This episode is part of our 2023 series recorded live with musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra plus a star-studded cast at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts. Photos of the event are courtesy of Hilary Scott.
There’s an old saying that goes: “A painful truth is better than a pleasant lie.”
In other words, even if it’s uncomfortable to be honest about something, it’s better than being dishonest. And as we’ll hear in today’s story, dishonesty is definitely not the best policy!
Our story is called “The Bitter Truth.” Versions of this tale were originally told among the Ashanti people of West Africa.
Some really great people came together to bring you this story — at a really special place!
We recorded this episode live at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with musical accompaniment by a quintet of BSO musicians: Rachel Childers on horn, Clint Foreman on flute, Catherine French on violin, Ben Levy on double bass, and Suzanne Nelsen on bassoon.
Our cast included: Lauren Ambrose, MaConnia Chesser, Scott Cohen, Josh Gondelman, and Peter Riegert.
Lauren Ambrose is an Emmy, Tony, and Grammy nominee from the award-winning Showtime series, “Yellowjackets.” She’s also starred in “Servant” on Apple TV+ and “Six Feet Under” on HBO.
MaConnia Chesser is a company member at the esteemed Shakespeare & Company, where she’s starred in numerous plays. She’s appeared at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and on the HBO series “The Wire."
Scott Cohen has starred in such television hits as “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Billions,” “Necessary Roughness,” “Allegiance,” and “The 10th Kingdom,” as well as the romantic comedy, “Kissing Jessica Stein."
Josh Gondelman is a regular panelist on Wait, Wait… Don't Tell Me, the weekly NPR news quiz. He’s also a standup comedian and Emmy-Award-winning television writer.
Peter Riegert is an actor and director with nearly 100 TV and film credits including “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Disjointed”on Netflix, plus “Animal House,” “Crossing Delancey,” and “Local Hero.” He also hosts the podcast, Peter Riegert’s Vocal Heroes.
This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Sofie Kodner. Original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.
Special thanks to everyone at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood for their assistance, including Anthony Fogg, Amy Aldrich, David Chandler Winn, Emily W. Siders, Becca Mansfield, Relyn Myrthil, Steven Palacio, James Campbell, Ricardo Mora, Paul Ginocchio, Mark Rulison, and Leah Sagan-Dworsky.
GROWN-UPS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We invite you to share your picture on Facebook and Instagram, and tag it with #CircleRoundPodcast. To access all the coloring pages for past Circle Round episodes click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.
Things To Think About After Listening
Imagine you are a queen, king, or some other ruler, and it’s time to choose a new advisor. What three traits would you want your advisor to have?
Think about those traits, then share them with a family member or friend. After that, ask them to tell you what three traits they’d want in an advisor!
NARRATOR: Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a new queen came to the throne. Her mother, the former queen, had been fair and just, and much beloved by her people. But the new queen was proud and power-hungry, fond of flattery and short of temper.
When the new queen inherited her mother’s crown, she also inherited her mother’s one and only advisor: a woman by the name of Amara. Amara had guided and advised the former queen honestly and honorably for years and years.
But when the new queen came to power, she decided she was going to make some changes.
QUEEN: I have decided I am going to make some changes! I shall hire three more advisors to join my team – each one especially picked by me!
NARRATOR: The Queen wound up selecting three new advisors who were all what you’d call “yes men,” since whatever the queen asked, or suggested, they would always say…
ADVISOR 1: / ADVISOR 2: / ADVISOR 3: YES!!!!!
NARRATOR: So, when the queen began to propose new policies – like, say…
QUEEN: Let’s make this kingdom richer! We should double taxes on every person in the land!
NARRATOR: … the three advisors never said “no.” Instead…
ADVISOR 1: YES! We should absolutely double taxes, Your Majesty!
ADVISOR 2: On every person in the land!
ADVISOR 3: What an ingenious idea!
NARRATOR: But as for Amara…
NARRATOR: … she dared to differ.
AMARA: If I may be so bold, Your Excellency… doubling taxes isn’t “ingenious” – it’s unfair! Especially for the citizens of this kingdom who can barely afford to pay taxes as it is – or put food on the table! (beat) I strongly urge you to reconsider.
NARRATOR: Well, whenever Amara spoke up like this, the three new advisors would just laugh…
ADVISOR 1: Ha ha ha!
ADVISOR 2: Hee hee hee!
ADVISOR 3: Ho ho ho!
NARRATOR: …and say things to discredit their colleague.
ADVISOR 1: Amara has been at this job for far too long, Your Majesty! [uh-MAR-uh]
ADVISOR 2: She can no longer distinguish the brilliant ideas from the bad!
ADVISOR 3: And your latest idea is brilliant!
NARRATOR: Well… fueled by the flattering fire of her sweet-talking yes men, the Queen kept suggesting more and more outrageous laws, like…
QUEEN: We should boost the productivity of our people by increasing the official work week from five days to seven!
QUEEN: We should keep our people working with a sense of purpose, and raise the retirement age to… I dunno… one-hundred?
NARRATOR: After being in power for some time, the Queen called her advisors together, to see what her royal subjects thought of her new laws.
QUEEN: Advisors! I want to know what my royal subjects think of my new laws! (beat) Do they like my policies? Am I popular with the people?
NARRATOR: Naturally, the sweet-talking trio immediately began to – you guessed it – sweet talk.
ADVISOR 1: Oh you’re extremely popular, Your Majesty!
ADVISOR 2: Your royal subjects are loving your new laws!
ADVISOR 3: Just like when your mother ruled, the people are always smiling!
ADVISOR 1: …and dancing in the streets!
ADVISOR 2: …and singing!
ADVISOR 3: They’ve never been so happy and prosperous!
NARRATOR: But as for Amara…
AMARA: Actually, Your Excellency…?
NARRATOR: …she wasn’t nearly as sweet.
AMARA: …What my colleagues say simply is not true! Far be it from me to criticize the wisdom of your actions, Your Highness, but the people are not happy. They are not prosperous. Instead, they are miserable, constantly griping about how unfair and unjust your laws are!
NARRATOR: The Queen was shocked.
QUEEN: I am shocked! How can you say such a thing, Amara? When your fellow advisors are telling me something completely different?
AMARA: Because they aren’t telling you the truth! They’re just telling you what you want to hear since – (gets interrupted mid-sentence)
ADVISOR 1: (interrupting) Your Majesty!
ADVISOR 2: You mustn’t listen to Amara!
ADVISOR 3: Like we said, she’s been at this job for far too long!
ADVISOR 1: Yes!
ADVISOR 2: You should listen to us!
ADVISOR 1: Yes!
ADVISOR 3: We’re the ones who know what’s best!
ADVISOR 1: Yes!
ADVISOR 2: Do you think we would ever lead you astray?
ADVISOR 1: Yes! (beat) I mean, no! (beat) I mean – what was the question again?
NARRATOR: Amara cast an exasperated glance at the other advisors. Then she took a breath, and turned toward the Queen.
AMARA: Your Excellency. With all due respect… I advised your mother for so many years, and did I ever lead her astray? She turned to me for everything: advice, guidance, support… friendship. Do you think I would offer you anything different?
NARRATOR: The Queen gazed at Amara. Then she cleared her throat and raised her head.
QUEEN: Listen, you four. I have grown weary of this conversation so I am going to change the subject. As you know, I am throwing a grand banquet this weekend and – (gets interrupted)
ADVISOR 1: (interrupting) Yes you are, Your Majesty!
ADVISOR 2: And it’s going to be amazing!
ADVISOR 3: The party of the century!
QUEEN: (resuming her thought) Right. And before the banquet can possibly happen, there’s much to prepare. So while I go off and meet with the cooks, bakers, and music-makers, how about you go and make me a new list of laws to pass?
ADVISOR 1: Yes, Your Majesty!
ADVISOR 2: Of course, Your Majesty!
ADVISOR 3: Whatever you say, Your Majesty!
AMARA: As you wish. Your Majesty.
NARRATOR: As the advisors swept out of the room, the Queen let out a sigh. It was true that she was hosting a banquet and there was much to prepare. But the main reason she asked her advisors to leave was she wanted time alone… to think.
QUEEN: (to herself) What Amara said about my mother… it’s true. Mother looked to that woman for everything – including friendship. (beat) But Amara never sees eye-to-eye with my other advisors! At all! So how do I know I can trust her? (beat) How do I know I can trust them?
NARRATOR: The Queen’s velvet robes trailed along the marble floor as she paced back and forth.
QUEEN: I must see what’s really going on among my royal subjects – what they really think of Their New Majesty the Queen. (beat) So I will go out into the kingdom disguised as a commoner. And I won’t rest until I get the truth… the whole truth… and nothing but the truth. Painful as it may be!
[live score music out]
[live theme music in]
NARRATOR: What do you think the Queen will learn when she ventures into the kingdom?
We’ll hear what happens, after a quick break.
[live theme music out]
[live theme music in]
NARRATOR: I’m Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to Circle Round, live at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts! Today our story is called “The Bitter Truth.”
[theme music out]
[live score music in]
NARRATOR: Before the break, the new Queen wanted to see how her people were faring under her rule. So, garbed in a servant’s frock and cloak, she mounted a horse and galloped to the nearest village. And what she saw there…
NARRATOR: …made her gasp.
QUEEN: Goodness me. Look at these people! They look miserable! Many of them are clothed in rags – and begging in the streets!
NARRATOR: From village to village the Queen rode. And in each and every one, she saw the same thing. Unhappiness. Misery. Despair.
QUEEN: I don’t understand! Three of my four advisors have been telling me the people are singing and dancing in the streets! Yet Amara – the advisor who served my mother so long, and so well – has always disagreed. (beat) Have the others been lying all this time? Has Amara been telling the truth? I must find out!
NARRATOR: The Queen returned to the palace and spent the rest of the day thinking. By nightfall, she had come up with a plan.
First thing the next morning, she paid a visit to the royal winemaker, who was making a special batch of wine for that weekend’s grand banquet. The Queen poured a tall glass and took a sip.
QUEEN: (ad-lib sip) Mmmm! Yummm! It’s perfect!!!!
NARRATOR: She then asked the winemaker to deliver a vat of the wine to her private chambers.
QUEEN: And please, leave the vat out on my balcony. Uncovered. I know such fine wine shouldn’t be exposed to the elements – it makes it go bad and bitter – but trust me. It’s just what I need!
NARRATOR: All week long, the Queen left the open vat of wine outside on the balcony. The summer sun beat down on it. Bugs flew into it. At the end of the week, a day before the banquet, the Queen poured a glass and took a sip.
QUEEN: (ad-lib sip) Ucchhh! It’s atrocious! But for my plan… it’s perfect!
NARRATOR: That evening, the Queen called her four advisors to her chamber.
ADVISOR 1: You called, Your Highness?
ADVISOR 2: How may we assist you?
ADVISOR 3: Ask us anything, and we’re sure to say yes!
AMARA: (eyes rolling, under her breath) YEAH they are!
QUEEN: Well. I called you here to ask… for advice. You see, the royal winemaker has prepared a special wine for this weekend’s banquet. I tasted his concoction, and found it to be so delicious, so scrumptious, so sweet! (beat) But I want to make sure it is truly up to snuff. So I’d like each one of you to taste this wine and tell me what you think.
ADVISOR 1: We’d be happy to do that, Your Majesty!
ADVISOR 2: We would do anything for you!
ADVISOR 3: Anything!
AMARA: (eyes rolling, under her breath) Including lying to your face!
QUEEN: Wonderful! I’ve set out four glasses here. So one at a time, take a nice big drink and let me know if this wine will please my guests as much as it pleases me!
NARRATOR: The first advisor picked up his glass and took a gulp.
ADVISOR 1: (ad-lib big gulp)
NARRATOR: Immediately, he could taste how foul the wine was. And yet…?
ADVISOR 1: (lying through his teeth) Your taste is unquestionable, Your Majesty! The nose on this wine is... uh... like none I've ever experienced! It is truly one-of-a-kind!
QUEEN: You really think so?
ADVISOR 1: (lying again) Yes!!!!
QUEEN: Alright… Let’s hear a second opinion.
NARRATOR: So the second advisor lifted his glass and took a swig.
ADVISOR 2: (ad-lib big swig)
NARRATOR: In an instant, he felt himself cringe from the awful taste. And yet…?
ADVISOR 2: (lying through his teeth) You are clearly a wine connoisseur, Your Majesty! This wine has fermented, and fermented, and fermented... into a symphony of flavors!
QUEEN: Is that what you think?
ADVISOR 2: (lying again) Yes!!!
QUEEN: Okay… Let’s get a third opinion.
NARRATOR: So the third advisor clutched his glass and took a chug.
ADVISOR 3: (ad-lib big chug)
NARRATOR: All at once, his taste buds went into shock; this wine was wretched! And yet…?
ADVISOR 3: (lying through his teeth) You are completely on-target, Your Majesty! This wine is beyond compare! Your guests will never forget it!
QUEEN: You really feel that way?
ADVISOR 3: (still lying) Yes!!!
QUEEN: Very well. Let’s get a fourth opinion! Last but not least! (beat) Amara? What say you? I know you’ve always been at odds with the other advisors. But on this occasion, you must promise you will tell me the truth.
AMARA: Of course, Your Excellency. As I always did with your mother, I promise I will tell you the truth. The whole truth, and nothing but.
NARRATOR: Amara lifted her glass and brought it to her lips. And faster than you can say “sour grapes”...
AMARA: (ad-lib spitting wine across room)
NARRATOR: …she spit her mouthful of wine clear across the room!
AMARA: Your Excellency! This wine! It’s gone bad ! Terribly bad! No one should drink this, or they’ll become dreadfully ill!
NARRATOR: When the other advisors heard Amara’s words, they shook their heads back and forth.
ADVISOR 1: Oh you mustn’t listen to her, Your Majesty!
ADVISOR 2: Amara has no idea what she’s talking about!
ADVISOR 3: Like you said, this wine is out of this world!
ADVISOR 1: Out of this solar system!
ADVISOR 2: Out of this galaxy!
ADVISOR 3: Out of this universe!
ADVISOR 1: Out of this – what’s bigger than “universe”...?
ADVISOR 2: Multiverse? No… (thinking again) Megaverse? (thinking again) Omniverse! (and again) Outerverse? (and again) Gigaverse???
NARRATOR: The Queen gave her advisors a long, stern look.
QUEEN: So once again, my advisors do not agree. Three of you say one thing, and one of you says another. Which means someone is telling a lie. Someone has always been telling a lie. And I’m tired of it. (beat) So tell me, Advisors… how do you advise that we deal with those who advise us poorly? Those who lead us astray by telling lies to our face?
NARRATOR: The three yes men immediately piped up.
ADVISOR 1: You should fire them, Your Majesty!
ADVISOR 2: Yes! Throw them out!
ADVISOR 3: Show them the door!
ADVISOR 1: Give them the boot!
ADVISOR 2: The ax!
ADVISOR 3: The old heave-ho!
ADVISOR 1: The – (gets interrupted)
QUEEN: (interrupting) Alright! (beat) But Amara…
NARRATOR: The Queen turned toward her mother’s advisor – and friend.
QUEEN: We haven’t heard what you think. How would you advise I deal with someone who tells me untruths?
NARRATOR: Amara took in a breath and let it out again. Then she looked the queen straight in the eye.
AMARA: Your Excellency. I have served you faithfully since you assumed the throne. Before that, I faithfully served your mother. And all this time, I have always spoken from my heart. Not once have I told an untruth. (beat) But I have to say… for once I agree with my fellow advisors! If a trusted advisor has lied to you, you shouldn’t keep them in your service. You deserve better.
NARRATOR: There was a brief silence, then the Queen smiled.
QUEEN: I thank you, Amara. For your honesty. And as for the rest of you…
NARRATOR: She turned to the yes men.
QUEEN: … your services are no longer needed. I now know that all this time you have been lying to me. Leading me astray. So I’m going to give you the boot! The ax! The – what was the third one?
ADVISOR 3: (cringing) The old heave-ho…?
QUEEN: That’s right. The old heave-ho. Will you please pack your things and leave this palace at once?
NARRATOR: The yes men knew better than to argue. So, what else could they say, except…
ADVISOR 1: / ADVISOR 2: / ADVISOR 3: (miserable) YES!!!
NARRATOR: After that day, Amara became the Queen’s one and only advisor… and the Queen became a whole new ruler. She became fair, and just, and much beloved by her people. As with her mother before her, there was singing and dancing in the streets, and the people were happy and prosperous.
Because the Queen now knew that as far as policies go, sometimes honesty truly is the best one. Even if the truth can be a bitter pill – or glass – to swallow.