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Lear for Real

King Lear

by William Shakespeare, directed by Jonathan Miller
at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, New York,February 11–April 18, 2004

1.

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.”

2.

One of the many disconcerting things about King Lear as a dramatic experience is the sense that two quite different plays are unfolding simultaneously: the play about Lear’s experience of the world, and the play about the world going about its business in a state of indifference (apart from one daughter and a handful of loyal followers) to Lear, who has become little more than a practical problem. This innermost doubling of incompatible worlds is mirrored in turn by other oppositions, between main plot and subplot, between parents and children, between manor house and heath. The paradox of the play going one way while Lear goes another becomes inescapably evident with Albany’s “Great thing of us forgot!” in response to Kent’s inquiry about Lear’s whereabouts: the King has become so irrelevant that they have managed to forget about him altogether.

Christopher Plummer’s remarkable performance is rooted first and last in Lear’s isolation—an isolation at first unconscious, the fruit of a habitual self-satisfaction unaware of the judgment of others, and finally the inevitable result of a newly achieved mentality that grasps others without being grasped by them. Charles Lamb (who thought the play unactable) complained that actors reduced Lear to a figure of physical infirmity:

The greatness of Lear is not in corporal dimension, but in intellectual…. It is his mind that is laid bare…in the aberrations of his reason, we discover a mighty irregular power of reasoning, immethodized from the ordinary purposes of life, but exerting its powers, as the wind blows where it listeth, at will on the corruptions and abuses of mankind.2

Plummer may have taken this passage to heart; in any event he builds his performance on a series of changes in Lear’s attitude, his awareness, his ability to see beyond himself and finally beyond the others. The pathos of the role is to some degree sacrificed to a drier, finally almost detached sensibility, but it is a performance that fascinates by the exactness with which it maps a character continuously emerging.

Plummer’s Lear is not merely unmoored but shocked into wild and unscheduled growth, the belated intellectual birth of one who has lived without taking stock of himself or his world. We can readily believe that he has in his time been bold, humorous, affectionate; even that he has been capable of a certain political slyness, or has at least known how to make use of the slyness of others; but it is inconceivable that he has ever either questioned his own motives or wondered what others, whether friends or enemies, really made of him. He has fed off his own vigor and still shows traces of a joviality whose wellspring has just failed, too recently for him to be aware of it yet. His customary swagger of self-assurance is already slipping beyond his control, into a teetering lurch, and this surprises him as much as it does the others—more, at a guess, than it does the others. They are already alert to signs of an aging he failed to anticipate.

If Lear “hath ever but slenderly known himself” (in Regan’s phrase) it is in part because he has been protected from self-knowledge—a cocooned king, swaddled in otiose ceremony and amiable riot, his rule kept firm in recent years perhaps not so much through his own forcefulness as through the good offices of a capable manager such as Kent. Lear still has the habit of command but in the event—provoked by Cordelia’s unexpected intransigence—it comes out, to the shock and distaste of those around him, as distracted petulance laced with vicious sarcasm.

It is evidently not the first time Lear has played the part of patriarch as bullying comedian, but this time he can no longer retrieve himself: casual outburst becomes paralyzed posture. (A few scenes later, when Lear kneels with contemptuous abruptness to Goneril, he finds that he cannot rise without stumbling.) Miller’s production suggests a Cordelia neither mild nor long-suffering, but with her father’s temper; full of barely suppressed protest, a favorite daughter sufficiently grown up to be disturbed by her father’s failings, but not inclined to hurt his feelings; holding back her nearly self-righteous anger in order not to give offense, and thereby provoking offense. It’s as if he is trying to force her into the speech which would in fact enlighten him, a speech whose purport he surmises but lacks the intellectual clarity, or courage, to acknowledge.

We get in his second appearance on-stage a brief necessary glimpse of the newly retired Lear as self-satisfied good old boy, feeding off the approving laughter of his knights (here depicted, quite effectively, along the lines of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis), indulging a comfortable obtuseness just wearing away under the pressure of circumstance; moments later, when Goneril drops the mask of filial piety, he is already taking the measure of his new powerlessness. Plummer’s performance is structured as something like a series of snapshots, each representing the very last occasion when a particular expression or response—rage, disdain, tears, threats—is possible. He discards himself in the moment of being discarded.

The despair of being abandoned gives way to the nervous excitement of being aware for the first time. The “Blow winds” speech, delivered with bitter humor under pelting rain, in a mood of toughing it out, gives way to a tone of sudden wrenching calm in the prayer outside the hovel—“O, I have ta’en/Too little care of this”—as if a last layer of bluster had been sandblasted away and he’s touching a ground he never knew about. Loss initiates him into a vein of demented comedy sparked by the arrival of the disguised Edgar, a high manic phase which sustains him despite physical exhaustion. When we see him again—after his longest absence from the stage—he appears to have gained access to a strange freedom. Liberated from the constraints of circumstance by the direst of circumstances—being forced to think new thoughts or, simply, to think—he has become himself in the process of becoming no one at all. “I am cut to the brains”: but the cutting of his brains releases what had never been aired or articulated, a late and unnatural growth of character that leaves him as solitary as Robinson Crusoe after long years on his island. “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise”: instead he has lived in reverse, needing to become mad and nearly extinct before he can even begin to see.

He disappears in front of us, in successive bursts of phosphorescent brilliance, even as the other characters lose their luster. The most energetically ambitious come to look the most like tired puppets. All the characters but Lear have either understood one another from the outset or through harsh experience come to understand one another. Lear, the most radically benighted of all, the one whose benightedness precipitated the catastrophe, can attain understanding only by being wounded altogether out of this world and into another sphere whose ordinary discourse is that of madness, the sphere where Tom o’Bedlam reigns as philosopher.

At or beyond his limits, he steps into perception—“A man may see how this world goes with no eyes”—and finds himself in a place where there is no one to share his perception. No longer the subject of the play, he’s now its spectator. Lear’s consciousness has of course never been of any interest to the likes of Goneril, Regan, Edmund, or Cornwall, but even Cordelia or Kent are unprepared to follow the intricacies of his mental leaps and disjunctions; they merely pity his madness. The price of his cracked wisdom is to be separated from every other human. Only the Fool—the one who goaded him toward demolishing his self-protective obliviousness—might have been able to engage in a dialogue with the Lear of the final scenes, but he has already vanished from the play.

In a play in which everything happens too late, Lear attains a perfect liberty of being when taken prisoner—“So we’ll live/And pray, and sing, and tell old tales”—a liberty that consists in complete withdrawal from a life to which he is bound by nothing more than the embrace of his daughter. Plummer excels here, persuading us that Lear has been made whole as if for the sole purpose of delivering this speech. Jonathan Miller’s speeding up of the action throughout the last acts, with the last lines of one scene disappearing down the ramp or up the stairs as the first lines of the next come surging in from another direction—is here suspended for what is, in theatrical terms, an eternity. That suspension, at the moment which always feels like the real ending of the play, is all that can prepare us for the abrupt cessation of movement at the end, Lear and Cordelia dead and nothing more for anyone to do: a shuddering halt which in this production manages to seem unexpected, as if a huge machine had lapsed without warning into silence.

There is one other perplexity that must haunt any production of the play. The question of what King Lear meant to its original audience is complicated by the particularly baffling issue of how Edgar’s role is to be conceived, both in his “sullen and assumed humour of Tom of Bedlam” (as the quarto has it) and as the disguised son who guides his father through an elaborate false suicide. While in earlier acts he is seen as an almost entirely passive figure, traduced by his brother and condemned without a hearing by his father, in the latter half of the play he assumes a role almost as important as the King’s. The demoniac vocabulary and random associations of his imitation of lunacy seem a higher truth to the genuinely mad Lear, and indeed a kind of superstitious awe attends the role even though we are perfectly aware that everything he does is mere acting. The connection between Edgar’s inner grief and his outer flamboyance in the role he has adopted out of necessity is perhaps what is hardest for a modern audience to accept, and for an actor to embody.

Brent Carver’s very capable if necessarily ambiguous performance suggests a number of possible Edgars: initially as a kind of surrogate Hamlet feigning madness on a more elaborated scale and in the process becoming something other than the distracted dreamer so easily hoodwinked at the outset. He might even be—to configure him in modern terms—the introspective son of privilege who defies family expectations by converting to Buddhism or developing a sudden consuming interest in unorthodox schools of psychotherapy: or, indeed, by plunging into a career as an itinerant actor-playwright, adept at improvising mad scenes, assuming a variety of accents, and carrying off a duel scene as needed.

As Tom o’Bedlam, he is merely acting, but acting (so to speak) to save his life. In successfully concealing himself, he becomes the mute witness to what is going on; he finds a way out of that forced concealment by serving as a ritual initiator of sorts, as Lear’s “philosopher” and then as his blind father’s guide, before his appearance as masked avenger in the final duel with Edmund, another kind of ritual. He adopts symbolic language because ordinary language is barred to him by circumstance. If everything about the character suggests the ritual and theatrical, perhaps the only way to play the part with anything like psychological realism is to make him, as Jonathan Miller does, someone who has come to realize the extreme seriousness of play-acting.

  1. 1

    Leviathan, Part I, chapter 13.

  2. 2

    Quoted in William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays.

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