By Adam Corrigan Holowitz
Consider “The Lion in Winter” as an exploration into the world of American celebrity through the guise of British history.
In the 1960s America was obsessed with celebrity culture and all things medieval. Productions set in this period frequently critiqued those who rose to fame on the big screen and television.
The hit musical “Camelot” premiered in 1960 at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre before going to Broadway. Disney released “The Sword in the Stone” in 1963 and then in 1966 the American screenwriter and playwright James Goldman wrote the play “The Lion in Winter”.
While both “Camelot” and “Sword in the Stone” presented a magical version of medieval Briton, “The Lion in Winter” presented an intimate family saga set against the backdrop of 1180s England.
Celebrity is America’s Royalty
The playwright of “The Lion in Winter” James Goldman was primarily a screen and television writer. He was also the older brother of screenwriter William Goldman, who wrote “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”.
Both Goldman brothers were starting their writing careers in the 1960s, this was just as the Hollywood star system was disappearing. This meant that big movie producers had much less control over the public image of the actors appearing in their films. Tabloids now controlled which stories about the stars got out. Americans were starting to find out what their beloved and “squeaky clean” celebrities were really up to. The public was becoming more interested in the backrooms and bedrooms of celebrity and less about the glamour.
So how does this slice of ancient British history presented in “The Lion in Winter” act as a parable for American celebrity culture?
Let’s look at the family tree.
In the play we have Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. They are married but Eleanor is being kept in prison by Henry. Visiting the court is Phillip II of France. Phillip is the son of Eleanor’s first husband Louis IIV, by his third wife. Phillip is having an on again off again affair with Henry and Eleanor’s son Richard the Lionheart. Meanwhile Henry II is having an affair with Phillip’s half-sister Alais- who is the daughter of his wife’s first husband.
It seems like inbreeding- but not quite. It also is a bit like the complicated world of Hollywood relationships.
The Innocence of 1950s Ended When Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor Had an Affair
The innocence, or perceived innocence, of the 1950s ended in 1959 when Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor had an affair and Debbie Reynolds divorced Fisher. Eddie and Debbie had been America’s sweethearts.
As the recently departed and much missed Carrie Fisher, the daughter of Eddie and Debbie, said “celebrity is America’s royalty”.
Fisher in her acclaimed solo show “Wishful Drinking” had a section where a giant chalkboard of twelve or so headshots would come on stage.
She would explain in a hilarious deadpan how everyone on that board, including Elizabeth Taylor, Mike Todd, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, had been married to one another at some point in time. The punchline to this bit is that Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd was flirting with Elizabeth Taylor’s grandson Rhys Tivey but wanted to know if they were actually related.
Fisher’s answer was “you are related by scandal”.
It is a similar tangle of marriages, divorces and affairs to the one depicted in “The Lion in Winter”.
Despite its British/French setting, the “The Lion in Winter” is as American as apple pie.
It speaks to the American anxieties around family and dysfunctional family. Especially to the anxiety of family coming together at Christmas. The action of the play sets entirely during Christmas at the court. Estranged family members are forced to be close to one another. And worse, they have to try, though without much effort, to appear to enjoy themselves.
“The Lion in Winter” is similar to another play recently produced by the Grand, “Other Desert Cities”.
Like “The Lion in Winter”, “Other Desert Cities” is set at Christmas but in a California beach house, not a cold castle. In both plays family tempers boil as old wounds are re-opened. The catalyst for action in both plays is a family member coming from far away, into the house and upsetting the balance. In “Other Desert Cities” it is the daughter, Brooke, coming from the east coast. In “The Lion in Winter” it is Eleanor of Aquitaine who wants Richard on the throne and will not give up the region of Aquitaine to John.
The language of “The Lion in Winter” is satirical in its anachronisms. It sounds more like the conversations had by a traditional nuclear family. Alais comments on John’s pimples. Henry retorts that he is just a teenager. John is always claiming to be daddy’s favourites. If you close your eyes you might think you are listening to a back seat of children on their way to Disney Land.
The strength of “The Lion in Winter” is that it is a veiled satire of contemporary American life. It prods, pokes and laughs at our modern world from behind the veil of history.