“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 …