Monday, March 20, 2017

Second thoughts on Lear

In an earlier note, I observed that Joe Haj, the generalissimo of the Guthrie Theater, also director of this Spring's King Lear, denied the audience an important line in the hustle of events leading to Cordelia's hanging and the play's denouement.  Casting a woman as the executor of Edmund's order that Cordelia be murdered rendered it impossible for the character to observe that if the task were "man's work", he would accomplish it.  Shakespearian drama is a skein of tightly woven assonances, events and characters that rhyme or echo one another, and pulling out any single thread can run the risk of unraveling the whole.  The blunt-spoken, but hideously serviceable soldier who kills Cordelia has his virtuous counterpart in a tiny, but consequential role called "First Servant".  When Albany and Regan set about to pluck out Gloucester's eyes, the "First Servant" opposes them,  In Haj's staging, the First Servant stands to the side, dressed as a butler, trembling a little and hunched as if to make himself as small as possible.  He abides the mutilation of Gloucester's first eye but can not tolerate the enucleation of the second.  After crying out that Albany should desist, he squares his shoulders and wrestles with the evil duke.  For his courage, the First Servant is stabbed to death by Regan, but not before he has inflicted a mortal injury on Albany.  In the grand design of King Lear, this servant who resists the cruelty of his masters stands in contrast to the stolid complicity of the soldier dispatched to hang Cordelia at the end of the play.

Cuts are inevitable in Shakespeare, particularly in a long play like King Lear.  An example of a cut that makes perfect theatrical sense is the suppression of the second half of the very first speech in the play.  Some minor character announces that he had not expected the King to act so expeditiously in dividing his kingdom.  Having made this observation, vital to the narrative, the man then demonstrates Shakespeare's knowledge of Elizabethan legal jargon by appending an impenetrable remark that uses the term "moiety" -- most lawyers aren't exactly sure what "moiety" means and, although, the line is programmatic and, indeed, meaningful thematically, no viewer can sort out the meaning in real time.  Therefore, cutting this part of the first speech makes excellent sense.  (It might be objected that the idea of "moiety" -- that is, the part of a whole that remains after another part has been distributed, usually in the context of a legacy or last Will and Testament -- is broadly significant thematically.  Cordelia's "moiety" in keeping with her inability to speak is "nothing" and the play frequently reverts to a calculus that defines the residue of things remaining as zero or close to zero.  But this is too complicated for any one to reliably hear.)  In one of Edgar's sexually inflected speeches, Mad Tom admonishes his listeners to avoid "the deed of darkness" and keep their hands out of "plackets" just as they should keep their bodies out of brothels.  I listened attentively for the word "placket", an Elizabethan term applied to the opening in a woman's skirts and undergarments, but was disappointed.  Again, the cut was probably judicious.  I would guess that most modern audiences would have no idea what the word "placket" means.  More problematic, I think, is some byplay between Regan and Gloucester before the notorious eye-gouging begins.  In this byplay, Regan plucks the venerable Gloucester by his beard.  This gesture, particularly when committed by a woman against an older man, was considered particularly villainous, an emasculating insult all the more potent because inflicted upon Gloucester by a woman.  The problem that a modern director faces with this gesture is that there is no way to present this act without it seeming risible.  I have earlier argued that the lurid wickedness presented in the Gloucester subplot is so absurd that it is intrinsically laughable -- and that a clear-sighted director might, in fact, elect to stage all of that part of the play for laughs, that is, as a bitter and black farce.  Keeping the beard-plucking in the scene might have accomplished this and I would have liked to see Haj make the attempt.  But the ancient gesture is now likely untenable and this part of the play had to be omitted.

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