Don’t go looking to The Lion in Winter for history. Nothing actually happens during the course of the play — no wars are started or ended, no murders take place and no crowns tumble. Yet all these things almost happen, time and again, and it is the precarious balancing act that Goldman’s characters perform that makes the play so hypnotically compelling.
For those who haven’t seen the filmed version of the play (and shame on you if you haven’t, stop reading right now and go watch the bloody thing), The Lion In Winter details one rather dysfunctional family’s Christmas gathering in France. Of course, the family is that of Henry II of England (including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionhearted and the future King John, among others); the invited guest is Philip Capet of France, and the holiday gathering takes place at Henry’s castle of Chinon. No one’s mind is on presents; rather, everyone is thinking of provinces — who controls them, who gives up which in exchange for which concession, and so on. A merrier holiday gathering could hardly be imagined.
Goldman’s great success in the play is in his dialogue. His characters all carry around unsheathed and bloodied rapier wits. We get to know them, not through their actions, but rather through their words, through the verbal snares they set and the verbal barbs they cast at one another. Therein lies, also, the great tragedy of the play. No one can show affection without being suspected of artifice, no one can give a kind word without receiving cruel treatment. And yet, we can see the characters aching, longing for love underneath the jousting — Eleanor’s almost-but-not-quite admissions that she wants Henry back, Richard’s heartbreaking confession to Philip. It all turns viciously sour in the end, though. Eleanor’s faint overtures are met with skepticism and she has no choice but to play the game once more; Richard’s show of emotion becomes just another dagger for Philip to drive into Henry’s back.
As history, the play isn’t quite perfect — everyone has a suspiciously anachronistic turn of phrase, and Henry’s breezy knowledge of Lear may well raise an eyebrow. But that isn’t the point. Goldman has grounded his setting historically and then let the characters go to work on one another, with some of the wittiest, most brutal and most heart-wrenching turns of phrase I’ve heard — and sometimes all three at once. The conversation — for that’s what the play truly is, an extended conversation as opposed to a narrative — twists and turns so sharply that a casual reader might find himself bewildered.
That’s the price one pays for writing this crisp, however; slack readers may find themselves confused by the constant shifts in alliances and allegiances, the roller coaster-fast changes in tone and mood. The attentive reader, the one who treasures whip-crack sharp writing and characters so sharply delineated that their edges seem to cut, that reader will read and re-read The Lion In Winter and gain something new from it every time.
(Random House, 1964)