Shakespearing 17.2 by David Foley
Lears (An Interlude)
Note: In my project of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays in order, I’m still a long way from King Lear. What follows are thoughts about seeing a recent production.
When I entered NYU’s Skirball Center a couple of weeks ago—exhausted from four hours of teaching, a little nauseous from the peanut butter cookie and double espresso I’d substituted for dinner—I was having a hard time remembering why I’d wanted to see my fourth King Lear in two years. I’d hurried to secure tickets to this touring production from the Globe Theatre in London, but since then, it had been dismissively reviewed by Charles Isherwood in the Times, and now the sparseness of the audience suggested that word-of-mouth wasn’t doing it any favors either. To top it off, I had my Brazilian boyfriend with me, and though his English is good, it’s not Shakespearean good, and it wasn’t clear he needed to be subjected to it either.
The signs continued bad. There, as Isherwood had promised, were the actors chatting with the audience, a chumminess that continued with a cozy opening speech, which, among other things, announced that the house lights would be left up in an attempt to recreate the Globe’s outdoor setting. And then the play began, still recognizably the production Isherwood had reviewed: a game cast of eight actors, accordion music and singing, broad acting, jokey staging, everything spelled out as if the production had to be toured to high schools.
Why then was it so devastating? None of the Lears I’ve seen in the last two years have brought me so immediately back to the play’s primal power to move, its bone-deep sorrow. Of course, what you most need in King Lear is a Lear. Joseph Marcell gives an emotionally immediate and inventive performance, a kind of vaudeville of grief and madness that’s never less than fully felt. Isherwood says that Marcell’s performance lacks “emotional thrust and stature,” and this language itself might start to get at what this Lear accomplishes. I don’t know what “emotional thrust” is, and “stature” seems to be what this production is assiduously avoiding. What the company seems to realize is that Lear is not a play of “stature” but of harrowing simplicity. It is a kind of vaudeville. Two of its most wrenching scenes are absurd. There’s the scene in the hovel in which all the “poor Tom’s a-cold” stuff is never credible: we never believe there’s any reason for Edgar to commit himself so wholeheartedly to his disguise. And there’s Gloucester’s attempt to throw himself off the cliff, the blind old man somehow convinced that he’s fallen from a great height when he’s only fallen on the ground. This is not a world of stature. It’s not a world of grandeur. It’s a world where we’re brought close to the echoing absurdity at the center of our lives, the “nothing” that is the play’s sounding note from Cordelia’s first response to her father.
The fact that this is not drenched in Beckettian futility but instead is bound to our deepest human sorrows and a kind of love is the strange alchemy of the play. How does it work? This production seems to understand that it works the way a fairy tale does: in all simplicity, as a tale that, before you know it, has touched wells of hidden and terrible knowing. “[W]hat can you say to draw/A third more opulent than your sisters?” Lear asks Cordelia, and in that moment, when logic says that she can’t win a better portion than her sisters, that there’s only one third left, we understand that we’re in the logic of, the rhetoric of a fairy tale. The mistake you can make with King Lear is to miss this note: to aim for tragic grandeur instead of primal tale.
In the deep wells of the play, in its echoing nothingness, is love. The play blasts a gaping hole where we suppose love is, and finds in its place a love so elemental that it barely comforts. The reason the scenes with poor Tom are so moving despite their illogic is that they sound this note at its deepest. This is why we have to, for the moment, believe that Edgar is not Edgar but Tom. “Unaccommodated man.” “The thing itself.” In the Globe’s production, Marcell clings to Tom, as if only the madness of the shattered self could bring him to such terrifying depths of love: love not for those who comfort and reward us, but for the thing itself. The acts of love in the play—Edgar helping his father to the edge of the false cliff, Lear holding the dead Cordelia in his arms—attempt to bridge the nothingness that keeps opening up around them, and these attempts, a kind of heroism of the absurd, are what give the play its power to devastate.
Isherwood says that the production “may serve as a nicely accessible entertainment,” but “don’t expect to feel much deep emotional engagement.” And yet, with the house lights embarrassingly up, I found myself furtively wiping away tears and struggling to suppress sobs. The problem is not that the production is accessible; the problem is what, in its jolly simplicity, it manages to access.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.