‘Tis the season of King Lear. In September, Richard Eyre’s BBC adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, set in an imaginary totalitarian counterpart of contemporary London and starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role, was released on Amazon Prime to critical acclaim. Next April, Glenda Jackson, who played Lear in London two years ago—the first time that a famous English-speaking female actor has assumed the part widely thought to be the most difficult of all classical stage roles—is bringing the play to Broadway in a new production staged by Sam Gold.

Jackson’s version will be of special significance because King Lear has been staged on Broadway only twice in the past six decades, with Lee J. Cobb in 1968 and Christopher Plummer in 2004. Moreover, no earlier Broadway Lear was at all notable save for Orson Welles’s notorious and disastrous self-directed 1956 production, of which Simon Callow, his biographer, said, “they racked the critical thesaurus to denounce.”

Why were American versions of King Lear so uncommon for so long? Because it is to theater what Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is to music, an all-encompassing super-drama fraught with complexities that pose challenges of understanding to the playgoer. The title role is also challenging in a more practical way to those who assume it: While it is hard enough for a young actor to play the aged king, who calls himself an “old man, / Fourscore and upward,” it is even harder for older performers to muster the physical stamina that is necessary to perform so demanding a role.

But the latter-day growth of regional theater means that a lack of interest by Broadway and Hollywood is no longer an adequate index of Lear’s American reception. For my part, I have reviewed 14 Lears in the past 15 years, with such actors as Plummer, Stacy Keach, Kevin Kline, Frank Langella, John Lithgow, Ian McKellen, and Sam Waterston in the role. Lear is by now solidly established in the U.S. as one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays.

What is it about King Lear that explains this surge in its popularity? One plausible explanation is that as the baby boomers reach the ends of their lives, they are naturally growing more interested in Shakespeare’s most searching study of old age and its discontents. Another is that Lear can be interpreted, however tendentiously, as a quasi-feminist statement, a study of what happens when the leaders of a patriarchal society cling tenaciously to power instead of handing it over to younger women (which is, of course, what Lear does at first, though he changes his mind once he sees what it would mean to be powerless). No doubt many such explicitly politicized Lears await us.

Yet there is a far more important reason, which is that the play and its title role are both protean, lending themselves to an astonishingly wide range of other interpretations—many of which are, as the millennials like to say, “relatable,” not just to angry young women or aging baby boomers but to everyone. For no matter where you set it or how you stage it, the plot of King Lear is so immediate in its implications that it could have been lifted from the front pages of today’s newspapers: A tyrannical father signs away his power and pelf to a pair of greedy, flattering daughters who turn on him as soon as the ink dries on the trust deeds.

Clothed in the splendor and violence of Shakespeare’s verse, such seemingly commonplace events cannot but seize the viewer by the throat, speaking as they do to our primal fear of losing control of our lives in old age. Barbara Gaines’s masterly 2014 Chicago Shakespeare production actually dared to make this fear manifest on stage by portraying Lear as a victim of dementia.

Too often, however, the quest for “relatability” results in modern-dress stagings whose every element seems to have been determined in advance by an arbitrary concept superimposed on the text by the director rather than arising organically from it. Some, such as the Eyre/Hopkins TV Lear, work reasonably well on their own restrictive terms, but others have been unconvincing, on occasion even preposterous. The worst Lear I have ever reviewed, directed by Robert Falls at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2006, turned the play into a tale of Eastern European gangsters whose opening scene was set in a men’s room with a working urinal.

Even the best conceptual Lears have in common a self-limiting tendency: They tell you how to understand the play instead of letting you come to your own conclusions about it. But much of what makes Lear so theatrically effective is its lack of specificity. It is not a history play but a story set in a legendary kingdom of the imagination about which we know no more than is needed to set the plot in motion. And we respond with empathy to its characters not because they look like us but because they act like us. Hence a director’s decision to set Lear in modern times and stage it naturalistically can have the paradoxical result of diminishing the play’s relevance (in the cant sense of the word) rather than heightening it.

Many of the problems inherent in staging a verse drama like Lear—as well as with an up-to-date political spin—were exemplified by Bill Rauch’s 2013 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, which was set in “a kingdom, now.” This Lear was performed in the round in a theater whose modest size inhibited large-scale classical acting, and the décor, in which we saw Lear relaxing in a La-Z-Boy and Cordelia decked out as a tattooed goth chick, was self-consciously clever to the point of glibness.

None of this, however, is meant to endorse the reflexive use of the “traditional” costumes and sets that would have been seen in a pre–World War II Lear. As the revolution in stage décor triggered by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town long ago demonstrated, Shakespeare’s plays work best when performed without scene breaks in open-stage productions that employ a bare minimum of props and scenery, and Lear in particular also benefits from costumes that identify the characters without locking them into a specific time and place. In such productions, it is the verse and the way in which it is spoken by the cast, that set the scene and indicate the illimitably vast scope of the tragedy.

For King Lear is not an Arthur Miller–style kitchen-sink drama about a bad father who can’t get along with his daughters, much less an anachronistic #MeToo parable. It is, rather, an inquiry into the meaning of life, one that goes so far as to suggest that human life might be a cruel game played on mankind by a heartless deity. In the words of the Earl of Gloucester, whose eyes are gouged out by Lear’s daughter Regan when he refuses to betray his king: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, / They kill us for their sport.” Naturalistic acting, however accomplished, cannot even begin to plumb the anguished depths of so raw an utterance.

This is not to say that the title role need be performed in the orotund basso-profundo style of an Orson Welles. Robert Foxworth, who assumed the role in Adrian Noble’s 2010 Old Globe staging in San Diego, instead made Lear a snappish, small-statured ruler (he was shorter than all three of his daughters) who is destroyed by his pettiness of spirit. Larry Yando’s dementia-beset Chicago Shakespeare Lear, by contrast, was at once frightened and frightening, a snarling, capricious man in whom great violence alternated with great tenderness. 

But neither actor did so much as hint that there is anything small about King Lear’s suffering, much less the behavior that led to it: He is a ruler of towering stature who makes the fatal mistake of supposing that power is more important than love, then discovers the world as it really is, cold and hostile to the vanity of human wishes. “Is man no more than this?” Lear cries at the piteous spectacle of the half-naked Edgar trembling in the storm, and in an instant he is invaded and conquered by self-doubt. To “humanize” such a titan by playing him naturalistically is to diminish the pathos of his brutal humiliation.

Even more disturbing is what happens next. Having passed through the refiner’s fire of suffering, Lear sees the error of his ways and embraces Cordelia, the only daughter who loves him. But his redemption comes too late to prevent her murder, a denouement so sickeningly unjust that even a critic as acute as Samuel Johnson could not accept it, just as he thought the blinding of Gloucester to be “an act too horrid to be endured in dramatic exhibition.”

Those commentators who argue that Shakespeare is best understood as a Christian artist find it hard to grapple with King Lear, whose “message” is more likely to strike today’s viewers as all but nihilistic. Yet it is in this very aspect that the play’s deepest appeal is to be found. For just as all of us fear that we will die with our minds occluded by senility, so are even the most steadfast of religious believers—Dr. Johnson among them—beset by periodic pangs of doubt. The genius of King Lear is that it stares down this doubt, even broaching the possibility that human life, far from being directed by what Shakespeare elsewhere calls “a divinity that shapes our ends,” is in fact entirely meaningless. As John Simon has written of Lear: “The point of Shakespeare’s work is not that everyone is equally dreary and culpable but, clearly, that some are deserving and even noble, while others are bad and even vicious, yet in the short run the bad may actually have a better time of it. An awe-inspiring vision, startling for its—or any—time.”

So it is, and any Lear that opts for lazy, politically correct “relatability” over Shakespeare’s terrible vision of helpless men and evil gods cannot but trivialize his supreme act of truth-telling about man’s fate.

Is it possible to do more than rough justice on stage to a play of such colossal scale and purposeful complexity? Unlikely as it may sound, the most artistically successful Lear that I have reviewed to date was a small-scale production with an octogenarian star.

In 2005, Boston’s Actors’ Shakespeare Project, which puts on site-specific stagings of the Shakespearean canon in locations throughout Boston and Cambridge, mounted Lear in a high-ceilinged classroom of the Boston University School of Theatre. The near-abstract bare-bones production, staged by Patrick Swanson and designed by David R. Gammons, looked as though it had been blown into the room by a hurricane, with paint spattered on the walls and wood chips flung across the floor.

The title role was played by Alvin Epstein, whose previous credits included the 1956 Broadway premiere of Waiting for Godot (and who played the Fool that same year in Welles’s King Lear). He gave us a gnome-like, stiff-jointed Lear, by turns malicious, doddering, and desperate, whose senile playfulness made you shudder with prospective dread at the horrors that awaited him. It is, of course, impossible to say whether the 80-year-old Epstein could have made a like impact in a larger theater, but to watch him up close was—in a word—awesome.

No small part of the force of this Lear arose from the fact that instead of trying to make Shakespeare’s play more easily palatable to modern viewers, it took for granted that they would have no trouble grasping the relevance of Lear’s plight to their own lives. For not only did Shakespeare write a play in which universal emotions are writ large, but he looked directly into the infinite abyss of nihilism without being fazed by what he saw there. Indeed, he found in it a source of inspiration.

Bernard Shaw, who believed that “no man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,” described this latter quality with typical pith: “That Shakespear’s [sic] soul was damned (I really know no other way of expressing it) by a barren pessimism is undeniable; but even when it drove him to the blasphemous despair of Lear…it did not break him. He was not crushed by it: he wielded it Titanically, and made it a sublime quality in his plays.”

In the end, it is this titanic sublimity that keeps us coming back to King Lear. While another English-speaking poet rightly reminded us three centuries later that “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality,” it is also true that to watch a genius fearlessly and beautifully voice our innermost suspicions about the ultimate meaninglessness of life cannot but have a tonic effect on the mature playgoer, one that helps us accept the dark trials of our own lives. If Shakespeare can face it, one thinks after seeing Lear, then so can I. Such is the stuff that great art—and great courage—is made on.hout

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