I have to confess that, while I own six video versions of this play (second only to Hamlet), I’m not sure if I have ever actually watched more than one: the version Olivier made for TV with an all-star cast, and I’m not sure that I have watched that since it was on TV in 1984. You see, like a lot of pretty well educated people over the years, I find this play virtually impossible to watch, or even read.
I am quick to point out that virtually everyone, including myself, will acknowledge that this is one of the “great” plays. Certainly it is one of the most popular and has been the inspiration for many movies, plays, novels, etc., (several soap operas) because of its portrayal of a dysfunctional family (actually two dysfunctional families) and the fascinating complexities and characters which can be developed from the sorts of flawed relationships presented in it. I have to admit that I have only seen one “live” production of it, at least that I can recall. This was a production directed by Robert Benedetti at Indiana the summer between my senior year and when I started Graduate school. It was a very sparse, low budget production put on (at least largely) by the first members of the Indiana Theatre Company, of which “Benny” had been a member as a visiting student while working on his doctorate at Northwestern. (He spent a year at IU while earning that degree.) It was, in my memory, quite a powerful production, perhaps because the simple staging (a bare, rush-strewn stage as I remember it, with costumes of plain black leotards) forced one’s attention on the characters and the language, as there was little else to provide distraction.
Still, this is quite an unpleasant play about (for the most part) unpleasant people doing unpleasant things in order just to satisfy their own, greedy desires. Goneril and Regan from the first come off as insincere hypocrites, rather clearly out to get as much as they can for themselves even at the expense of driving their aged father out of his mind, blinding (onstage) one of the last of their father’s supporters, lusting after the same man (not either of their husbands) and, eventually ending with Goneril poisoning Regan, then committing suicide herself. Then we have Edmund convincing his father, Gloucester, to disinherit Edgar, his legitimate son, and allowing his father’s eyes to by “plucked out.” By the end of the play, Lear and Gloucester are both mad, Cordelia, the one “true” daughter of Lear has been killed by hanging, Lear dies of a broken heart and the characters who are left are supposed to pick up the pieces of the devastated Britain. No, I can’t say that I am fond of the play, as it seems to me more soap opera melodrama than tragedy. One can certainly make a case for Lear as a tragic character, but it has always seemed to me that his tragic mistake is based on such simple, arrogant stupidity that I find him very hard to find sympathetic. After all, he wants to be treated as the king, without continuing to pay any price for doing so, just because he is loved. This has never seemed to me to be a particularly worthwhile idea.
On the other hand, I’m not fond of even the idea of the “regularized” version of the play, adapted by Nahum Tate, which first appeared in 1681 (after the Restoration when the Neoclassical rules were in fairly full force, even in England) and which pretty well dominated the stage until 1836. In this version, the evil sisters are defeated by a rebellion of the English people (not a foreign invasion), Lear and Cordelia both survive, Lear is restored to the throne (which he promptly abdicates to Cordelia), and she now marries Edgar. While I think this is an abomination, as The History of King Lear it is the version which dominated the stage for over 150 years as it didn’t violate the essential neoclassical concept of verisimilitude, which demanded reality, morality and universality. A certain amount of this version’s popularity was also probably due to the rise of Sentimentality and the belief that it was good for one to observe virtue in distress, as it provided one with a chance to display one’s own sensitivity, so long as the virtuous, ultimately, triumphed, as it HAD to do. That being required by the demand for morality.
I guess that my problem with this play is not that I doubt its importance, nor its power, nor the fact that, like the role of Hamlet, the successful playing of Lear is considered essential for any actor who wishes to be thought of as “great,” at least in the portrayal of Shakespearean roles. I have no problem with any of these ideas. My problem with Shakespeare’s Tragedy of King Lear is much the same as my difficulty with Tennessee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire. I am enough of a literary scholar (without claiming any particularly great insight) to recognize the importance and merit of both of these plays, but I can’t seem to find the ability to “enjoy” even a really high quality performance of either of them. The people are, for the most part, unpleasant, unhappy people and they engage in unpleasant, unhappy actions which I can find no reason to excuse. Richard III (historically accurate, or not) and Iago tell us from the beginning that they are Machiavellian evil-doers, so there is a certain satisfaction in watching them ply their craft until their ultimate downfall, in spite of the harm they do along the way. Hamlet, of course, I find endlessly fascinating, as he struggles to try to figure out what he’s supposed to do in a world which seems to have gone in a direction which he is incapable of understanding or accepting, and, for the most part, those who suffer in that play can be said to have brought on their fate themselves.
Still, I hope that the Western production is successful and that they have good audiences and the students have all learned a lot about how to do Shakespeare. I would argue that an actor (at least a stage actor) can be most simply evaluated by examining his/her ability to handle Shakespeare. If one can simply handle the language, speak it clearly and with an appropriate sense of understanding (and rhythm where appropriate) it goes a long way towards telling me that this is an actor who cares enough about the craft (art?) of acting to “do the homework,” to be prepared to perform. Obviously, a certain degree of talent, good direction, well thought-out scenery, props, costumes and lighting all can make significant contributions to a production’s success, but, like all playwrights, Shakespeare wrote words! We have little in the way of stage directions, etc., that we can believe are from his hand, but we are reasonably sure of the words he chose to create his characters and situations. Spending the time and energy to master the understanding and performance of that language suggests something about a performer which is very hard to teach, but goes a long way to separate out the true “theatre person” from the “glory seeker.”
I’d like to think that over the years I helped a few people to become real theatre people. Perhaps I even did.