Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe. – Albert Einstein
Harold Bloom and Charles Lamb claim that King Lear is a great piece of literature to read but that, as a script, it is “unplayable” in the theatre. Others must have agreed with this assessment because Nahum Tate rewrote Shakespeare’s play in 1678 to give it a happy ending in which Cordelia lives and marries Edgar; this version was performed by the great Shakespearean actors (Betterton, Garrick, Kemble, Kean) for over a hundred and fifty years because Shakespeare’s version was, apparently, too dark, too mean, too “unplayable.”
We’re going to play the “unplayable.” Not only do we have the audacity to ignore Bloom and Lamb and “just do it,” but I hope you walk out of the theatre thinking at least three things:
King Lear harshly exposes some of the horrors the human race is capable of inflicting on itself. To tap into the greatness of this play, we’ve got to be able to show the cruelty, the stupidity, and the darkness that can live in the mind and soul. Part of what makes the play monumentally uncomfortable is that Shakespeare shows us how arrogant, dumb, and blind we can be, even to our own family and to those whom we profess to love most. But watching/hearing/experiencing this darkness can also move us to more than just revulsion.
Many (perhaps most) productions of Lear never let us inside these characters in a way that allows us to care or feel. Lear divides his kingdom and disinherits Cordelia very quickly; we don’t see much of who Lear is on a “good day.” The sisters are usually nothing but harpies from the outset, Edmund is often just slimy, Edgar is confusing, Kent is loyal, and Gloucester is loyal but not too bright. Without changing what Shakespeare wrote, we hope to create characters, relationships, and situations that allow you care about what’s happening. I don’t think Lear should be a ride you take just because “it’s good for you.” It should be powerful, surprisingly funny, and always engaging because you care about what happens next or how that next thing will happen.
We never know when our time on this planet will end; “May not young men die as well as old?” (The Taming of the Shrew). We’re never too young to blow it, we’re never too old to change. As naïve or Pollyanna as it may sound, I think some of the genius inside this masterpiece is that Shakespeare shows us multiple paths down which we don’t have to travel in our own lives. By watching the mistakes of others, we can learn what not to do; we can see what we don’t want to become. “I don’t want to be that kind of parent, child, spouse, or friend; I don’t want to be blind to my loved ones.” Hopefully not all of us have wanted to pluck out the eyes of someone who has displeased us, but we’ve probably all committed foolish, destructive acts in the heat of believing we were in the right. I think productions of this play should speak to our souls, to our sense of right and wrong, to our better selves. Whatever we’ve screwed up in our lives, if we’re watching the play then we are still alive, we still have choices to make, and we still have the ability seek forgiveness. In a strange way, what is awful in this play can also give us hope and wisdom; it can help us love more, feel more, see better, be better.
Thanks for joining us as we take this ride together. I hope you find the poppycock in “unplayable,” the light inside the darkness, as well as the love and forgiveness we all deserve to find. As long as we’re breathing, it’s not too late.
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Actors' Renaissance Season