“You mean Cordelia dies in the end?” a little girl exclaims in protest in the seat behind me, moments before the lights dim. Her father has been whispering a synopsis, and has thus casually administered the same shock of injustice that so perturbed Samuel Johnson that it was years before he could endure to read King Lear a second time. It is a play that hurts the unwary, and even the wary (we, that is, the grownups who know what to expect) continue to look for ways to feel at home in it. The most immense of plays is also the most constricting, and it would be almost inhuman not to harbor a nagging apprehension at the prospect of undergoing, once again, the process of settling down for a dress rehearsal of one’s own disappearance into an abyss that doesn’t become any more domesticated with the passage of centuries. If the apparently innocuous opening lines of King Lear—the politely ribald chitchat as Gloucester introduces Kent to his bastard son Edmund—are already imbued with a sense of dread, it is because we know this is the last moment when all that follows might have been avoided, when some other entertainment, some comedy or court romance, could have begun: a very short breathing space before the springing of the trap.
It is impossible to know, and endlessly interesting to imagine, how King Lear worked for its intended audience. Could it have been any less radically disturbing than it quickly became for the next generations, the ones who insisted on smoothing its edges and providing rescue for Cordelia (and a happy marriage to Edgar)? In the nineteenth century, even after the original text was gradually restored, the claustrophobia and intolerable cruelty of Lear were kept at bay with the spaciousness of Gothic romance and, presumably, the corresponding spaciousness of a high grandiloquent acting style. The twentieth century could no longer romanticize the play but hit upon another kind of spaciousness—the white space of a minimalist abstraction or of a stylized archaism that amounted to abstraction—to take the action into a timeless psychic wilderness. King Lear in the latter half of the century was often imagined under the sign of Beckett, Giacometti, Stockhausen, or Grotowski, and as such conceived as the zero degree toward which all Shakespeare’s work tended: the point at which even the last consolation, the consolation of theatricality itself, was to be stripped away, the spectator led through a series of initiatory rituals toward an unmediated encounter with the horror and desolation of human cannibalism unfolding in an otherwise empty universe.
In an interview included in the program of his new production, Jonathan Miller lays out his intention to go against the grain of recent approaches: “I feel there’s nothing epic or mythic about it, in exactly the same way that I don’t think there’s anything cosmic about it…. The desire for the archetypal—it’s so simple-minded and sentimental, you know?” His crucial decision has been to drop the play back into the time and space—its own time and space, England in the seventeenth century—from which it has so often been abstracted. Abstraction itself, no matter how harrowing its intended effect, might itself be seen as some form of consolation, a way of rarefying the suffering of the characters by situating it elsewhere, in a realm of pure art. If Peter Brook’s influential production of Lear in 1962 famously presented Shakespeare as (in Jan Kott’s phrase) “our contemporary,” Miller presents him as the only slightly older contemporary of Thomas Hobbes and John Webster. It is a momentary shock to find King Lear reinserted into the ambience of a Van Dyck or Rubens portrait, but the shock has the salutary effect of making the language sound like a natural dialect, at ease in its own time.
Lear has been seen as many things, but rarely if ever as a period piece. Miller runs the risk of seeming to diminish the play by making it of its own epoch. This is a Lear without heath or great empty sky. (This is, of course, the same Jonathan Miller who some years ago directed a Midsummer Night’s Dream essentially without fairies.) Acted on an undecorated set that suggests without replicating the levels and niches of a Jacobean stage, it evokes a mood more of chambers and closets than of primal wilderness. Winding the action around the set’s various staircases, ramps, and inner recesses, Miller enacts a constant spiraling of entrances and exits—the effect at moments is of the action of a grinder—that mimes a merciless interlocking of human relations, with some form of betrayal or suborning or violent suppression occurring at each point of contact. (The constricting movement is reflected also in the gestures by which letters of warning, deception, or challenge are proffered or concealed, the exchange of envelopes being a chief means, in this incipient bureaucratic state, by which events are linked together.)
The spaces of Lear boil down to In Here and Out There. The interior—the place where power is acquired and wielded—is central in Miller’s production; the exterior scenes represent a pushing away from that center. On a stage devoid of broad stretches of open ground, people have to maneuver others out of the way to find a place to stand. The deeper problem of Lear, for those allying against him, is that he takes up too much room; he needs to be thrust out so that the next generation can move around freely. Having set in motion an action whose primary consequence is to make him superfluous as anything but a potential rallying point for dissidence, there is nothing the King can usefully do except go away. While the predators vie with each other for the control of space—the literal stage space standing in for entire parts of England, as well as their own castles—Lear and his companions wander in the undesired outer region to which he has been expelled. The stormy heath here, largely suggested by lighting and sound effects, becomes a dark and narrow alley, an absence rather than a plenitude of space.
Some furniture and props are brought out as needed—the various tables, stocks, and weapons being quite heavy and literal—but it is through the chiaroscuro of the lighting and above all through the elaboration of the costuming that Miller fills out his seventeenth-century world. In this play of disguises and mimicry, where one kind of feigning (Edmund’s) forces another, defensive, kind (Edgar’s) into existence, and characters are continually thrust (often in half-lit circumstances) against intimate friends and relations whom they fail to recognize, Miller enforces a systematically detailed dress code, with each transformation of condition or social role registered by a distinct change of wardrobe. This characterization by costuming—or, with Lear and Edgar, by the deterioration of their costumes—functions as a running visual commentary that clarifies situations without getting in the way of the language.
The shorthand of ruffs, boots, helmets, and painterly shadows quite effectively makes a stage world that calls up the John Webster of ornate Machiavellianism, excruciating onstage punishments, and murdered virtue, or the Hobbes who in evoking the brutish “natural condition of mankind” asks the reader to consider the behavior of the citizen who
when taking a journey,… arms himself, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there be laws, and public officers, armed, to revenge all injuries [that] shall be done him; what opinion he has of his fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow citizens, when he locks his doors; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests….1
Hobbes’s Leviathan is an apt enough point of reference for a play full of journeys both armed and unarmed, of doors locked against both intruders and vagrants, of chests locked to conceal incriminating letters, and of children and servants unreliable in the extreme. (Hobbes was twenty and just graduating from Oxford when the 1608 quarto of Lear was published. It is tempting to think of him encountering at such an age such lines as Albany’s “Humanity must perforce prey on itself,/Like monsters of the deep.”)
The action and the acting have a clarity that verges in some cases on a roughness I take to be deliberate. Miller seems to want a Lear overtly impure in its jostling mix of theatrical elements, its challenges and brawls, coarse jokes, conspiratorial intrigues and licentious interludes, and tableaux of deliberate pathos: in short, a popular play, with a full measure of attention accorded to the swashbuckling melodrama centered in the roles of Kent and Edmund. Avoiding epic sweep, minimizing thunder and chaos, Miller stages the play as a series of pointed confrontations. There is less howling here than is the custom, and the play’s evildoers are portrayed less as ravenous beasts than as thoroughly rational politicians. (Stephen Russell’s Cornwall is particularly admirable in this respect, pragmatic, brutal, and contemptuously intelligent.)
By foreclosing on the expected grandeur—a grandeur that in production can be monochrome and even monotonous—Miller allows a multitude of smaller things to emerge, and many of these turn out to be comic. It’s not unusual for Edmund or the Fool to elicit laughs, but Lear himself? The danger is that once the audience has been permitted to laugh, it will signal its relief by trying to find laugh lines anywhere it can, and this danger was not completely avoided in the preview I saw. Miller is certainly not trying to turn the play into a comedy, but he does bring out a range of disparate comic effects: the hyperbolic insult humor of Kent in the scene when he baits Goneril’s steward Oswald, the Cockney comedy of the Fool, played here in the vein of modern comedians like Tony Hancock or Sid James (and it is a tribute to the traditional savor of such comedy that the effect is only mildly anachronistic), the slow burn of Albany as he builds up to his final withering confrontation with Goneril, the drawing-room comedy turns of Goneril and Regan. The elder sisters, with their arched eyebrows and Lady Bracknell–ish drawls, not to mention their sculptured hair and armor-like gowns, seem caricatures, but with an extra flourish: superimposed on the wicked fairy-tale sisters are the figures of a pair of lecherous and ambitious dowagers escaped from a lost and singularly savage Wycherley play.
The comic emphases also serve to underscore in an unexpected way the Englishness of the work, in the same way that the geographic and chronological specificity of the production brings us back to its point of origin. Rather than a harking back to primeval times or an anticipation of apocalypse, this is King Lear conceived as an object lesson in how states fail, and a prophecy of impending political breakdown. The realities of the English civil war that would break out a generation later are already envisioned in this world of refugees and hostages, of commandeered residences and countrysides intruded upon by ravaging armies, of loyalties shifting from moment to moment in response to violently fluctuating circumstances: “Know thou this, that men/Are as the time is.”
Leviathan, Part I, chapter 13.↩
Leviathan, Part I, chapter 13.↩