All over the place, foolish fond old monarchs are dropping like anguished flies. In Chicago and New York, in London and Toronto and Washington, actors in shredded costumes are raging on tempest-tossed sets as stories unfold around them of woebegone fathers and callous children and realms ankle deep in stage blood.
The theater world, in short, is having a “King Lear” moment — well, actually, a whole bunch of “King Lear” moments. The supply of tragic, fulminating royals, in fact, appears inexhaustible. On the heels of the recent Lears of Derek Jacobi and Frank Langella, Stacy Keach and Kevin Kline, Ian McKellen and Michael Pennington, other Lears line up to hit their marks. Simon Russell Beale just completed a regal tour of duty, in a “Lear” at Britain’s National Theatre. John Lithgow did the same this month in New York’s Central Park. With other Lears on the boards of late from Oregon to Ontario, and still others on the near horizon, no one should be surprised to discover Washington’s Folger Theatre is joining the somber processional, with a “King Lear” arriving from Shakespeare’s Globe in London that begins performances Sept. 5.
The Globe “Lear,” featuring Joseph Marcell as the ruler who, in relinquishing his kingdom, loses his sanity and ultimately his life, will be the fifth major staging of the tragedy in this region in the last nine years — more evidence of just how intense is the fascination these days with what is to many Shakespeare’s bleakest play. Except for the comparatively more exuberant “Hamlet,” there have been more productions of “Lear” here during this period than of any other play or musical. And one is compelled to consider why.
This is not, of course, to cast aspersions on the piece itself, as sprawling and enigmatic as any in the canon: The nature of Lear’s madness is a transfixing, sleep-disturbing riddle for the ages. But why is it that “King Lear,” a play so resistant to our culture’s knee-jerk predilections for entertaining uplift and easy explanations, is also one to which we return, not just in rare instances, but again and again? And one that by dint of its challenges — exhausting length, an unwieldy knitting of parallel plots — theater companies find especially hard to get right.
I ask as one who, having seen two shaky “Lears” already this summer, the stagings with Beale in London and Lithgow in New York, approaches each new incarnation with both curiosity and a residual trepidation. I have lost count of the number of “Lears” I’ve attended, going back to an old-school production in the mid-1970s, starring the late Morris Carnovsky, at the now-defunct American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Conn. The cumulative experience over all these occasions has been discouraging; the play comes together truly meaningfully on only the most remarkable of evenings. It takes some extraordinary level of skill and alchemy to wrangle the disparate, discordant parts of the play, channeled most crucially through an actor who is capable of integrating the various aspects of Lear — prideful king, wounded madman, heartbroken victim — into a captivating whole.
Perhaps a factor in its ubiquity is a belief that “Lear” is supposed to be good for you, that audiences see it as a test for them as well as the actors — the theater’s equivalent of a decathlon. A case can certainly be made for it as the jewel in an accomplished actor’s crown, the ultimate showcase for technical and interpretive abilities honed over a career. (Previous Lears have run an esteemed gamut from John Gielgud to James Earl Jones.) And maybe, too, the drama has a hold on us because it suggests it knows a scary truth: that where the plight of human beings is concerned, the universe doesn’t give a hoot. At a time when menace seems so present in the world, a story in which the virtuous suffer and die indiscriminately right along with the wicked may seem jarringly apt.
There are those, of course, who find “Lear” hard to swallow on any terms; witness the social media kerfuffle earlier this month, after Ira Glass, host of NPR’s “This American Life,” saw the Central Park production and, after words of praise for Lithgow, tweeted to 87,000 followers: “Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable.” To make his feelings even plainer, he added: “I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.” While Bard fans were rightly appalled by such a reductive condemnation, you could feel some sympathy for Glass — especially if you’d seen this uneven production. For whatever you think of Shakespeare, “Lear” might not be the best place to start if your primary demand of a play is that you shouldn’t have to work too hard.
“No other play provokes as much preliminary flexing of whatever muscle we bring to a play as does ‘King Lear,’ ” declared Lawrence Danson, a Princeton University English professor, in a trenchant essay three decades ago that resonates particularly well today. Reflecting on what he called the work’s “unique arduousness,” Danson saw in the spectator’s role an exertion almost as formidable as those of the drama’s inhabitants. The play, he wrote, “so involves us in its actions that reader, audience, actor or critic may feel, as do the characters in the play, that it will take unusual strength to endure all the play’s awful goings hence and comings hither.”
Danson and many others have noted that the play, first performed in 1606, was for some time afterward regarded as so arduous that the original plot could not be dramatized. A sunnier, late-17th-century rewrite by Irish poet Nahum Tate became the preferred version for more than 100 years. In Tate’s treatment, Lear survives at play’s end and his daughter Cordelia — whose body he bears onstage, in one of theater’s most celebrated scenes — is also spared; she even marries Edgar! (He’s the heroic son of the blinded Gloucester.)
As for the play’s most spectacularly macabre scene, in which Regan eggs her husband Cornwall on, as he gouges out Gloucester’s eyes: theater historians tell us it was long deemed too gory, and was routinely cut. It’s hard to imagine a “Lear” without this signature display of barbarity. But as Shakespeare scholar Alexander Leggatt noted some years ago, tastes in stage violence change: “Horror and revulsion are now seen, as they were not in earlier ages, as legitimate responses to draw from an audience.”
“The play,” Leggatt observed, “has an unusual capacity to touch contemporary nerves directly.” He noted that during the reign of George III, a king afflicted with a mental malady reminiscent of Lear’s, the play “was withdrawn from the stage.” More than 100 years later, the BBC scuttled a radio version that coincided with Edward VIII’s abdication, Leggatt recounted: the events of “King Lear” are of course set in motion by a sovereign’s relinquishment of his throne.
In our time, the play’s “arduousness,” I think, was most successfully mitigated by a director who found an analogous moment for “Lear” in contemporary history. Not that the characters of every “Lear” have to wear business suits and cocktail dresses. But the context director Robert Falls came up with for his 2006 production at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and later the Shakespeare Theatre Company, injected the play with a welcome visceral excitement, and a useful, anchoring realism.
It was the violent breakup of Yugoslavia that Falls used as his conceit. The tribal hatred that Keach’s Lear unleashed after he dismantled his federated state and divvied it among his daughters, served as kindling for the play’s savagery. The madness into which Lear descended seemed as if it were a mutating virus, manifesting itself in other characters as a bloodthirsty vengeance that had been suppressed in the country’s long-simmering ethnic hostilities.
“I think the play has to be set in a specific time and place,” Falls, the Goodman’s longtime artistic director, said in a telephone interview. “I think the play was about a specific world, and this one action in it, of Lear cutting Cordelia out” — [she refuses to butter her father up with lavish declarations of love] — “sets up a chain reaction that leads quite literally to the end of the world.”
Falls says that he gets why “Lear” is done so often: he considers it “the greatest play in the English language.” But he also thinks we’ve put Lear on too high a pedestal, that the notion of the king as the play’s singularly dominant character is a stodgy leftover from earlier centuries. The overemphasis, he says, has masked the fact that “Lear” is really an ensemble piece — “an epic journey into the heart of darkness.”
That we’re too eager to conceive of Lear as a figure of grandeur may help to explain why on too many occasions, the play itself feels grandiose. No less an interpreter than Laurence Olivier seems to have given this idea credence when, according to Leggatt, he said of Lear: “He’s like all of us, really; he’s just a stupid old fart.”
King Lear, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Bill Buckhurst. Tickets, $60-$85. Sept. 5-21 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu/theater.)