This article appeared in the show programme for our 2007 production of King Lear.
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Peter Holland, McMeel Family Professor in Shakespeare Studies at the University of Notre Dame, USA, examines the diverse responses that King Lear has inspired on the stage.
It has become something of a cliché to describe the role of King Lear as a mountain, the Everest every Shakespearean actor is supposed to have to climb before being labelled 'great'. But when Ingmar Bergman was directing the play he found a more troubling landscape:
'We equipped expeditions which with varying skill and success mapped a few heaths, a river, a few shores, a mountain, forests. All the countries of the world equipped expeditions; sometimes we came across one another on our wanderings and established in despair that what was an inland lake yesterday had turned into a mountain today. We drew our maps, commented and described, but nothing fitted.'
At its first recorded performance, King Lear fitted especially well. On 26 December 1606, the King's Men performed the play at court for King James, a king who, far from dividing his kingdom, was busily trying to unite two sovereign realms, England and Scotland. Shakespeare, for the first time in his career, wrote a play about a King of Britain (he would do so again with Cymbeline), at the point at which King James was creating a new concept of nation, calling it Great Britain. Even the play's first line, 'I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall', had a special point when spoken before an audience that may well have included both dukes, titles King James had conferred on his sons. But then the play's resonances with the current monarch have often been troubling: during King George III's bouts of madness the play was not performed in London.
On Shakespeare's bare stage, the map in the first scene and the play's dialogue were the only signs of the play's landscape. Now it is the designer who makes visible the terrain of the play. Adrian Noble's 1993 RSC production covered the stage floor with a paper map on which the lines of division were painted by the Fool; as the action tore apart family and rule, so the map was shredded and torn. At The Other Place in 1988 (directed by Cicely Berry) the stone platform of the opening scenes split apart in the storm to become rocky boulders the characters clambered over. Others have made the landscape a more abstract space, like the flight of steps that stretched the stage's full width and up and down which the characters made apparent the play's power struggles in Komisarjevsky's 1936 Stratford production, or the bizarre and largely incomprehensible shapes for set and costumes in Isamu Noguchi's designs for Stratford in 1955. Though the play unsettlingly mixes Christian and pagan, Jacobean and mythical, Victorian productions sought to find a historical moment for their spectacle and, from Macready's performances in 1838 onwards, ancient Britons peopled the stage together with druids and distant vistas of stone circles.
In Michael Elliott's 1983 television version, with Laurence Olivier as Lear, the first scene was still taking place in a version of Stonehenge. But such precise historicizing was never satisfactory.
It was the storm that most completely showed off theatres' resources, with actors competing against sound effects to be heard. David Garrick's final performances as Lear in 1776, probably his greatest triumph, played against powerful depictions of the natural world in chaos while Edmund Kean, fifty years later, demanded a storm so realistic that the set's trees swayed in the wind to the sounds of their creaking. Later storms could be hyper-realistic or totally silent, drenching actors with rain or illuminating symbolic groupings by flashes of light(n)ing, creating the ultimate storm or an apocalyptic vision that was more metaphysical than natural.
Neither Garrick nor Kean had quite been playing Shakespeare's play. Bergman's sense that 'nothing fitted' was shared in 1680 by Nahum Tate who found the play 'a heap of jewels, unstrung and unpolished' and sought to 'rectify what was wanting in the regularity and probability of the tale' by giving Cordelia a romantic love-affair with Edgar and therefore a straightforward reason for not wanting to marry the Duke of Burgundy (Tate cut the King of France). Barely 20 years after the restoration of Charles II, a tragic ending for the plot was a political impossibility and Tate ended his play, as Shakespeare's source The True Chronicle History of King Leir and the Elizabethan histories had done, with Cordelia rescued, Lear restored to his throne and Cordelia's succession secure. For more than a century Tate's ending (and much of his text) was the only version performed and when Dr Johnson, with searing honesty, wrote that 'I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as editor', it was a shock neither he nor his contemporaries could ever have had in the theatre. Kean, trying to return to Shakespeare's ending in the 1820s, is said to have tottered under the weight of his Cordelia (and Lears have been advised to get themselves a light Cordelia ever since).
But, whatever the ending, Garrick's Lear was an overwhelming emotional experience for his audience, moving them to deep grief and floods of tears at the sufferings of the wronged father, their tears echoing his as, even when cursing Goneril, he could manage the transition from the horror of the father's brutal rejection of his daughter to his pain at his realisation of her filial ingratitude. The spectators' sympathetic response was the means to wring out of them the highly-praised feelings of pity and compassion. More father than king, Garrick claimed to have based his depiction of madness on his (probably invented) visit to a man driven mad by having accidentally dropped his daughter from a window. The imitative realism of the performance and the depth of its emotional demands made Garrick's Lear for the first time into the star role it has continued to be ever since.
An old adage says of this physically as well as mentally exhausting assignment: 'When you're old enough to play King Lear, you're too old to play King Lear'. But Garrick was a young man when he first played Lear and Paul Scofield was only in his forties when, for Peter Brook at the RSC in 1962, he overturned the traditional image of the part. As Kenneth Tynan wrote in his review, Lay him to rest, the royal Lear with whom generations of star actors have made us reverently familiar; the majestic ancient, wronged and maddened by his vicious daughters…Lay also to rest the archaic notion that Lear is automatically entitled to our sympathy because he is a king who suffers. Scofield's arrogant Lear seemed to deserve what he got, the consequences of his irrational acts, the results of his exercise of arbitrary power. Brook almost exonerated Goneril and Regan in the process but he also created a world that was outside history, a pitiless universe of despairing nihilism that owed much to Samuel Beckett.
Brook's adaptation of this production to film was released in 1971, just after the one by the Russian director Grigori Kozintsev, subversively brilliant exploration of the politics of power, a profound commentary on the Soviet state. What for Brook had been an existential drama of humanity was for Kozintsev a depiction of the state's abandonment of responsibility. In neither version did everything fit, any more than Bergman had found, but for all three the impossibility of encompassing and explaining the vastness of the play was the point. A certain amount of incoherence was a virtue, not a failing.
Others have tried to explain what caused the play: King Lear has attracted its clutch of prequels (Lear's Daughters by Elaine Feinstein and the Women's Theatre Group and Seven Lears by Howard Barker) and of transformations (such as Akira Kurosawa's film Ran, Edward Bond's Lear and Jane Smiley's novel Thousand Acres). There are operatic adaptations composed and tantalizingly planned: what would Verdi's or Elgar's or Britten's King Lears have been like? There are paintings that try to envision the play and poems that search for its meanings. But in the end, actors yet again come out onto a stage, as Burbage and others did for King James in the Christmas celebrations of 1606, and start to map the play's astonishing and appalling landscape for their audiences.
Written by Peter Holland
Photo by Manuel Harlan shows Ian McKellan as Lear in the RSC's 2007 production directed by Trevor Nunn © RSC