On last Thursday evening, while the rain lashed at the windows of La Petite Sweet, members of the St. Luke Presbyterian Church book group discussed The Lion in Winter, a play by James Goldman. It was the first time that we had met at the bakery/dessert shop in Westmont, Illinois. The owners set us up with a couch, comfy chairs, and handy tables, and we selected coffees, teas, and cocoa. With a platter of assorted cookies, we sat for nearly two-and-a-half hours discussing the lives of twelfth-century monarchs and a contemporary comic drama about them.
We spent more time discussing history than the play itself. Several people in our group have read British history extensively and visited sites related to Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John. I used my library's Gale Virtual Reference to find articles from a variety of encyclopedias about all but Geoffrey, about whom less is written - probably because he did not become king like his two brothers. I also used the library's color copier to print an 11 x 17 map showing how much of France was under Henry II's control, thanks to his marriage to the beautiful and powerful Eleanor. One group member brought a book about Eleanor, and another a pocket-sized guide to British monarchs. Armed with these reference sources, we recounted stories about these ruthless monarchs who are still remembered after 800 years.
James Goldman wrote a variety of plays, screenplays, and novels, but The Lion in Winter was his major success. It was reviewed poorly on Broadway in 1966, but the 1968 movie with Peter O'Toole and Kathryn Hepburn was highly acclaimed. It has been revived frequently on professional and amateur stages. With simple settings and a limited number of characters, it is easy to stage, and it has numerous memorable lines. Still, several of us thought it was unsatisfying as reading. Goldman weaves 1960s pop psychology into dialogue. I doubt that the characters were so self-aware and full of historical perspective in 1183.
As light entertainment The Lion in Winter serves well, and it can introduce many topics. It made a great discussion choice.
By the way, La Petite Sweet cookies are excellent. I also recommend the cakes and cheesecakes.
Goldman, James. The Lion in Winter. Random House, 1966. No ISBN.