Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2232
In his play Lear, Edward Bond focuses on the moral development of the title character, a king in ancient Britain. Although Lear begins the play as an old man. his behavior is that of a child; he is totally absorbed in himself and his own security and needs. He is literally building a wall to keep others out. As the play progresses, however. Lear loses his position of power and is forced to move outside of his self-absorbed sphere and into the society he helped to create. As he suffers along with his former subjects, Lear begins to mature, realizing that others are human beings with needs and desires of their own. For the first time, Lear truly sees other people, and this leads him to recognize the consequences of his own actions and to take responsibility for what he has done. His moral growth, however, is only complete when he turns his understanding into action. It is only then that he becomes a morally mature human being.
When the audience first meets Lear, he is morally a child, seeing nothing beyond his own needs and desires. He is obsessed with the building of his wall, which he claims will benefit his people. It is clear from the beginning, however, that Lear has a callous disregard for others He complains about the workers leaving wood in the mud to rot, then almost immediately turns to complaints about the living conditions of the men. Bond makes it clear, however, that Lear's complaints do not arise from true concern for his workers. His dissatisfaction about their living conditions is, in fact, parallel to his complaint about the wood. "You must deal with this fever,'' he tells the" Foreman. “When [the men] finish work they must be kept in dry huts. All these huts are wet." Like the wood, the men are being left to rot. Lear goes on to tell the Foreman, "You waste men," a statement that shows that to Lear, the workers are simply more materials to be used in building the wall.
Bond makes Lear's attitude even more clear when Lear's primary concern with the accidental death of a worker is that it will cause delay in building the wall. Lear insists, over the protests of his two daughters, Bodice and Fontanelle, that the worker who inadvertently caused the death be executed. Here Bond contrasts Lear's spoken concern for his people with his actions. When his daughters say they will tear down the wall, Lear says, “I loved and cared for all my children, and now you've sold them to their enemies'" Immediately after this statement, Lear shoots the worker who caused the death; it is Lear who is the true enemy of his people.
What Lear's wall actually protects is not so much his subjects but his position as their king. When his daughters reveal their plans to take over the kingdom, Lear turns on them as well, saying, “I built my wall against you as well as my other enemies." In his book The Art and Politics of Edward Bond, Lou Lappin pointed out that Lear's wall also functions as a glorification of himself. Lear says, "When I'm dead my people will live in freedom and peace and remember my name, no-venerate it." Lappin called the building of Lear's wall "a self-absorbed gesture, an act of solipsism that seeks to ennoble itself in a cult of personality.'' Like a child, Lear thinks only of himself.
In his book The Plays of Edward Bond, Richard Scharine wrote, "When Lear is overthrown, he is propelled into the society he created like a baby being born." Scharine went on to say, however, that "the mere fact of his being overthrown does not teach Lear moral maturity." At the Gravedigger's Boy's house, Lear is still very much a child. Physically, he depends on the Gravedigger's Boy and his wife to feed and shelter him. "You've looked after me well," says Lear. "I slept like a child in the silence all day." Like a child, Lear retains his self-absorption. When he glimpses the tortured Warrington, Lear's emphasis is not on Warrington's pain, but on the effect of that sight on himself: "I've seen a ghost. I'm going to die. That's why he came back. I'll die." When Cordelia, the Gravedigger's Boy's Wife, tells Lear he must go, his response resembles a child's tantrum: "No, I won't go. He said I could stay. He won't break his word.... No, I won’t be at everyone's call' My daughters sent you! You go' It's you who destroy this place! We must get rid of you!" It is only when the soldiers arrive, killing the Gravedigger's Boy and raping Cordelia, that Lear shows some recognition of the pain of others when he says to the soldiers: "O burn the house! You've murdered the husband, slaughtered the cattle, poisoned the well, raped the mother, killed the child—you must burn the house!'' Yet as Jenny S. Spencer pointed out in her book Dramatic Strategies in the Plays of Edward Bond, Lear's cry of horror is "ironically underscored" by Lear's "unrecognized responsibility for the soldier's brutality." Lear has begun to see outside of himself, but he still does not recognize that the pain he sees is the consequence of his own actions.
Lear's lack of insight continues in the courtroom scene. As Scharine noted, Lear “still does not understand that he himself is the architect of his prison.” Not only does he not realize his responsibility for his daughters' actions, he denies that he has daughters at all. In his madness, he sees himself in the mirror as an animal in a cage, but in viewing himself as an animal, he also sees himself primarily as the victim of others and an object of pity. "Who shut that animal in that cage?" he asks. "Let it out." Yet at the same time, Lear's view of himself as an animal implies a greater connection with those around him. "No, that's not the king," he says. He is not above the others. In fact, Lear shows the mirror around to those in the courtroom, letting them see the animal, an act that equates the others with himself. In a sense, all are victims Lear can now see pain outside of himself. However, his moral growth is still incomplete. He still does not take responsibility for his actions, still does not see his own guilt
It is in his prison cell, after the Gravedigger's Boy's Ghost appears to him and brings him his daughters as young children, that Lear begins to see a connection between his daughters and himself. In the courtroom he says, "My daughters have been murdered and these monsters have taken their place." Yet when Bodice and Fontanelle appear as young girls, Lear shows that they are, in fact, his daughters. The apparitions sit next to Lear with their heads on his knees, and he strokes their hair. When they finally leave, he asks them not to go. At this point, Lear begins to see what he has done, saying, "I killed so many people and never looked at one of their faces.'' When the Ghost, already deteriorating, asks to stay with Lear, Lear responds for the first time with real compassion: "Yes, yes, Poor boy I'll hold you. We'll help each other. Cry while I sleep, and I'll cry and watch while you sleep.. . The sound of the human voice will comfort us." Lear recognizes not only that the Ghost can help him but also that he can help the Ghost Later, when walking with the other prisoners, Lear expresses even more concern, saying "I don't want to live except for the boy. Who'd look after him?" In his relationship with the Ghost, Lear also begins to develop a sense of his own responsibility, saying of the Ghost: "I did him a great wrong once, a very great wrong. He's never blamed me. I must be kind to him now." Lear is now moving toward moral maturity, toward the recognition that he needs to practice compassion, responsibility and action.
With Fontanelle's autopsy, Lear's responsibility becomes even more clear to him. When he sees the inside of her body, he says, "She was cruel and angry and hard. Where is the beast?" He is surprised to find there is no monster inside of Fontanelle. "I am astonished," he continues. "I have never seen anything so beautiful." Unlike the Ghost, Fontanelle had done Lear wrong, so he could continue to see her as a monster, separate from himself, but at this point Lear understands his responsibility in forming her character. "Did I make this," he asks, "and destroy it?" Earlier, when the Ghost had tried to take Lear away from the jail, Lear answered, "I ran away so often, but my life was rained just the same. Now I'll stay." Lear continues now in his desire to face reality. He says, "I must open my eyes and see."
Lear's desire to finally see is followed almost immediately by his blinding. Scharine quoted Bond as saying, "blindness is a dramatic metaphor for insight, that is why Gloucester, Oedipus, and Tiresias are blind.'' Once blinded, Lear is released into the countryside. Near the wall, he meets the Farmer, the Farmer's Wife, and their son, all of whom describe how the lives they had known were destroyed by Lear's wall Lear now sees that he has harmed not only isolated individuals but all of his society, and he is horrified. Falling on his knees, in a posture that asks forgiveness, Lear begs the Farmer's Son not to go into the army, but his efforts are fruitless As Scharine pointed out, "The society that Lear created has been perfected. Cordelia's subjects are socially moralized and go to their consumption by the social order without questioning." Lear cannot unmake the society he has created, and he sees the depths of his guilt.
In the third act, Lear is seen living at the Gravedigger's Boy's former house with Susan, Thomas, and John. In a sense, this is an attempt to return to the idealized, pastoral life that he glimpsed while living with the Boy and Cordelia—the life he lead in his child-like phase. Lear, however, has changed. He is no longer the self-absorbed child, simply seeking the help of others. Now it is Lear who shows compassion, even as the others, including the Ghost, are concerned that Lear is endangering himself by helping those the government considers enemies. When Lear is told to protect himself, to tell those who come to him that they must leave, Lear insists that all can stay: “I won't turn anyone away. They can eat my food while it lasts and when it's gone they can go if they like, but I won't send anyone away."
Lear is not only taking people in, however; he is also speaking out against the government he helped to create. Lear's former Councilor appears, telling him he must end his public life: "In future you will not speak in public or involve yourself in any public affairs. Your visitors will be vetted by the area military authorities. All these people must go." Knowing that he cannot defeat Cordelia's regime, Lear despairs. He is trapped. “There’s a wall everywhere," he says. “I’m buried alive in a wall. Does this suffering and misery last forever?.. I know nothing, I can do nothing. I am nothing."
After Cordelia tells Lear that he will be tried and executed, however, Lear is again able to move beyond himself and his own despair to his final act, an attempt to dig up and destroy the wall he created.
In their book, Playwrights' Progress, Colin Chambers and Mike Prior saw Lear's final act as "so random and so futile that it seems an almost meaningless choice except in terms of the individual conscience." For Chambers and Prior, "Lear's final nod towards the continuing existence of a will to resist is ... a gesture.''
Yet Malcolm Hay and Philip Roberts, in their book Bond: A Study of His Plays, disagreed. "The gesture he makes is neither final nor futile," they wrote. “It is the demonstration of Lear's integrity to those he leaves behind that action is both necessary and responsible " Knowing that he will die soon anyway, Lear uses his death to show the need, not only for compassion and responsibility, but also for action. No longer the child who hides behind his wall, Lear has reached a position of moral maturity and even an ability to teach others. In the final scene, as the workers leave Lear's body on stage, one looks back, showing that others can learn from Lear's death, that there is purpose in his moral journey, that his final act is not futile.
Lear's attack on the wall also carries symbolic weight, for the barrier he seeks to destroy is not only the physical wall he has built but the metaphoric wall he has constructed between himself and others. In gaining compassion for his former subjects— and human life in general—Lear completes his transformation by seeking to eradicate both of these walls. Yet where he fails to destroy the physical wall, he more importantly succeeds m tearing down the wall within himself.
Source: Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1422
Edward Bond thinks that playwrights must be morally responsible to their societies. Their plays ought not only to analyze history—-how societies became what they are—but also to suggest ways in which societies can better themselves. Too often, he believes, theater is immoral. It encourages playwrights who have no political awareness; it fosters uncritical attitudes toward plays that have become classics. Such plays, he argues, may have been moral enough m their days. But they have outlived their historical moments and entered the realm of myth; and because myth codifies and perpetuates the values of the old order, it is dangerous. Bond wants his audiences to "escape from a mythology of the past, which often lives on as the culture of the present," and thus be free to correct injustices: theater therefore must commit itself to political reform if it is to be moral instead of frivolous. Its aesthetic cannot be divorced from that commitment.
Not surprisingly, then, Bond has turned repeatedly to our most revered cultural myths as subjects for his plays. By doing so, he has been able to feed on fables of proven theatrical power, yet, by revising them, to attack their social and political presuppositions The myth of King Lear haunted Bond most of all. Why Lear? Bond replies: "I can only say that Lear was standing in my path and I had to get him out of the way. (Theatre Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 5, 1972)" For Bond, Lear epitomized all that was best and worst in Western culture. Lear was authoritarian, his rule was socially oppressive, he was blind to the needs of common humanity, and he resorted to violence. And yet the old king learned to see he acquired the power to penetrate the myths of the civilization he had made—belief that tyranny can be just, that despotism can be benevolent, that violence can preserve peace. Bond loved the old king for his insight, loathed him for neglecting to act on it. Likewise, Bond admired Shakespeare's King Lear for its potent critique of the human condition; but insofar as Shakespeare elected to focus on Lear's personal suffering rather than on the society that Lear had tyrannized, Bond condemned the play as a dangerous product of its age, bound in by the very myths it exposed.
Perhaps "condemned" is too strong a word. In The Activist Papers, Bond explains that the Elizabethan aesthetic was different from ours' in soliloquy, Hamlet and Lear spoke not merely through their own consciousnesses, but through "the consciousness of history itself." Their voices were at once personal and universal:
When Shakespeare wrote the court had political power and the rulers were a private family as well as a state institution This meant that Shakespeare didn't need to distinguish clearly between public and private, political and personal. He could handle the two things together so that it seemed as if political problems could have personal solutions.
That is, the problems of Lear's world could be purged within the confines of Lear's own imagination.
What was true for the Elizabethans, however, is not true for us. Bond suggests that by maintaining a fascination with the personal at the expense of the political, with the individual at the expense of the social, modern drama has devolved into absurdity; and he rejects the theater of the absurd on moral grounds:
Now society can no longer be expressed politically and morally in terms of the individual and so soliloquies don't work in the same way The individual is no longer a metaphor for the state and his private feelings can no longer be used to express cause in history or will in politics. Changes in social and political relations make a new drama urgently necessary ... The bourgeois theatre clings to psychological drama and so it can't deal with the major dramatic themes. Hamlet's soliloquy has withered into the senile monologue of Krapp's last tape.
This in part explains, I think, why Bond felt compelled to revise King Lear—to rip it from the embrace of bourgeois psychology where our modern sensibilities are wont to lock it and to address more clearly the moral issues it raises; to make it the public play that Bond thought it had the potential to become. Bond's model for such revision was Brecht. He had seen the Berliner Ensemble when it visited London in 1956, and his work with George Devine and his successor William Gaskill in the Royal Court Writers' Group educated him more formally in Brecht's methods. Lear, which he began in 1969 and which opened at the Royal Court in 1971, represents Bond's first significant attempt at epic drama. In it, he presents a series of scenes (equivalent to Brecht's gestus) that offer social and moral perceptions of the world: he disavows coherent psychological motivation of characters and eschews conventional notions of dramatic causality.
A few instances will illustrate how Bond has transformed Shakespeare's original into a Brechtian critique of contemporary culture. For example, he does not allow Lear a loving Cordelia to forgive him his sins and entice him into the antisocial resignation of "Come, let's away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i' the' cage." Such contemptus mundi finds no sympathy in a socialist bent on reforming this world. In fact, Bond regarded Shakespeare's Cordelia as "an absolute menace—a very dangerous type of person." I suspect he felt this way for two reasons First, by righting a war on her father's behalf, Cordelia presumes to use violence to protect the "right", and "right" to her means returning society to what it was—-reinstituting a patriarchy. And second, by defending her father, by ignoring his past iniquities and assuring him that he has "No cause, no cause1' to feel guilt, she reduces the play to a melodrama about a poor old man who has been mightily abused. Bond abstracted those qualities of Cordelia that seemed to him politically most significant—her self-righteous militarism and her willingness to overlook Lear's social irresponsibility—and divided them between two characters in his own play: the new Cordelia (no longer Lear's daughter) and her husband, the Gravedigger's Boy.
Bond's Cordelia is a victim of the war that Lear wages against his daughters and that his daughters wage against each other. She hears soldiers slaughter her pigs; she watches soldiers brutally murder her husband; then she herself is raped. These atrocities prompt her to take revenge. She becomes a kind of guerrilla leader bent on reform who, once victorious, attempts to make her country safe by rebuilding a wall to protect it. She thus repeats Lear's error of building the wall in the first place. Lear himself has' come to understand the folly of it. Walls only bring woe; and so, as a blind prophet at the end of act three—a British Oedipus at Colonus—he speaks against them. Cordelia defends herself with the myth that one needs walls to keep out enemies; and when he protests. "Then nothing's changed! A revolution must at least reform!", she replies: "Everything else is changed " Through Cordelia, Bond dramatizes what he regards as the major flaw in our conception of a humane society defensiveness.
Against this self-destructive Cordelia, Bond pits the Gravedigger' s Boy, who embodies the more charitable instincts of Shakespeare's Cordelia— someone who would allow the king to retreat from self-knowledge and live out his old age in ignorance of what he has done. Rather like Lear's Fool, the Boy attempts to talk sense to the poor old king— to calm the storm raging within—when the king comes to him unhoused. Later, when he returns as a ghost, the Boy tempts Lear, in the words of Simon Trussler, "towards an easeful rather than a useful death"—-with a vision of idyllic retreat such as Shakespeare's Cordelia offered her father But Bond's Lear knows he must resist the temptation, because it would mean turning his back on political responsibility; and Bond's Lear has learned, as Shakespeare's had not, that to reform society, to build it into something more humane, one must acknowledge the loss of innocence and then act on that loss by tearing down the wall that separates men from other men, not merely suffer m guilty silence Together, then, Cordelia and the Gravedigger's Boy represent the Scylla and Charybdis, married in opposition, of political defensiveness and private retreat between which Lear must sail if he is to become a genuinely moral man....
Source: James C Bulman, "Bond, Shakespeare, and the Absurd," in Modern Drama, Volume XXIX, no 1, 1986, pp. 60-70.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3939
King Lear is a great play. By itself, the proposition seems harmless enough, and I don't mean to dispute it, but its ramifications in English culture are considerable. The 1982 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company at their main theatre in Stratford and the concurrent presentation of Edward Bond's Lear at The Other Place provoke fundamental questions about the way we use Shakespeare.
Since its first production at the Royal Court in 1971 Bond's play has been regarded, in the main, with horror and respect as a modern gloss on King Lear. What critics have found it difficult to say outright, because of this matter of greatness, is that Bond's Lear amounts to a systematic and hostile critique of Shakespeare's play, at least as it is usually understood.
King Lear suggests that loosening the conventional bonds of authority in society gives rein to all manner of violent disturbance. Bond believes the opposite: that the State, as we have developed it, is the main source of injustice, cruelty and misery: "Your Law always does more harm than crime, and your morality is a form of violence." We need not regard this just as Bond's act of faith; the same conclusions are reached by Richard Leakey through his palaeoanthropological research (see Richard Leakey and Roger Lewm, People of the Lake, London, 1979). By making his Cordelia the leader of an insurrection which, when successful, re-establishes most of the repressive apparatus of the government it has overthrown, Bond draws attention to the fact that in King Lear Cordelia seeks to redress the wrongs committed by her sisters by having her army fight their army. In other words, at the level of the State and its readiness to take and to sacrifice the lives of ordinary people, King Lear does not envisage the need for an alteration in principle. Shakespeare's king perceives that the State has perpetuated injustice: "Take physic, Pomp;/ Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,/That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,'' but pomp is not called upon to revise its authority, only to distribute superfluity. Albany's final proposal is that Kent and Edgar should "the gor'd state sustain." Bond's point, in relation both to King Lear and to certain modern ideas about revolution and social change, is that you cannot expect to modify the repressive Lear society without challenging its fundamental structures.
Shakespeare's and Bond's attitudes are dependent finally upon divergent views of human nature. When Shakespeare's Lear demands, "Then let them anatomise Regan, see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts?," there is no reply. It seems that we must refer the answer to the gods, who are not as systematically concerned for humanity as Lear once thought The autopsy on Fontanelle in Bond's play leads Lear to appreciate the potential beauty and goodness of humanity: "She sleeps inside like a lion and a lamb and a child. The things are so beautiful. I am astonished. I have never seen anything so beautiful." For Shakespeare the problem begins when authority is weakened. That is why there is no prior motivation for Lear and his daughters: established hierarchy guarantees order and no remoter source is in question, except perhaps the gods. Bond, however, shows that his characters have been socialized into paranoia and violence. Shakespeare's Lear spends most of the play discovering what the world is, essentially, like; Bond's Lear discovers that things do not have to be the way they are.
The positive force in Shakespeare's play is the personal loyalty of Cordelia, Kent and Edgar. It is shown to transcend the punitive ethic assumed by the king:
I know you do not love me, for your sisters Have, as I do remember, done me wrong: You have some cause, they have not. No cause, no cause.
But the play knows no way of relating this generosity of spirit to the structure of State authority. That is why it is difficult to reconcile Cordelia's initial legalism with her subsequent magnanimity: one belongs to the endorsement of formal order in the play, the other to the interpersonal ethic which responds to the collapse of order. Shakespeare, with great integrity, makes his inability to relate the two apparent when he has Cordelia's army defeated. The interpersonal ethic remains as a subversive intuition of another way of relating, but the reconstitution of the State over the dead body of Cordelia is offered as the most satisfactory attainable conclusion.
The most provocative aspect of Bond's Lear, conversely, is the repudiation of merely personal solutions. The Gravedigger's Boy represents a pastoral withdrawal which is destroyed, initially, through Lear's selfish intrusion. His ghostly presence helps Lear to recover his sanity through the expense of personal affection (the combined role of the Fool and Cordelia in Shakespeare's play). But Bond makes his Lear realize that this is not enough. Whereas Shakespeare allows Lear to rejoice in the prospect of imprisonment with Cordelia and the selfishness of this sentiment is not foregrounded, the Boy's notion that Lear should withdraw from political engagement, put a wall around them and accept the demands of the State, is recognized as a temptation. So Lear allows him to die and sets out to begin dismantling the wall. Individual "redemption" through interpersonal love is not enough, the State must be confronted.
In August 1982 Bond's Lear seemed relevant enough, with the Falklands, Lebanon and Poland in mind. Without necessarily agreeing with Bond, we can see that he has engaged with major political issues. The RSC production by Barry Kyle was excellent. The epic mode of the play is not immediately suited to a small space with the audience on three sides, and it may be that this staging altered the implications of the violence in the play, bringing it into our homes (as it were) rather than keeping it out there in the political arena where it belongs. But perhaps this corresponds to the effect of TV—the medium through which most of us experience political violence—and is therefore appropriate. Barry Kyle made strong use of diagonal lines where a conventional stage would have permitted depth, and managed to establish stylization and allusion—for instance, taking the clothes-line behind which the Gravedigger's Boy is killed diagonally, and the final interview between Cordelia and Lear, with the Boy behind him, at right angles to that line. Bob Peck was massive as Lear; it became quite excruciating to follow his weary, painful limbs in movement Mark Rylance was both gruesome and winning as the Boy and his interaction with Lear was physical and moving. It falls to these two actors to repudiate any imputation that Bond is deficient in positive human feeling—to show that the rejection of the interpersonal pastoral is grounded in sufficient awareness of what is sacrificed. To my mind they achieved this.
Adrian Noble, who produced King Lear, was evidently conscious of the main lines of Bond's critique. Bob Crowley's set, a towering, bleak imperial facade (the back of which was torn out when Lear is exposed on the heath) was reminiscent of the wall which dominates the Bond set; many of the costumes were the same—rough, clumsy greatcoats, the gear of an army on the march, exposed to danger, accustomed to discomfort. Some of the casting of the two plays overlapped significantly, and Bob Peck looked like Michael Gambon, who was Shakespeare's Lear. I am about to make a number of intricate and critical points about this interpretation of King Lear, so it should be established at the start that Gambon's performance was an extraordinary achievement: entirely convincing, broad in scope, moving though not in the expected places, inventive but not quirky.
As a member of the International Shakespeare Conference I had the advantage of a question and answer session with Noble, so I know that it was his intention to bring out a contemporary political dimension in King Lear, He said that the effect of concurrent work on Bond's play was like a steady drip of cold water, preventing them from keeping King Lear in a separate historical pocket; that the country was at war when the play was in rehearsal, that he wanted to show "the potential for violence which you get within an absolute State," and that they had felt the events and value system of the play to be relevant constantly in the current political climate.
In many ways this was a triumphantly political interpretation. “We did want to put a war on stage,'' Noble remarked, and the sense of unnamed people moving about a recalcitrant terrain, menaced by each other, was strong, and the sense that they had to lift really heavy objects, had trouble keeping warm, keeping going. The great achievement was the refusal or suppression of the transcendence which is usually assumed to be the goal of certain episodes. In this production Edmund, Goneril and Regan are not evil incarnate (nor is there any attempt to make them seem justified, as in Peter Brook's version). Edmund (Clive Wood) is butch, sulky and scornful; Goneril (Sara Kestelman) is like an obsessive landlady, tidying up the set, who goes on to accosting the lodgers in the hallway. They are cruel and selfish, but they are people. The account of Cordelia shaking "The holy water from her heavenly eyes" is all but smothered by soldiers humping sandbags around the stage; "Ripeness is all" is shouted, desperately, over the drum of the preparing army in turbulent lighting Frequently lighting is used to disconfirm the centrality of the main protagonists, it refuses to focus them but, instead, moves independently, so that they come in and out of it. When Edgar flees, the spotlight rake the stage and the audience, as if from a watchtower m a prison camp.
The whole effect is to quell the commonest interpretation of the play as "tragedy,'' wherein the king, especially, transcends events by the intensity of his inner experience. So Noble reserves attention for the range of characters and for the power of political relations. Gambon's Lear is not inward-looking: he does not discover reality in the depths of himself. He is mad for much less of the time than is commonly supposed, so that there is far less pitiful raving, far less sense that the essential struggle, the essential reality, is inside his head. In the disputes with Goneril and Regan he retains the unwavering baleful glare with which he began; his anger is rarely uncontrolled, he is frail but determined, nobody's fool. In particular, he is rational at the Dover meeting with Gloucester, so that "A dog's obey'd in office" comes through as powerful analysis. This scene was most effective: there was little courting of expressionist significance, but two old men seeing the way the world goes, nodding, chuckling and crying together. Again, when Lear wakes with Cordelia, the whole impression is of a bemused old man, and of physical frailty: it is a human incident, and the visual key is given by pajamas rather than the customary flowing white robes of an Old Testament prophet/penitent. "Come, let's away to prison" is spoken matter of factly, flatly, as a clear perception of the kind of life that may be left to them; and at the end Lear is sane, though he has trouble coping with a stage full of people. At every point in the latter part of the play Noble and Gambon prevent Lear becoming an ultimate representative of "man."
This assault on the transcendence often ascribed to the "tragic hero" is expressed most importantly in the treatment of the blind/sight imagery—"I stumbled when I saw." The production is very physical throughout: Lear is ready to strike anyone, and also to hug anyone—he hugs Goneril, the Fool, Kent, Edgar, Gloucester. "I see it feelingly," Gloucester says. The production takes this up, and so disqualifies the whole dichotomy of mundane versus transcendent vision. The point is not insight into a further reality, there is no further reality—-just the material world in which people and systems do things to you, and you respond to it most fully through the sense of touch. Touch is both more basic (in Platonic thought sight is the highest sense, touch the lowest) and more communicative, more to do with human interaction. For this Lear, the chaos and threat is not, finally, inside him; the precision of Gambon's acting is all directed towards responding to other people. This is a Lear of reaction, not distraction.
We have, then, a production which turns one eye towards Bond, which is aiming at a political awareness relevant to the problems of the world today. At the same time, in the middle of the production, there is an alternative, incompatible conception, equally powerfully realized. This split exposes with almost brutal clarity the uses to which Shakespeare is put by the RSC and English culture at large.
The issue is focused by the storm, which is brilliantly staged with flashing lights, billowing smoke, and noises which were those of the elements but which also (several people remarked) led one to think of an air raid on Beirut (the current international horror). This was a tour de force, a kind of infernal discotheque. And perched above it all, on a platform on a pole fifteen feet above the stage, were Lear (looking like a Blakean deity) and the Fool clinging to him. But all this magnificent effect worked against a socio-political understanding of what was going on. A society in dissolution was transformed into the universe in apocalypse. The idea is in the text—"Is this the promis'd end?''— but Doomsday is not a socio-political concept.
Noble said that his idea in staging the storm was to show "what it's like inside that head .. what it's like when the horizon tilts." Fine, but this is suddenly to transform the action into the interior monologue which in other respects it is not. The presentation of real human relations, with all the disparities of power, suffering and understanding, and their implied ramifications in society at large, could well continue through the scenes on the heath. But Noble is tempted into another manner—he mentioned Jan Kott's essay "King Lear or Endgame."
The Beckettian aspect is developed through the Fool, who is played with great agility, inventiveness and conviction by Antony Sher. Initially his relationship with Lear is played realistically: he tries to cheer Lear up but cannot avoid mentioning the source of Lear's disquiet. But the manner of the professional clown is already hinting at a more abstract notion of the Fool's role. When he and Lear crouch at the front of the stage and peer desperately at each other, then: shadows thrown monstrously on to the back wall, and when the Fool, left for once to himself, goes off like a spring released, cavorting manically round the stage and shaking his fist at the sky, we begin to suspect that the Fool is supposed to stand for something, perhaps an aspect of Lear's psyche. Adrian Noble in fact confirmed that this was his conception: this is why, in the most striking innovation of the production, Lear kills the Fool.
Lear is anatomizing Regan—plucking handfuls of feathers out of a pillow (a few are still in the air in the closing scenes of the play); he flings the pillow across the stage, sending a light swinging, and the Fool, who has jumped in fright into a large dustbin (Endgame) catches it; Lear stabs the pillow, and the Fool through it; Lear never realizes what he has done. Noble meant this to be Lear killing his conscience, that of which he is ashamed. I didn't think of this at the time, and I don't see how Lear is supposed to manage without a conscience in the second part of the play (he seems to have it at the reunion with Cordelia).
Two general reflections arise from the confusion in this production—three if we begin, as we should, by granting without reserve its sheer professional competence, intelligence and power to provoke thought. The first concerns the RSC. In the 1960s it was a spearhead, in some ways more important than the Royal Court, of a left-liberal movement in the theatre and ultimately in the country. By the end of the decade, this movement had become established—had become an establishment. In theatre, it had purpose and committed audiences when the West End was floundering; it successfully challenged censorship; it had the endorsement of national subsidy; it gave birth to the National Theatre. The dominant influences were Brecht, representing political concern; and Beckett/Artaud, representing a sense that the human condition is fundamentally absurd and violent. Together, these influences destroyed the assumptions of naturalism and opened the way to vital developments in theatrical stylization, but, finally, they are incompatible. The first is materialist and optimistic about humanity, tracing our ills to changeable political structures. The second is essentialist and nihilistic, discovering in the depths of personality inexorable tendencies towards cruelty, alienation and self-destruction. Their co-occurrence in the work of Peter Brook for the RSC, including his King Lear of 1962 (much influenced by Jan Kott), The Marat—Sade and US, rendered this work powerful but politically and artistically incoherent The same conjunction informs the 1982 production of King Lear.
But the original movement, contradictory as it was, was of its time These were new, exciting influences, and the confused and compromised political stance was characteristic of other institutions in the period. Bond's use of violence to shock us into awareness also shows signs of Artaud. What we must ponder now is how far the RSC is living off the manner which served it before, how far it is depending on the thought of an earlier generation rather than assessing, clarifying and challenging that thought Two pieces of evidence are quite disconcerting. One is Noble's appeal to Jan Kott (* 'one has to read Kott")—Lear even leaves his boots at the front of the stage, like Estragon The other is the programme. The RSC pioneered the intellectual programme, but this one is all design, a production job, m which pictures and quotations from the most diverse prestigious intellectual sources are jumbled together in an evocative collage (including Auden, Dylan Thomas, Keats, Kozintsev and Dostoyevsky); and, in particular, we find the political awareness of Orwell and Bond ("Our world is not absurd—our society is") alongside the apocalyptic transcendentalism of Ecclesiastes and Yeats. It seems, at least, that the RSC is in danger of parodying its former achievements.
However, and this is my second general reflection, it is probably not fair to blame this gifted company for problems which may be traced much further back, namely to our whole conception of Shakespeare and his "greatness." Since King Lear is a great play—I think this is the underlying argument—it must speak to our condition. And if our condition seems to involve brutally destructive political systems and profound inner compulsions which threaten a general apocalypse, then the play must be seen to address such issues The text as we have received it tends to encourage certain ways of seeing the world and to inhibit others and does not, of course, envisage modern society. Therefore the play and current concerns must, by one means or another, be brought into line.
Hence the extraordinary conventions which govern contemporary productions. In the attempt to get the play to “work'' as the director wants, almost anything may be cut, almost any "business" may be added to affect the significance of the words and, increasingly, words may be altered or added. But all these developments are mashed together so that only the expert can see what has been done, and the impression that we are "really" seeing Shakespeare is preserved For an excellently detailed and discriminating description of such practices, see Stanley Wells's account in Critical Quarterly of two productions of Measure for Measure. Of one production he concludes: "Some of the ways in which it departed from tradition were entirely legitimate. Others required textual tinkering. The resulting play may be more sentimental, and happier, than that suggested by the script that has come down to us, but in its own terms it worked." But Dr. Wells still speaks, throughout, of "the play:" it is assumed that we remain, importantly, in the presence of Shakespeare's original genius.
My objective is not a theoretical discussion of at what point this or that production becomes no longer "the same" play; nor is it a complaint that Shakespeare's text is being tampered with (it is still there for another day). I am trying to identify the cultural assumptions, based on a conception of Shakespeare's greatness, which hold that we can and should ventriloquise contemporary significance through the plays, and the manipulations of presentation which ensue.
In part directors are trying to cope with the fact that most people in the audience don't understand the language: part of the greatness is that Shakespeare speaks to us even across such barriers of comprehension. Hence the business which breaks up a conversation or a line unexpectedly, making a joke unanticipated in a straightforward reading (it is called "making the scene work"). But also, the cutting and business are designed to wrest the text away from what seem to be its dominant concerns and into a preferred dimension of meaning, using every slightest cue, nuance, crux and hiatus to develop an * 'interpretation.'' If, instead, the company reworked the play explicitly, the interpretation would lose the apparent authority of Shakespeare, and Shakespeare's basically conservative oeuvre would lose the apparent authority of speaking to all conditions. This is the great collusion in which most productions of Shakespeare have become involved. The shuffles commonly conducted maintain both these dubious authorities, and more adventurous treatments—like Bond's and Charles Marowitz's— become objects of suspicion.
It is these pressures that he behind the kinds of efforts the RSC makes to achieve relevance. This production pushes the conventions of interpretation to the limit by having Lear kill the Fool and by omitting (as Brook did) Edmund's attempt to save Cordelia and Lear. The first is designed to develop Lear's inner experience in a way barely suggested by the text; the second is designed to suppress issues of good, evil and the perversity of fortune and to leave the responsibility for failing to secure the safety of Lear and Cordelia with Albany who (Noble says) is preoccupied with the feud in his own family—so that the theme of the damage done by arbitrary rule is sustained to the end. In so far as these intentions are (as I have argued) contradictory, they witness to a theatrical mode which is in danger of ossification. By offering extreme instances of the conventions of presentation which accompany that mode, they draw attention to their artificiality. Noble leads his audience (or those to whom I spoke) to ask whether this is really Shakespeare.
The questions which should be asked, however, are whether any production which aspires to modern relevance is really Shakespeare; whether our conception of the greatness of King Lear— meaning capable of speaking positively to all conditions—is honest; and whether attempts to ventriloquise a modern political stance through the play will inevitably be confused by countervailing implications in the text. It may be that the only way to produce a more definite political theatre (or criticism) is not to interpret King Lear but, as Edward Bond sees, to quarrel with it.
Source: Alan Sanfield, "King Lear versus Lear at Stratford," in Critical Quarterly, Volume 24, no. 4, Winter, 1982, pp. 5-14.
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