When James Goldman wrote The Lion in Winter in 1966, he fully acknowledged he was writing fiction. He sat down to imagine a holiday weekend at the court of King Henry II and began with a handful of outlandish historical accounts like Henry imprisoning his wife Eleanor in a tower only to let her out for holiday meals. But the details of what these characters actually said and did, he just made up. In doing so, he was able to make a dysfunctional royal family in 1183 look more like our own dysfunctional families and bring us closer to them than any history book ever could.
People often say, “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” Looking back to 1183, however, it’s hard to fathom that surviving historic accounts of kings and queens are accurate. Written by the victors, these stories have traveled a ragged path to us over hundreds of years. They’ve been repeatedly reflected and refracted through the lenses of politics and religion like this crazy hall of mirrors contorting hearsay into fact and hyperbole into legend. But upon reflection, perhaps we stand to learn as much from the fictions as the facts.
In Act II, Eleanor says to her children, “It’s 1183 and we’re still barbarians.” Each time I hear that line, it makes me reflect on the ways in which we’ve progressed as a society and the ways in which we haven’t. We can voyage to distant Mars and create cures for diseases, but we still wage morally dubious wars and commit heinous acts of violence. Hundreds of years from now, it would be fascinating to see what’s gleaned from the various contradictory accounts of recent events. Will future historians believe CNN or Breitbart, or will they simply blend the two together to write the chapter on the early years of the 21st century?
Viewing our history as this mirrored funhouse of fact and fiction perhaps makes it easier to see that the common denominator in all of our historic battles and power struggles is us. As human beings, are we hardwired for violence? Is it possible that we as a society are well aware of our history and are doomed to repeat it anyway? If yes, can anything break our cycle of treachery and greed? I suppose only time will tell.
Luckily, we have some deliciously wicked, fictionalized royals to help pass the time. Perhaps they’ll reflect back to us something about human progress or lack thereof. I like to imagine Eleanor imprisoned in 12th century France dropping wisdom from her tower with something wonderfully anachronistic like, “Hey, you out there. Yeah, you! It’s 2019. Are we still barbarians?”
This production is sponsored by:
The Pioneer Theatre Guild