The one piece of "All's Well"'s action that seems impossible to do with
only eight actors on hand Noel solves by recruiting three members of the
audience to serve as three noble bachelors of the French king's court who
are proposed to the heroine, Helena (Elizabeth Aspenlieder),
as possible mates. This is in one way a brilliant stroke --
the audience recruits are willing and embarrassed in just the way one imagines
the French bachelors would be. But in another way this solution is
a notable failure, because it fudges the opportunity to show how the prospect
of being wed to upstart Helena is regarded by her beloved Bertram (Dan
McCleary)'s peers in the peerage. In spite of competent to sterling
performances, this "All's Well" feels a bit sketchy, and the choices director
Noel has made in casting and emphasis underline the factors that make this
play one of the "problem" comedies. This may not be a bad thing:
it's a production that will lend itself to lively post performance discussion,
and offer plenty of opportunity for students to examine issues of class
and gender, and to articulate their beliefs about what combination of desire-respect-friendship
should be the basis for a happy marriage. The students, and the audience
generally, will probably conclude that the married pair in this play
aren't likely to "end well" at all -- and that's a problem all right, at
least for those of us who see the play as one whose deep structure demands
a joyful resolution.
To back up to the plot's premise: Helena , the orphaned daughter of a respected physician, was raised in he household of the Countess of Rossillion (Christine Adaire), where she idolized the countess' son, Bertram. Helena's childhood playfellow has grown into a handsome and accomplished young man who is also spoiled and selfish, and would never consider marrying a woman like Helena-- a fatherless commoner, far beneath his exalted station. To make herself worthy of being a noble's bride, Helena sets out to rise in the world. Hearing that King of France (John Douglas Thompson) has a wasting disease that is likely to kill him, a disease that her father taught her how to cure, Helena goes to the capital and talks her way into the royal presence. The king is resigned to die and wants no more doctors quacking him, but Helena believes that her father's healing arts are equal to the challenge: to persuade the king she offers to forfeit her life if her remedy fails. Her promised reward will be that she may choose in marriage any of the king's loyal subjects (guess who). Helena succeeds in healing the king, and is duly elevated and married to her love object Bertram. But Bertram is not won, merely wed. The young man accepts a commission and flees abroad to the Italian wars, vowing that he will never live with Helena as a husband until she has fulfilled even more impossible tasks on top of the miracle of healing she has already performed. Bertram no sooner gets to Italy than he courts Diana ( Torbjornsen), another young woman beneath his station. As soon as he wins her --as he thinks, this is one of the "bed trick' plots-- he repudiates her, too.
At least in its more common form, the one in which the clever or good young nobody wins half the kingdom and the hand of the princess in marriage, "All's Well" is the most familiar of folk tales. Some version of it is a standard adolescent fantasy, even today. The marriage that concludes it is a happy ending ---- because it goes without saying that the princess is a prize to be won. Either she will love and respect the man to whom she is given, or her opinion scarcely matters. The commoner become king will bed his princess and breed little royals, and that's enough.
But the female variant on this theme is ancient, too. Noel's production for Shakespeare & Company frames "All's Well" with the version that is most likely the play's source, from Boccachio's Decameron. In it, the story is categorized as one in which "people by dint of their own efforts achieve an object they greatly desired, or recovered a thing previously lost" --which brings us to the reason "All's Well" has been seen as a problem play while the folk tale is simple wish fulfillment: men, generally, are viewed as subjects, women as objects. To say that a man achieved his desired woman by dint of his own efforts and lived happily ever after is to say what most cultures say in many different ways: "Only the brave deserve the fair", for instance. Well, why is that? What does "deserve" have to do with it? If women generally admire bravery, and men generally admire beauty, then presumably both get what they want. But suppose a particular women doesn't give a fig for courage in a male, and wants beauty? And suppose that Helena's courage and intelligence and professional success in the medical , which convinces the King of France that she deserves whatever she wants, is repulsive in the eyes of the particular man who is the object of her desire? Turning the woman into the subject of the story, and the man into the object, calls the whole enterprise into question. It's a problem -- unless....
My own theory about the origin of the "problem" of this play is that somehow during the writing it slipped into the realm of the author's own wish-fullfillment fantasy. Upstart crow Will Shakespeare is Helena, and Bertram is the glamorous young nobleman to whom the poet wrote his adoring sonnets. Therefore, like most figures too close to a personal fantasy to be available to the writer for conscious analysis, Bertram is blank as a character. The only way to avoid raising the unanswerable question, "What does s/he see in him?" is to cast as Bertram somebody with a polymorphous glamor, someone whose physical attractiveness also gives the impression of an unformed character-- someone upon whom the members of the audience can project fantasies of their own. We won't ask "What does she see in him?" because we see it too. Like his doting but sensible mother the Countess, we will want to cherish and protect Bertram from his own tendencies toward rashness and dissipation, and from the exploitation of such unfeeling rascals as Parolles-- portrayed in droll and dolorous manner by the excellent Jonathan Croy-- who would prey on his weakness and inexperience. Adaire has no trouble making us understand why her Countess wants her dangerously attractive son to acquire a healthy strong minded wife, who will reinforce his virtues and discourage his vices. (Think Joanne Woodward. Think Linda Eastman.) Dan McCleary is a fine leading man type, but as Bertram he reeks of stolid manliness. His young noble has a whim of iron. Marriage to this Bertram would be a trial for any sensitive soul, and a disaster for Aspenlieder's hypersensitive and vulnerable Helena.