King Lear
King Lear; drawing by David Levine

The Royal Shakespeare Company recently brought their famous King Lear to Lincoln Center, where it was seen, if not heard, by full houses. This was the first time anybody had done a play in the State Theater. There can be more than one opinion as to whether this building is $19 million worth of theater, but most people would agree that if you are going to produce plays in it you have some obligation to make them audible. There were frayed tempers in the Company and drop-outs in the first-night audience. The architect, according to The New York Times, observed that the inaudibility of these experienced performers was only to be expected, since the building was not designed for speaking in. A droll affair! Great soapy statues dominating the gilded cage of the main concourse almost persuade one that it isn’t for opening the eyes in, either. But the fountain is pretty. And on the second night I think most people could hear; the actors saw that they must work exceptionally hard, and from the front rows you could see the spittle glittering in the lights.

This is perhaps as good a Lear as, in the present state of things, may be had, and there are moments when it is as good as may well be imagined. We are therefore obliged to speak nobly of Mr. Peter Brook, a director of high imaginative power and of sensitive authority over his excellent actors. If we are at once obliged also to speak ill of him, it is with the provision that his faults are to some extent inherited and inescapable. In fact, as Shakepeare observed, “we are all diseased.” There is no other way of explaining the degree of provincialism that has been found tolerable in a production of such metropolitan celebrity.

Let me explain what I mean by “provincialism.” I don’t mean that I found the Beckettism of the production unduly wanton; nor that the tattered austerity of the scene offended. One could even put up with the distractions of that clumsy furniture which, at the beginning, they were always carting on and off; and with the teetering tree-trunks that went up and down as if the stage were a grade crossing, and ancient British Railways, in a period of national crisis, were nevertheless getting the freight through regularly. Some of this paid off; the meagre lighting-plot, for instance, wasn’t at all a piece of inverted chic. But a good deal of this kind of thing in modern Shakespeare production, and especially at the top level, is self-regarding, not Shakespeare-regarding, and it is fair to complain about the ostentatious meddling that goes on. True, it is accompanied by feats of genius. This is the situation to be expected where Shakespare is produced by men of enormous gifts who lack a tradition and detest the idea of one. The gain is that everything has to be thought out from the beginning, as if the play had never been done before. The loss is that every production has its crop of beginners’ mistakes, follies, provincialisms.

For example, the text of Lear offers the director endless occasion for the exercise of his powers of interpretation; if there were a tradition he would know this, and see that to meddle with the text is a gross provincialism. Mr. Brook departs from the text on several occasions, most grossly after the blinding of Gloster; where Shakespeare’s servants bring the old man “flax and whites of egg to apply to his bleeding face,” Mr. Brook’s push him roughly away. According to the souvenir program Mr. Brook changed this in order “to remove the tint of sympathy usually found at this place.” “Usually found” here means “unwisely written into the text by Shakespeare,” and the change is exactly as defensible as the happy ending with which the play was equipped throughout the eighteenth century. Some cuts, in so long a play, have to be tolerated; one of them is the extraordinary line “Great thing of us forgot!” When Albany is so bemused by his mauvais quart d’heure after the battle that he forgets all about Lear and Cordelia. Everybody lets that go; but so far as I know it is unusual to cut the lines “He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven, And fire us hence like foxes.”

However, when the issue is directorial wantonness, more is to be learned from what is put in than from what is left out. Mr. Brook didn’t want Goneril and Regan to be merely the ugly sisters, and he avoids it partly by genuine skill (I have never seen them so well distinguished) and partly by forbidding ingenuities. Thus he makes Lear’s knights intolerably riotous, so that Goneril has good reason to treat them as a primitive mob which turns her well-run castle into a brawling mead-hall. There is nothing whatever in the text to justify this reading, and it makes Lear’s claim that his “train are men of choicest parts” simply absurd. This entails other abuses. Goneril (a very fine performance by Irene Worth) is given a factitious psychological depth. Shakespeare does not say she was understandably distressed at being cursed by her father, nor did he write her a great “O!” of pain at the point where she hears about Gloster’s eyes. It is equally safe to say that he never wanted Lear to be a laughing-stock, and the soldier sent to capture him for Cordelia should not say “You are a royal one, and we obey you” in a tone of perfunctory derision. The Bronx cheer which is Lear’s reply is found in no text.


Thus the rot of a directorial bright idea can spread through the whole play; and it affects Mr. Scofield’s Lear. Now this is a very controlled, finished, production, and Scofield’s performance is as deeply studied as any I have seen, including Redgrave’s very sophisticated attempt. But he has to be a Lear who will have riotous knights and think their manners good enough; a self-made king, a bit of a roisterer himself. This is a king that London folk like Goneril and Regan might well be uncomfortable about having in their drawing-rooms. He has calculated lapses into Wessex dialect: “I ‘ave one part in my ‘eart That’s sorry yet for thee,” he says, and he makes triphthongs out of “now” and “gown.”

It seemed commonplace but right to say that this play stands or falls with the playing of the king, but this production of it—to the credit of Brook and Scofield—does not. There are some things Scofield does most beautifully, and the scenes in which he plays close to another character—the Fool, Kent as Caius, Edgar as Poor Tom, and Cordelia—will be hard to forget. In these situations he has a kind of abstracted warmth, a rich but preoccupied awareness of the presence and role of the other. His Fool represents an original and genuine rethinking of the part by Alec McCowen and Brook; this is a sage-fool, intelligent, and doing his foolery as a professional act. Lear offers him a kind of affectionate half-attention and even respect, which makes their dialogue in the first act—the one which ends “O let me not be mad”—rich and musical, freshly imagined. So with the other characters named; Scofield gives Lear a dim but saving insight, a sense of irreducible value in the humanity of inferiors, of men as hidden by their roles. It is in the play, and fully stated in the mad encounter with the naked philosopher Tom; perhaps nobody before Scofield has had just the temperament to enact it. For the same reason he is able to give to some scattered lines a new and authentic meaning. He is a very distinctive Lear, strong in voice, idiosyncratic, disciplined; where he goes wrong he does it on purpose.

It must have seemed a bright notion to “underplay” this big, shouting part, and it works when it has the effect of suggesting that the king finds what is happening so improbable that he can’t bring himself to take it seriously. But the price is the loss of some of the great basic rhythms of the piece. In the opening scene Shakespeare makes the loves of the elder daughters a matter of expediency and calculation; we are expected to remember that Lear wanted love to be calculable when, in an equally schematic passage later, Goneril and Regan calculate his need in knights: not a hundred, not fifty, not twenty-five or ten: not even one. So the outburst “O reason not the need!” is a real node of meanings; it not only publicizes his error about love being calculable, but shows him for the first time assuming that he has something in common with beggars. (In the previous scene we have had our first look at the naked Tom.) So if there was ever a place to be large and simple, this is it; yet Scofield delivered the speech low, in broken rhythm and slack grammar, without pressure: a pointless sophistication. The next elaborate thematic climax, the point at which Lear finds in Tom the model of man as he is without titles, lands, or ceremonies, and abjures his own sophistication, tearing at his clothes—that too is thrown away.

It may seem hard to call these obviously considered devices provincial and smart; but you have only to ask whether anything of the kind could occur in a Paris performance of Phèdre to see that the abuse is deserved. It is even less conceivable that in such a performance any actor should mistake the meaning and emphasis of any, let alone an important, line, but this happened during the vital speech of Edgar at the beginning of Act IV:


   The worst is not
So long as we can say “This
is the worst”—

where the emphasis, which belongs to say, was given to This. Verse-speaking has improved a little at Stratford in recent years, but it is still far from good, although this Lear has in the Kent of Tom Fleming and the Gloster of John Laurie the advantage of two notable verse-speaking guests. On the whole, however, the verse is damaged not by inadvertence, but on purpose; and it is a question whether this is to anybody’s credit.

It is time to return to the praise of Brook and his actors. They see this play as a fantastic study of patience, the grotesque postures of men under sufferings endlessly protracted. So it is. Cordelia dies, and, as Dr. Johnson observed, this is “contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is more strange, to the faith of the chronicles.” She dies because, as Edgar discovered, you can never, so long as you can actually speak, say that the future holds nothing worse than the present. “And worse I may be yet.” Lear, who was a king and long escaped this knowledge, is made a man and suffers apparently everything, but is revived to undergo something worse, as the hanged were cut down and revived for the drawing and quartering. All this has to be endured; the “ripeness” which Edgar commends to Gloster is acquired by patiently waiting one’s time to die, which lies in a future of anguish. This is the play of patience that Mr. Brook, better than anyone else, has communicated. This may seem surprising, in view of the opportunities lost in the direction of the king himself; but Brook makes up for it with a wonderfully directed Gloster.

Somebody once suggested that Shakespeare may have started out with the Gloster story, and then tacked on the Lear story, rather than the other way about, and this production makes it seem credible. Every inch and second of John Laurie’s performance testifies to Brook’s powers as well as his own. At first it is very good, very intelligent: the obsequious bustling at Kent’s dismissal, the conventional tut-tutting about the times, the bespectacled and credulous good will, which helps to put the New York audience firmly on the side of the bright and unillusioned bastard Edmund, not taken very seriously by his father. But later, when his eyes have been torn out and he speculates on the blindness of the seeing there is a real new frisson, something more than very good; he sits learning patience, with an exploratory facial twitch that checks whether his eyes are really gone, and bares his teeth in a dreadful smile. Edgar leaves him on stage and departs for a battle, urging him to “pray that the right may thrive.” He sits there a long minute in his crazy Beckett-like rags listening to the drums, sniffing at the disturbed air: and Edgar returns with the news of the defeat.

That is the great moment of the production; and Shakespeare put it there, leaving that minute to Gloster before Edgar comes back and chides him for being “in ill thoughts.” This is what a director of imagination can legitimately do for Shakespeare; and Mr. Brook is all of that. The price we pay is that in a traditionless theater the director will pay as much attention to his own sophisticated lendings as to the thing itself, the play. There is no probability that things will improve, so we should on the whole be glad of what comes our way; we who were lucky enough to see this Lear may well say with Gloster “we have seen the best of our times.”

This Issue

June 25, 1964