The Winter’s Tale
directed by Arin Arbus
In The Winter’s Tale, a tyrant king brutalizes the kingdom of Sicily. But Theater for A New Audience’s wonderful recent production resisted the temptations that felled The Public’s cheap Julius Caesar. While that 2017 production in Central Park distorted the text in order to place Trump at the center of the show (just as the intrusive President himself would wish), TFANA gives the tyrant in The Winter’s Tale his proper place and weight. Indeed, if the play has any lesson, it is that tyranny must be met with generosity, not scorn or panicky exaggerations.
The Winter’s Tale stands alongside The Tempest, Pericles, and Cymbeline in a group of plays that could be called “tragedies that somehow escape their appointed endings.” By rights, Leontes, the king of Sicily, has written himself into a tragedy. Like Lear, he violently rejects his deserving daughter. Like Othello, he gives himself over to a jealousy that kills his loyal wife. Yet, while Leontes behaves no better than these men, somehow, he avoids their fates.
He is Sicily’s king, so any corruption in himself must disfigure the body politic. Leontes’s viciousness ultimately causes the deaths of his counsellor, his son, and (he believes) his queen. But all the harm he does is physical, not moral. This is not a House of Cards-style story, where everyone has a hidden seam of wickedness and evil sticks like pitch. Here, goodness is indomitable. Though the final act’s redemption reaches the tyrant king, those around him earn it, solving their political crisis quietly with patience, faith, and trust in the truth.
No villain ruins Leontes but himself—no wicked daughters deceive him with flattery, no Iago drips poison in his ear. In an instant he becomes convinced, despite the lack of evidence, that his wife Hermione has become the lover of King Polixenes of Bohemia, his dear friend. As he spirals into self-sustaining despair, Leontes becomes a tyrant to himself, before he acts tyrannically toward others. In Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design, the stage is expansive, open, even to the heavens (snow falls intermittently). But Anatol Yusef (Leontes) contorts himself as if penned in as he falls victim to his fear. Shorter than most of the cast, he makes himself even smaller; he is his own jailer.
Leontes’s friends, followers, and family rebuke him at every turn, wishing he would allow them to do him good. If there were an external threat to refute or defeat, they might be able to do so, but they can’t find a way to cajole him into opening the door he has barred shut. As Leontes’s madness threatens them, each manages to do what he cannot: hold onto their interior freedom and trust they will find a way out, even if they cannot see it yet. More than that, they trust that the moral choice will lead them to this escape—or will lead others to take up the burden when they can go no further.
The trap for Camillo, a royal adviser, springs when Leontes orders him to poison Polixenes. To find his way out of an impossible situation, Camillo becomes a paradox: a loyal turncoat. He betrays his master’s plan and helps Polixenes escape, defending his king from his self-willed evil even at the expense of his affection.
Antigonus, another courtier, defends Leontes’s newborn daughter from her suspicious father, who has ordered her execution. The most Antigonus can accomplish with his pleading is to have the sentence commuted to exposure—Leontes commands Antigonus to abandon the baby Perdita on a foreign shore “where chance may nurse or end it.” In Bohemia, Antigonus sacrifices his life to keep Perdita safe for one moment more, by deliberately drawing off the bear that menaces the cradle. He cannot save the baby for good, but, moment by moment, he protects her so that she might be saved by someone who can do what he cannot.
Hermione is the most adamant of all. Despite all that Leontes does to persecute her—forcing her to deliver her baby in prison, bringing her to trial for treason when she is still weak from labor—her faith does not waiver. She persists in defending her own innocence, and, in what must be the greater act of hope, in believing that the king’s madness must come to an end. When her husband sends her (heavily pregnant) to prison, she says, “Adieu, my lord: I never wish’d to see you sorry; now I trust I shall.” Kelley Curran movingly conveys Hermione’s dignity and faith, enduring such degradations that we can barely believe she has kept either one.
Hermione spends 16 years either in hiding or transformed into a statue (in this production, the actress playing Paulina, her co-conspirator, seemed to lean toward the former interpretation and Hermione the latter). Either is an extraordinary act of trust that the crisis will end. She settles into an exile of sorts, trusting that her lost daughter will arrive, as prophesied, to call her forth again and clear her name. A modern audience might find this passivity troubling, wishing for an action-taking Lady Macbeth in her stead. But Hermione’s incorruptibility (physical and moral) is a pledge of faith. It requires as much daring as reckless action and seldom receives as much praise.
Why can Hermione, who has truly been betrayed, muster this faith, when Leontes crumbles, undone by the flimsiest of suspicions? Leontes’s fearfulness reframes the whole world as diseased. When he discovers that Camillo has left rather than become a murderer at the king’s command, he takes it not as a rebuke, but as evidence that everything is corrupt. “All’s true that is mistrusted,” he catechizes himself. If Camillo could abandon him, it’s all the more proof that his wife has betrayed him as well.
He sees himself as the only sane man, the only one willing to face the darkness of the world. “How blest am I,” he says, “in my true opinion.” If others do not recoil, it is because they haven’t caught on to the cruel trick of the world yet:
“There may be in the cup
A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
The abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk,
and seen the spider.”
Perhaps Leontes’s paranoia is the tyrant’s curse. Yet the play offers another explanation, a psychological distinction embodied by the citizens of the two countries, Sicily and Bohemia. Leontes personifies one end of what Scott Alexander calls the “Survive/Thrive” spectrum. People with “survive” mindset believe they live in a precarious world, one ruled by scarcity, in which they can only, at best, narrowly and temporarily avoid disaster. Those with the “thrive” mindset believe that life is relatively safe, and now is the time to live expansively and take risks.
We don’t meet characters living in a “thrive” culture until Act Four, when the action shifts to Bohemia. The story skips forward 16 years, so we can meet Perdita, the lost princess rescued by a shepherd and his doltish son (John Keating and Ed Malone, both excellent). In the countryside (costumed in a mix of overalls and ‘80s attire by Emily Rebholz), the thrive mentality is given full rein, arguably to excess.
In Sicily, hope and fidelity seem like profligate madness when tyranny reigns. In peaceful Bohemia, the peasantry seems punch-drunk. Perdita loves a man who is above her station. Her adoptive brother traipses around with his two lovers (as the text of the play specifies), both heavily pregnant (as it does not specify).
The overflowing bounty of the countryside presents a target for the scheming Autolycus (Arnie Burton, brilliant at misusing his charisma). He sells fripperies and picks pockets, though as he walks away with more purses than will fit down his pants, we have no sense that he has seriously harmed his victims. The Bohemian peasants exist among such fecundity that nothing taken is missed.
Indeed, the transition from Sicily to Bohemia is jarring. While in Sicily, the stakes were life and death, in Bohemia, everything seems tinged with farce. Now Polixenes plays the tyrant, as he threatens Perdita’s adoptive family with death for (as he sees it) conspiring to help her seduce his son. But they escape him easily, and their danger only offers another opportunity for Autolycus to fool and fleece them.
For this reason, perhaps, the story can only come to an end in the graver kingdom of Sicily. Camillo, Antigonus, and Hermione didn’t have the Bohemian expectation of endless bounty. Yet they refuse to narrow themselves to fit into Leontes’s extreme “survive” mentality. They hold to the faith that the “thrive” mentality reflects the truth of our condition, and all experience to the contrary can only be a temporary aberration. Each has a smaller yet weighty conviction that evil will not triumph, not even in the heart of one man. And their faith is proven correct.
As the show concludes, the shepherds-turned-gentlemen, now in Polixenes’s good graces as the foster family of his daughter-in-law, have the last laugh on Autolycus. In the thief’s final scene, he robs the shepherd and his son one last time (a plausible addition, one not required by the text). He gets everything he wants: their money, their promise to plead for him with Polixenes, and evidence, he thinks, of their inferiority. Autolycus shares a laugh with the audience about the absurdity of these simpletons being elevated to lords.
But rifle through their wallets as he may, they carry something about them that he doesn’t think to envy. The two men have an expansiveness to them. They take pleasure in the reunion of Perdita and her family. Passion is flowing out over the whole kingdom: A courtier reports that “Who was most marble there changed colour.” And Autolycus can only think that none of this benefits him.
Leontes keeps shrinking his own world, leaving no room for trust or love. Autolycus is, as his name suggested, an artist of autonomy, able to wriggle his way out of anything. Both of them, in their own ways, cut themselves off from hope in something other than themselves.
Together, they suggest that the first victim of a tyrant or a con-man is always himself. A resistance does not need to answer cruelty and crudity in the language of the tyrant’s own actions. After all, he can’t be outdone; he has already enslaved himself to his own passions. Opposition, both political and personal, can take the form of an invitation to virtue (as in Sicily), and even to joy (Bohemia).
Camillo, Antigonus, and Hermione do not only offer a “no” to Leontes, they make their lives a witness to saying “yes” to hope. They are part of an invisible conspiracy—they do not coordinate their actions as part of a larger plan, but, because each denies evil where he or she can, and tries to leave room for the aversion of tragedy, they navigate their way from tragedy to miracle.
The ending is too improbable for anyone but the author to have masterminded. Redemption depended on a willingness to act without knowing or designing the larger picture—a reward not always forthcoming in the real world. To make the right choice, to avoid being mastered by tyrants (internal or external), “It is required you do awake your faith.” Theater for a New Audience’s production will make believers of its patrons.