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King Lear in Performance

Many consider King Lear unproduceable and it remained one of the least performed of his tragedies for many years.  Variant productions can espouse the divergent interpretations of the play from traditional, orthodox or authentic Shakespearean portrayal,  to alternative resistant, dissident and even subversive ones.

Plays are never meant to be just read; the text is merely the blue print or skeleton of a work of drama and what gives it body, shape or flesh and blood is live performance.  In the hands of a good actor, the words leap off the page.  Performance also relies on sub-text to convey meaning, often sub-consciously.  Linguists agree that communication is 93% non-verbal and only 7% verbal.   Especially in drama, body language through stance, position, deportment, facial expression, posture and thousands of subtle features convey meaning.  Then there are the other factors, such as staging, props, sound effects, lighting and costumes that influence how a play derives meaning.  These are factors that must valued and the director’s role is over riding in determining how a play is presented and received by a live pulsating audience.


Each performance is a new interpretation depending on the nature of the audience, the moods of the actors.......Film productions tend to be more permanent.   Human communication is largely non verbal. The determining interpretive  factors in live productions  are visual, spatial, aural and spectacle.

King Lear is a problematic play in that it asks more questions than it answers.  It is a difficult play to produce for many reasons;  the intensity of the emotions it attempts to evoke make it more suitable for the sounds of poetry than to be acted out on stage.  It is a copious work ranging over an extended time period and expansive distances. Finally Lear’s predicament is beyond the scope of most people so they may fail to connect with it.  William Hazlitt warned  “All we can say of Lear must fall far short of the subject, or even what we ourselves conceive of it  Hazlitt considered it the best of Shakespeare’s plays “it is the one in which he was the most earnest.”  Yet Leo Tolstoy criticises the play for improbable plotlines and weak characters.

The war of the Roses http://www.warsoftheroses.com/ set the Tudor line on the throne until the death of Elizabeth I in 1603.  Her reign (Elizabethan Age) was marked by stability, growth and prolific artistic creativity but her failure to provide an heir returned the Stuarts (Jacobean era) to the throne with their ideas of the Divine right of kings  and absolute authority of monarchs.  Shakespeare was profoundly affected by the transition of monarchs as many of his plays indicate.  His concern is about legitimacy and husbandry.  King Lear (1606) may be a warning to the new King James I about several issues; the   false flattery of courtiers,  breaking up kingdoms and whether or not a King is a king forever.

By 1642, Cromwell and the Puritans, acting for Parliament had closed down all theatres as a Puritan measure of cleansing or purging society and they were not opened again until 1660 after the restoration of the monarchy.  Thus Mencken’s famous definition of Puritanism:

History of Performances:

Nahum Tate Version

Early versions of the play after the restoration until the late 19th C. were sanitised by Nahum Tate to the extent that at the end all the characters are reconciled and live happily ever after transforming it from tragedy to a romance.  Nahum Tate’s reworking of the play in 1681 required major plot modification including Cordelia and Edgar falling in love and living happily ever after. The fairytale ending also saw the good guys prevail (including Lear) whilst the bad guys perished. This version was highly acclaimed in the Victorian period, with Tate sanitising and severely tampering with Shakespeare’s original play.

Various interpretations of the play, such as Tate’s, demand the audience to see the play from a significantly new perspective. However, major changes which were seen in Tate’s work is not the only way that a different response and effect can be shaped.

Eventually with the rise of modern theatre, directors began to revive authentic Shakespearean plays reflecting the style of their time.  The first was by Edmund Kean’s production in1823.

There are essentially two ways of presenting King Lear:

in the tradition of an Aristotelian tragedy or that of a Brechtian Epic Theatre using Alienating and disengaging techniques.  

We will look at the detached, critical one first.  (See Conventional vs Epic Theatre)

 

We look at a few recent versions of King Lear

Peter Brook

  1. Director:           Peter Brook      Lear:  Paul Schofield    Stage, 1962,  Film,  1971.
    Pivotal’ revolutionary version influenced by Jan Kott’s essay ‘Tragedy of the Grotesque’ (1930), and later ‘Shakespeare our Contemporary’ especially the chapter on Lear entitled “King Lear or Endgame” Kott’s controversial and dissident views revolutionised our perspective of the play and is a rare case of where the views of a critic profoundly influenced a major production.  Kott’s major assertion was that Shakespeare was like the world, in which every age found what it was looking for.   Brook agreed that to set any play upon the stage was to offer an interpretation for the contemporary audience and so his production had a lot in common with Brecht’s Verfremdung or alienation, absurdist theatre.

This was a primitive society, clothed in furs and leathers, gathered in ritualistic ceremony around the King's huge, boulder-like throne. Paul Scofield's Lear was a dangerous, tough king, with an inscrutable face, close-cropped grey hair and a terrifying voice.  

Kott was severely criticised; “The Sad Case of Professor Kott” by Michael MacOwan argued that ‘to sustain this misguided endeavour to cut the mind of Shakespeare to the measure of the mind of Kott, the methods of arguments are, necessarily,  disingenuous and unscholarly. 

Yet the Kott/Brook King Lear was received with unusual enthusiasm throughout the world much to the chagrin of scholars because they were at odds with aesthetics of his performance.

Brook used minimalist stage props to produce a bareness, (striking a chord with post WWII audiences, as the ending echoed the holocaust) and identifying with Brecht’s alienation effect (appealing to the mind rather than the emotion).  The absurdist symbols echoed Becket with no claim to political implications.  

The sets are old, tarnished, rusty and decrepit indicating decadence and worn-out. White flats and rusty sheets of metal add to the eerie visual effects.  During the turbulent scenes, jarring, harsh and discordant music repels us from empathy.

 The non- illusionary techniques do not allow us to get too close to any of the characters.  Brook manipulates the audience to see the all the characters remotely and critically. Rather than emotionally empathising, we stand back and judge all the characters judgementally.

 In the establishment scene, the play begins with slow deliberation and great formality of entrance and greeting, except that Lear (Paul Scofield) arrives unexpectedly from the side, cutting through protocol.  Lear is depicted with grizzled head erect, eyes narrowed dangerously, a figure of cold, vain, arrogance and fearfully dangerous - menacing. 

Cordelia comes across as much warmer but not empathised.

Brook embellished the hunting scene with Lear overthrowing the dinner table and storming out while his knights stay behind, tip chairs, throw plates and generally trash the joint (chamber).  This alienates us from Lear, diminishes our sympathy and increases our partiality for Goneril.  Instead of assuming Lear is right, and therefore pitiable, we are forced to make judgements to decide between his claims and those of his daughters.  The balance is maintained evenly throughout with both sides appealing to our partiality.

Non-illusion dominates the scenes on the heath.  Brook demands our imagination. A bare stage with the actors acting non-naturalistic styles distances the audience.

 The graphic violence and gory scenes of Gloucester’s eye gouging highlight the cruelty we are capable of. The play’s ending has Goneril and Regan bashing each others heads against rocks graphically depicting their fear and hatred of each other desensitising our response.

The highly respected Critics:   Many had believed the play unactable…

 

Kenneth Tynan  thought the effect revolutionary and wrote of “this incomparable production” where “instead of assuming Lear is right, and therefore pitiable, we are forced to make judgements to decide between his claims and those of his kin.  And the balance… is almost even…..

 Phillip Hope-Wallace found it ‘the most moving production of the play since the war.’

 W.A. Darlington  thought it would go into theatrical history ‘as the best performance of this tremendous play in modern times’.

An American scholar, Michael Goldman observed that ‘all the alienation finally made the play less painful and more manageable: it succeeded in giving us the impression going through a great deal of horror without having to digest it.  But with a balanced judgement he conceded that Peter Brook ‘shows us more of Shakespeare’s meaning when he is wrong than most of us do when we are right’. 

Finally the man himself:  Peter Brook in an interview with Ronald Hayman of The Times

made this point: Where someone in a library uses intellectual and analytical methods to discover what a play is about,  actors try to discover through the voice, through the body, through experiment in action’.

The film – 1971

 Strong reliance on settings and costuming to bring out the characters, Peter Brook in an attempt to distance the audience, avoids Aristotelian empathy, and Catharsis.  He uses extensive alienation techniques to detach the audience such as:

Characters talking straight to camera

Second shot of opening scene is oversized low angle close up of Lear (Paul Scofield) opening with “Know…….” Followed by a long endless pause.

Hand held camera –wobbly

Rapid acceleration , zooms and fades

Out of focus shots

Subtitles

Jump cutting and cross cutting suggesting the rupture, confusion and discontinuity of Lear’s mind.

The film focuses on faces and heads to assert that these have been detached from the heart, soul and rest of the body.  Humanity has detached itself from humanness.

The heads and faces are often out of focus and askew as is much of the thinking. Heads bear the brunt of punishment such as:

The graphic violence and gory scenes of Gloucester’s eye gouging highlight the cruelty we are capable of.

Edmund slain by an axe to the head.

Goneril bashes Regan’s head against the rocks and then bashes her own brains out.

 The final shot of Lear carrying Cordelia’s lifeless body up a beach into a blank sky.  The close up shot of Lear’s anguished face pans out to the empty grey sky that ends the film on its nihilistic tone.

His excision of much of the text can be seen as severely limiting K.L.’s sprawling intensions by restricting focus, imposing a resistant view but betraying the play’s textual integrity. 

 King Lear (1970) is arguably Brook's finest accomplishment within the British cinema. His theatre production had been influenced by the epic theatre of Bertolt Brecht and the dark political vision of Polish Shakespeare scholar Jan Kott. These were now complemented with the art-cinema techniques of the French nouvelle vague, hence the discontinuities of editing, the unconventional camera angles, the grainy black-and-white cinematography and the barren landscape of North Jutland in Denmark where the film was shot. Many critics at the time found the film bleak, but it can now be seen as a major cinematic achievement: a brilliant investigation into the meta-cinematic, which tests the limits between the theatrical and the cinematic, most famously when Paul Scofield, as the dying Lear, literally falls out of the frame. 

  1. A Feminist Approach
    Feminism is a politically motivated movement dedicated to personal and social change.  Feminists challenge the traditional power of men (patriarchy) and revalue and celebrate the roles of women. From The Patriarchal Bard  by Kathleen Mcluskie, in Political Shakespeare

    Director:           Kaut-Howson               Lear:  Kathyrn Hunter              1997 

Feminist production with emphasis on Paternalistic or Patriarchy;  Lear shown as paternalistic, chauvinistic, misogynistic domineering and autocratic.  Cordelia’s silencing seen as feminine subservience. Much attention is given to the detrimental effects on the family.  Daughters have no mother figure to give them a sense of womanhood. Fathers are owed filial gratitude and duty.  Female insubordination results in anarchy which leads to Lear’s misogynist outrage.

Lear’s misogyny is shown in a most spiteful vindictive curse attacking the core of femininity:

 Hear Nature hear Dear Goddess hear!

Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend

To make this creature fruitful.

Into her womb convey sterility;

Dry up in her the organs of increase;

……

                                    If she must teem

Create her child of spleen, that it may live

and be thwart disnatured torment to her…..”                            I.iv.273 – 280.

 His sexism is revealed in:

      And let not women’s weapons, water drops,

    Stain my man’s cheeks! No! You unnatural hags!                                  II.iv. 277

His metaphysical musing on the cause of evil parallels Albany:

        Then let them anatomise Regan.  See what breeds about

Her heart.  Is there any cause in nature that makes

These hard hearts?                                                                       III.vi.75 – 77

 His misogynistic and chauvinistic ranting hits a nadir with:

        Behold yond simpering dame,

Whose face between her forks presages snow,

That minces virtue, and does shake the head

To hear of pleasure’s name.

The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to it

With a more riotous appetite.

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,

Though women all above.

But to the girdle do the god’s inherit,

Beneath is all the fiends.                                                                     IV. vi.  118 – 126

 

3. A Marxist Approach

Director:     Grigori Kozintsev         Lear: Yuri Jarvet                      1970  Czech

Set in Czechoslovakia and later another version in Hungary, these attempt to depict Lear as a failing industrial despot who irresponsibly has abandoned his duty to provide continuing rule and direction for his workforce thereby condemning them to unemployment, poverty and destitution. This is a political and anti- Marxist interpretation.

Other Marxist criticism address the social inequalities dictated by the hierarchical structure of Medieval society creating disparity in property, social conditions and even justice.

 

4.  Director:    Jonathon Miller         Lear:  Michael Hordern         1984  BBC

Traditional with painting of Shakespeare and Elizabethan music accords the play with undeniable reverential status but is uninspired.   The Miller production illustrates the Aristotelian and historical method of sympathising with Lear and casting Goneril and Regan as utterly villainous.  This view can be supported by Shakespeare deliberately letting us into Lear’s consciousness and keeping us distant from the women’s awareness.

 

5.  Director:    Richard Eyre               Lear:  Ian Holm                      1998    BBC

Strong reliance on settings and costuming to bring out the characters, Eyre is largely influenced by Peter Brook in an attempt to distance the audience, avoiding Aristotelian empathy, and Catharsis. Eyre presents a domestic setting focusing on the family scenes in familiar settings of houses sitting and dining rooms.

Eyre is obsessed with the intent of depicting as balanced view, and even handed approach so that we stand back in a detached manner and see the characters

Both use extensive alienation techniques to detach the audience such as:

Characters talking straight to camera

Second shot of opening scene is oversized low angle close up of Lear

  

Critical Approaches the study of texts.

What the syllabus actually says:

There is no mention of the ‘isms’ in the syllabus. They are not mandated.

Module B states:

This module requires students to explore and evaluate a specific text and its reception in a range of contexts. It develops students’ understanding of questions of textual integrity.

 It demands close study of the text and also requires that students ‘research others’ perspectives of the text and test these against their own understanding and interpretations’. In doing so, they need to ‘evaluate the ways in which the set work has been read, received and valued in historical and other contexts [and]… extrapolate from this study …to explore questions of textual integrity and significance.

 The emphasis is on a critical reading, ie evaluating various readings ‘against their own and others’. The end point of the study is that students question the integrity of the text asking: how can a text be read differently in different times and by different people? What is it about the context of reception that influences meaning? These questions assist students in addressing Outcomes 1, 2A, 12 and 12A.


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