King Lear, attended by his knight and fool, heads into the storm. Photo (c) Jason Maniccia 2014.
King Lear, attended by his knight and fool, heads into the storm. Photo (c) Jason Maniccia 2014.
Actors Ted Roisum and Clara Hillier (with Nate Crosby and Jeffrey Arrington in the background) work through the final, moving moments of King Lear.
I was out of rehearsal for a week as my health decided to take a turn for the worst, and during that stay I reflected a lot on the impact my father has had on my life, although he has been absent for so long. He loves Shakespeare, I love Shakespeare. He is a performer, as am I. His words and anger still hold power over me daily, but the good memories also stick around. He last knew me as a teenager trying to figure out who I needed to become and has no idea that I’m an actress, teacher, dancer etc. But he is part of me. Let me just tell you, a week in the hospital during a snow storm makes you think a lot!!
“If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
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.”
“What a complex work. It asks the BIG questions about the forces beyond our control and leaves them unanswered. In that way, among others, it is a contemporary play.”
Deep stuff, Gary.
Villains By Necessity
I have seen 4 separate productions of King Lear over the past 10 years, from Ashland to England; most notably, Ian McKellen in Stratford. All very different productions yet all having one striking similarity… I didn’t enjoy any of them. I have read synopses, reviews and heard people endlessly gush about how perfect a story Lear is. Being a fairly regular Shakespearean actor it would seem that I should very much enjoy this work but there was always something missing. I just didn’t like the character of Lear.
I was satisfied to go on with my acting, ignoring this fundamental problem and all the awkward conversations where I sat through tirades about how I wasn’t mature enough to understand his arc or hadn’t worked with Shakespeare enough to “get it.” As strong as those points are… no one shed any light on why I should like the patriarch of the play.
So when the part of Edmund was presented I was a touch nervous yet resolved to dive in. The language is wonderfully vivid, the characters are nuanced and the story is long, albeit complete. And I quickly realized the flaws I found in the productions I saw were very much laid at the directors’ feet.
Every production I have seen and everyone I have spoken with maintain that Lear is a sympathetic character. This is almost entirely established by presenting Regan and Goneril as fundamentally wicked. This is a play where no character is plain enough to be labeled villain. Each character has villainous moments but none of them are enough to justify the title completely.
Yes Regan and Goneril turn their backs on their father who has become completely belligerent. Yet all they require of him is to disband half of his 100 riotous knights that treat their homes like brothels and an apology for cursing their unborn children… The nerve. Lear behaves like a two year old having a tantrum when his favorite daughter won’t say she loves him more than she could love a husband. Ultimately, when Lear goes “insane” from his self exile into the storm, there is no real epiphany that he was wrong and should just apologize for being a needy, abusive, insecure father. Instead he decides to wage war, with a foreign army, against all of England.
Yes Gloucester gets his eyes put out at the order of Cornwall and Regan but let’s not forget that he was committing high-treason by encouraging France (once again, a foreign army) to invade England. Although the blinding is a barbaric punishment, usually played up by directors, it is still a mercy that Gloucester is not killed. I believe high-treason is still punishable by death in THIS country, but we should probably check with Edward Snowden.
Finally, yes, Goneril poisons Regan and after kills herself. But let’s not forget that they are both madly in love with Edmund (who has made a point to follow the carnal laws of nature because he has been treated like a second-class citizen his whole life… but that is a different blog post). By the end of the play Edmund has seduced these 2 women who are in marriages of necessity to husbands who will ultimately take the helm leading the country while their wives, formerly king’s daughters, are only expected to bear children. We all know at the time, this was the fate of high-born women and obviously having a 21st century view is going to skew our impressions of duty but try to imagine how limiting and oppressive a life that is entirely planned out for you before you were born must feel. Then add on a caustic father. Now introduce a charming man that has made a point to seduce by presenting options into an otherwise option-less life. Murder is hardly a justifiable act, but I think I can understand how Goneril got to the point where she poisoned her sister.
It is too easy to whitewash the sisters and Edmund as evil. By doing this, directors force an audience to side with mad Lear and his bully knights (I’m looking at you Kent) and this is what was bothering me about the productions I have seen. As a result you lose too much nuance to make this an interesting story. At least for me.
-Tom Walton, Edmund
Since I was little, I’ve always been interested in playing the villain. Maybe it was because I’ve usually played the opposite in my real life. I was a good little girl eager to please my parents and not step out of line, and I strive to be a good woman and to do right by others. But appearances are not everything. I’m a volcano inside. I feel anger, and disappointment, and violent impulses. Luckily for the people around me, I overwhelmingly suppress these feelings (sorry if you’re one of the few who have received one of my infamous whiskey slaps… you are the exception). So how excited was I to be cast as Regan in our upcoming production of King Lear? And how disappointed was I to realize, upon a close reading of the script, that I don’t think Regan’s a villain at all?
Of course, that realization is actually a good thing, because an actor playing is villain is sure to deliver a pretty boring performance. An actor playing a person with a goal – a goal that she is desperate to achieve because failure is not an option – that’s an interesting performance.
But Regan is fiery. She vies for attention, competes for power, and of course, revenges any hint of disloyalty. So my delightful challenge is to find out how to play Regan as a violent, volcanic, sloppy, absolutely justified heroine.
My main resources for this are clear: Shakespeare’s text, my own experiences, my fellow actors and the direction I receive from JoAnn. I’ve also just finished reading a wonderful book called A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, a retelling of the Lear story on a Midwestern farm from the point of view of Goneril (called Ginny). So far these resources have served me well.
Shakespeare lays out plenty of reasons for Goneril and Regan to be angry, indignant and fed up by the end of Act 2 (when he goes out into the storm). In the very first scene, the king acts aggressively, spontaneously and unwisely, while everyone at the court repeatedly refers to Cordelia as the prettiest and most favored, while the two older sisters as “unkind” and scheming, although they have done nothing wrong. At all! The editor for the Arden edition of Lear suggests that by Elizabethan standards, these actions would have already characterized Lear as unstable, if not crazy.
Then, the old man gets really unreasonable. He acts ungenerously and irately towards Goneril while a guest in her house. He curses her and insults her vigorously, both to her face and to Regan’s, all the while demanding that the two daughters accept his extravagant lifestyle, and riotous and disorderly train of 100 men. And let’s not forget, Lear chooses to go out into the storm. Regan says “for his particular/I’ll receive him gladly.” And Lear says “No, you unnatural hags,/I will have such revenges on you both/That all the world shall–I will do such things–/What they are, yet I know not, but they shall be/The terrors of the earth!” Nice, Daddy. That’s really nice.
Just imagine if this was your father. Of course you’d get mad at him! He’s a total jerk!
Now, I’m not saying that things don’t get out of hand. The reality is that Regan does have a goal that she’s desperate to achieve by any means. I believe her goal is attention, achieved through power, wealth, titles, men, and dominance. But as the middle child, ever passed over for her more beautiful, more articulate, more appreciated sisters and her overbearing father, Regan wants desperately the only thing she has never had: attention focused solely on her. Her failures, her unfiltered anger, her clumsy attempts to lead in a world where women are not taught how to lead, cause her to do terrible things (most notably Gloucestor’s blinding, although he is actually, by definition, a traitor…)
The point for me, is not just to justify, but to endorse and understand her actions. I have a lot of questions remaining about how this performance will take shape, but I feel pretty confident that I can get behind Regan, the heroine.
I’ll leave you with this passage from A Thousand Acres (there are a couple strong words and adult concepts in this, so please be forewarned). In this version of the story, Lear is a downright creep who slept with the older sisters after the death of their mother throughout their teenage years. And the breast she refers to is a mastectomy she had due to cancer. Details of the reimagining aside, the strength of this sentiment of a desperate need for self-actualization is the same.
“I want what was Daddy’s. I want it. I feel like I’ve paid for it, don’t you? You think a breast weighs a pound? That’s my pound of flesh. You think a teenaged hooker costs fifty bucks a night? There’s ten thousand bucks. I wanted him to feel remorse and know what he did and what he is, but when you see him around town and they talk about him, he’s just senile. He’s safe from ever knowing. People pat him on the head and sympathize with him and say what bitches we are, and he believes them and that’s that, the end of history. I can’t stand that.”
Directed by JoAnn Johnson. Next up in our Season of Kings.