Charles Lamb is responsible for the idea that King Lear cannot be shown on a stage. But the final production of the current Shakespeare-Marlowe Festival at the Loeb last night, offered evidence that it can be done--done well--and that Lear is as great theater as it is literature.
The translation from page to stage owes much to George Hamlin, who directed the Loeb version; but it owes more to Daniel Seltzer, who acted Lear. Those of us who saw Seltzer as Falstaff and Faustus expected that he could meet the test of King Lear, and he does. In a role which demands an incomparably exhausting range of emotions, Seltzer manages them all. From the first scene, an unlikely, impossible beginning, his Lear was "every inch a king." In that scene he made the mythology work, starting at a tremendous pitch and moving past it. Lear roars, cries, whispers, laughs, almost dances, often stumbles, always touches; he moves convincingly from what someone has called worldly authority to spiritual authority, and in the last great scene he creates compassion, just as earlier he had created energy.
Close on Seltzer's acting heels is Mark Bramhall, Edmund the bastard son of Gloucester. Bramhall dominates the big Loeb stage and plays a cunning, cold-hearted bastard with wonderful confidence and relish. Standing near Bramhall are Lear's fool, Harry Smith, who seems too bitter, too sharp at first, but who persuades us finally; the Earl of Kent, Yann Weymouth, who acts with welcome restraint amid the general ranting; and Edgar, Richard Backus, who makes a fine fool and a noble Edgar. John Ross as Albany and Thomas Weisbuch as Cornwall both perform well, but they are in demanding company. John Lithgow plays an irregular Gloucester. His blinding scene is one of the play's best moments, but too frequently he swings his long arms and lines to less purpose; he is Marlowe's Edward Ii a little older.
The women are not so satisfactory. Deborah Fortson is lovely as Cordelia and moves well in the part, but she does not always speak to full effectiveness. Cordelia, at any rate, the vessel of all love and virtue, may be a more difficult role than Lear. Her sisters Goneril and Regan, Madelon Hambro and Emily Levine, are excellent bitches but bad actresses. They read lines in a shrewish monotone which neither entertains nor shocks, and they fail to distinguish between themselves so that their characters, except for different dresses, might be identical. Regan should be the softer, nicer of the two, but both come on like unsentimental Humphrey Bogarts. William Docken, as the simpering servant Oswald, easily upstages them.
Yet on occasion the actors shrink before the magic of the Loeb Disneyland. The production is extraordinarily large and elaborate, and one could question some of its lushness. The stage area itself, for example, is too big and pushes too far into the audience. The music and the costumes are also a bit overdone. But quibbles disappear in the face of the storm scene which opens Part II. Lightning suddenly flashes across the huge arena, revealing a Bergmanesque figure against a ridge, and thunder crashes out of every amplifier. The noise continues too long, but the whole effect is tremendously impressive. Donald Soule's sets are brilliant, too, and the lighting by Jonathan Warburg is extremely skillful.
Hamlin's direction, then, exploits most of the resources of the play. What is good is very, very good; what is bad is hardly worth mentioning. The world of Lear, moved by the spare, shaved verse of Shakespeare's maturest style, comes to life for most of an evening before leaving on the white robes of Lear's old sacrifices and new death. If at times the drama seems too difficult or the production too loud, we should remember that the best part of the play goes on in our minds, and, I suppose, our hearts.