Madness awaits everyone at the close of that cold night. “These four are already mad,” wrote Camus about King Lear. “One is mad by profession, another by choice, and two from the suffering they could not bear.” The jester is mad by profession; Edgar, in order to save his life; Lear escapes into madness; and Kent alone tries to fend it off to the very last. In the middle of the third act the three exiles find their last refuge from a raging nature in the abject hut where Edgar had hidden himself earlier. This is the key scene for every interpretation of Lear but even more so for a theatrical or cinematic vision of the play.
In both the theatrical and film versions of Peter Brook’s King Lear, a Beckett-like dialogue between cripples takes place on the sack bedding in the mud hut, and it is here that the madmen judge Goneril and Regan, personified by two overturned wooden stools. In Grigori Kozintsev’s film adaptation of King Lear, some fifteen years ago, the abandoned hovel where the exiled old man who was once king finds his last shelter teems with human bodies. We see old men and women, cripples shaking their stubby limbs, women nursing infants, and even a yurodivy (“God’s fool”), intoning unending litanies which mix with “poor Tom’s” exorcisms. Sitting on rags, sacks, or the bare ground, they fill every corner, are packed one on top of the other. In Kozintsev’s dramaturgy, the exiles from the royal court walk past “refugees” streaming into the steppe from razed settlements and villages. In that enormous shack, the mad ruler and his subjects find themselves sharing a common Russian fate: poverty, degradation, and suffering.
In Kurosawa’s King Lear it appears, for just an instant, that there is no one in the abandoned hut when the former ruler, the Jester, and his last servant finally reach it. But a strange figure glimmers in the darkness. By the feeble light of a candle stub, the newcomers can make out hair falling over someone’s eyes. He turns out to be a blind man. Hidetora, the Japanese Lear, recognizes the blind man as one whose life he did not take, but whose eyes he put out. The blind man was allowed to keep only a flute and it is on this flute that he now plays to Hidetora. Just as in those scenes in the kabuki theater where the murderer returns to the scene of the crime, the flute wails over the orchestra, moans, rises in more and more penetrating tones, as if it were tearing not only at the ears but at the heart as well. The memory and reproach of the flute are unbearable. The Japanese Lear, exiled by the voice of the flute, flees the cottage and submits himself again to the storm and torrential rains.
When Lear is staged in the theater, the décor is always conventional, even in the most illusionistic scenic conception. In the film, the landscape…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.