by Rick Curtiss, dramaturg
The most quoted line in The Winter’s Tale is never spoken. It’s Shakespeare’s famous stage direction,
Exeunt, pursued by a bear
Where a character, after performing a grizzly task, is chased off the stage. It is a moment that demands pause. A bear chases him off the stage? There isn’t a hint or prophecy or warning of “bears in these parts,” and within five words a bear appears and disappears.
Why the bear didn’t just eat the baby is beyond me.
Did I mention there is a baby in the scene?
It’s all too reminiscent of an oft repeated family legend,
Please bear with me–
In the early nineteen fifties a bear cub was found and killed outside a logging camp in the northwest corner of Montana. A few days later, Jaunita Curtiss was doing chores at the camp and her daughter Ida, not quite two, was playing outside. When Juanita turned to check on Ida, instead of a baby she saw a sow bear lumbering back into the woods on three legs.
Exeunt, bear holding the baby
Within five words a bear appeared and disappeared.
Juanita, terrified, got everyone at the camp together hoping to find the bear before it got hungry. They searched most of the day and eventually tracked down the kidnapper sans baby. They cornered and killed the mama bear, and continued searching for (what’s left of) Ida. It was a grim task.
The next morning they discovered the bear’s den. Inside they found an unharmed, crying, not quite two year old. Mother and daughter were reunited. What a moment that must have been. To wait through the night sure the child is dead only to be proven wrong the next morning—the best kind of wrong. It was a rarity, a miracle, a shouldn’t have been.
Ida’s only account of the tale was a reference to the “big chi-chis.”
The Curtiss family figured that the mama bear was trying to replace her cub. I imagine the mama bear spotted the human baby after just losing her own. “There is one,” she thought, “Not quite right, but close, and one not quite right baby is better than none at all.” Mother and daughter were reunited. What a moment that must have been. It was a rarity, a miracle, a shouldn’t have been.
They say the mama bear gave suck to baby Ida from her big bear teats, surely a bittersweet moment.
Shakespeare must have known that bears have a great sense of justice and mercy.
A Winter’s Tale is about mothers and daughters, death and miracles, and briefly it’s about a bear.
But the question remains: How do we do it on stage?
I won’t answer that here, but I assure you it doesn’t involve a man in a bear costume.