The idea of King Lear always so much surpasses the capabilities of any mere production that the show in performance rings a wee bit hollow and runs the risk of seeming slightly silly -- grandiose and outsized passion sloshing over the boundaries of the merely human. When emotion exceeds representation, the residue either outlines the characters with a kind of cartoon garishness or, in the alternative, seeps into the atmosphere, imbuing the play with a kind of turbulent, stormy fearsomeness that you can't quite focus on any one character or scene. (This is how it feels to read King Lear). At the Guthrie production presented in March 2017, the play's famous grandeur clung to some of the characters and made them seem ridiculous -- an outcome not necessarily to be decried. An example is the subplot involving poor, gullible Gloucester and his villainous illegitimate son, Edmund. The Guthrie production, as is the custom at that theater, is pedantically color-blind, and seemed, as well, dogmatically committed to some kind of parity between the sexes -- more than half of the supernumeraries were female, creating the curious impression of two Amazon armies contending in battle over the bisected carcass of King Lear's Britain. Gloucester was played by an avuncular African-American gentleman, an actor who had the regal bearing of Mr. Jefferson on the TV sitcom of that name or the pompous dignity of the life-enfranchised king of some minor African state. Gloucester spoke with the slightly comical authority of a maître-de or Pullman porter, an effort at dignity always slipping into something pointlessly ostentatious. The rage animating Edmund, also performed by a Black actor, was so great that the player lisped out many of his words, out-heroding Herod and all but twisting (figuratively) his villainous moustaches as he contrived evil -- there was, I thought, the faint edge of minstrelsy about both performances, a kind of extravagant eye-rolling that wasn't afraid to display a racially stereotyped element. Generally, speaking Joseph Haj, the director of this show, played the scenes with Edmund and Gloucester for knockabout slapstick comedy -- most notably a farcical fake duel staged between Edmund, the evil son, and Edgar, a white man playing the good boy. In light of the play's general, and abiding darkness, this approach to the Gloucester subplot, I think, made sense and lightened the tone of the proceedings in a way that made the subsequent, and nightmarish, darkness all the more effective. (The blinding scene in Lear is also "over-the-top" but Haj, I think, lost his nerve in the part of the play -- there's no intrinsic reason that you couldn't play this scene also for the very blackest of black comedy...in fact, this may be one of the only ways to successfully stage this episode. Haj went for horror here and had the monstrous Regan put out Gloucester's second eye with the spike heel of her shoe, straddling her poor victim in a slinky-looking silk evening gown and, thereby, imparting sexual overtones to the scene that were interesting, but, I think, tangential to the point. The multi-cultural casting inadvertently gives Regan's act a sort of Fu Manchu dragon-lady aspect that is, also, completely unintentional.)
The Guthrie's staging was austere and mostly effective. I didn't like a couple of scenes in which Haj used the equivalent of the pointlessly tracking or spiraling camera movements favored in films by many post M-Tv directors -- two or three times, he had one character stand, more or less, motionless while another, more agitated, figure whirled in tight circles around the interlocutor. It's effective when you see this done the first time but so heavily choreographed that viewer is likely to be distracted by all of this showy and non-naturalistic motion. The barnlike set looked like the inside of an ancient astronomical observatory, a vaguely dome-like coffered structure rising up over the stage where there is planted, perhaps, a single barren and schematic-looking tree. For the storm scene, a part of the play that I thought extremely powerful, there was some strobe-light lightning but otherwise nothing at all showy or cinematic -- the actors simply declaimed their lines as if standing in a strong wind and the hovel on the moor was mimicked by a simple trap door leading down into parts unknown beneath the stage. The costumes were vaguely Edwardian, a decision that was a good one because pretty soon unnoticed and unremarkable -- the play after all isn't about clothing, but the absence of clothing. The action all tends toward stripping the characters naked either literally or emotionally. Everyone expects nature to correct the carnage and injustice threatened by the plot but nature, as Gloucester remarks, is wholly indifferent to human concerns and all cries for relief fall on ears not only deaf, but, in fact, wholly nonexistent: there is no minister of Justice to right the wrongs that we see: "as flies to the we are to the gods, like wanton boys they kill us for their sport." An idiosyncrasy in this production is the strong suggestion the Lear, in the throes of his madness, kills his own fool -- in the fool's last scene, it seems that Lear drives a dagger into the fool's lower back and, thereby, lays him low. This is a solution, albeit an unworthy one, to a puzzle in King Lear -- what happens to the Fool, a figure so important in the first three acts of the play?
In Shakespearean theater, the privileged instants are those that can be defined as a kind of nakedness or an unveiling. The Elizabethan world that Shakespeare presents is one in which everyone is always acting -- each man and woman plays a part and ostentatiously acts his or her role. A king must be "every inch a king" in comportment, nobility of utterance, and dignity. Peasants and clowns must also play their roles -- they must be steeped in manure as it were, speak in malapropisms, and quite self-consciously insist upon their rural nature. Lawyers are lawyerly and counselors speak in orotund terms very obviously embodying the fact that they are acting a part. It's against this general background of ubiquitous or universal play-acting that Shakespearean drama works to rip through the masks adopted by the characters, tearing asunder the roles that society requires that men and women play. It's for this reason that we are never exactly certain whether Shakespeare's mad scenes involve sane men feigning madness or those who have been driven literally insane by the woes heaped upon them. Is Hamlet faking madness? What about Edgar as "Poor Tom"? In fact, in the mad scenes in Lear, we see Edgar losing control of his act -- he acts so effectively as a mad man that he becomes temporarily insane. This is a privileged moment in the play, an instant when someone who has hitherto been merely acting a part becomes his part, when the inauthenticity of play-acting becomes suddenly, and frighteningly, authentic. Similar, it's obvious that Lear is adopting the pretense of being a king, that he is a play or toy king, particularly in the opening scene in which he contrives a kind of mini-Shakepearian play within the play, forcing his daughters to recite previously memorized speeches as to how much they love their dear old dad -- this is obviously a kind of pernicious theater and one that sets into the motion the whole horror-show. Of all Shakespeare's plays, the climactic scenes in King Lear are the most brutally plain-spoken -- the dramatic trajectory of the play moves from Lear pretending to be a great and wise king, through his madness, and, then, at last to "unaccommodated bare forked thing itself", Lear's final two scenes with Cordelia are noteworthy exactly for their lack of the wild fustian rhetoric that animates most of the rest of the show. Curiously, for the most theatrical of all playwrights, Shakespeare's epiphanies occur when, for a moment, the mask of theatricality is suddenly abandoned -- a man playing a mad man suddenly realizes he has reason to be mad, a king is stripped of all the diction of command and, for a few lines, expresses himself just as any other man might under such horrific circumstances. (I observe that the gender-blind casting deprives the play of one fine and beautiful speech -- Edmund summons a soldier and deputizes him to hang Cordelia. Shakespeare humanizes the murderer by having him brusquely say that he can neither draw a cart nor eat oats, but that "if it is a man's work, (he) will do it." The man's work is nothing of the kind -- it involves hanging a half-conscious and helpless girl. But the scene is instantly memorable and the assassin's insistence on his own dignity, the fact that he like all others are playing a role assigned to him and that he must play that role to its utmost, and that, in fact, it is in playing of the role imparted to him that this minor character defines his humanity -- he is no mere animal because he is acting a part -- all of this I find intensely moving. But in this play, the actor assigned the part of killing Cordelia is a woman and so the poor player can not say "if it's a man's work, I will do it", a significant loss to the play.)
Shakespearean tragedy, particularly one as bleak and nihilistic as King Lear, raises an interesting esthetic question. How is it that we can watch this play and depart the theater in an elevated, even, happy mood? Why isn't the effect of all this murder and mayhem a deep melancholia imparted, like a virus, to the audience? The answer, I think, lies in Shakespeare's remarkable exuberance. Shakespeare, however we imagine him, can only be imagined as a supremely happy person -- the vividness of his poetry and the sheer generosity of his imagination suggest to us that the writer was a person who approached life with tremendous, unwavering joy. In his Tractatus, Wittgenstein makes the profound observation that "the world of the happy is quite another from the world of the unhappy." (Tractatus 6:43). In discussing this point in the context of art, the great critic Arthur Danto says that although the facts may be exactly the same for the happy and the unhappy artist, the world presented by the happy person will be very different from the world presented by the one who is unhappy. The facts of the world involve all sorts of ingratitude, injustice, brutality, and horror -- this is the same for the happy and the unhappy. But the happy writer will present these facts in a way that can create an esthetic distance from suffering -- we rejoice in Shakespeare's gargantuan appetite for the world, his sadistic interest in torture and suffering, and his linguistic exuberance even though he is presenting a fable that is one of unmitigated horror. Dave Hunter has made this point on several occasions and it is worth repeating: a happy writer somehow transmutes the unbearable facts of existence into something that we can contemplate with some degree of equanimity even pleasure. Another example might be to compare Colson Whitehead's horrific novel about slavery The Underground Railroad with Heinrich Heine's equally horrifying poem "The Slave Ship" -- Whitehead's novel makes us ashamed, unhappy, and frightened; Heine finds something hideously humorous in the hypocrisy of the slave-traders, makes a powerful moral point and one that does not scant on the suffering of the slaves -- and, yet, his poem doesn't distress us to the point of apathy and doesn't add to the unhappiness in the world. I would argue that Whitehead's book, however brilliant it might be, just adds another layer of unhappiness to the misery that already exists in the world. This is the opposite, perhaps, of the effect of a true work of art.