While some today would call it repugnant or even pernicious, the story of Beauty and the Beast remains one of our most popular and enduring myths. Walt Disney's traditional version, first as a feature-length cartoon and now as a musical, has proved immensely successful, and Sydney Pollack's remake of Billy Wilder's Sabrina , a modern variation on the myth, opened this past Christmas in theatres throughout the country. In both versions of Sabrina , a young woman, the daughter of a chauffeur, falls obsessively in love with the younger son of the spectacularly rich family her father serves. The older brother intervenes (for financial, not romantic reasons): Sabrina falls in love with him, and he, without intending it, falls in love with her. At the end of the film, whether it is Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart on a ship to Paris or Julia Ormond and Harrison Ford on a street in Paris, the audience is asked not only to believe that a workaholic businessman has been rescued and transformed by a beautiful young woman, but to feel, in their final embrace, joy and hope for their future.
All's Well That Ends Well tells much the same story, while simultaneously making more explicit than Hollywood ever would both the failings of the world we live in and the elements of the story that are drawn from fairy tales. Helena, a poor and beautiful young woman, loves Bertram, the son of the rich Countess who has adopted her. Following him to Paris, she cures, though means more magic than medicinal, the King of France and is rewarded with marriage to Bertram. Although he rejects her and then betrays her, in a dark bed in Florence, Helena conspires to win him "doubly," and at the end of the play Bertram affirms he will "love her dearly--ever, ever dearly." Despite its title and its apparently happy ending, it is not altogether clear just what an audience is asked to believe and feel at the end of All's Well .
All's Well That Ends Well has often been called a problem comedy, in part because its characters and events resist the comic form that seeks to contain and define them. At the same time, the elements we might easily accept in a fairy tale--the King's miraculous cure and his gift of Bertram to Helena, the bed trick, Helena's apparent death and resurrection, the marvelous reconciliation of husband and wife that ends the play--do not rest quite comfortably with our sense of what the world and its people are really like. And while Hollywood's romantic comedies would have us lose that sense of the world and its people for as long as the film runs, All's Well insists we retain it, for Shakespeare, as he often does, has placed real people in the unreal situations he drew from his sources. The conventions of comedy tell us not only that Helena and Bertram should be and will be reconciled at the end, but also that we should be and will be pleases when it happens, for they will live together happily ever after. But All's Well also makes us aware, more insistent;y than either Sabrina does, that the woman may love the man too obsessively and that the man may not be worthy of the woman or capable of living out "to the edge of doom" his promise to "love her dearly--ever, ever dearly."
Although it is always possible to emphasize that dark side of All's Well and make its disquieting elements clearly felt, most productions prefer to play it as a fairy tale, a romantic comedy in which an unattractive man is ultimately rescued and transformed by the love of a wise and virtuous woman. But what has such a reading of All's Well to do with women and men who live, as we often put it, in the real world of 1996, where generosity and love go too often unrepaid, where dreams too often do not come true? In his recent Nobel Lecture, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney spoke of his effort "to make space in my reckoning and my imagining for the marvelous as well as the murderous." The reconciliation of Helena and Bertram that the comic genre demands and the script at least allows is undoubtedly marvelous, although probably not so marvelous as those larger reconciliations for which we now allow ourselves to hope--of Arabs and Israelis in the Middle East, of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. As we ordinarily encounter it on stage, All's Well That Ends Well lets "wonder seem familiar": the implausible, miraculous reconciliation of Helena and Bertram feels not conventional nor contrived, but convincing, bringing us joy and through it some space in our reckoning and our imagining for the marvelous, for the possibility that we might, against all plausible expectation, transform our lives and the fragile planet we share with forgiveness and love.
Michael J. Collins