beforehand' [Pall Mall Budget (31 January 1895)]. The play itself failed to please, for the new mood of the critics condemned Helena as an adventuress whose actions, if done by a man, would brand him a 'villain of the deepest dye'. By the 1890s, the hero and heroine of the early nineteenth-century sentimental romance had been stripped of their fantasy to expose the base snobbery of Bertram and the cunning boldness of Helena. The production, however, had one happy effect; it prompted Shaw's famous review of All's Well [in Saturday Review (2 February 1895)].

If the critics now chose to evaluate characters and plot realistically, then a powerful voice boomed out a defence of All's Well even from that point of view. Shaw first attacked the text and the tampering with the simplicity of the original setting:

The passage of the Florentine army beneath the walls of the city was managed in the manner of the end of the first act of Robertson's Ours, the widow and the girls looking out of their sitting-room window, whilst a few of the band gave a precarious selection from the orchestral parts of Berlioz's version of the Rackoczy March. The dresses were the usual fancy ball odds and ends, Helena especially distinguishing herself by playing the first scene partly in the costume of Hamlet and partly in that of a waitress in an Aerated Bread shop, set off by a monstrous auburn wig which could by no stretch of imagination be taken for her own hair. Briefly, the whole play was vivisected, and the fragments mutilated, for the sake of accessories which were in every particular silly and ridiculous.

From his analysis of the performances emerge his interpretations of the original characters and his opinion of the play:

The cool young woman, with a superior understanding, excellent manners, and a habit of reciting Shakespeare, presented before us by Miss Olive Kennett, could not conceivably have been even Helena's thirty-second cousin. Miss Lena Heinekey, with the most beautiful old woman's part ever written in her hands, discovered none of its wonderfully pleasant good sense, humanity, and originality: she grieved stagily all through in the manner of the Duchess of York in Cibber's Richard HI. Mr. Lewin-Mannering did not for any instant make it possible to believe that Parolles was a real person to him … Lafeu is hardly a part that can be acted: it comes right if the right man is available: if not, no acting can conceal the makeshift. Mr. Herbert Everitt was not the right man; but he made the best of it. The clown was evidently willing to relish his own humor if only he could have seen it; but there are few actors who would not have gone that far. Bertram (Mr. Patrick Munro), if not the most intelligent of Bertrams, played the love scene with Diana with some passion … But I should not like to see another such performance of All's Well or any other play that is equally rooted in my deeper affections.

For Shaw, the merit of Shakespeare's play lay in its realism, in its Ibsen-like elements:

All's Well that Ends Well stands out artistically by the sovereign charm of the young Helena and the old Countess of Rousillon, and intellectually by the experiment, repeated nearly three hundred years later in A Doll's House, of making the hero a perfectly ordinary young man, whose unimaginative prejudices and selfish conventionality make him out a very mean figure in the atmosphere created by the nobler nature of his wife.

Helena is neither the sentimental heroine of melodrama, nor the aggressive adventuress of realistic satire, nor the implausible Griselda of fairy-tale. She is the enlightened modern woman, and Shaw concluded, 'Few living actresses could throw themselves into the sustained transport of exquisite tenderness and impulsive courage which makes poetry the natural speech of Helena.' The challenge was there for the twentieth-century actress.

Ralph Berry with Konrad Swinarski (interview date 1974)

SOURCE: An interview in On Directing Shakespeare: Interviews with Contemporary Directors, Hamish Hamilton, 1989, pp. 42-59.

[In the following interview, Berry discusses with the Polish director Konrad Swinarski the 1971 staging of All's Well That Ends Well at the Teatr Stary, Krakow.]

[Berry]: I'd like to ask you first, and very generally, why you choose to direct Shakespeare.

[Swinarski]: I think it was a coincidence in the beginning. I was asked to do a Shakespeare play in West Germany and I did Twelfth Night, and then I got more and more interested in Shakespeare. The productions I've done here, in Poland, a All's Well That Ends Well and A Midsummer Night's Dream. I did them for many reasons. It was the third time I'd done All's Well. I'd done it once in West Germany and it was not really understood. I did it a second time in Scandinavia, in Finland, and I considered that it was still not understood. I went on working on it and did it for the third time in Poland; and then, suddenly, it was somehow understood. So my version of this play, or my vision of this play, belongs to this country and this people. I've discussed it with the actors here, and I could see the reactions of the audience. I've discovered that Shakespearian, interpretation consists not only of reading Shakespeare, but means a kind of society that understands you and can accept this kind of interpretation, let's say a black interpretation of a Shakespeare comedy … Why did I choose this play? Because All's Well had its own tradition in our history of the theatre, and it was interpreted as a kind of fairy tale for years and has never been done since the war. It was my private interest to discover the play once more from the beginning, in all its depth and double meanings, and to produce it for an audience that could pick up all the double meanings of this kind of so-called black comedy.

If I understand you correctly, then, you are saying that it is not so much a matter of Shakespeare as a general playwright that interests you, it is rather the fact of certain plays by Shakespeare that seem to you at a given time strikingly relevant to the society that you have in mind.

No, that's not true, because what you do and how you do it depend on the immediate situation. Of course many other Shakespeare plays could be done here at the same time, but I just picked up All's Well and A Midsummer Night's Dream because I could cast the plays the way I wanted them. I just don't have the actors to do Shakespeare's tragedies here, otherwise I would have done them. I think that I could do other Shakespearian productions in Warsaw, where there are so many theatres, but you never find an entirely satisfactory cast in one theatre; you have the Hamlet in one theatre and then you have another twenty-two theatres to find the King.

Could you tell me more about All's Well and the reasons, apart naturally from the accidents of casting, that induced you to put it on?

Look, I think that life is not very funny, but I like to play with it, and I picked on this kind of comedy because I think it is a picture of a world that is very similar to the world I'm living in and collaborating with; and I'm trying to show its face.

How did you go about the business of preparing All's Well for the stage?

I think I read this play first in a very simple way, I mean comparing it with out conditions. Maybe it's not so simple, but it's a useful way of discovering all the human relationships in the play. Of course, for us a court is a court; in spite of being a socialistic country we have a feudal society, which means that the Court in our country is a kind of power which finally determines what is going on between people. And then I read in a Polish review from the early twentieth or late nineteenth century that it's a very dirty play that should never have been printed; the translator said that he respected Shakespeare so much that he has translated this kind of dirty play only because of his respect for Shakespeare, not for the moral sense of the play. I think it's an edition of 1897 (in Poland) and it fascinated me, what the translator called moral and what he called immoral in the play. And then I went on picking up all the 'immoral' things in that play. For that translator, no one was a positive person, there is no happy ending, and he discovered Shakespeare's plan with the title All's Well That Ends Well. Nothing ends well in this play, but he was not going to elaborate this idea, he simply gave his message to the audience, which one could read or not. The translator does it for Shakespeare, but he doesn't want to destroy people's vision of that wonderful poet. And that was somehow the next point I started with. Now, all the human relationships: the first thing I discovered is that the whole story between Bertram and Parolles is really a homosexual story, which is based on the intrigue of Lafeu to get Parolles for himself, to deliver Bertram from Parolles, and to be useful to the King in this way while suiting his own interests. And in this play, you have scenes where you discover all the relationships. In the first rehearsal, I suddenly discovered that the final scene works perfectly if you have a kind of tableau on stage, who is with whom, who is against whom, so that the only possible solution is for Parolles to be together with Lafeu for him to speak the last lines about the handkerchief, and 'Wait on me home, I'll make sport with thee.' Diana is together with her mother, Helena is with Bertram, and in between are the King and the Countess who are managing the whole business concerning the two young people, having their own interests to pursue. It was not easy to judge from the beginning if the whole set of relationships could be brought into a final scene on stage, but suddenly I realised that there must have been a rule governing the way people were placed on stage - where they were standing, what they were telling, in order to indicate that their relationship has been, let's say, arranged in the right way.

How, then, did you depict theatrically the final positions in the relationshipsto take the main point first, how do you see the future as between Bertram and Helena?

I think it's obvious—she's pregnant by him, but she's not finding the happiness she was looking for. She has discovered that the desire to have him, to conquer him, is futile because in the end he will not be her husband really, merely a figure. Even though she's pregnant by him, she realises that he is not the main point and that what she has won is a part of a human career, but not a part of a human being.

And how did you project this on stage?

It is through the last entrance, when she enters the Court and she sees how Bertram is lying to the King in order to remain in good standing with him, which means that he cares much more for his future career than he cares for human feelings. At this moment she gives up, because she sees it has nothing to do with human feelings, it has all been a game in order to go on making a career in the Court before the King.

So the actress displays quite clearly her feelings that she has lost, essentially.

I tried to help her, because when she appears on stage being pregnant, let's say eight months gone, the Countess comes close to her and she immediately picks up her belly. It is a young human being discovering the world that older people prepare for something other than the fulfilment of young lives and young love. The older generation is fulfilling its life through renewing the family, via the son.

This is of course an exceptionally difficult play. From what you have said it seems that your Bertram is a rather unattractive young man and you do not try to conceal this.

No, he's not unattractive, but he is a young man who in the beginning is somehow faithful to his friend Parolles, but point by point he is broken by society, which means, in his case, by Lafeu, who wants to draw him away from his friend and make him want to be a good servant to the King. He wants to bring Bertram to a normal life—that is, to marry, have children and be a normal son of a feudal family.

This is a play, too, in which it is vital to assess the direction of the energies, if you like, which are generated by the peripheral figures. I am thinking particularly of the King, the Countess, the Clown, Lafeu and Parolles. How do you see these figures?

So let's start with the King. I think he's somebody who's not very old, but he's old through his knowledge of the world. He knows that everything in this world can be managed in politics. He knows a great deal about war and knows immediately how to handle the war as such. He lets the young people go but he does not let the government participate in the war. He knows that the young people need the war as a kind of experience, but on the other hand he knows that the government doesn't have to participate officially. He knows all the feudal moves: when he writes a letter to the Duke of Florence and sends it through the French lords, it's a very diplomatic letter, saying I'm not going to oppose you or abandon you, but I'm supporting you only with young people, not with the state power. The young people are very willing to fight, because they are young enough not to know what they are doing; all they care about is the next year at Court and they can make their career only through fighting. It is their only opportunity. Or look at the brothers Dumain, who collaborate with the Court as in effect official spies—in the diplomatic service.

But back to the King: I think that he understands the world and that he doesn't want to direct the government, he wants much more to direct life. And then Helena comes, who belongs to a different kind of society and is a kind of bourgeois daughter. The physician, her father, the only one he believed in, is somebody he remembers with gratitude. And there are two reasons for him to help Helena. First of all, he does not believe in the distinctions between classes and the whole story about blood in the original sources is a story of human relationships out of class. And he respects new life as being something vital, as bringing society further on to a new stage. He treats Bertram as being the son of a friend. There is nothing told explicitly about the connection between Bertram's father and the King, but anyhow it must have been a very deep human connection, for he wants to make out of Bertram someone who could prolong the memory of his connection with his father, whatever it was.

He looks on Bertram as someone who needs to grow up but has sufficient life-force to prolong the family. I think he knows everything about the relationship between Parolles and Bertram: there are no straight lines about that, but when you make it clear on the stage it is apparent enough. The one who helps him is Lafeu. Lafeu is a kind of Minister of Interior Affairs and maybe more, because they have something in common. When Lafeu enters the scene (II, i) they talk about, let's say, mental and sexual relationships, and Lafeu tries to introduce Helena to the King. When he mentions the story of Pandaras ('I am Cressid's uncle/That dare leave two together' [II. i. 97-8]), I think that they understand one another very well. Now the King gives Helena her chance and he wants to find out what is going to happen. Of course it has to be arranged on the stage in a particular way and I have edited the scene showing how Helena cures the King; she does a kind of massage.

Did you depict the massage as having specifically sexual overtones?

No, like every massage it was half sexual! It was only half, but anyhow the King suddenly discovers that he can move and Helena brings him to the point when he gets up—she helps him to stand up. It continues like this: she starts to walk with him, then all of a sudden she starts dancing with him, counting the steps, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, then it turns into a kind of court dance with the whole cast. Naturally, I supported it with music, the musicians who belong to the Court suddenly arrive on stage and are terribly surprised when the King gets up, and they start to play. It's a big surprise for the rest of the Court too (as well as for Lafeu and Bertram); they immediately appear and see the King moving. But that is not the end of the King's story. In the fifth act, when he sees what he has accomplished as the new director of life, trying to find happiness for Bertram and for Helena, he discovers that his direction is completely false, that Bertram cares only for his career, while Helena discovers that she is only a point in a game which does not bring young people together in love. She has been used. And the King goes on playing in this comedy, but he knows that he has not created happiness, he has created merely a new misunderstanding in human relationships. In his Epilogue, he asks for applause, and is deeply in doubt about whether a human being can rule the country and can rule life. He asks the audience through their applause to help the life that is directed by a human being. And at the end it must be played in such a way that he visibly doubts this possibility of a human being creating and ruling his own life.

It seems to me that the King must have been the central figure in your production and that the King expresses the final position that you wish the entire production to take.

Not exactly, I wouldn't say that: the King is very important, but I think the truth lies between the characters, because Lafeu looking at the King could still express his opinion and the Countess could express her opinion of the King's wishes in the same way. The King has the Epilogue and must therefore be the last person to speak. But we went on with a whole final scene where we played the King's desire to bring the people together, and he's giving up the hope of Diana and her mother to make a career in the Court, the bitter situation of Parolles coming together with Lafeu and Lafeu, shall we say, being the winner of the story. And the bitter situation of Helena and Bertram—they know everything about themselves and about each other, but they go on playing the game in order to serve the King. It was done in a kind of pantomime, they were all dancing together so it could be shown; and in the end the fool Lavache is left smiling over the whole situation, which through his experience he has known in advance and almost from the beginning of the play.

Lavache, then, is above all the man who knows.

Yes: he's very old, but he still doesn't know everything. I wouldn't say he knows from the beginning of the play what's going to happen. He knows every human relationship, between the younger people as well as the older ones. And of course he's danced with the Countess and he plays a game with her. She goes on playing a game with Lavache to satisfy herself—she is of an age where to be desired is much more than to be bedded. Lavache has a real human feeling for the Countess and would like to have a relationship with her, but he plays the game that he is allowed to play. He cannot come too close, because in the feudal sense he is not a friend of hers, he serves her.

He's a surrogate courtier.

Yes, but in the feudal situation he cannot come too close. And of course you can play this game out (possible at that time), so that he even puts his hand under her skirt, where-upon she tells the offender he is going too far, because she would have to give up her position as Countess compared to a man from the lowest social stratum. But he knows the world and is experienced enough to go on playing that game. He knows that human life is based mostly on sexual relations, something which he expresses through many things in the play, and he is telling it to the Countess; she knows it but cannot accept it. He knows about the relationship between Bertram and Helena, and about the relationship between Bertram and Parolles, and exactly what Lafeu wants; and he knows about the letters the Countess writes, but his basic sentence is about the unfulfilled sexual relations between human beings. That's why he is wise; that's what he cracks jokes about and everybody understands it has a double meaning. He really understands most of the human relations in the play.

So, in a play that seems to be concerned primarily with social values, the Clown is the most explicit representative of the idea that what matters most in human affairs is sex.

Yes: he knows it, and he knows also what can cover sex and cause people to fight with each other, fight with themselves, to try to maintain their social position, or ladder, or career. He knows that sex can be the motor, the first movement, but he knows also the relativity of straight sex in life. He knows all the circumstances, he knows what real love is and what corrupted love is.

What, overall, is your view of All's Well?

Look, I think when I compare this play with life here in my country, it's a kind of story, it might even sound a fantastic story which has a lot of black …


Not only black humour, it has a lot of humour but it has finally undefined black definition. Its statement is that human nature cannot be ruled by human nature, that happiness in life cannot be solved by a good King, that war is a kind of human experience which can be very cruel; but finally all the people agree to go on lying about the world that they live in, making a compromise, making a horrible compromise, in order for life to go on in spite of being dirty, in spite of being undefined, and that is something that compared to the conditions I have lived in is a kind of realistic theatre.

J. L. Styan (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Romance or Realism?," in Shakespeare in Performance: All's Well That Ends Well, Manchester University Press, 1984, pp. 1-33.

[In the excerpt below, Styan examines the polarisation in the stage history of All's Well That Ends Well between romantic and realistic approaches to the narrative. The critic further discusses the handling of such issues as the characterization of Helena, Bertram, and Parolles and the conflict between youth and age.]

Romance or realism?

There will, of course, never be a definitive way to present the play, and it is helpful to recognise the range of styles seen in production. In its comparatively short life-span, all of the play's dramatic and theatrical ingredients have been perceived differently, whether setting, character, costume, mood or atmosphere. The play has been a vehicle for a tale of romantic love or for a more realistic psychological study, a polarisation usefully advanced by Joseph Price in his book [The Unfortunate Comedy, 1968] No matter whether the emphasis was on woman's role in society, honour between men and women, the sexual double standard, the effects of class differences or the conflicting view-points of youth and age, it could be treated either romantically or realistically. A realistic production tends to see Bertram as his own man and honest according to his lights, and Helena as less maidenly, a woman prepared to break the conventions of courtship and female modesty. The romantic view finds Bertram at fault, but worthy of redemption, and implicitly applauds the commitment and steadfastness of Helena's love as it endures all vicissitudes.

For many years the romantic interpretation dictated the decoration of the stage, its scenery and costumes, probably in response to the scholarship which identified the play's sources as those of the folk-tale. In Samuel Phelps's production at Sadler's Wells in 1852-3, a 'picturesque' presentation made it possible for John Bull to find Helena's 'a love-sick fool' doting on a 'scoundrel' (4 September 1852). Bridges-Adams's Bertram of 1922, Maurice Colbourne, looked 'exactly like an armoured knight from a Burne-Jones window—a figure too beautiful to be taken seriously' (The Birmingham Mail, 24 April). Michael Benthall's 1953 production at Edinburgh and the Old Vic went as far in this direction as the mirthlessness of Helena's story would allow, setting the stage with Osbert Lancaster's pretty castellations and flowery gardens, brightly coloured like a child's picture-book. Encouraged by the element of fantasy in the plot, Benthall's Countess (Fay Compton) appeared like an ancient crone, and the King of France (Laurence Hardy) wore his crown awry and had comic fainting fits. To match Claire Bloom's lovely blonde Helena, John Neville's Bertram was a debonair young rascal whose gaiety made seduction fun.

By contrast, the most solemnly realistic setting yet seen was that of David Myerscough-Jones for television in 1981. It suited the medium well. Rousillon and Paris were depicted after the fashion of a warm seventeenth-century painting by Vermeer, suggesting a quiet domestic interior or a simple royal antechamber, with a Dutch kitchen for the Florentine Widow and a Dutch alehouse for the soldiery on campaign. Reviewing the production for Drama, Michael Ratcliffe ransacked the Caravaggiesque paintings of Holland and France for comparisons ('glowing with light and rich in darkness'): Pieter de Hooch and Georges de la Tour ('all busy women's heads against candle-light'), the great burgher-groups of Rembrandt and Hals for the courtiers round the King's bed, and 'Celia Johnson's delectable Countess, a lovely wise old face framed by a white ruff, was Margareta van Tripp sprung to life'. … The camera found sly and unusual perspectives, and looked intimately through real doorways and windows. Mirrors gave extra depth to the scene, so that Rousillon became a labyrinth of rooms and corridors. Faces caught in closeup, and the glow of flickering firelight emphasised the personal relationships between members of the family, suggested their unspoken thoughts and lent a shadowy realism to the scene.

The Guthrie productions seemed to have it both ways. Working with the impersonal wooden columns and steps of the architectural stage at Stratford, Ontario, he and his designer, Tanya Moiseiwitsch, chose the fin de siècle of Edwardian England, the Kaiser's Germany and Merry Widow Paris, the twilight years before the Great War. The period was not so modern as to deny the play its timelessness, and just modern enough to take it out of the category of a costume piece. Alec Guinness as the King was elegant in a quilted dressing-gown, pushed in a wheelchair and surrounded by a dashing court of exquisitely turned-out young men in dinner dress or formal regimentals, a court that was romantic and at the same time threatened. The world of Renaissance honour translated well into one of twentieth-century monocles and boiled-shirt formality, and Guthrie's characters were real people conscious of class and propriety. Helena (Irene Worth in Canada and Zoe Caldwell at Stratford-upon-Avon) was first seen in austere black, her hair done in a bun, suggesting the urgency and seriousness of the part: she was the Shavian new woman.

The theatre had waited half a century to take up Bernard Shaw's idea of Helena's modernity as a 'lady doctor' not too squeamish to cure a fistula. In Our Theatres in the Nineties, he reported that he had seen only a travesty of the play when it was produced by the Irving Dramatic Club at St George's Hall in 1895, a production which had omitted anything that might offend: 'the whole play was vivisected, and the fragments mutilated' (vol. I, p. 29). Shaw wrote of 'the exquisite tenderness and impulsive courage' with which Helena replaced the patience of a medieval Griselda, and she seemed to speak for the feminist cause. She is of course too rich in feeling to be a Shavian predator, for her chief thought when Bertram goes to war is for his safety; but Shaw was looking for the more incisive, sweet-and-sour mixture found in the play.

This flavour was tested again in Noël Willman's production of 1955. In spite of the peacock silks and slashes, and the fine white lace collars of Mariano Andreu's Louis XIII costumes, this stately production newly emphasised the sexual issues and social pressures in the play, presenting a solemn Helena in Joyce Redman as a vulnerable middle-class girl in a male environment. More pain was felt by the two Helenas of the Barton productions of 1967 and 1968, Estelle Kohler more brazen in the former and Lynn Farleigh more smitten in the latter. Timothy O'Brien caught a mood of melancholy in the tones of his Caroline costumes and décor, and, confined by the small wooden stage erected on the main stage, the eye took in a less decorative image of the action: in The Birmingham Post J. C. Trewin reported that the director 'let the play speak unhampered in as simple and as gravely dignified a framework as I remember' (2 June 1967). It appeared to belong to no particular place or time, and the scene was set for a stark confrontation between Helena and Bertram, and for an unromantic analysis of sex and class in the explicit spirit of a Strindberg. Peter Lewis of The Daily Mail asked, 'Who needs a wife because she has a magic touch with a fistula?' (2 June 1967).

The Trevor Nunn production of 1981/1982 worked to strike a similar balance between the romantic and the real. Set with much particularity in the Edwardian period, one of the scenes in the play actually suggested a World War I advanced dressing station not far behind the lines as the guns flashed and roared. Yet John Gunter's highly adaptable set, a glass conservatory supported by white pillars and white iron tracery, serving now for a palatial Rousillon in the country, now for a plush club in Paris, now for a Florentine café, managed to capture the twilight atmosphere of that idealised period too, while the nostalgic theme of Guy Woolfenden's Rousillon waltz tune returned repeatedly to hint at memories of the past and dreams of the future. The production thus moved on two levels, identified by Michael Billington in The Guardian Weekly as those of 'a realistic fairytale', a matter of 'pure theatrical alchemy' (29 November 1981).

In these later productions the weight shifted from Bertram's weakness to Helena's strength, and as long as Bertram had no need to be seen in some way heroically, the intensity at the heart of their relationship was felt. In Stratford, Connecticut in 1959, John Houseman had Nancy Wickwire play Helena as an older woman, thus emphasising her tragedy by raising the odds against a successful outcome. In Stratford, Ontario in 1977, also dressed in Louis XIII period, David Jones's anniversary production underlined the realities of war by displaying racks of weapons and equipping the forces of the Duke of Florence with 'sinister black breastplates and plumes', with his officers in 'the sombre furs of a bitter winter campaign' (Roger Warren's words in Shakespeare Survey 31 [1978], p. 145). All this set off the agony of Martha Henry's very particular psychological need for Bertram, and provided a most urgent reading of her part. Only television's Angela Down, drab and unsmiling, was in more pain throughout the play.

Nevertheless, the challenge of style in All's Well cannot be met by giving it over to tragedy, any more than it can be played merely for comedy: the cutting edge comes from whetting the one against the other. The broad, farcical elements which Guthrie's huge comic talent introduced into the Parolles scenes, for example, were in raw contrast with the pathetic story of Helena's unrequited love. These elements surprised and annoyed some by their frivolessness, but they delighted others by expanding the comedy and distancing the action of the whole play. Guthrie encouraged Parolles and the soldiery in a clown act which recalled the antics of Fred Karno's army. Alan Brien, who was strong in disapproval, described the effect in The Spectator:

The Duke of Florence is greeting the French lords who are to fight for him. Mr Guthrie manages to make this an enormous show-piece, fit centre for any Sunday night spectacular at the Palladium. The comic soldiers in baggy shorts, black socks and berets are lined up under a blazing sky by the side of a ruined desert viaduct. The Duke of Florence, a goateed parody of General Smuts, dodders along the Une with his officers falling over him every time he halts to peer at a mysterious medal. When he turns suddenly his sword becomes entangled between the legs of his staff officer. When he tries to make a speech from the top of an observation tower, the microphone gets a fit of metallic coughing. When he attempts to salute the flag, it slides slowly down the post again. (24 April 1959)

It was not that Guthrie saw the play as standing in need of additional comic business, but that the wit present in the original (and the Parolles plot is as outrageous as anything in Shakespearian comedy) should lift the tone of the play and work for a contemporary audience. In The Observer Harold Clurman considered that such Gargantuan clowning served Shakespeare well:

I cannot say which is the more impressive: Guthrie's mockery of the military (modern style) and his kidding of the court, or the atmosphere of glamorous shadow he has created, the opulent disease which seems to hover over the king's council and festivities. The figures at these moments, for all their comic absurdity, are made to appear part of a puppet world soon destined to crumble into dust. (26 April 1959)

As the play moved to its close, the comedy of catching out both Parolles and Bertram made the women of the play appear to redress the imbalance of the sexes and seem more wise than the men. Even the joyful humiliation of Parolles can become pathetic, and when Bertram is thoroughly put down, the irony must strike the audience as nicely tongue-in-cheek. Harold Hobson did not believe that Guthrie surrendered his respect for Shakespeare's rhythms, but mounted

certain phrases of the play, such as the terrible line about the dark house and the detested wife, so that they leap out from the background of his multifarious invention with more than the joy of recognition … Mr Guthrie's elaborate decorations of the text work with the play, and not against it. They do not assail, but reinforce the effects implicit in the words. (The Sunday Times, 26 April 1959)

All's Well is neither Gilbert and Sullivan, nor Ibsen and Strindberg, but mature Shakespearian comedy, in which the painfully human side of the story of Helena's unrequited love and Bertram's inadequacy emerges along with the comedy inherent in their situation.

Sensitive topics

In All's Well the hero does not chase his wife; he runs away from her—a reversal of expectations, and not altogether a pleasant one. Moreover, Shakespeare introduced some provocative changes when he took up William Painter's Palace of Pleasure and its story of Giletta and Beltramo. Giletta was wealthy, but Shakespeare reduced Helena to poverty, making the difference in social status between herself and Bertram more stark. Giletta had many suitors for her hand in marriage, where Helena had none, thus making her seem far more single-minded in the chase. Painter's King of France did not want Giletta to marry Beltramo, considering that she was aiming too high above her rank; Shakespeare had his King order Bertram to marry Helena, thus showing him caught in the trap. When Giletta returned home after curing the King, she managed Beltramo's estate for several months, but Shakespeare had Helena pursue Bertram immediately and reveal herself as a much more determined girl.

The story of the play itself offers a series of moral shocks and challenges to its audience, even the Elizabethans, as a bare summary of the plot reminds us. The orphaned and penurious daughter of a doctor is brought up by a Countess, and has the misfortune of falling in love with her son the Count: the difficulties of the female unable to convey her intimate feelings are immediately apparent, and differences of social class serve only to aggravate them. When the King is known to be dying of a fatal disease, the girl offers to cure him if he will grant her the husband of her choice: can even her skill in medicine excuse such a request in our eyes? Be that as it may, she succeeds in curing the King and chooses the Count for her husband: he must marry her under protest. In return for the trap she set him, he makes an ugly condition of his own: he will not accept her as wife before she gets a ring from his finger and bears him a child—seemingly impossible since he promptly leaves the country. Even granted the provocation, is this any way to treat a wife? Nothing daunted, she follows him in disguise and arranges to sleep with him in place of another girl he intends to seduce: she may be his wife, and therefore taking only what is hers by right, but is this any way to treat a husband? When she conceives the required child, she gives out that she is dead in order to bring her husband home. So he is outwitted, and, confronted by his wife in a suitably pregnant condition, he capitulates. The pair may be presumed to live uncomfortably ever after.

The emphasis in this tale is strongly on 'a woman's place', and All's Well is unusually rich in female parts and all-female scenes. W. W. Lawrence's argument in Shakespeare's Problem Comedies was that early folk-tales which tested female devotion assumed that there was virtue in a woman's single-mindedness. Shaw took a less historical view and found evidence of a very modern treatment of women in the story of Helena and her motives. In Our Theatres in the Nineties he not unexpectedly drew upon Ibsen for a comparison:

Among Shakespeare's earlier plays, All's Well That Ends Well stands out artistically by the sovereign charm of the young Helena and the old Countess of Rousillon, and intellectually by the experiment, repeated nearly three hundred years later in A Doll's House, of making the hero a perfectly ordinary young man, whose unimaginative prejudices and selfish conventionality make him cut a very fine mean figure in the atmosphere created by the nobler nature of his wife. That is what gives a certain plausibility to the otherwise doubtful tradition that Shakespeare did not succeed in getting his play produced. (vol. I, p. 27)

Shaw had found a counterpart for Ibsen's A Doll's House, to which he was also drawn because of 'the ruin and havoc it made among the idols and temples of the idealists' (vol. III, p. 129). Kenneth Muir resists this in part when in Shakespeare's Sources he points out that 'the way Helena releases the King from his promise, her quiet submissiveness when Bertram repudiates her, and her wish to save him from the dangers of war all prevent us from feeling that she is merely a Shavian heroine who hunts down her prey' (p. 101). Nevertheless, it is hard to shake off the idea, once proposed, of a certain correspondence between the Nora/Helmer and the Helena/Bertram relationships.

The role of woman in society is impossible to consider without reference to that of the man, and the role of the wife must be understood by reference to the role of the husband. The double standard, which implies one law for the female and another for the male, is certainly a post-Ibsen concept, but its implications have existed from the beginning. If, as G. Wilson Knight suggests in The Sovereign Flower, honour between the sexes is at the heart of this play, with Helena a 'supreme expression of a woman's love, a humble medium for the divine power' (p. 106), she and Bertram will define such honour. The conventions of behaviour between the sexes display a duality by which men may flout their marriage vows, especially in the name of soldiering, while women must condone their conduct even as it diminishes them. Honour among Elizabethan men is, as Wilson Knight argues, martial; for the women it implies chastity and can never evade the strictures of female propriety. But when Bertram rushes off to the war to save his honour, it seems more as if he does it to save his face.

The so-called 'bed-trick', which here derives from Boccaccio and is used in many Elizabethan plays, raises the issues of the double standard most effectively on the stage. The idea of substituting one woman for another in bed in order to deceive the man may reduce the degree of modern psychological realism established in the characterisation, but in the context of comedy it did not necessarily raise moral eyebrows. In his introduction to his New Arden edition of the play, G. K. Hunter goes so far as to say,

There was little sense among Shakespeare's contemporaries that this was a degrading and unsatisfactory way of getting a husband, either in real life or on the stage. No doubt an age which saw matrimony as a matter of social convenience rather than personal emotion accepted such means of obtaining a husband or wife as a smaller violation of the spirit of marriage than we can today. (p. xliv)

At all events, the bed-trick may at least be seen as a theatrical way of pointing up the male and female roles within the world of the play, and the fact that it works well for comedy need not lessen the importance and interest of the problem of the double standard in the real world of the audience.

The relationship of the sexes is of wide social interest, and yet in life it is finally a personal matter. Drama is ideally suited to explore the relationship, dealing as it must with general issues in terms of the peculiar behaviour of individuals, and in All's Well the distinctions between the male and female role emerge sharply in the realistic mixture of motives found in Helena and Bertram. In this play Shakespeare no more chose to stereotype his principals than he did Troilus and Cressida or Antony and Cleopatra. But if Helena represents the female principle, she also displays an individual subtlety of mind and feeling that can hardly represent all women. It may be that she is, in Milton Shulman's view in The Evening Standard after watching Noël Willman's production in 1955, 'the most ruthless single-minded man-hunter in Shakespeare', but the playwright works to confuse Helena's severest critics. Shulman went on to express the contradiction thus: 'Having created a heroine with the brash moral standards of an ambitious strumpet, Shakespeare proceeds to belie this interpretation in the dialogue. The incongruity between what Helena does and what she says could not be matched by the most cynical politician at election time' (27 April).

Shakespeare also chose to make Helena poor and low-born, and so All's Well is also about the snobbery of one's station in life, a subject only slightly less prickly. It is one designed to emphasise the problems that Helena faces. Yet although the differences in social rank between Helena and Bertram raise barriers between them, her poverty and birth paradoxically enable the play to speculate on the nature of her virtue independently of class. This aspect of the play attracted William Poel in 1920 when he directed it in one of his 'vocal recitals' in the Ethical Church, Bays-water. In William Poel and the Elizabethan Revival, Robert Speaight reported of Poel that 'Just as he had detected a plea for pacificism in Troilus and Cressida, so in All's Well he saw a plea for the removal of class barriers where the affections between men and women were in question' (p. 233). The presence of a restrictive social code which inhibited the expression of love not only appealed to Poel as a cause, but the modernity of the idea seemed to cry out for expression on the post-Ibsen stage. When Nunn set his production in the Edwardian period, he was able to affirm the play's sharp distinctions of class: Helena wore the house keys at her waist while Bertram spent time at the officers' club in Paris. The theme of class was arguably not essential to the play, but it in part explained the unmannerly behaviour of Bertram, and added a fine cutting edge to the image of Helena.

A third, perhaps more subtle, thread runs through the play, and also serves to accentuate the social issues in both individual and general terms. Shaw had remarked on the presence in the play of 'the most beautiful old woman's part ever written', that of the Countess of Rousillon. In performance it is apparent that the youth of the leading characters, Helena, Bertram, Diana and Parolles, is in each case precisely balanced by the greater age of their counterparts, the Countess, the King of France, the Widow of Florence and the old counsellor Lafeu. This distinctive and unusual patterning was early observed by A. W. Schlegel in his Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1808), although he had not seen the play on the stage. In performance the differences in age are vivid and provocative, and have the effect of inviting every member of the audience, whatever his or her age, to see the situation from the alternating perspectives now of youth, now of age, so fashioning a more complete human experience, and adding considerably to the piquancy of the action. The young protagonists of the play learn their lessons by hard experience, while the audience is repeatedly granted an objective view of their thoughts and actions. If Shakespeare makes old age somewhat too reverend for its realistic context, so that it seems too gracious beside the general boorishness of the young as they suffer 'the staggers and the careless lapse / Of youth and ignorance' [II. iii. 163-9], it helps us recognise that young Helena may be able to cure the old King without being able so readily to cure Bertram and herself. Similarly, young Bertram may be a loyal son and faithful subject without knowing how to be a good husband.

The spectrum of a character: Helena

Now that All's Well is being performed more frequently, we are beginning to recognise the range of possible responses to it. The outrageous situation that Shakespeare creates for Helena and Bertram can be seen as cynically amusing or on the edge of tragedy, and today's actors and directors are legitimately searching out those points of dramatic power and interest with which they can reach their audience. Yet if the situation in the play continues unpredictable in its impact, so it is also with the characters. When a character has been committed to paper, it is not a finished creature, since the lines are only the occasion for the actor's interpretation. The text places limitations on his or her work, but it also provides for a spectrum of possibilities for performance, and while the actor may be faithful to the words, what is perceived in the theatre as the 'character' will be variable. Certainly, to judge from the Helenas seen in this century, her role is far from defined.

In the eighteenth century, Helena was played and seen as virtuous and long-suffering. In his Dramatic Miscellanies of 1783, Thomas Davies found that 'the passion of this sweet girl is of the noblest kind' (vol. II, p. 27). In this vein, it was possibly John Philip Kemble's revival of the play at Drury Lane in 1794 that prompted Coleridge to pronounce her Shakespeare's 'loveliest character'. The famous dictum on Helena in this period is Hazlitt's in his Characters of Shakespeare's Plays of 1818: 'The character of Helena is one of great sweetness and delicacy … the most scrupulous nicety of female modesty is not once violated. There is not one thought or action that ought to bring a blush into her cheeks, or that for a moment lessens her in our esteem' … In our own time Wilson Knight in The Sovereign Flower has been the strongest advocate of this view, and sees Helena as 'loving, humble and good', 'the supreme development of Shakespeare's conception of human love' (p. 131). Knight goes on to assert that 'love such as Helena's is, at its best, a great aspiration, and yet one born of humility; in her, pride and humility are unified' (p. 139), and this becomes part of the proposition that she is a divine representative, working miracles by heavenly inspiration, so that 'religious values … cluster round her as the values of war cluster round Bertram' (p. 144).

In this century, some still lean towards the pathos in the part. Benthall's sweetly yearning and impulsively innocent Claire Bloom was a conventionally simple heroine of romantic comedy 'who never stops to think of the ethical implications of things', according to The Times (16 September 1953). Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times thought she wore 'a look of childlike innocence, a clear and unashamed gaze', and by J. C. Trewin in The Observer was consequently dubbed 'like the play, a problem child' (both 20 September). Zoe Caldwell also escaped censure for her cunning by exuding simplicity and innocence, and her decision to heal the King and chase her husband clearly arose from the depth of her love for Bertram. Also sympathetic, Irene Worth's request for Bertram as a husband seemed mature, reasonable and even endearing; such honesty could give no offence. Benson's Helena, Florence Glossop-Harris, aimed at saintliness, and Nancy Wickwire under John Houseman's direction played her with a tragic seriousness: prompted by the speech in which she acknowledges the help of heaven, 'Of heaven, not me, make an experiment' [II. i. 154], she became a providential Helena, descending a staircase slowly and quietly as if an angel had been sent from above.

However, the ambiguities in Helena's character have also been explored more fully. Her grief and her shyness can still be present, but so also are her wit and determination. The banter with Parolles about virginity is nowadays restored to its rightful place between the two moving soliloquies, 'O, were that all! I think not on my father' [I. i. 79] and 'Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie' [I. i. 216], and today we sense the balance of realism and romanticism in her character and acknowledge the mixture of criticism and sympathy in our reactions to her. Some part of the image of a grave and gentle heroine must persist: Mary Coleridge felt that 'she may be reckoned as one of the few women who have ever proposed for men and yet kept their charm' (quoted by George Gordon in Shakespearian Comedy, p. 30), and Kenneth Muir believes that she 'never loses our sympathy, especially when the play is performed' (Shakespeare'sSources, p. 101); but Helena's less ethereal, practical side, her comic aspect, has provoked a more interesting portrait.

Some early Helenas aimed at ambiguity. She appears to be a poor judge of men—the world of the court and the army are quite alien to her, a doctor's daughter. In Shakespeare's Problem Plays, E. M. W. Tillyard also paired her with Parolles as an adventurer (p. 106), and in her essay, 'Virtue Is the True Nobility', M. C. Bradbrook thought of her as a 'social climber', so that she can also embody something of the designing female and the unscrupulous opportunist. Robert Atkins's first Helena, Jane Bacon, bravely rejected popularity and appeared to be more of a 'raffish, scheming, and hypocritical adventuress' (The Sunday Times, 4 December 1921), a girl who seemed to be mourning for her father when she was using the occasion only to supply a mask of grief for her love of Bertram. This Helena was a chameleon who could be merry with Parolles, shy with the Countess and confident with the King. Bridges-Adams's very pretty Helena, Maureen Shaw—slender, graceful and with masses of dark auburn hair, a figure who might have stepped out of a painting by Rossetti—solved the problem of being two-faced by assuming a charming girlishness, even if the charm was achieved at the expense of womanliness. In Going to Shakespeare, J. C. Trewin reported Bridges-Adams as saying, 'Molly was the prettiest thing in the world with an elfin wisdom; you forgave her everything' (p. 185). Payne's lovely Jean Shepeard, though a more modest Helena, also leaned towards youthfulness, and in the words of The Daily Mail presented the image of 'a disturbing and disturbed young blue-stocking' (24 April 1935). In this comic view of the part, we may have come closer to the Elizabethan idea of love as a mixture of courtly feelings and physical sickness awaiting cure, so described by Lawrence Babb in The Elizabethan Malady, p. 154.

Recently we have seen a more businesslike Helena, a study in practical feminine wiles with or without an accompanying charm. In 1955 Joyce Redman played her like a Victorian miss just out of finishing school, hiding her ruthlessness behind coy smiles and adopting the playfulness of a kitten. The effect of this was so disagreeable that the audience could not help but feel that she and Bertram deserved each other. In 1967 Estelle Kohler endowed Helena with a 'little girl' voice and, dressed in pale primrose, gave us a frighteningly clear-headed, slightly wicked, schoolgirl with an eye to the main chance. B. A. Young of The Financial Times decided that she was 'an ordinary inconsistent person' who knew quite well that she was playing a dirty trick on Bertram. This Helena turned the whole play round and established a realistic basis for the action. In The Evening Standard Milton Shulman wrote, 'Behind those wide-open, round eyes and that perky-pretty face one can almost hear the ticking of a mind cunningly coiled into an efficient man-trap. It's quite clear that Bertram never had a chance.' Alan Brien capped this in The Daily Telegraph: 'Estelle Kohler plays her as a very young, mophaired tomboy with gob-stopper eyes and a crooked grin who enjoys teasing the King, cracking dirty jokes with Parolles, rehearsing charades with other girls, dressing up as a pilgrim and spoiling her runaway husband's dirty weekend in Florence' (all 2 June 1967).

It may be that the haunting performance of the American actress Martha Henry, in David Jones's Canadian production of 1977, has most precisely struck the balance between selfless wife and predatory female. It was a performance of restless high spirits and earnest feeling, and as a result of it John Fraser of The Toronto Globe and Mail pronounced Helena to be one of Shakespeare's most captivating characters, describing her as.

bluntly forward and loving in her manner, with a spirituality and grace left largely to any actress who dares take her on to define. … Helena is a complete woman who knows her own mind and pursues her own ambition. That her love for Bertram is not reciprocated is both a challenge to her constancy and a test for her vision … A woman, sure of her mind and her body—even today or perhaps especially today—who is in touch with both wonder and alienation. By evoking this and transmitting it through a loving nature, this great actress accomplished something profound and unique. (9 June)

When the Countess discovers that Helena loves her son, she says to her, 'Now I see / The myst'ry of your loneliness' (I. 3.161-2), and this line delicately touched the source of life in the character as Martha Henry presented it.

The tendency towards revealing a more realistic Helena continued with the 'serenely unstoppable' Angela Down (the phrase is Jeremy Treglown's in The Times Literary Supplement, 9 January 1981) for the BBC TV production, a very mature and sober Helena. Miss Down came to a very human understanding of the contradictions in Helena's character. Everyone speaks of her honesty, while at the same time she appears to be an opportunist, and in the introduction to the BBC edition of the play, Henry Fenwick reported Miss Down as saying.

In Act III scene 2 she says, 'Oh, what have I done, isn't it awful? Now he's going off, possibly to get killed, and it's because of me, so the best thing I can do is leave so he can come home.' But the next thing she does is go to Florence—the very place where he is. She doesn't go to Alaska or Scotland or anywhere out of reach; she doesn't absent herself from the scene entirely, she gets right back into the heart of where the action is, so you think: 'Well, that's a funny place to go if what you want to do is get out of his hair!' But you often find in life, don't you, that you're saying and meaning one thing—and you do really mean it—but you find that you're doing something that is facilitating an event which might turn the tables. You think: 'Well, I won't actually tell him who I am, perhaps I'll just go and be near him' or whatever. But it so happens that in Florence she meets up with another opportunity that she then takes full advantage of. I think that's what I mean when I say she's an opportunist—not necessarily in a derogatory way. I simply mean that she puts herself in the way of opportunities and then when they arrive she takes full advantage of them. Nothing wrong with that! But it isn't by any means just a total innocent abroad! (p. 20)

The character grows richer as the part is filled out. It now seems important that in performance she should not only demonstrate a will of her own, but also be fired by some genuine sexual need, so that the audience may feel a maximum of tension in the character and her situation. Yet it is also essential she should retain her femininity, and even her maidenly modesty. For the force of her character, and indeed that of the whole play, lies in the very ambiguities and contradictions that make up the 'mingled yarn' of its Ufe and challenge its audience.

The trouble with Bertram

The initial strength of Bertram's uncompromising character is one of the problems of this problem comedy. It has been hard for playgoers and critics not to think of him as a cad and a bounder, if not a snob and a prig, a cheat and a liar, and a boor and a coward. In spite of the blessing of his match with Helena by the King and the Countess themselves, Bertram's vanity quite blinds him to her finer points. So he begins by insulting and deserting his wife, goes on to play a rotten trick on his best friend, and ends by slandering the girl (Diana) who resisted his advances. For audiences, he has proved to be as big a source of disaffection with the play as Helena herself, and Samuel Johnson's early judgement sums the matter up as well as any:

I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness. (The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, vol. VII, p. 404)

Shakespeare has sharply defined the role and carefully blackened his character, and we must accept this as a premise of the play. Some years ago in Shakespeare Quarterly, X. 1 [1959], Francis Shoff wrote, 'It is not until we say, "No decent man could do to a girl what Bertram does to Helena and tries to do to Diana", that we run into trouble. In All's Well a decent man can and does' (p. 19).

It is true also that Bertram is a relatively unshaded, uncomplicated, character beside Helena, playing second fiddle to the heroine as Orlando does in As You Like It, but in the male/female relationship upon which the interest of the play is built, he must reflect some of her colour, and be the source of light in her. The chief quality the actor must justify in performance is Bertram's huge and unfeeling indifference to her, so that his rejection of his new wife must seem defensible. So, too, from the beginning he must disclose some of the reasons why Helena should love him enough to choose him for a husband, and, folk-tales notwithstanding, in the end he must find a sensible reason for the repentance which will bless their future together. Otherwise, she will seem to waste herself on him.

Helena admired Bertram's 'arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls' [I. i. 94], and on the physical level an actor's good looks and dashing figure can to some degree justify an infatuation with him: W. A. Darlington observed of Ian Richardson's performance of Bertram as a wild young spark that he was very attractive to women, 'the kind that women want to marry aginst their better judgment' (The Daily Telegraph, 2 June 1967). The Countess thinks of her son as 'an unseason'd courtier' [I. i. 71], and his youthfulness may also go some way towards explaining and compensating for his moral defects. If he is played as a young gallant who is a little green, his behaviour can smack of youthful vanity, and his profligacy can seem to be a forgivable slip rather than an ingrained vice. Certainly Bertram's youth would excuse his unwillingness to become a bridegroom at command, and the limited circle he moves in, that of Rousillon, the French court and the army, could explain some of the shock he receives when Helena traps him. Coleridge had no difficulty, it seems, in accepting him as a wayward young aristocrat: 'He was a young nobleman in feudal times, just bursting into manhood, with all the feelings of pride of birth and appetite for pleasure and liberty natural to such a character so circumstanced' (Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor, 1930). … And in his essay on 'The Structure of All's Well That Ends Well' [Essays in Criticism X, No. 1 (January 1960)], S. Nagarajan has summed up the case for Bertram's immaturity: 'It palliates his rejection of Helen, explains his trust in Parolles and softens the enormity of his affair with Diana,' as well as giving 'a dramatic significance to his wardship' (p. 24). Guthrie's audiences accordingly saw him very much as a boy, with Edward de Souza playing him in 1959 as 'a stuffy, dirty-minded schoolboy', according to The Spectator of 24 April.

However, a balance of approval and disapproval of Bertram is not easily achieved, and may not even be desirable. If he is played for sympathy, as he was when Raymond Raikes played him in 1935, Helena runs the risk of seeming less pure. It has been more usual for him to seem remote, as he was in Benthall's production, in which John Neville was merely Claire Bloom's unattainable Prince Charming. In 1922, Maurice Colbourne was positively Byronic in his noble pride and scorn, and struck attitudes on every occasion, so that Helena's virtues shone more brightly and Bertram seemed insufferable in his patronising, 'a pure jackanapes' who left the critic of The Daily Telegraph 'speechless with rage' (25 April). In 1981, Mike Gwilym's Bertram was 'a savage Strindbergian monster' (Michael Billington).

Some degree of realistic motivation for Bertram has occasionally been attempted. Ian Richardson, playing for John Barton with an icy correctness of demeanour, presented a very proper young nobleman whose resentment at being forced into marriage was perfectly understandable. Guthrie's Canadian Bertram, Donald Harron, was a young fool. He had grown up in a household dominated by women and consequently idolised someone of his own sex, Parolles. When Bertram found himself tricked into marriage, he naturally turned to Parolles for consolation. But this Bertram grew up, and when he was disillusioned with his friend, he was ready for a girl of his own choice. In Renown at Stratford, Robertson Davies commented, 'At last, when he is ready for the kind of woman that Helena is, Helena is waiting for him. It needs no psychoanalyst, surely, to understand this entirely normal pattern of a young man's development?' (p. 75). The Bertram who grew up was lucky, of course, to find himself still loved by a woman of unusual understanding.

The question remains whether the ugly side of Bertram's character should be obscured. A. P. Rossiter pointed out in Angel with Horns that Bertram's lack of heroic qualities is characteristic of the problem comedies, arguing that in this part 'Shakespeare produced something more psychologically plausible, more complicated—and disagreeable', for All's Well was not to be a fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast (p. 88). The final scene of the play is perhaps the test.

Bertram's problems as a character come to a head in the last scene, when he must convince the audience that his contempt for his wife has finally turned to love. Shakespeare delays the reunion of the two to some purpose, and Diana stage-manages an expert coup de théâtre by concealing the truth that Helena is still alive for as long as possible. In the realistic perspective on the play, it is again a question of balance: since Bertram behaved badly at court, the trick played on him must fit the crime; since he taunted Helena with her poverty, he must be taunted no less with his irresponsibility. His blustering and his disclaimers of the last act must shame and ridicule him for his former pride, and if the audience wanted to kick him in the first half of the play, the last act does it for them. The doubts about Bertram felt by the audience finally need the satisfaction of seeing him treated as harshly as possible.

Youth and age

In All's Well the young tend to disregard their elders, and in his 1967 production John Barton actually based the theme of his programme notes on the idea that 'crabbed age and youth cannot live together'. A glance at the dramatis personae of the play will show that distinctions of age are explicit: among the principals four are young and four are old, and Elijah Moshinsky had even the Countess's steward Rinaldo played as an old man. In performance, the differences in age clarify for the audience its questioning of what is proper or improper behaviour: we are urged to distinguish between experience and inexperience, between wisdom and folly, and modify our judgements accordingly.

David Jones's production at Stratford, Ontario in 1977 emphasised the contrast strongly. Richard Eder reported in The New York Times that the play was directed 'without flamboyance and with an acute sense of where the play's real strength lies. It is not in the young people, despite all their activity, but in the old ones.' For Rousillon, Tanya Moiseiwitsch designed an autumnal scene, and the clown Lavache opened the play like a gardener, 'sweeping dead leaves away from a sundial. He chews on a green leaf. Time is the setting for the appearance of the Countess.' And as the Countess, Margaret Tyzack especially helped to place the emphasis on gracious age. She had lived through her own years of passion, and although at first Helena's love for her son seemed unthinkable, 'she sees that new life must replenish old power, and she embraces her daughter-in-law long before her son does' (9 June). When the King directed Bertram to abandon his social prejudices, he and the Countess appeared to be more liberal than the young, so that, as the play proceeded, the Countess seemed to grow young herself, and the autumnal years hung lightly on her person.

The Countess of Rousillon is the maternal grande dame of the play's events and Helena's fortunes, the still centre which gives the audience faith that all will yet be well. This gracious part has never failed any actress in the distinguished line of those who have played her in recent times: Catherine Lacey, Eleanor Stuart, Fay Compton, Rosalind Atkinson, Edith Evans, Margaret Tyzack, Celia Johnson, Peggy Ashcroft. Together with Lafeu and Lavache in this play, she was wholly of Shakespeare's own invention.

Her dominant trait is one of charm and compassion, although her gravity has on occasion seemed at odds with the activities of the younger set. Alan Brien in The Spectator thought that Edith Evans looked like 'an exiled queen locked away in a madhouse' (24 April 1959) because of the un-Elizabethan surprises of Guthrie's production. But her quiet role need not necessarily be monotonous: when she persuades Helena to confess her love for her son (I. 3), and when she condemns Bertram for scorning Helena (III. 2), the Countess also betrays a sharp, autocratic temper. Peggy Ashcroft added a sense of humour: when Helena announced that she was going to Paris to cure the King, she raised her eyebrows for 'This was your motive for Paris, was it, speak?' [I. iii. 230] Even when the Countess sometimes seems composed in her demeanour, she must also feel the stress of loving both her unworthy son and the forsaken Helena at the same time, for she is mother to both.

The King of France is no less compassionate, a father to the orphaned Helena. His part, however, is less rewarding, since he is confined by his sickness for some of the play and stereotyped by his throne for the rest. The sternly judgemental bent of his scenes has nevertheless in practice admitted a few variations that have extended the role.

For television, Donald Sinden played him fiercely, a man dying an angry death. When Helena comes to cure him in II. 1, Lafeu's little joke about being 'Cressid's uncle' suggested that a man suffering from a fistula may also be playfully aware of her sex, and encouraged Sinden to play the King like an old lecher on his deathbed. However, Jeremy Treglown in The Times Literary Supplement deplored the overt introduction of sex into a scene which he thought should carry only spiritual overtones: 'His miraculous cure, in this interpretation, looks as if it will involve Helena in some kind of health-farm sauna activities—a plan she seems to go along with, kissing the repellent old satyr compliantly at the end of a gropy II. 1 which both goes against her performance of the character otherwise and steals attention for the hammy Sinden' (9 January 1981). For the defence, Stanley Kauffmann in The Dial considered that 'it becomes clear that Helena's womanliness is having as much effect on the monarch as her promise of a cure. With no scintilla of vulgarity, Down and Sinden tell us that the King is regaining vigour because of his response to her, and the scene ends with a gentle kiss. Thus the action buried within the lines sustains the scene' (June 1981, p. 10).

When the King has been cured, Shakespeare evidently intends him to prove it by showing that he is 'able to lead her a coranto' [II. 43]. This is an arresting moment on the stage, as Guthrie demonstrated when Alec Guinness came waltzing in with Irene Worth in his arms. He had substituted a waltz for a coranto, of course, but the key to the effect lies in the Elizabethan coranto itself, as lively a dance as Shakespeare could command, with its 3/4 time, its running and jumping steps, and the balancing and bowing: all to persuade us that the King is not only cured, but positively rejuvenated. When Bertram thwarts him in this scene, the King's new strength and anger are unmistakable: 'My honour's at the stake' (line 149). Laurence Hardy played the part as a buffoon who expected his court to laugh at all his jokes, so undermining the importance of the injunctions upon Bertram and Helena: in his essay 'Plays Pleasant and Plays Unpleasant' for Shakespeare Survey 8 [1955], Richard David reported that on his sickbed Hardy 'was attended by a couple of comic doctors, one fat, one thin, and by a friar who kept up a running Paternoster in a high monotone. His speeches were punctuated by sudden grimaces and yowling cries as his ailment griped him' (p. 134). This King of France could not strike the sobering note of his speech on honour, nor establish the contrast between wisdom and folly designed to prompt our sense of the outrageous in what Bertram and Helena then proceed to do.

The Folio of 1623 has 'old' Lafeu, and after Rowe designated him 'an old lord', he has been an elderly courtier ever since. He is a rather caustic counsellor, but everybody's confidant, a wise old man who may be comic to a degree, but no fool. Rupert Harvey was honest and blunt for Robert Atkins in 1921, and when Atkins came to play him himself in 1940, he was 'a kind of grave Sir Toby'. When played by William Squire for Benthall in 1953, he was 'an amiable pippin', and Guthrie's Michael Bates in Canada and Anthony Nicholls in England played him as an aristocrat with a salty tongue, able to make jokes with the ladies that only his rank and age could allow. On television Michael Hordern introduced a melancholy note that suited the sober quality of Moshinsky's production. But Lafeu has wit enough to enjoy the wit in Parolles, and wisdom enough to show him mercy at the end.

Lavache presents more of a problem. Teste's wry smile has turned to a leer in Lavache', writes Robert Goldsmith in Wise Fools in Shakespeare (p. 58). He enjoys more bawdy than any other clown in Shakespeare; he shares with Touchstone of As You Like It his realistic attitude to marriage, and his relationship with Isbel ('I am driven by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives', [I. iii. 28-9]) echoes Touchstone's with Audrey ('As the ox hath his bow, sir, the horse his curb, and the falcon her bells, so man hath his desires; and as pigeons bill, so wed-lock would be nibbling', As You Like It, [III. iii. 79-82]); but in his need to satisfy his drives, Lavache is an unhappy man.

He is the ageless clown turned sour, but he remains the company's funny man whose humour, like Touchstone's, must reside as much in the actor as in his lines. Payne's Kenneth Wicksteed succeeded in milking them for laughs, although he failed to please the correspondent of The Birmingham Mail, who found his wit out-of-date and pointless to the modern ear (24 April 1935). But is he the rustic clown like old Gobbo, or is he a dry and rather cynical chorus figure like Thersites? Production has inclined towards the latter. The part has regularly distressed critics and reviewers because of the coarseness of his dialogue with the Countess, and, as played by Edward Atienza as a hunchbacked dwarf in 1955, or as Geoffrey Hutchings's hunchbacked comedian in a bowler hat flirting with all the ladies (1981), he can add a disturbing note which would darken the darkest of dark comedies. A misanthropic Paul Brooke played him mirthlessly for television, and Guthrie simply left him out.

From his source material in Painter's The Palace of Pleasure Shakespeare carved out a single character from Helena's hostess in Florence and the mother of Diana. The Widow of Florence is a surrogate for the Countess in foreign parts, standing up nobly for the two girls, Diana and Helena. Her daughter Diana is described by one of the French lords as 'a young gentlewoman … of a most chaste renown' [IV. iii. 14-15], and she has chiefly been played as a virtuous maiden in a difficult predicament, the innocent object of Bertram's attentions. But Bertram pronounced her to be 'a common gamester to the camp' [V. iii. 188], and this slander has encouraged another interpretation. Beginning with Payne's Rosamund Merivale in 1935, she has also been played as an impudent minx, a jolly girl full of the tricks sometimes prompted by her mother. Nunn went so far as to have Cheryl Campbell sing a café song like Piaf, which Stanley Wells considered to have diminished her: 'the role loses some of the symbolical aspects hinted at in the name. It is not impossible that an attractive girl who sings seductive songs, dances and shows her petticoats to soldiers in a café should take pride in her chastity, but it is difficult to believe that she should be 'of a most chaste renown in the camp' (The Times Literary Supplement, 27 November 1981). In 'Dramatic Emphasis in All's Well' [Huntington Library Quarterly XIII, No. 3 (May 1950)], Harold Wilson considers her, indeed, to be Helena's alter ego, intended to show the audience what Helena might have been.

In characterising the Widow and her daughter, Guthrie saw the need of few restrictions. Having seen the Canadian production, Robertson Davies argued in Renown at Stratford,

The social distinctions of the Renaissance are not familiar to us, and even distinctions indicated by costume may escape us … But in a modern dress production we have no trouble at all in placing the characters. We see in what ways this Florentine Widow differs from the Countess of Rousillon; the difference is approximately that between a woman who looks forward to the Old Age Pension, and one who must make provision against the Death Duties. And when Diana at last appears at court, in her charming frock, we can see at a glance how this frock differs from the gowns of the ladies to whom court is an accustomed place. (p. 94)

So in Canada Amelia Hall and Beatrice Lennard assumed strong Northern Ontario accents and became the keepers of a Canadian Tourist Home, specialising in pilgrims bound for the shrine of St Jacques le Grand. They were ladies of good family but reduced circumstances, so that, however good a girl Diana might be, she would be sufficiently flattered by the attentions of an army officer.

Guthrie continued to be attracted to the idea of the inferior class of the Widow and Diana. In England he went a step further, and in The Spectator Alan Brien reported that Priscilla Morgan played Diana as 'a wartime factory tart who sits on the doorstep in nightgown and housecoat, with a turban on her head and a lollipop in her mouth, giggling the lines in coffee-bar Cockney'. As her mother, Angela Baddeley was 'an old bag of tricks from a Giles cartoon swathed in a purple knitted dress, strangled in Woolworth beads, and choking over her nightcap of gin' (24 April 1959). That production evidently did not see the Widow as an extension of the Countess, and certainly not a further embodiment of 'aged honour'.

Elijah Moshinsky could not accept this treatment of the Widow when he cast Rosemary Leach for the part in the television production. In the introduction to the BBC edition of the play, Henry Fenwick records the director's decision:

'I didn't want a comedy actress to do a cameo,' Moshinsky says. 'What would Helena learn from a comedy turn? I wanted the Widow to be someone Helena would learn from.' Rosemary Leach's Widow, a fully-rounded character fleshed out from the hints in the text, is a rather gossipy, perhaps slightly flighty woman, frightened by the precariousness of her position, but fundamentally honest, tough and no one's fool. The character has become a very strong presence. (p. 18)

Parolles and his plot

Shakespeare also added Parolles (usually pronounced with three syllables (paro'lis) in order to regularise the iambic verse line) and his story to Painter's original, and an extraordinary amount of the play is given over to him, the scenes which ridicule him falling largely in the second half: the loss of the drum (III. 6), the ambush (IV. 1) and the interrogation (IV. 3).

This emphasis on Parolles may account for the curious detail of history that for many years the success of All's Well on the stage depended on his performance. He was the braggart of ancient and popular tradition, a man who is all word and no deeds, and something of a fop as well ('The soul of this man is his clothes', says Lafeu in his ready wisdom, II. 5.43). History records that a succession of notable comedians, Joseph Peterson, Theophilus Cibber (son of Colley Cibber) and Charles Macklin, helped the play through the early eighteenth century. In his Letters William Shenstone describes how a swaggering Cibber played him in 1742 as a 'shabby gentleman' and a 'bully character' in a rusty black coat and gloves, adding 'and a face!—which causes five minutes laughter' (ed. Marjorie Williams, p. 42). Then in 1756 Garrick arranged the text to make sure that Parolles was right at the centre of the play, and put the comedian Henry Woodward at the top of the bill at Drury Lane: 'Capt. Parolles by Mr Woodward'.

For many years, therefore, Parolles overshadowed the story of Helena and Bertram, and as late as 1935 he could steal the show in Payne's production, as played by the massive Falstaffian figure of Roy Emerton. Nevertheless, he had faded in importance in the previous century. In 1793 John Philip Kemble had cut back his scenes, and at Covent Garden in 1811 John Fawcett was hissed in the part: the comedy was missing. In 1852 Phelps played him briefly at Sadler's Wells without success, in spite of the popularity of this actor. And in this century Parolles has often had to struggle to find his rightful place in the play. Benson's performance in 1916 was considered to be artificial and forced because it depended on too much by-play. In The New Age John Francis Hope reported that Ernest Milton in the part in 1921 was 'like someone skating on very thin ice, as though he were trying to spare Helena's blushes instead of provoking them' (15 December).

These last instances may also indicate that the braggart part was losing its traditional force in the eyes of the public. The conventional thinking was that, as a soldier, he occupied a position between the Falstaff of Henry IV and the Pistol of Henry V, although traits from Dogberry, Sir Toby Belch and even Malvolio were recognised in him. Ernest Milton was surly and burly, 'a Falstaff with all the red blood taken out of his body' (The Sunday Times, 4 December 1921). The most famous in this line was Baliol Holloway, swaggering in cloak and gauntlets for Bridges-Adams in 1922. Holloway was a 'rough-cut gem', 'a mixture of Hindenburg [the ex-German Marshal] and Falstaff', 'a Pistol translated to higher society' (The Birmingham Mail, 24 April).

More recently, the characterisation of Parolles has been diversified and given a slightly more realistic treatment. In Barry Jackson's modern dress production of 1927 with the Birmingham Repertory Company, Laurence Olivier played him as a smart young man. Douglas Campbell, also prompted by more modern costuming, caught the exuberance of Guthrie's production of 1953, and wore his khaki battle-shorts with a flair. Walter Kerr in The New York Herald Tribune thought him 'a small masterpiece of comic dishonesty' who invented imaginary exploits on the field of battle 'with a sham reticence that is infinitely funny' (16 July). Cyril Luckham, playing the part in Guthrie's English production in 1959, however, seemed to Philip Hope-Wallace in The Manchester Guardian to be 'a fugitive from the Army Game' and more a caricature of 'a certain well-known bogus major type' (23 April). Muriel St Clare Byrne found this quite acceptable, and in Shakespeare Quarterly for that autumn decided that 'in our time he has again become a propper-up of bar counters … He will always manage to eat at somebody's expense' (p. 562). At the Old Vic in 1953, Michael Hordern played him as a scruffily theatrical type trying to keep his dignity with Lafeu and 'tremendously man-of-the-world', according to J. C. Trewin in The Observer, a Parolles who found 'the right stab' for the lines which drop him from farce to reality, 'Who cannot be crush'd with a plot?' and 'Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live' (20 September). In an interview with Robert Speaight, reported in Shakespeare Quarterly for winter 1976, Jonathan Miller said that Parolles was 'the kind of young man whom the Countess wished her son would not bring back to the house' (p. 22), and consequently cast him in his Greenwich production of 1975 to be the same age as Bertram, disconcertingly dressing them both in identical Elizabethan costumes.

Whatever character Parolles adopts, however, there are two problems that confront him in performance. The first is his personal relationship with the principals, Helena and Bertram. If he plays an out-and-out villain, as in John Houseman's production, it is easy to see that he warms us towards them. He is hardly a good friend to either, but such simple stereotyping does not help the actor who must play him with any degree of conviction. He may survive the early 'virginity scene' with Helena, which shows him unsympathetically enough, but he must exercise a powerful influence over Bertram, for which the strongest clue is found in Lafeu's lines,

No, no, no, your son was misled with a snipttaffeta fellow there, whose villainous saffron would have made all the unbak'd and doughy youth of a nation in his colour. Your daughter-in-law had been alive at this hour, and your son here at home, more advanc'd by the King than by that red-tail'd humble-bee I speak of. (IV. 5.1-6)

In performance the two men must be shown to be close friends who are very much in harmony with one another, but Benthall made Parolles wholly responsible for Bertram's behaviour, giving him his cue at every step by a nod or a beck, and even thwarting the parting kiss to Helena with whispered advice. Unless Parolles is afforded a degree of humanity, this treatment reduces the strength and integrity of Bertram's part and may make puppets of both of them.

The second problem concerns the trick played upon him by Bertram and his friends. How far is Parolles finally a figure of pathos, like Malvolio and Falstaff? The test comes when he has been teased to distraction and his blindfold at last taken off; he looks about him at the faces he knows so well and speaks the line, 'Who cannot be crush'd with a plot?' [IV. iii. 325], faintly echoing Malvolio's 'Madam, you have done me wrong, / Notorious wrong' (Twelfth Night, [V. i. 328]). How those lines are spoken and received decides whether we feel contempt or sympathy. When he utters his next lines, 'Yet I am thankful. If my heart were great, / 'Twould burst at this' [IV. iii. 330-31], he can be nearly as moving as the rejected Falstaff of Henry IV, Part II. Nevertheless, Parolles need not sink into absolute disgrace. In his essay, 'The Life of Shame: Parolles and All's Well', Robert Hapgood made an issue of Parolles's vitality, and criticised Michael Hordern's deflation of the Falstaffian line, 'Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live'. [IV. iii. 333-34] by approving Charles Taylor's production at the Ashland, Oregon Festival in 1961, when Parolles delightfully vaulted to his feet to face the world again.

The question remains why Parolles is in the play at all. In his introduction to the new Cambridge edition, Quiller-Couch thought him 'about the inanest of all Shakespeare's creations', and that he could be 'cut out of the story, like a wen, without the smallest detriment to the remaining tissue' (p. xxiv). In Shakespeare's Problem Comedies W. W. Lawrence more circumspectly observed about the sub-plot that it was 'singularly independent of the main action; much more so than is usual with Shakespeare's mature work' (p. 33). The argument has even been advanced separately by Harold Wilson and Kenneth Muir that by placing so much emphasis on Parolles, Shakespeare was simply trying to obscure the unpleasantness of Helena's activities in the last two acts. But is Parolles merely introduced for 'comic relief ', a foil to set off Helena's story?

In the New Arden introduction, G. K. Hunter offers a strong set of reasons why Bertram's story would not be the same without Parolles:

There is a continual parody of the one by the other. Parolles and Helena are arranged on either side of Bertram, placed rather like the Good and Evil Angels in a Morality. His selfish ostentation balances her selfless abnegation; both are poor people making good in a world open to adventurers, but the magical and romantic actions of Helena are in strong contrast to the prosaic opportunism of Parolles—the contrast perhaps working both ways, staining the career of Helena with the imputation of ambition as well as showing up the degraded mind of Parolles. Parolles wins (temporarily at least) the battle for Bertram's soul (it is he who ships him off to the war), and is himself an index to the world of lust and lies into which Bertram is falling. (p. xxxiii)

We would like to believe this, and after watching the Guthrie production of 1959, Muriel St Clare Byrne believed she saw how Parolles contributed to the balance and symmetry of the play, 'the music of the whole composition', as she called it, for Parolles not only helps to separate Helena and Bertram, he actually helps to bring them together: 'As go-between for Bertram and Diana, Parolles, in his ignorance, becomes the go-between for the wife and husband whom he has helped to separate, and the way for virgins to "undermine" men is discovered when the realism of consummating his own marriage, unawares, undermines Bertram's would-be romantic seduction of Diana' (p. 565).

The comedy of Parolles is more complicated than has commonly been supposed. It is successful because the role, a little like Falstaff's, exhibits many contrary masks. He is a choric philosopher, a stand-up comedian, the traditional comic coward and traitor, and, finally ostracised, a rather pathetic victim. Through the comedy of Parolles and his drum, soldiering is seen less gloriously, just as it is when Bertram, the off-duty officer, makes his attempt on the virtue of Diana. And when Parolles is cut down to size in the scene of his unmasking, he brings down with him the companion in arms who had shared his courtly world of false gallantry, the very man who had unmasked him, Bertram. Finally, in performance the presence of Parolles serves powerfully to juxtapose the careless activity in which he and Bertram sport themselves with our more thoughtful concern for the hard moral issues that surround Helena and all she represents.

Sheldon P. Zitner (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Making it Theatre," in Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: All's Well That Ends Well, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989, pp. 161-80.

[In the following essay, Zitner explores the ways in which Shakespeare's structuring of the text and language of All's Well That Ends Well is suited for presentation on the stage.]

In the reading of a play, its language comes to the attention large and distorted like a face in a convex mirror. The contexts of words become peripheral, the words themselves more completely abstractions that have lost much of the referentiality of speech. It is easy for a reader to entertain interpretations that are unactable or untheatrical: Bertram as a heroic victim, Helena as a relentless bitch, Lavatch as a foul dullard. Brief phrases repeated adventitiously across the breadth of five acts can be marched side by side as evidence of highly calculated thought, and isolated passages can be plucked from the page for interpretative argument. When the play is performed, however, all this is overturned. All the hidden contexts of language become visible; language becomes speech, its exact phrasing remembered little longer than it took to say. Eloquence is subdued as it merges with the substantiality and continued presence of thrones, doublets, the actor's face and form. Words spoken are shadowy compared to words on the page, which are sustained by print and repeated reading. But this solidity is gained at a price. Some of the unactable interpretations proposed in 'pure' reading do have an intellectual or aesthetic validity as examinations of the play-script as poem or as discourse. But if performance can lose something that is in the script, it can gain much more. Performance cannot simply ignore this or that 'inconvenient' passage, as reading can and criticism too often does in order to score points. Performance has to involve a whole text or reveal its bias by making detectable cuts. In its need to create wholes, performance unearths contingent meanings that even informed reading had not thought of. Yet despite its immediacy, performance, too, gives us less than the work of a major playwright allows.

There is an intermediate mode cultivated to some degree by everyone who reads plays: performance in the 'theatre of the mind'. Arturo Toscanini was supposed to have been able to sight-read a new symphonic score and hear all the instruments in his mind's ear. With some effort we learn to sight-read plays, hearing and seeing the nuances of gesture, expression and idea we attribute to the text. But pleasant and useful as this is, it is still subjective and self-indulgent, and finally just as unsatisfactory as 'pure reading'. Though we can legitimately analyse and discuss them as 'letters', play-scripts are intended as cues and clues to performance. The dramatist is committed to remaining the foremost, if not always the dominant, among equals, aided by actors and audiences and, increasingly at present, by directors and a host of technicians in the 'arts of the theatre', each of whom contributes to the significance of the performance. To say that the meanings of Shakespeare's plays are 'open' is a modern reinvention of the commonplace that even the 'legitimate' meanings and emotions which emerge in performance are not wholly determined by the text. But the theatre is not Liberty Hall. It has its own logic and logistics, and the play-script specifies some limits for performance and suggests others. All's Well can be played 'for' comedy or 'for' seriousness, even somewhat tragic seriousness, but unless the script is mutilated by cuts and additions, or simply overridden by perverse acting that, say, deliberately mocks in the delivery the King's speeches on virtue and status, the performance will be comedy of a particular sort, serious in a particular way, both intended by the author. It will not be comic as French farce is comic or Greek tragedy tragic, but mordantly comic, and serious with profound reservations as befits a play that seems to accept, even congratulate, little wickednesses and question and regret daring and success.

Typically playwrights attempt to control meaning in the theatre, especially to ensure against its being undermined by the actors. Hamlet's speech to the players is evidence that such attempts met then as now with mixed success. But the very fact of strong characterisation, of concreteness in statement and idea, is a kind of control, as is any precise articulation of materials. Moreover, the particular characteristics of good Elizabethan theatrical writing fix the playwright's meanings and tend to make them resistant to tampering. The first of these characteristics is the use of repetition without dullness—repetition with modulation—to compensate for auditorium noise and for the relative difficulty—less in that strenuously church-going age than in ours—of absorbing complex information through the ear. (Such repetition with variation extends beyond language to scene and motif.) The second is the invention of a language that implies gesture and movement, as in Helena's lines to the Countess: 'Then I confess,/Here on my knee, before high heaven and you …' [I. iii. 192]. Its power to generate movement makes theatrical language seem the utterance of the whole person. It also controls the movement of the actors, much given apparently to 'sawing the air'—if we are to believe Hamlet's warnings. But Shakespeare takes chances, or rather he trusts his actors. He had to, and he was, after all, one of them.

The variations exhibited between the texts of his multitext plays (those with one or more early quartos and a Folio-text) are sometimes difficult to class as printers' work, author's revisions or modifications made collaboratively in the course of production. In any case they suggest the obvious, that Shakespeare learned from theatrical performance. The chances he took with the actors were also chances he took with audiences, who varied also in their capacity to 'perform' mentally what they heard and saw. The closer his scripts moved towards paradox or complexity, the more his characterisations centred on self-division, the greater the opportunity for false emphases or simple wrong-headedness in the acting. Shakespeare trusted the actors to take on these challenges. In the so-called Problem Plays he seems especially willing to take such risks. The problem of multiple or insecure identity is a central issue in Troilus and Cressida. By comparison, characterisation in All's Well is far less complex, but the part of Helena, for example, allows actors and directors ample opportunity to strike a variety of balances between passion and calculation, submissiveness and initiative.

A third characteristic of Shakespeare's dramatic writing is its dialogic skill. Shakespeare's earliest history plays suffer from passages that are dull exposition, recited texts rather than social discourse. Plays like Romeo and Juliet and Richard II show evidence of a transition from poetic writing, which 'calls attention to itself ', to dramatic writing, which is transparent, calling attention to character and narrative moment. But beyond mere efficiency in writing for the theatre is the particular quality that makes for good dialogue. One of the highest if not the most elegant compliments one modern actor can pay another is to say that he or she is good to 'work off'. This refers to the ability of an actor by gesture, phrasing, tone or some other means to create a target space in his own speech into which another actor's responding speech will seem to fit exactly. In the modern detextualised theatre, where successive speeches are framed to imply discontinuities or alienation, the creation of such speech-receptors is to a great extent an actor's job. Shakespeare, however, does much of this particular task; his dialogue is often written with the interlocking shapes of a jigsaw. The exchanges we have examined between Helena and the Countess and the Countess and her Steward are cases in point. Speeches follow one another logically, but they also pick up bits of phrasing from the speech before, using them as material for a revealing variation in tone and attitude. At the beginning of Act 2 Scene 2 the Clown tells the Countess: 'I know my business is but to the court' [II. ii. 4] Of course the 'but' is ironically spoken. The Countess plays off it in 'To the court!' [II. ii. 5-6], as if amazed, and goes on, 'Why, what place make you special, when you put off that with such contempt', 'that' being emphasised. The added grace of dialogue here lies not only in the linkage, but in Shakespeare's forbearing to do the obvious and have the Countess simply echo Lavatch's 'but' before her 'To the court!' Typically the formula for linked speeches is verbal similarity, tonal and attitudinal differences. Compared to the resulting impression of the verbal and psychological grappling of social speech, Shakespeare's skills in writing eloquent oration and formal descriptive set-pieces seem, from the vantage of the needs of the theatre, only secondary ornaments.

In addition to its dialogic qualities, Shakespeare's language exhibits a peculiarly theatrical expressiveness beyond its conveyance of ideas and image. This theatrical expressiveness comes from a gift further developed by experience for sensing the proper length, weight, sound colour and balance of word make-up—say, opulence against restraint, familiarity against exoticism, formality against intimacy—in individual speeches and whole scenes. These theatrical aspects of language—its sound, rhythm and weight—often convey what audiences must know even before they can fully understand 'content'. The decorum and power of Shakespeare's rhetoric also plays a structural role. Often enough his plotting—certainly compared to that of Jonson—is careless or inadequate. Yet the consistent justness and vitality of his language impart an impression of unity and wholeness to his work.

Perhaps the most obvious of Shakespeare's skills as a playwright was his skill in choosing narrative materials that could appeal to his varied audience. There were, of course, no guarantees, and All's Well evidently did not please many. Shakespeare used a few comic motifs with wide appeal again and again, varying their narrative contexts and import. In The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies Marilyn Williamson argues that the three successive modes of his comic plays—romantic comedy, Problem Play and romance—represent Shakespeare's catering for the tastes and interests of his largely male audiences. The social agenda of patriarchal ideology, she argues, went through three phases, each of which elicited a different comic genre. Yet his continuing transhistoric popularity and the radically innovative nature of such plays as Hamlet and Lear, for example, suggest that Shakespeare created audiences as well as accommodating them.

One has to think of Shakespeare's audiences in the plural not only because of their differences in outlook and sensibility over historical time, but because ideas of an Elizabethan audience, an Elizabethan world picture, an Elizabethan Zeitgeist or mind or outlook are library inventions or classroom conveniences. Gabriel Harvey, a contemporary, thought that Shakespeare's works 'have it in them' to please both 'the young' and 'the wiser sort'. In addition to age and so—by universal supposition—temperamental differences, Elizabethan playgoers brought further differences in conviction and sensibility to the theatre. Yet Roman Catholic, Anglican, Puritan and agnostic alike would have found something that reverberated with their own views in that unresolved enigma, the ghost in Hamlet, a goblin damned, a purgatorial victim, a mere illusion. Those who drew monarchist or republican lessons from the assassination of Julius Caesar—and both lessons and more were drawn by Shakespeare's contemporaries—would have found 'evidence' for their views in the idealism (though tainted) of Brutus and in the loyalties (though mercurial) of the mob, and in the competence (despite its blind—or, rather, deaf—spots) of Caesar. Looked at as an ideological statement, All's Well gives some comfort to advanced and reactionary thought on the issues of class and gender. Helena is admirable and deserving, but also calculating and guiltily ambitious. Her ambition in any case is sponsored by the King. Her rapid ascent is based on literally saving the monarch and on her spectacular social conformity, even to accepting 'adultery'. Moreover, Bertram has become déclassé by violating the class code of personal honour; his word is worthless. The 'transgressions' of both Helena and Bertram and their results in a sense vindicate the status quo. The uneasiness of the ending allows actors and audiences alike to rebalance the tone and import of the play; now as the triumph of merit; now of brazenness; now as some ironic amalgam; now acceptable as the will of providence, now—enthusiastically or grudgingly—as the just result of superior intelligence and initiative.

Unlike Chapman and Jonson, who were arrested for offensive references to the Scots in a play called Eastward Ho! written shortly after All's Well, Shakespeare managed to stay out of prison. If so it was not because he was, as someone said of Tennyson's friend Arthur Henry Hallam, 'judicious to the point of nullity'. There is, however, an enormous rhetorical tact in Shakespeare's plays. A revival of his Richard II, with its depiction of regicide, was arranged by supporters of the Earl of Essex on the eve of his opera buffa rebellion against Elizabeth early in 1601. Despite this, several months later Elizabeth observed that she herself was thought to be Richard, adding rather petulantly that the play had been often performed recently. True enough, early printed versions of the play omit the deposition scene, but Elizabeth saw no need to suppress the play as was done with an adaptation in the 1670s during a crisis over the succession. Apparently she did not think it a partisan threat. It is no accident that Shakespeare was brought in to doctor the politically sensitive scene in Sir Thomas More dealing with More's handling of a rebellious mob. Shakespeare's rhetorical tact lay less in simple avoidance of partisanship—although he does avoid it—or in opportunistically bestowing bits of agreement on all sides than it did in a full articulation of character and event that revealed the intelligible bases of conflicting motives and the wonder of unanticipated outcomes. Inevitably, this pitted other elements of plays against the simple Unes of their stories, making a charge of partisanship irrelevant. This follows not only because such plays articulate contending views, but because in this respect and in the integrity of their characters, whom Shakespeare shows as speaking 'in their own right' rather than as convenient expositors, such plays resemble the tenor of actuality in being irreducible to a single proposition or a point of view. They seem to be not opinion, but what opinions are about.

For all that, All's Well, as do the other plays, has its commitments. Its feminism should by this time be clear enough, as also its ironic questioning of abject love, martial glory and arbitrary governance. Elsewhere Shakespeare does not come down on that same side of these issues quite so emphatically; indeed he offers quite different views in The Taming of the Shrew. But All's Well is a good example of the fusion of tact and integrity that permits Shakespeare to manage materials that are 'relevant', and politically touchy because they are relevant, while avoiding both the bland and the partisan. One small model of his way of working is sonnet 129. All of the conflicting views on lust can be found in Textor's popular school-crib, the Epitheta; the paradoxical, radically analytic, conclusion is Shakespeare's own.

Among his less obviously professional skills are Shakespeare's tactful use of his company. Though a later date has been suggested, All's Well was probably performed at the Globe Theatre in 1603, a year when the theatres were dark after 19 March out of respect for the dying queen, reopened briefly, then closed again because of the bubonic plague until after April 1604, when they opened once more. Shakespeare's company (the Chamberlain's men, later the King's men—the name changed after they were given royal letters patent) probably consisted of 12 adult 'sharers' and four boys. Whatever the plots of his plays, Shakespeare—save perhaps in Hamlet—divided the telling so that there was only a reasonable burden on any one actor and so that minor parts were sufficiently interesting to challenge the actors and allow them to exhibit and develop their skills. What was sound logistically was sound aesthetically since the parts were thus contrasted for clarity and effect. Relatively minor figures such as Lafew, Diana and Lavatch are worth an actor's trouble. Even the forthright Mariana, who appears only once, has a fat speech that might enable a young actor to make his mark.

The two principles of dispersal and contrast that applied to the parcelling out of the story into 'parts' apply also to its disposition into scenes. The scene rather than the act is Shakespeare's conceptual unit; most of the act-divisions in conventional editions of Shakespeare's plays are the work of editors, and the evidence suggests that in many instances what are now thought of as act-divisions were simply swallowed up in the practice of continuous playing, frequently the case in the Elizabethan theatre. Those who argue for 'psychological' structures larger than the scene reach differing conclusions about format: two-part plays, three-part and four-part as well as the traditional five. Rather than pointing to an inflexible number of large units, the construction of Shakespeare's plays suggests a growth and then an unravelling of complication after a crisis, with each unit disposed into as many scenes as the particular play demands. There are 23 scenes in All's Well The sequence exhibits a variety in setting, and in a number and type of persons, ideas, tone, verbal style, action and function.

Intimate scenes are followed by scenes in public places. The rowdy exposure of Parolles is plaited with the wooing of Diana. On stage the change in texture emphasises the parallel: two victims caught at the same time in matching traps. Some scenes further the narrative; others suggest ways of interpreting it. Certainly Helena's exchange with Parolles and her soliloquy in Act 1 further the narrative, as does her interview with the Countess. But the Countess's banter with Lavatch, with its rather coarse reflections on sexuality, serves as well as the chat with Parolles to suggest a darker view of Helena's obsession with Bertram. Some scenes or parts of scenes appear to be merely logistical, allowing for an impression of the passage of time, or permitting the playwright to avoid representing what would at best be awkward. One such passage occurs in Act 2 Scene 3 after line [183]. The stage direction reads 'Parolles and Lafew stay behind, commenting of this wedding', the wedding of Bertram and Helena. There is no reason why Lafew, perhaps even Parolles, would have been kept from attending the ceremony, but a great many reasons why Shakespeare chose to avoid staging it. An actual ritual, performed under duress, would have reflected very badly on both Helena and the King, and she in particular would have been unable to mitigate the damage by the kind of backing off that she attempted earlier during the choosing of the bridegroom. To be meaningful, her gesture now would have had to be no less than a refusal, impossible in any case. Yet had she made it, the marriage would have taken place none the less (this is after all All's Well, not another play), and both the King and Bertram made to seem even worse than before, the King's arbitrariness and the nasty pathos of Bertram's hangdog defiance further underlined by the ceremonial moment. Bertram re-enters after about 75 lines, barely long enough for a shotgun wedding. Those lines are taken up by an amusing quarrel between Parolles and Lafew, a quarrel which continues even as it trivialises the age-youth theme and makes Lafew's later acceptance and charity to Parolles seem even more understanding and generous. In addition, Lafew's speech beginning at line 245 continues the concern with class and caste, particularly significant here because of the social transformation Helena is presumably undergoing off stage. For all this, the 75-line stretch may seem too long to some, too much like filler necessitated by the decision not to risk staging the wedding. But in no case in All's Well is Shakespeare merely opportunistic; nowhere does he write passages whose only function is to place stage time between other materials. Few critics would argue now as some once did that Parolles is merely a get-penny humorist and Lavatch only rough stuff for the groundlings. Both, like Mariana, serve primarily to prompt us in ways of seeing events though they neither initiate events nor take an important part in them.

In individual scenes of any length there is also variety and much evidence of Shakespeare's structural art. A case in point is the long first scene (225 lines) of the play. At the outset it is public, formal and expository, announcing Bertram's wardship and contrasting him with Helena. The Countess's decorous concern for Bertram and Helena is contrasted with both Bertram's gauche behaviour and Lafew's smart rebukes. Then comes Helena's twenty-line soliloquy confessing her love for Bertram; private contrasts with public, intense personal feeling with formal exposition. Parolles then enters. His sexual banter with Helena, witty in idea and phrasing, goes on for 114 lines with an interruption by a Page calling for Parolles. After this the scene ends with a thirteen-line soliloquy by Helena, proclaiming her resolution to try to merit Bertram by curing the King. Parolles' long prose speech at his departure and his common-sense advice, 'Get thee a good husband, and use him as he uses thee' [I. i. 214-15], contrasts with the equally hard-headed but—in the penultimate couplet at least—none the less impassioned words of Helena: 'Who ever strove/To show her merit that did miss her love?' [I. i. 226-27].

This first scene is made up of blocks of contrasting textures. The number of characters on stage contracts from the initial four speaking roles to one, then doubles, then contrast to one again. The dominant emotional tonality alters as do the textures of prose and verse, each block deepening by contrast the impression made by the others, and so refreshing attention. The blocks are related in a variety of ways. Taken together they forward the narrative by defining the agents and predicating the main lines of action: Helena's force of character and her resolve to have Bertram, Bertram's attractiveness, his callowness and his lack of sense or manners, Parolles' ingenious unreliability, the Countess and Lafew as benign presences, the King as all-powerful. More than this, the successive blocks of the scene offer a series of unexpected overturns whose formula is the Aristotelian dictum that effective scenes be both surprising and likely. The second block of the scene—Helena's confessional soliloquy—is doubly surprising. The Countess's description of her paragon Helena, however, is overturned by Helena's private confession of her guilty passion. The contrast between Bertram and Helena in the first part of the scene makes her love for Bertram (of all people!) equally unexpected. (There is some point in not acting this naturalistically, in not having Helena make calf's eyes at him before her soliloquy). Yet our understanding of the script and our expectations of theatre lead us to accept such surprises when they occur. Helena's interview with Parolles goes even further in understanding the early impression of her conduct-book perfection. Here is a Helena who can not only love a young ass for his curls but can trade off-colour witticisms with the likes of Parolles, and—here we come to the surprise of the fourth block—learn courage from the exchange. Helena's second soliloquy brings us back ironically to the strength and stature implied in the Countess's initial description of her. The successive revelations of the scene have fleshed out the Countess's report of this paragon, giving her the excellences of wit, a fullness of vitality and a resolution that is daring, yet not so daring as to go wholly beyond the proprieties. That she is not merely a Becky Sharp is some reason to expect her success.

The multiple functions of the first scene—as furthering the narrative, providing needed exposition, offering successive revelations of the central character and rewarding attention with varieties of textural contrast—furnish a model of how the composition of the whole of the play will be conducted. Contrasts of texture are apparent immediately in the scene that follows. We are no longer in the domestic world of Rossillion, with its primarily private concerns of individual maturation and individual emotion. The flourish of cornets, the elaborate costumes, the inevitable pomp around the throne and its knot of deferential attendants give us a court that dispels the domesticity of Rossillion with talk of war and diplomatic un-niceties. Yet the imminent presentation on stage of the Court and specifically the King of France had been placed in expectation by Helena's final couplet in the scene before, by her hitting on his cure as her means to Bertram. Such verbal links or if-then prepositional or narrative links are typical of Shakespeare's scene-connections. In many productions the verbal and narrative linkage is visually reinforced as the King is brought in on a litter. Paris, however, is part of the world of high affairs of state in which 'little Helen' must succeed or fail. The apparently devious manoeuvres of international diplomacy suggest an atmosphere that will necessitate all the tact Helena has shown in Rossillion and more. There is yet another difficulty: Rossillion was a woman's world; the Court of Paris is a man's.

Second in importance to organisation by scenes is Shakespeare's preference for large, polar character groups. The political plays pit rebels against loyalists; the romantic comedies court or town against country; particular plays, such as Antony and Cleopatra or Troilus and Cressida, Romans against Egyptians, Greeks against Trojans. In all these cases the groupings are thematic, but also suggest styles for costume, ambience, speech and movements. In All's Well the emphatic groupings are the most elemental ones—youth against age, male against female. The BBC All's Well caught the latter distinction perfectly in the macho gaiety of Parolles' exposure and in the nurturing care of the scene in which the Widow encounters Helena. At Moshinsky's direction, the Widow and the other Florentine women were first captured by the camera in the work and bustle of preparing the dough for baking bread. The grouping of casts around such thematic polarities is one of several structural devices Elizabethan dramatists employed not only to give the thematic weight of generalisation to their narratives, but also to orient the audience. Unlike classical tragedy, Shakespeare's plays are neither continuous nor linear in plot. Instead of a tight narrative sequence of scenes that follow one another almost exclusively in if-then prepositional fashion, Shakespeare's scenes are loosely connected to their narrative Une, relating the tale discontinuously and shifting from one group of characters to another, some of whom are linked to the narrative only as illustrative contrasts or as alternative interpretations of its events. Given this structural complexity and its accompanying tendency to de-emphasise sheer narrative as an organising principle, it was only natural that the major thematic oppositions in the play-script should have been clarified through character groupings which gave the audience its bearings. The encompassing of Helena by the bread-baking women of Florence on their first meeting affirmed the course of the rest of the play. The bread-baking 'business' was an exemplary piece of intelligent direction.

Perhaps the first decision about construction that the dramatist has to make roughly before he sets to work—and must continue to make in detail throughout the writing—is the determination of what to show, what to tell and what to imply. Some parts of the All's Well narrative need not be dramatised, some cannot be dramatised, some should not be dramatised. Often enough these categories overlap, and the playwright's decisions to show, to tell or merely to imply depend on many disparate factors that can include everything from fear of censorship to the particular talents and traditions of his company, to say nothing of the effects he wishes to achieve. Shakespeare need not represent on stage the Count of Rossillion or Gerard of Narbonne, Helena's father—and he does not. He need not represent Helena's actual cure of the King, nor should he do so. The sight of Helena burning dried herbs under the royal nose, or mixing a potion, or rubbing on a salve would vulgarise the cure and defeat its supposedly providential aspect. The famous victories of Bertram over the Sienese need not and should not be represented; perhaps they could have been represented—but such one-man devastations were a considerable physical risk despite the excellent swordsmanship in the company. Yet Bertram's exploits should not have been represented lest they lose their shadowy quality with the result that Bertram would become a more substantial hero, hence far more a problematic and a potentially tragic figure (like Coriolanus) than would have been useful for the humiliation scene at the end of the play.

It is even more obvious that the bed-trick itself could not have been dramatised, should not have been (what would be the point?), and indeed that the detailed arrangements for it had to be handled largely through omission. To have done otherwise would only have emphasised the sordidness that, even as it is, reflects on Helena, though Shakespeare's intelligent stroke in making her regret the sordidness even as she revalues it into 'such sweet use' [IV. iv. 22] helps to reduce the negative implications. In any case, Helena's absence from Act 4 is obscured by two absorbing events: the exposure of Parolles and the supposed seduction of Diana, both of which have as their secondary effect the placing of Helena in a good light. Finally, Helena's long absence from the stage makes her reappearance in Act S all the more telling.

Related to the decision to represent or narrate is the ordering of scenes and within scenes the sequential release of information. Shakespeare was not limited by the strict chronological order of naive naïve naïve narrative or the tight logical order of Greek tragedy. His plays have a loose structural syntax, permitting him to juxtapose scenes for textural contrast or to alter chronological sequence to suggest motive and meaning. Causes can appear after effects, consequences before antecedents, making the narrative more problematic, motives less certain than if the playwright followed a 'natural' order. One has only to imagine the consequences of rearranging the blocks of information that make up the first scene to see how differently an audience would perceive Helena, or to shuffle the supposedly extraneous passages involving. Lavatch, or imagine more stage time between Bertram's triumphal entry and Helena's arrival in Florence or between the attempted seduction of Diana and the exposure of Parolles, to see the structural skill of the playwright in creating dramatic irony and the suggestiveness of parallel meaning. Having Bertram express a strong desire to run away from the Court even before he is turned over to Helena by the King obviously complicates our view of character and motive.

A subtle instance of the programmed release of information occurs in Act 3 Scene 2, the scene in which the Countess and Helena receive Bertram's letters announcing his defection. The text makes it clear that Helena has resolved upon action rather before the soliloquy at the end of III. iii, in which she resolves to gain Bertram's safety by leaving Rossillion. At line [56], as she hands the Countess Bertram's letter setting out the conditions under which he will accept her—the getting of his ring and the begetting of his child—she says: 'Look on his letter, madam; here's my passport.' Apparently it is the two conditions blocking her acceptance by Bertram that determine her travels. Only some twenty lines later does Helena read the sentence that initiates her soliloquy: 'Till I have no wife I have nothing in France' [III. ii. 99-129]. The soliloquy justifies her departure from Rossillion on the grounds that her absence will allow Bertram to return to France and so escape the dangers of war. Helena's expression of concern is eloquent enough, but what we know of Bertram's eagerness for adventure makes the reasoning of the soliloquy seem doubtful, though perhaps consistent with some of Helena's imaginative views of her husband. The reaction to the challenge of Bertram's two conditions, however, requires no rationalisation. It is visceral and immediate. As she had set off for Paris to achieve the impossible, so she will now set off for Florence. It is too reductive to see either her concern for Bertram or for the King as simply rationalisation and afterthought. Helena is not so uninteresting a character, nor so uninteresting a task of characterisation. There is a Helena that appears not to see what the other Helena is up to, a selective self-ignorance that is familiarly human. Shakespeare carefully manages the sequence of information to achieve this complexity. First he provides the information—in only three words—that she's going to travel (the word 'passport' implies wandering specifically as a beggar); then as much of Bertram's letter as suggests why Helena must travel and what she must 'beg' for, and after a space the part of the letter that prompts the soliloquy and its self-sacrificial reasons for travel. A scene later we get Helena's letter to the Countess, which turns the journey into a pilgrimage and her sacrifice into penance and the 'embrace' of of death. Only in III. v and vii, in Helena's conversations with the Widow, do we see clearly that she is stalking Bertram, and even then the relation between her plans and her pilgrimage is left for us to determine.

Looking back on the sequence it is easy enough to argue that Helena's self-accusation and professions of sacrifice are only window-dressing. Helena's letter to the Countess, with its rhyming end-stopped lines, its earnest awkwardness ('That barefoot plod I the cold ground upon' [III. iv. 6]) and its super-fervid sentiment, sometimes mischievously ambiguous as in the phrase 'sainted vow', does seem a bit much. And so it is meant to seem, since for purposes of contrast Shakespeare has recently given us Helena in soliloquy on these subjects and made the words ring true. In any case a hypocritical soliloquy would be a contradiction in terms. All this should return us to Helena's first words in the play: 'I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too' [I. i. 54]. As we have seen, the social anomalies of her position dictate anomalies of feeling and expression. What is specifically theatrical here, whatever its psychological or ideological validity, is Shakespeare's insistence on making it difficult to reduce Helena to a simple, moralising proposition. Like the people one meets, she does not come with a categorical description on her forehead. She presents herself as if in her own right rather than tempered and absorbed into a single narrator's point of view. The French novelist and playwright Montherlant said that when he was quite certain about matters he wrote novels, but when he held various or contradictory opinions he wrote plays. Recent criticism has made us see more of the problematic in fiction, but the drama continues to be the most open and problematic of forms, and so closest to the tenor of experience.

The structure of All's Well is unusual in at least one respect. The All's Well plot turns on the bed-trick; it is in effect the crisis of the play and should therefore furnish the 'obligatory' scene. Its absence reverberates as does the unstaged conversion-encounter of Hamlet with the pirates. Yet neither the bed-trick nor Hamlet's enlightening adventures at sea could possibly be represented. Perhaps the necessary absence of this fulcrum moment in All's Well is what makes the high jinks of Parolles' drum both necessary and satisfactory. In any case, the 'dramatic' or tense moments of the play are for the most part concentrated in its long last scene, Helena's exposure and final conquest of her husband. It is here that the sums and balances of all the accumulating details of character and incident will have to be made.

The final scene of the play is an instructive instance of Shakespeare's artful use of the interdependence of stage spectacle and language to establish meaning. The scene's uneasy balance of hope and doubt is vulnerable to new stage and film technologies that can readily tip the play into black comedy or exhilarations that may not have been intended, or possible, on the Elizabethan stage. In the introduction to his New Cambridge edition of All's Well, Russell Fraser writes: 'It may be a coincidence that when the [1980 BBC] television cameras in recent years have given us an All's Well that does indeed end well, the theatre has left us a touch more sceptical—"All yet seems well also." ' The observation is just, yet perhaps the difference is not a coincidence but a result of differing techniques of production and directors' decisions.

Writing about the BBC production in Shakespeare on Television, ed. J. C. Bulman and H. R. Coursen (1988), G. K. Hunter states:

The last scene in All's Well is a famous set of puzzles, as Bertram tries to lie his way back into favour and actually succeeds. The scene sharpens intolerably the play's basic problem of horribly real people caught up in a fairy tale—a tale for which a single ending will cure everything, the resurrection of Helena being transformed from a trick (which is what we know it is) to a miracle (which is what they think it is). The play comes to rest, that is, on the magical transformation of their world, and to this the director in some way has to subordinate our knowledge. What they see is that the light shone them while Helena was alive is recoverable … the television production solved the problem. …

Moshinsky had the actors line up facing the door through which Diana is being led to prison. When she calls for her bail, music begins, and as she cries, 'Behold the meaning' [V. iii. 304], the camera turns, not to Helena, but to the faces of the onlookers rapt in wonder. 'Face after face responds to the miracle.' G. K. Hunter was not alone in being moved. Even those who did not see Shakespeare's play-script as calling for anything like so decisively comforting a conclusion were deeply affected. That 'the play comes to rest … on [a] magical transformation' is arguable if only because Hunter is correct in thinking that the transformation, if it is to be achieved, must be achieved at the expense of our (the audience's) knowledge. '[T]ransformation of their world' is perhaps too broad a phrase; the issue in contest is specifically the transformation of Bertram, and the reappearance of Helena, however miraculous the camera can make it seem, is not a subordination but a diversion from that issue. It is, in any case, a diversion that is grandly effective in the BBC production, but unstageable. In the theatre the audience's knowledge that Helena did not die, but was very much alive and busily organising much of Acts 3 and 5, and its consciousness of the disgraced Bertram cannot be overridden by frame after frame of ecstatic faces. The stage cannot be so compelling psychologically at the expense of our consciousness of the whole social moment. And indeed had Shakespeare intended so strong an effect he would have employed means like those he uses in The Winter's Tale, allowing the audience, too, to believe Helena dead, and staging her reappearance with something closer to the metaphor and ritual Paulina and the Statue's presence impose on Leontes.

I suspect, however, that Shakespeare would not have been at all dismayed by Moshinsky's extremely tender last scene; he might well have quoted Robert Frost to the effect that "The poem is entitled to everything in it'. The point is that although Shakespeare's text seems, to me at least, to demand a more problematic balance between salt and honey, the sonnet-writer's sal and mel, than Moshinsky gives it, his All's Well is a distinguished demonstration of the open nature of dramatic art, whose possibilities for realising 'new' meanings implicit in play-scripts only increase with new technologies. This is perhaps not a bad point with which to end, for when the playwright has done his best, it is finally his collaborators who must make the play theatre.

Further Reading

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Berry, Ralph. "Stratford Festival Canada." Shakespeare Quarterly 29, No. 2 (Spring 1978): 222-28.

Praises individual performances in David Jones's 1978 staging of All's Well that Ends Well, but describes the production as a whole as "unsatisfying."

Edinborough, Arnold. "A New Stratford Festival." Shakespeare Quarterly V, No. 1 (Winter 1954): 47-50.

Favorable review of Tyrone Guthrie's 1954 production of All's Well that Ends Well

Review of All's Well that Ends Well. The European Magazine and London Review 27 (January 1795): 48.

Favorable review of J. P. Kemble's 1795 production of All's Well that Ends Well at Drury Lane.

Evans, Gareth Lloyd. "Shakespeare in Stratford and London, 1981." Shakespeare Quarterly 33, No. 2 (Summer 1982): 184-88.

Favorable review that refers to Trevor Nunn's 1981-83 staging of All's Well that Ends Well as the "finest production of the year."

Fleming, Peter. Review of All's Well that Ends Well. Spectator 194, No. 6619 (6 May 1955): 586.

Somewhat favorable review that praises the scenery and lighting in Noel Willman's 1955 production of All's Well that Ends Well and maintains that as a whole, the production was "good."

Hewes, Henry. "Sunrise at ASFTA." The New York Times Saturday Review XLII, No. 34 (22 August 1959): 23.

Praises John Houseman's 1959 production of All's Well that Ends Well and his ability to direct the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre and Academy company in such a way as to make "this unpopular play work."

Greenwald, Michael L. "The Owl and the Cuckoo." In Directions by Indirections: John Barton of the Royal Shakespeare Company, pp. 81-114. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985.

Detailed assessment of Barton's 1967 production of All's Well that Ends Well in which the critic claims that the most successful aspect of the performance was "its ability to make real several of Shakespeare's most enigmatic characters."

Kroll, Jack. "All's Well on the Royal Road." Newsweek CI, No. 17 (25 April 1983): 98.

Favorable review of Trevor Nunn's 1981-83 production of All's Well that Ends Well in which the critic credits Nunn with finding "the emotional heart of the play."

Matthews, John F. "Poor Shakespear!" In Shaw's Dramatic Criticism (1895-98), pp. 12-18. New York: Hill and Wang, 1959.

Lengthy review of the Irving Dramatic Club's 1985 performance of All's Well that Ends Well in which the critic conveys his disappointment in the company's ability to "play Shakespear for Shakespear's sake," and to eliminate the commercialism which typically is an aspect of performances of Shakespeare's plays.

McGlinchee, Claire. "Stratford, Connecticut, Shakespeare Festival, 1959." Shakespeare Quarterly X (Autumn 1959): 573-76.

Favorable review that praises John Houseman's direction of All's Well that Ends Well in 1959.

Simon, John. "A Tale of Two Wills." New York 11, No. 30 (24 July 1978): 70.

Argues that Wilford Leach's farcical interpretation of All's Well that Ends Well in 1978 at Central Park's Delacorte stage reduces the production to a play not even recognizable as All's Well.

"Covent-Garden Theatre." The Times, No. 14982 (13 October 1832): 3.

Unfavorable review which questions the decision to produce All's Well that Ends Well at all, and maintains that in Frederick Reynolds's 1832 production, the principal actors were not at all suited to their roles.

Trewin, J. C. Review of All's Well that Ends Well. The Illustrated London News 270, No. 7002 (January 1982): 8.

Favorable review of Trevor Nunn's 1982 staging of All's Well that Ends Well at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

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All's Well That Ends Well (Vol. 38)