“Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards”
There are two significant moments in the final scenes of King Lear. The first is when Edgar, who’s been duped by his brother and chased like a criminal by his father’s men, is lamenting about his situation, encounters his blinded father out on the heath and realizes, “Worse I may be yet, the worst is not so long as we can say this is the worst.” He understands at that moment, that no matter one’s own circumstances, there is always someone worse off. Later near the end of the play, Edmund, who previously had signed the death warrant for King Lear and Cordelia, has had a change of heart as he lies dying, “Some good I mean to do…” and sends a messenger to the free the imprisoned king and his daughter, but alas, it is too late. Edmund dies off stage perhaps thinking he’s saved their lives. These are poignant moments in what is perhaps the most tragic of the tragedies. The final scene delivers the gut punch that firmly says, despite a change of heart or even an epiphany, tragedy is still a good probability. Although the Utah Shakespeare Festival delivered this message in their production, for this Shakespeare snob, it fell a bit flat.
The play is a tale that explores emotional extremes and the effects of those emotional extremes. At the start of the play, Kent and Gloucester discuss the king’s sudden plan of dividing the kingdom, not particularly by which daughter Lear favors, but which duke Lear “values” most, Cornwall or Albany. The tone is set here in these opening lines; Lear’s “retirement” comes as a surprise, which sets the stage for upheaval in what seems to have been a peaceful reign. How goes the king, so goes the realm is a mantra I learned back in my undergrad as a barometer of tragedy. If we begin in peace, which we can assume we do by the suddenness of Lear’s move, then this shakes up that serenity. The play should begin with concern and anxiety. The production in Cedar City began with laughter, a jovial king joking and all attendees seemingly in on the joke. The light tone allows the audience too to be in on the joke. The resulting emotional switch simply becomes happy to angry, but the text suggests the switch should be somewhat rational to completely irrational. The resulting irrational behavior then leaves the audience off-balance, unsure of what will come next. Angry is predictable, tolerable. Instability leads to madness which is far more terrifying than simple anger. Today’s more psychologically aware audiences do not have a firm grip on what madness had been; a few modern movies toy with the idea with modest success, but at the time of Lear madness was feared by kings on down to the stable boy, “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! Keep me in temper, I would not be mad!” (1.5. 46-47). This production fails to land that fear partially because some of the characters do not revel in the chaos.
The Gloucester plot line should mirror the Lear story emotionally. Gloucester is lied to by his bastard son Edmund, that the innocent, legitimate son, Edgar, has planned to assassinate him and divide the revenue, “If our father sleep till I waked him, you should enjoy half his revenue” reads the letter Edmund wrote, but alleges Edgar penned himself. “O, villain, villain! His very opinion in the letter!” responds Gloucester in the same level of irrationality that Lear reached in just the scene prior with Cordelia. The audience should be pushed further off-balance emotionally, but here on the Cedar City stage we are giggling along with a malicious sprite of an Edmund, rather than being awed by a diabolical master villain. Again, we get the idea of what’s supposed to happen, but it all lacks a sense of fear or a sense of chaos. We the audience should behold these actions of Lear, Gloucester, and Edmund with terror, instead it seems we are simply waiting for a joke to break the tension.
The Fool played by Aidan O’Reilly was not only a strong performance, but he also played it with an understanding of the Fool’s role not just in the play, but for Lear as his king. Strangely, the Fool appeared in the opening scene of this production. The text does not have him there and later Lear is looking for him, “Where’s my knave? My Fool? Go you and call my Fool hither.” (1.4.43). The Fool’s role in the play and in the real world was discussed by Scott in his lecture on the 14th of July. That the Fool was present adds to the confusion of tone in scene one. The Fool is responsible in the play for a lightness of tone, jokes as well as speaking truth to power, his primary role on stage. O’Reilly seems to have understood the gravity of his role. In the text, the Fool inexplicably disappears in Act Three and there have been many trees that have fallen as scholars have tried to explain the “why.” My own studies have led me to believe the Fool disappears because he can no longer speak truth to power, as the king is now powerless. Lear is mad and has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared. In this production, the Fool is simply abandoned and exits upstage center. It’s a moment that allows for creativity, but here it was a missed opportunity.
The play is about enduring the worst and knowing for certain that the “worst is not so long as we can say this is the worst.” The late scenes draw focus to a world that may not pay off as we hope. This production cut Edgar’s line, but he speaks the last lines of the play: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most; we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” These are deeply tragic words, but in this production, they fall flat because the lead up to this final moment was overlooked. We are denied the emotional heartache that is intended.
The emotional misstep early on prepares the audience for what a friend of mine would call a “Workman-like Production,” a term we use to describe a performance that tells the story, but lacks insight or creativity. If this is the only Lear you’ll ever see, you enjoyed a lovely night and good production. For a snob like me, I’m hoping to perhaps learn something new about a familiar play, or have a character portrait illuminated I hadn’t noticed before, or perhaps a theme singled out that made the play seem new and appropriate for our modern time. This play fell a little short in that aspect, but it did tell the story and perhaps someone will see another version of Lear and see something new for them and that person will then have a barometer of their own.