Goldman’s Premieres Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

First produced in New York, James Goldman’s play The Lion in Winter, set in medieval France, resonated with modern readers and became the basis of an award-winning film 1968 starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole.

Summary of Event

On March 2, 1966, a play that ran counter to the mid-1960’s theatrical demand for relevance and modernity opened on Broadway. James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter captured the imaginations of theatergoers by representing those who had lived eight hundred years earlier in a recognizable way to those living in the mid-twentieth century. The play was set in King Henry II’s Henry II winter retreat in Chinon, France, in 1183. Lion in Winter, The (Goldman) Theater;historical drama [kw]Goldman’s The Lion in Winter Premieres (Mar. 2, 1966)[Goldmans The Lion in Winter Premieres] [kw]Lion in Winter Premieres, Goldman’s The (Mar. 2, 1966) Lion in Winter, The (Goldman) Theater;historical drama [g]North America;Mar. 2, 1966: Goldman’s The Lion in Winter Premieres[08840] [g]United States;Mar. 2, 1966: Goldman’s The Lion in Winter Premieres[08840] [c]Theater;Mar. 2, 1966: Goldman’s The Lion in Winter Premieres[08840] Goldman, James Willman, Noel Harris, Rosemary

In retrospect, Goldman, who became known as a playwright with a fascination for history, might seem the logical candidate to offset the more modern with the historical; before 1966, however, Goldman’s plays had been set in the present. The plays included They Might Be Giants (1961); Blood, Sweat, and Stanley Poole (1961); and A Family Affair (1962). The Lion in Winter, however, might not be as anomalous as first seems. John Simon, writing for The New Leader, and Martin Gottfried, in Women’s Wear Daily, faulted the unabashed anachronism of the play’s dialogue. Goldman, Simon suggested, turned a twelfth century royal family into a television sitcom. What these reviewers lamented in the play—its modern-sounding language—was no doubt a major factor in its success.

The dialogue was not the only modern element in The Lion in Winter. One of the major concerns of mid-twentieth century culture, reflected in the drama, was the fragmentation of the traditional family. Goldman’s play addressed that concern by looking into the past not for a nostalgic glimpse at a stable nuclear family that, it was feared, was no longer possible. Instead, the play showed that family life in Chinon in 1183 could be just as dysfunctional as that in 1960’s America.

The Lion in Winter, which is loosely based on historical events, presents Henry Plantagenet (to take one example) flaunting before his aging wife Eleanor of Aquitaine Eleanor of Aquitaine a mistress young enough to be Eleanor’s granddaughter. Eleanor in turn taunts Henry with the specter of having slept with Henry’s father. When Henry’s sons mutiny against him, Eleanor fans the flames by promising to help her sons against her husband, who in turn imprisons her. With one son in particular, Prince Richard, the Lionhearted (who would become King Richard I of England), Eleanor’s nurturing becomes positively oedipal. If Eleanor’s influence on Richard were not enough for Henry to bear, though, what devastates Henry is the discovery of Richard’s sexual affair with Philip II of France (though early reviewers found the scene an unbelievable overreaction).

The odd combination of modern sensibilities (and, to some extent, modern dialogue) and historical material was not, of course, Goldman’s innovation. Robert Bolt’s similar treatment of Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons Man for All Seasons, A (Bolt) (1961) had been a surprise hit on Broadway five years earlier, running for nearly a year and a half (637 performances). The producers of The Lion in Winter (E. V. Wolsk, W. A. Hyman, Alan King, and Emanuel Azenberg), hoping for similar success with what they perceived was a similar theatrical property, secured the director of Bolt’s play, British actor-director Noel Willman, to work the same magic for The Lion in Winter. Willman did not quite do that.

The legend about The Lion in Winter is that it “bombed” on Broadway and then succeeded as an award-winning film Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Lion in Winter[Lion in Winter] (1968). The play was a “bomb” only in contrast to its own film version or to a hit such as A Man for All Seasons. The Lion in Winter ran for nearly three months, March 2 to May 21, 1966, for ninety-two performances (which was by no means a hit). It is true that the play’s backers did not turn a profit, but this does not mean the play was a flop. Also, while it is undeniable that the play was not as big a hit as the film, neither critically nor financially, it did earn Rosemary Harris a Tony Award Tony Awards for Best Actress and Willman a Tony nomination for Best Director.

The film was the bigger winner, as Goldman himself won the Oscar Academy Awards;Best Screenplay for Best Screenplay as well as the American Screen Writers Guild (now Writers Guild of America) Award, the British Screenwriters Guild Award, the Golden Globe Golden Globe Awards , the British Academy of Film and Television Award, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award. In addition, Katharine Hepburn won the Oscar for Best Actress Academy Awards;Best Actress and John Barry won the Oscar for Best Score Academy Awards;Best Score . Peter O’Toole was nominated for an Oscar, and he won the Golden Globe as Best Actor. The film also received Oscar nominations for Costume Design (Margaret Furse).

The place of The Lion in Winter as a perennial in the American dramatic repertoire is evidenced not only by an uninterrupted production record of the stage play in college and community theaters but also by a Broadway revival in 1999 and a remake of the film, without change of script, in 2004. The 1999 production, starring Laurence Fishburne as Henry and Stockard Channing as Eleanor, was the last play to appear at the Criterion Center Stage Right before the theater became a toy store. The 1999 production ran for ninety-three performances, just one more than the original play in 1966.

In May of 2004, the cable network Showtime produced a lavish version starring (and produced by) Patrick Stewart Stewart, Patrick as Henry and Glenn Close Close, Glen as Eleanor. Playing Henry nearly forty years after the first charges of anachronism (charges repeated in The New York Times and USA Today reviews), Stewart had time to come to terms with the criticism, which he dismissed by calling Goldman’s dialogue modern but not contemporary. Ironically, Walter Kerr had expressed a similar judgment thirty-eight years earlier in the New York Herald Tribune. The sole dissenting voice on the “anachronism” issue, Kerr found Goldman’s dialogue to be the perfect solution to the problem of making the twelfth century seem real in the twentieth, a judgment seemingly confirmed in the twenty-first century.


The Lion in Winter paradoxically captures aspects both of the modern mind at a specific time (the mid-1960’s) and of human nature that is timeless. A blurb from an AVCO Embassy Films promotional short, “The Making of The Lion in Winter,” captures the idea perfectly with the following words: “Back through time to the Twelfth Century—for a modern look at Mankind.” A promotional pamphlet for the film illustrates the concept by juxtaposing thirteenth century likenesses of Henry and Eleanor with production stills of Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn playing the two historical figures.

That Goldman’s script, unchanged, is still thought worthy of filming in the early twenty-first century is an indication of the timelessness of the playwright’s vision and of the enduring appeal of the work itself. Glimpsing the flesh-and-blood people behind the wars, and the maps, of late twelfth century England and France is part of what gives the play its power. One scene in the promotional short superimposes Henry’s marching armies on a map of southern England and northern France, emphasizing that in the Middle Ages, before the rise of the nation-state, lands were people.

Critic Stanley Kauffmann, in a New York Times review of the play, faults its historical vision by suggesting that Goldman asks the audience to care about who succeeds Henry on the English throne when only the people of Henry’s time would care. Goldman’s triumph, however, is that he was able to get his modern audience to care about the succession precisely because it matters to his stage characters. Ultimately, The Lion in Winter becomes not “history,” but life. Lion in Winter, The (Goldman) Theater;historical drama

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnes, Clive. Preface to The Lion in Winter. In Best American Plays, Sixth Series: 1963-1967, edited by John Gassner. New York: Crown, 1971. An appreciation by a major New York drama critic, summarizing the early reviews and analyzing the play’s flaws.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldman, James. The Lion in Winter: A Play. New York: Random House, 2004. Goldman’s classic play, in trade paperback.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harty, Kevin J. The Reel Middle Ages: American, Western and Eastern European, Middle Eastern, and Asian Films About Medieval Europe. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1999. A unique study of the representation of medieval Europe, the time period depicted in The Lion in Winter, in films.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    The Lion in Winter. AVCO Embassy Film. New York: Ronark, 1968. A brief promotional booklet for the film; mostly advertising hype, but widely distributed and containing some revealing behind-the-scenes photos and commentary by cast and crew.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weir, Alison. Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life. New York: Ballantine, 2000. A detailed account of the real events behind Gardner’s play, with contemporary portraits of the people involved, and maps of the lands they fought over.

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