Friday, September 19, 2014

More Sinned Against Than Sinning: King Lear in the Classroom and On Stage

by Daniel A. Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

I really thought that I would not be able to watch it. Up to the minute the play began, I thought I would only be able to see Will Smith's wry and knowing butler attempting to play one of the most tragic and emotionally exhausting roles in theater. Then, the play began. In classic Globe fashion, it began with a lively folk song. As soon as Lear came on stage, Joseph Marcell, better known as Jeffrey to my generation, had the audience in the palm of his hand. What struck me as I watched the play unfold was not the production itself, but the conversations I could have in my classroom with students if we had all attended together.

One reviewer claimed that this version of Lear gives us the "Boomer Lear." The review can be found here. You may wish to read it before finishing this post since a lot of what I have to say is almost a direct response to the reviewer's idea of what this production means.

Marcell's Lear certainly alternates between entitlement and rage. In fact, this production establishes early on a confusing atmosphere. If a director wishes to make the daughters more sympathetic in the beginning, he or she could cut some of the lines at the end of 1.1 and make Lear a carouser in 1.4. But the sisters already appear to be scheming when we arrive at 1.4, and the director here has chosen to have one of the most riotous Lears I have ever seen. Were I Goneril, I would be pretty upset, too. For example, Oswald is not only struck and then tripped, but Kent then proceeds to wallop him for a good thirty seconds while Lear looks on approvingly. This paints the picture of a petty a violent king, not necessarily one I would feel a whole lot of sympathy for.

Perhaps this is why the madness scenes in this production come across so farcical. There were only a couple points where Lear's madness wandered into pathos, but for the most part, it stayed in fairly unmoving territory. When his madness is most emotional, it is made so by the presence of other grieving characters; this move almost feels like the director knows that his Lear is unsympathetic so we must have bathos from every character in a scene with him. The effect was so alienating that when Lear says he is more "sinned against than sinning," all I could think of was the old Bill Cosby Noah routine: RIIIIIIIIGHT...

Mad Lear and Blind Gloucester from the Globe's Facebook Page
The final scene was done with a bit more gravitas than I expected. Were it not for the snickering teenager over my left shoulder who couldn't stop his laughter at Lear's "howl"s, I would have been completely engrossed. Marcell got the mania and misery of the last scene in a way that few have. He swung from manic denier to morose accepter as a child swings from monkey bar to monkey bar: graceful and surprising. That, more than anything, brought the humanity back to the character and inspired the chain of thought that follows.

Domestic violence is a huge topic right now because of the high-profile athletes involved in legal scandals. Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, the NFL's reaction, Roger Goodell's fickle and inconstant method of punishment (although I should just write retribution) all have soaked the front pages of major newspapers for weeks. The Lear we have in this Globe production is less Boomer Lear and more Beater Lear. He falls in line with much scholarship on the character that sees him as a violent and unstable father; a reckless leader bent on control of his subjects with fist and foot, not palm and heart (for a great discussion of this see the Arden Shakespeare Edition edited by R.A. Foakes or A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, a novel based on Lear that turns the character into a sexually abusive father). Marcell's Lear seems first to rely on his fists, then on his equally lacerating words. In many of the early scenes between Goneril and Lear, she visibly flinches as he menaces toward her or rails on her as though she expects the fist of her father to come crashing down any moment. Regan's ruthlessness only serves to deepen this image of Lear as abuser; her ruthless behavior feels like survivalism.

Lear hears Regan's speech about how much she loves him from the Globe's Facebook Page
So this Lear brings up contemporary notions of domestic violence in the form of a violent patriarch, but pulls no punches as the daughters move to eclipse their fathers. The eye-gouging scene featured a bloodlusty Regan who would not let Cornwall take the first eye. Rather, she removed her shoe and used the heel to leverage the eye from its socket. She them tossed it to Cornwall who literally set his foot upon it--hard. He then picked up the remains and chucked them into the balcony. In a parallel case, footballer Hope Solo is currently awaiting trial on domestic abuse charges of her own; however, no one has much mentioned her or demanded her deactivation.

One final teaching point that I noticed in this production is the casting. Normally, Lear has ten principle roles and can include a variety of extras. There were only eight principle actors in the performance who were occasionally accompanied by two stage crew members in costume. This short casting led to a variety of doubles. The usual Fool/Cordelia doubling was present, and much has been said about the emotional symbiosis of the two. The ones that are most interesting to me as theatrical choices are the doubling (or rather tripling) of Daniel Pirrie as Edmund/Oswald/King of France and the doubling (again, rather tripling) of Alex Mugnaioni as Edgar/Cornwall/Duke of Burgundy.

Daniel Pirrie is brilliant. He swings from Edmund to Oswald so completely that one does not know he is the same actor except for his costume. He even manages this change in a scene where both characters appear at once. As Goneril addresses each man, she turns, points, says the name of the character, and waits for Pirrie to run to that spot (donning a cap if Oswald, removing it if Edmund). Oswald's self-serving sycophancy melts into Edmund's arrogant posturing seamlessly; this scene provides much needed, and not normally included, comic relief after the removal of Gloucester's eyes. The choice to make him the King of France is also confusing. Seeing an actor who clearly plays the "bad guys" so well portray one of the few "good" characters in the play is less jarring than it should be because it happens in 1.1; however, it sets an odd tone wherein I want to like Edmund. After all, his ambition to climb beyond others' classifications of him as "illegitimate," "bastard," and "base" is a quintessentially American theme. It is Edmund's lack of a moral direction that makes him so despicable in the end (even though his final acts are acts he does freely because he wants to do some good before he dies). The conversation that could be had about this multiple casting in class invite much close reading and analysis of all three figures.

Alex Mugnaioni's range is unbelieveable. He makes a rather convincing Edgar, Poor Tom, Cornwall, and Burgundy without making any of them anything like the other characters. He even seems to command his face to shift its shape a bit as he goes from naive, schoolboy Edgar to ruthless and conniving Cornwall from scene change to scene change. His Poor Tom borders on theatrical stereotype, but his belief in the character brings through a spark of humanity even in the madman's rantings. I also was confused as to why Mugnaioni would play the sniveling Duke of Burgundy, but he carried the part well. The early portrayal had an equal effect to that of Pirrie's France: I felt less sympathetic toward Edgar early on than I did in the end. Again, this tripling makes for a great close reading and analysis discussion of the character.

Brother vs. Brother from the Globe's Facebook Page
In the end, the play does what Lear should do: it interrogates us about our notions of justice. If Lear is truly the heavy-handed and violent father/king he appears in the play, then the loss of all he holds dear and his own life seems a sort of cosmic account, a reaping of the bitter oats he has sown. Before the play began, as the actors sang and danced, pulling on costumes as they did, an already costumed Lear pulls a string revealing a huge map of England. The daughers then grab chalk and sketch it onto the floor of the stage itself. In the final scene, as Lear cradles his dead Cordelia, the faint echo of the Britain of Lear's rule still appears on stage. Edgar authoritatively delivers the final commanding lines while standing atop this relic of a lost kingdom while the actresses who portrayed Goneril and Regan emerge humming a funeral tune; they grab the same chalk from the beginning and outline the body of Lear like a crime scene. Lear and Cordelia rise to their feet and morose trace the outline of his body with their fingers. The old kingdom has faded. The old king is dead. Nothing came from nothing and so the cast moves on, surprisingly singing a rousing version of Feste's song from the end of Twelfth Night. The wind and the rain have brought tragedy, but have washed away the violent and bloated kingdom of a small and petty king.

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