King Lear And The Great Stage of Fools

I’m reluctant to express disappointment with Christopher Plummer’s performance of Lear in Jonathan Miller’s production of the vast, impossible tragedy at Lincoln Center. At 76, the great classical actor has put himself to the fire in the most unrelenting role Shakespeare ever wrote, and all who play the mad king-it is said-are bound to fall short of unimaginable things.

The debate about Lear’s nature will go on forever; the swirling, surreal comfortlessness of the unfolding tragedy tests the audience as well as the actors. But from the outset, Mr. Plummer sees the king as a geriatric Lear or “a stupid old baby” (in his own description). His performance is far better than a foolish dodderer, particularly in his descent into wretched madness from the storm scene on. But he’s sentimentalized the overwhelming awesomeness of Lear the father figure, symbolic godhead, pagan ruler of paranoid power and majesty, a catastrophe of a man demanding irrational, unconditional love.

Mr. Plummer, his white hair flying, conveys a choleric comedy of old age. He forgets the Duke of Burgundy’s name not once, but three times. (Once is amusing; three beyond a good joke.) The fluttery Parkinson’s tremor in his hands is a distracting lapse, an unworthy staginess. But the note in the pivotal opening scene ought to be grave or dangerous, like attending a pre-emptive reading of a patriarch’s will read by the patriarch. Lear dividing his kingdom among his daughters in return for expressions of their devotion and love is a classic fairy tale gone horribly wrong.

“Meantime we shall express our dark purpose” is his surprisingly forbidding opening line, announcing the fatal decision to divide the kingdom in three:

Conferring them on younger

strengths, while we

Unburden’d crawl toward death ….

Yet the distinguished director Mr. Miller, in his fourth production of King Lear , has stressed the comedy of the king. “Jonathan said that Lear was one of the funniest parts ever written,” Mr. Plummer told Time Out . I’d hate to see Mr. Lear when he’s really on a roll, but let it pass. If there’s comedy in this relentless tragedy, it’s bitumen black.

Think of the staggering scene when the blinded Gloucester, guided by a stranger he doesn’t realize is his outcast son, thinks he’s committed suicide by jumping off a cliff that doesn’t exist . Is there anything as darkly fantastic in the whole of Shakespeare? The scene itself is the foundation-it’s been noted too many times before me!-of the Theater of the Absurd and Beckett’s Godot and Endgame .

No, the “comedy”-such as it is-isn’t found in Lear’s “ruin’d piece of nature” as a generalized comment on the farce of old age. It’s in Gloucester’s hellish desperation during his insane, blind walk toward the nonexistent cliff, it’s in the Fool’s worldly cynicism, and it’s in Lear’s own tragic dawning as the Fool within himself comes to see life as grotesquely meaningless.

Let me stress that there’s much to admire in Mr. Miller’s production, which comes to us via Stratford, Ontario-not least his ungimmicky staging and admirable focus on the clarity of the text. This is a superior production to the condensed hack version of Henry IV that preceded it at Lincoln Center. But my difficulty is that I remain unpersuaded by Mr. Miller’s central interpretation, which in turn has remained essentially unchanged by him in all four of his Lear productions.

We may as well argue about the existence of God with a strict rationalist. The director sees Lear as “obviously a foolish man” whose folly “has been compounded by old age,” as he told the Lincoln Center Theater Review . He even comes close to dismissing the storm scene as if it were an inconvenience, a tempest in a teapot. “You have to have lightning and thunder, but you know, the storm itself only lasts about five minutes.” (Five minutes that turn the world on its axis.)

He crucially sees the play as “inescapably seventeenth century,” a Jacobean domestic drama in which “Christianity is essential.” If so, you might end up, as here, with an Edgar too glibly suggesting Christ (and his bastard brother Edmund therefore suggesting Lucifer, we presume). There are biblical references in Lear , but the redemptive power of the tragedy is only glimpsed. Almost everywhere you turn is found murder and abuse without conscience: torture unredeemed.

Regan is poisoned by Goneril; Goneril kills herself; the bastard Edmund is killed by his avenging good brother, Edgar. Lear is reconciled with his banished daughterCordelia(but Cordeliaishanged); Gloucester’seyesare gouged out and he “sees” (but he’s suicidal); Lear goes mad and is “enlightened” (but he’s never at peace and dies with his daughter’s dead body in his arms).

Edgar, the son of Gloucester, who fled into the self-annihilating role of a beggar, can barely speak of such events, though he was a witness to them:

The oldest hath borne

most: we that are young

Shall never see so much,

nor live so long.

Mr. Miller is avoiding taking the play into the quasi-fashionable Beckettian cosmos. But his own interpretation basically returns it to the traditionally conservative. His insistence that Lear is essentially a domestic 17th-century drama about the nature of sovereignty ultimately confines and tames the great play. There have been times-not here-when I have seen Lear as a play about the end of days. Shakespeare set it in pre-Christian times, after all, as if it exists at both the dawn of civilization and the end. The unspeakable events that take place are “above strangeness.” They are beyond anything we know. It’s why so much of the tragedy takes place outdoors, in the wilderness where homeless outcasts go in search of meaning and shelter.

Again, imagine the astonishing scene in which a half-naked mad king, a blind man, a jester and a deranged beggar who names himself Tom of Bedlam meet in the wasteland. A domestic drama?

Only in the sense that all this wretched humankind once had homes and families-except for the Fool, who belongs nowhere and everywhere (and therefore disappears without a trace. He’s a busy man!). Lear is less about the need for an orderly monarchy, and more essentially about private and public agony, the convulsively irrational demands and price of parenthood, or of love. It’s about love-primal, thwarted love, in a world that has lost its reason.

Only unstoppable, furious Lear will say it. And only Cordelia could say it, but she refuses to make love mundane. “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” goes the most famous line, perhaps, in the entire play-an unpolitical play in that emotional sense, brimming with Lear’s elemental, much-too-honest feeling.

But then, Mr. Miller’s Goneril and Regan aren’t quite the venal sadists with pitiless, cold hearts, but the broader Ugly Sisters of pantomime; Edmund less the base Iago of motiveless malignity, more the narcissistic charmer; and virtuous Edgar not a man left at the bleak close half alive under the crushing weight of melancholia.

And yet-and yet-opposing views of Mr. Miller’s production may still meet at the desolate center where “the mystery of things” reveals itself, as the king with wild flowers in his hair finds broken, blind Gloucester like an old friend lost in the void. The unforgettable scene was beautifully acted by Mr. Plummer and the fine James Blendick, and moving beyond all tears:

If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take

my eyes.

I know thee well enough; thy name

is Gloster:

Thou must be patient; we came

crying hither:

Thou know’st, the first time that we

smell the air,

We wawl and cry. I will preach to

thee: mark ….

And the mad King Lear then confides a horrible truth, the unpalatable message of the play, normally hidden from small worlds:

When we are born, we cry that we

are come

To this great stage of fools.