King Lear is, among other things, Shakespeare's prophetic contribution to the 20th-century Theatre of the Absurd. In the Lear world, even more than in that of Hamlet, the time is out of joint. Divine justice seems to be on a holiday; and we ask, "What is running the universe?"
Here Shakespeare has pitted Nature against human nature. He has underscored the similarities between the two, between man and animal. The forces of good and evil appear in mortal combat; those of good succumb, but in the process those of evil destroy themselves as well.
In this play Shakespeare stretched his reach as nowhere else. Indeed no other dramatist has ever taken on so huge and so impossible a task for the stage--not even Goethe with his Faust or Wagner with his Ring of the Nibelungen. Lear cannot achieve total success in performance; nor can Faust. But is this any reason to side with all those who continue to say they shouldn't be tried? With both works, enough is viable to warrant the attempt.
Since Shakespeare is, in Lear, grappling with the whole cosmos, his range here is enormous. He indulges in uncompromising extremes; and it is not surprising that the play contains both the most melting scene in all drama and also the most revolting. Appropriately, Shakespeare chose his grandest Manneristic style of writing--for he is dealing mainly with the distorted, the abnormal, the foreshortened, and the supersensitive.
In so doing, admittedly, he seems to have been unusually careless about small matters. There are more loose ends and unanswered questions in Lear than in Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth combined. But, except for the unsatisfying sudden disappearance of the Fool in the middle of Act III, these don't really seem to matter, so terrible and consuming is the sweep of passions that constitutes the main artery of the work.
The American Shakespeare Festival, in opening its ninth season, has chosen its toughest nut to crack. Under Allen Fletcher's careful direction. Lear (only slightly trimmed) has emerged as a powerful theatrical experience. Despite its shortcomings, the production firmly gives the lie to those who maintain that Lear can exist only in a reader's imagination.
As a setting for the play, Will Steven Armstrong has designed a black backdrop with dim squares, in front of which are five rough-sculptured set-pieces of pipes, rods, and wire mesh (three of them movable) that admirably convey the wildness, ruggedness, grimness, and remote time of the tale. His costumes, too, are always apposite.
No small help comes from Tharon Musser's lighting, which extends to the use of real on-stage flambeaux. In one scene (the fake trial of Lear's daughters) she effectively uses orange underlighting through a trapdoor in stage center. Conrad Susa has composed fitting music for woodwind, brass, and percussion; its discords reflect the play's dissonant world.
And what of King Lear himself? The role is in the hands of Morris Carnovsky, a staple of the Festival's company during its early years. Though Carnovsky came to Shakespeare late as a performer, he had come to him early as a student; and he soon showed he had the necessary gifts. His Shylock can never be surpassed, and his Prospero was extraordinary.
When in 1957 I proposed in these pages that he try Lear, he at once wrote that my suggestion was a "frightening thought." He said, "Parts of it I think I'd be up to--others I am dubious about." That is exactly the right attitude: a combination of confidence and humility. Anyone who thinks he has totally conquered the role will never be able to play it well.
Carnovsky's Shylock was perfect; his Lear is not. Yet his Lear is the greater achievement, and raises him, at sixty-five, to the pinnacle of a distinguished career. For let's face it: Shakespeare's Lear is the supremely difficult task for an actor (as his Cleopatra is for an actress), and its full realization is not humanly possible. The marvel is that Carnovsky has immersed himself so deeply into a character for which real-life experience offers no preparation, and has been able to project so much of it so meaningfully.
Lear is the most titanic figure in all drama. When Carnovsky first enters, dressed in a purple tunic, a silver-trimmed orange cloak, and a heavy gray embossed baldric, he mounts an improvised black bear-skin throne, stands with right hand alott, and all those present instinctively kneel. Though an octogenarian, this Lear is no weakling. He is not just a great man; he is not even just a king; he seems to be almost a god implanted on Olympus. (In an inspired touch, this same bit of business is pathetically echoed towards the end of the play.)
Carnovsky's voice is rich and varied, though it lacks the full-organ sonority that some of the passages cry out for. He is equal to the speeches of denunciation, and can make the word "recreant" sound like the vilest epithet in the language.
He is blessed with a visage full of character to start with, and knows how to walk, gesture, shake his head, blink his eyes, and in general supplement his speech with telling effect. We are caught up by this colossus of a Lear, who has not yet learned that you can't eat your cake and have it too: he wants to give up the crown and at the same time hold on to it.
When he rages on the heath, Carnovsky cannot quite make the voiced tempest in Lear's mind compete with the externally storming elements that symbolize it. Rightly the director made no attempt to recreate a realistic hurricane on stage, but combined realistic features with stylized ones rendered by the musicians. For no storm ever rained on man could ever equal the one that Lear describes.