Thursday, December 10, 2015

Shakespeare's King Lear: The Text and Production Raise Endless Questions

By Dr. Naomi Saslaw

When members of the English Department and the History Department and students from several majors went to the Hanna Theater to see King Lear, the first half of the production had some effective moments, but on the whole was disappointing, giving us the opportunity to discuss evaluative questions about the staging of King Lear.  There was effective use of music at the beginning of the production including the use of discordant sound, which foreshadowed the discord in Scene I.  The scenery of the production was used partially to make a thematic point.  The program notes on King Lear explained the director's and stage designer's views of the set:  "Knowing that they wanted to start with an orderly environment that would subsequently collapse, they looked at images of 'Brutalist' architecture, along with public buildings in Fascist Italy and Soviet-Bloc countries."

The first half of the production had problems with various characters.  Although Regan is a deeply flawed daughter, her almost mechanical delivery of her lines was not the most effective way to depict her flaws.  One of the most troublesome parts of the first half of the production was delivery of lines by various characters that elicited laughter from the audience multiple times in lines that were not at all comic relief.  

Another issue the director faces is whether to cut any of the lines.  Whether the viewer is a purist or believes that omissions are permissible, any cuts must be very thoughtfully weighed.  The omission of Cordelia's asides in the first scene was a poor choice, affecting the audience's initial interpretation of her character.

In the first half of the production, we did not see the strength of Edmund's villainy, nor the strength and subtlety of the language, "base" and "legitimate," nor the power of Edmund's "Now gods, stand up for bastards!"

In the first half, there was too much use of obvious gestures and too little power in the delivery of lines by Edmund and Lear.  In the dialogue between King Lear and the Fool in the first half, both visual humor in the Fool's clown nose and linguistic humor was present, again eliciting repeated laughter from the audience, but the Fool's strong ironic and satiric commentary on Lear's folly was often subservient to overt comedy, not revealing the strength of the Fool's satire of Lear's behavior.  Kent was the most effective character in the first half, with more genuine powerful passion and good delivery of the eye imagery.

When Lear asks, "Who is it that can tell me who I am?", there is a search for his identity and a sense of loss in Lear, but none of the depth of feeling or thought was present.  When Lear says, "O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!  I would not be mad.  Keep me in temper. I would not be mad," there should have been a deeper sense of his fight against approaching insanity.  Lear started exhibiting more genuine passion, pathos, and strength in "But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter— Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh."  Again, Lear is more effective in his "I gave you all," in his plea for patience, and in his struggle with aging.  Again, there was strength when Lear said, "No, I'll not weep," and pathos in his sense of approaching insanity is felt in his "O Fool, I shall go mad."

Dr. Weaver stated that one of the most important issues in the play is whether it is bad to be a king if he loses his humanity.  I believe that another aspect of that issue is Lear's journey from king through debatable insanity, to loving father, and human being with more depth of humanity.  Lear gave up his title of king, became homeless, was subject to severe internal and external storms, arguably became insane, and learned what it means to be a loving father, a friend, and an empathetic human being.

As is true of great drama, each of Shakespeare's plays is open to endless diverse interpretations, both as literature and in production.  At their best, King Lear and Kent at times rose to a level of interpretation and power that deeply moved the audience and invited us to profound reflection on the political and human issues that the play raises.  At its most flawed moments, too frequently, the characters' delivery of lines evoked inappropriate laughter from the audience.  At times, the genius of Shakespeare's language, including imagery was captured; at other times, the subtlety and power of the lines was missing.

On our walk to dinner, over our meal, and on the ride home, faculty and students had very stimulating discussions of the varied interpretations of the text and of the staging of the production.  The flaws in the production gave opportunity for an animated discussion of issues related to both literary interpretation and theatrical staging.

The round trip by car and the dinner offered the opportunity for faculty and students to get to know each other better.  The dinner at Cowell and Hubbard offered both delicious food and the chance to further discuss the play and other topics.  The fact that students came from multiple majors, including English, Political Science, and History broadened and deepened our dialogue in many ways.

Each time we go to the Hanna, we have faculty members and students who have seen past productions and look forward to seeing other productions.  We also have students who are seeing Shakespeare on stage for the first time, who realize the importance of not only reading, but also seeing Shakespeare's plays, and who experience the beauty of Shakespeare's language and the magic of the theatrical experience.