Thackeray found King Lear boring. Tolstoy was no great fan. Samuel Johnson dreaded rereading the play—he recoiled from the death of Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia. (Johnson preferred playwright Nahum Tate’s sentimental rewrite of Lear, published in 1681, which inserted a happy ending and supplanted Shakespeare’s version onstage for more than a century.) Nineteenth-century essayist Charles Lamb declared that staging Lear “has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting,” concluding, “The Lear of Shakespeare cannot be acted.” Nearly two centuries later, Harold Bloom concurred: “You shouldn’t even go and see somebody try and act the part,” the scholar said, “because it’s unactable… I’ve never seen a Lear that worked.” Beginning with a vain, irrational king rejecting both his favorite child and his most faithful servant on a whim, ending with a mad, uncrowned derelict dying of a broken heart—with a detour wherein another foolish old man’s eyes are gouged out— King Lear is a shocking spectacle of two families eating themselves alive.
Yet more and more actors have attempted the unactable in recent years; in New York City alone, they’ve included Ian McKellen, Christopher Plummer, Kevin Kline, and Stacy Keach. The latest is Derek Jacobi, who performs the title role in the rapturously received Donmar Warehouse production of the play (at BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn through June 5). The laurelled English actor Greg Hicks will do Lear at the Lincoln Center Festival this summer, and Law & Order’s Sam Waterston takes the role for the Public Theater in the fall; a film version starring Al Pacino is also in the works. To a confident actor in the winter of his career, the notion of Shakespeare’s tragedy as “a labyrinthian citadel, all but impregnable” (Kenneth Tynan) may seem less like a warning and more like a provocation.
That’s how a viewer can approach King Lear, too. Like most, I first read it in college, where I took notes in lectures and seminars about its reputation as a play that resists being played—and, flush with those earnest yet contrarian energies peculiar to late adolescence, I sought out every Lear I could find. And I still do. This quasi-completeist mission is perverse, because its frisson depends largely on expectations of shameless presumption and abject failure. (You fiends! How dare you dare to stage this!) But the promise—always kept—is the thrill of seeing actors try the impossible.
Over the years, I’ve seen Royal Shakespeare Company Lear and basement-theater undergrad Lear, gender-reversed Lear, all African-American Lear, street-theater Lear, Lear in French and Spanish and Dutch and Japanese (Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 film version, Ran) and Russian (Grigori Kosintsev’s Soviet screen adaptation, 1971). I’ve never seen a perfect Lear, but I’ve seen many that embodied its toxic, inchoate spirit or brilliantly captured an elusive scene or character. From all these competing versions, I’ve assembled an ever-evolving Fantasy League Lear, more on which below.
The Problematic First Scene: Royal National Theatre on Masterpiece Theatre, 1997
Lear has no windup. Less than 20 lines into his first speech, the king, about to divide his empire in thirds, asks his children, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?”—a fatuous test that launches an avalanche of rebellion and recrimination. Elder daughters Goneril and Regan oblige Daddy with greasy praise, but his youngest and favorite, Cordelia—whether out of principle, stubbornness, or prim literal-mindedness—won’t play ball, so Lear cancels her dowry and banishes her. In many Lears (including the mostly superb Donmar production), the scene is rushed and confusing; the patriarch’s transformation from ego-stroking whimsy to thundering hysteria can be bewildering. The big problem, however, is almost always Cordelia: Her default mode is a wheedling Miss Goody-Two Shoes, a prissy martyr to no cause. But in this filmed-for-television version with Ian Holm and Victoria Hamilton, the father-daughter standoff blazes with unspoken resentment and crypto-incestuous frenzy. It’s bracing to see Cordelia—or rather, as Holm once put it, “this silly little shit Cordelia”—as a fiery, hyper-articulate brat expertly pushing her almighty father’s buttons, just as her awful sisters can.
The Breakdown: Royal Shakespeare Company at BAM, 2007
Holm and Jacobi are fit and fleet Lears with compact, drum-tight builds; their infirmities are all in their heads. By contrast, Ian McKellen worked to make his audience hear the creak of Lear’s bones and see the scant rags of his flesh. (Quite literally: Like Holm, McKellen stripped to the buff to play Lear at his nadir.) McKellen’s technical mastery of the Lear role—the jowly hawing and harrumphing, the shuffling decrepitude—is stunning in Act II, when the newly landless royal stomps off into a violent storm rather than accept the subpar conditions of crashing with Goneril (whose womb he has cursed) or Regan. The sudden realization of his daughters’ extravagant ingratitude accelerates the decay of his mind, which McKellen brilliantly externalizes—it’s a descent into madness in time-lapse.
The WTF Factor: Various
As even the uninitiated may suspect by now, King Lear is nuts. Not quite Titus Andronicus nuts, but chock full o’ insanity and bloodlust and dislodged eyeballs and creepy father-daughter ardor. (As many critics have pointed out, Lear and his kids fight like enraged lovers do.) The fan longs for technical precision and shapely phrasing and well-paced catharsis, sure—Sir Derek is bringing it all back home to Brooklyn as we speak—but she also wants some crazy in the raw. The Belgium-based Needcompany’s postmodern King Lear (BAM, 2001) created a suitably chaotic milieu besieged by strobes, hungry vultures, and liquid-limbed modern dance routines. Young Jean Lee’s original play Lear (Soho Rep, 2010), which imagined members of the play’s younger generation in stream-of-consciousness conversation with each other, conjured an appropriate air of callow disobedience and spite. Jean-Luc Godard’s glib 1987 film version blew up the incest subtext and cast Burgess Meredith as Lear and then-teen queen Molly Ringwald as Cordelia. (The eccentric auteur’s first choices: Norman Mailer and his daughter, Kate.)
While Kosintsev’s Lear is stolid, it’s also insanely grim and pitiless. Characters trudge through mud and slop and dry brush. Gloucester appears to die on the surface of the moon. Saintly Cordelia is a Nordic goddess spun from clouds, gold, and the dust from a unicorn’s horn, while Goneril and Regan—the “unnatural hags,” per Dad—are filmed and dressed for maximum frumpiness. And here the Fool, who functions as Lear’s rueful superego, is a nervous wraith who could pass as yet another of the king’s damaged, scrappy children.
Those Unnatural Hags: Peter Brook’s film version, 1971
Goneril and Regan may present the play’s messiest challenge. One minute they’re simply trying to placate a difficult parent in decline—and one who favors their holier-than-thou little sister to boot—and the next they’ve whipped themselves into a maelstrom of homicidal-suicidal lust for tricky Edmund, son of the unfortunate Gloucester, who loses his eyes for siding with the king against his eldest daughters. For G’n’R to gain coherence, and perhaps even sympathy, the adaptor must take liberties. Jane Smiley relocated the action to a farm in late-20th-century Iowa in her 1991 novel, A Thousand Acres, an astute reading of Lear that interpreted the king as a nasty old drunk and his daughters as the victims of sexual abuse.
Though a straight adaptation, Peter Brook’s minimalist, Beckett-influenced movie version (available on Netflix Instant) does intimate that Paul Scofield’s Lear is a scary monster: a growling monolith, powerful in his very immobility. One doesn’t pity him so much as pity a world in which he exists—and pity his daughters for their ill fortune. The Brook film also whittles down the text, which brings G’n’R into sharper relief and minimizes the Cordelia effect. (When she tells Dad, “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth,” the movie takes her at her word and cuts her righteous speech off at the knees shortly thereafter.) Lear and his drunken minions sack Goneril’s castle until her great room resembles a Bowery SRO, and the king’s verbal pummeling of his first-born (“Thou art a boil,/ A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle/ In my corrupted blood”) has the vicious intimacy of a sexual assault. Goneril is warped, a hostage to her father’s terrorism. And Regan has the air of a captive, too—she appears perpetually dazed and post-coital, often little more than a bystander. If this Regan were a Manson girl, she’d be Leslie van Houten.
The End: Donmar Warehouse at BAM, 2011
Arguably, the less sympathetic Lear is, the less affecting the last scene, when the broken king weeps over Cordelia’s corpse. Jacobi’s Lear is overweening, impulsive, self-justifying, but he stirs no primal fear; he may have the id of an infant and the ego of a squalling toddler, but on balance he does seem “more sinned against than sinning.” What he is is old, alone, and badly loved. And that’s why, when Lear wails, “Never, never, never, never, never” before his murdered daughter’s body, much of my wing of the BAM audience was sniffling back tears; a few watched Lear’s collapse through their fingers. Jacobi’s final scene rocks and shudders with a grief beyond recognition—beyond acting, perhaps—and thus honors the paradox of King Lear: It looks like something we have no right to look at.