Glenda Jackson’s Great Lear

King Lear

by William Shakespeare, directed by Deborah Warner
The Old Vic, London, October 25–December 3, 2016
Glenda Jackson as Lear and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear
Manuel Harlan
Glenda Jackson as Lear and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear

In 1980, when the actress Glenda Jackson was at the height of her fame, the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar published his story “We Love Glenda So Much.” It is narrated by a member of a cult devoted to the adoration of Glenda Jackson. At first, they meet in cafés after seeing her on stage or screen to talk about her. Then they find themselves “looking each other in the eyes, there where Glenda’s last image in the last scene of the last movie still breathed.”

Gradually they acknowledge that there are tiny imperfections in some of the movie scenes, some moments when the writer or director has not done her full justice. They set about stealing every copy of those films before doctoring them in a lab and releasing them back to the public in a perfect state, so that “the screens of the world were presenting her in just the way that she herself—we were sure—would have wanted to be presented.” Their happiness is complete when Jackson announces her retirement from acting:

Now we would be able to see every one of Glenda’s works without the agonizing threat of a tomorrow plagued by mistakes and blunders; now we could come together with the lightness of angels or birds, in an absolute presence that was like eternity.

Alas for the cult, Jackson announces her return to acting. At the end of the story it is clear that those who love her so much have accepted that the only solution to their problem is to assassinate her:

We loved Glenda so much that we would offer her one last inviolable perfection. On the untouchable heights to which we had raised her in exaltation, we would save her from the fall, her faithful could go on adoring her without any decrease; one does not come down from a cross alive.

Glenda Jackson did retire from acting. In 1992 she was elected as the Labour member of Parliament for Hampstead and Highgate. She stayed in the House of Commons (and off both stage and screen) until last year’s general election when she stood down, just days shy of her seventy-ninth birthday. Her career as a performer has thus long been up there on the untouchable heights of past glory, if not quite an inviolable perfection then certainly a radiant memory. She could be safely adored, not just as a great actor who brought the edginess of the English avant-garde into the Hollywood mainstream, but as a great feminist who blasted aside all the limitations on how a woman could represent power and sex and beauty. She had, indeed, “an absolute presence that was like…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.