The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 28.170 Wednesday, 26 April 2017
Date: Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Subject: From TLS: Dover and Out
Dover and out
KING LEAR IN BROOKLYN
274pp. Oberon. £14.99 (US $36.95).
PERFORMING KING LEAR
Gielgud to Russell Beale
250pp. Bloomsbury. £40 (US $88).
THE GREAT WILLIAM
Writers reading Shakespeare
232pp. University of Chicago Press. £24.50
Among Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet has enjoyed tragic pre-eminence for more than two centuries. Yet we seem to be now penetrating ever more deeply into the age of King Lear. The play has much to offer to our mostly dark, chaotic and godless world – a world in which no equivalent to Horatio survives to tell the protagonist’s story. The conclusion gazes backwards: “the oldest hath borne most”. Performed at Christmas for King James and his Court and proclaimed thus on its title page in 1608, Lear invited a distinguished audience to contemplate the grim but remote spectacle of an ancient, divided, confused and doomed Britain, in total contrast to the now flourishing Stuart monarchy. Two of these three books focus exclusively on Lear – a play once found too painful to contemplate if not sweetened by Nahum Tate’s merciful ending. The third, in turn, includes many responses to Lear expressed by nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets.
King Lear in Brooklyn shows the actor Michael Pennington to be as generous and good-humoured a player offstage as he is on, despite some distinctly challenging encounters with the icy streets of New York. Shouted at from an upstairs window, Pennington found himself “within fifty yards of home, felled by a proud lip of paving stone”. As well as being extremely painful, the fall took him entirely by surprise, even though “a lifetime of falling down dead in the line of professional duty has left me aerodynamically quite sound”. At night, too, New York’s physical environment put Pennington’s good humour to the test as he struggled with the “nocturnal clanking of radiators” in his apartment – “Still troubled by the radiators’ hissing noise at 3 a.m.”. Towards the end of six and a half weeks of rehearsals, in the spring of 2014 (when there were several other major productions of the play), Pennington finally moved to a different, airier, flat – which proved to have radiators that were equally noisy.
Yet there is no note of complaint here – only witty and good-humoured amusement. As the rehearsals rolled on, Pennington discovered with relief that “I find the fluency I thought I’d lost”. One unusual fascination of King Lear in Brooklyn is its blend of the mysterious ancientness of Lear with this production’s austere and hyper-modern setting in TFANA, New York’s Theatre For A New Audience. Given generous time and dedication, Pennington adjusted himself sensitively to the play’s young woman director, Arin Arbus, a richly variegated cast and the still-in-progress structure of the about-to-open performance space. With typical generosity, Pennington allowed every performer a voice in the ensuing book of the production. It is fascinating for what it tells us both about a hyper-modern rendition of Lear and about a wide variety of effective routes into the text.
A logistical problem arose in the final scene, one that quite often arises in modern productions of Lear. Cordelia is performed by a splendid grown woman, Lilly Englert, who could not physically be carried on stage by the septuagenarian Pennington. It is, of course, important not to raise a laugh at this point, as I suspect Henry Irving may have done occasionally when he trundled the dead Cordelia on stage in a wheelbarrow. But a practical solution was eventually discovered, and it doesn’t appear to have provoked laughter in TFANA:
. . . a long piece of black masking would be hung behind the back row of the central block, with a gap in the middle to allow for a clear route down the runway . . . you might have assumed that Lear was . . . crawling on his belly like the serpent.
As a whole, King Lear in Brooklyn chronicles an actor’s varied and fascinating responses to a major and often problematic play, as with Michael Pennington’s earlier books about Hamlet and Twelfth Night. His openness and generosity evidently set the tone for the whole cast.
Pennington had already contributed a brief account of his “American” Lear to Jonathan Croall’s wide-ranging study, Performing King Lear, where it takes its place among a wealth of accounts of the play – forty-one in all – some of which are “based on . . . unique interviews with twenty of the most distinguished actors to have undertaken this daunting role during the last forty years”. These should provide a very attractive and accessible resource for students and young readers, whether studying Lear or modern performance styles or both.
There is, however, a modern tragedy within the ancient one: Nigel Hawthorne’s imperfect rapport with Yukio Ninagawa, the distinguished Japanese director of the RSC’s Lear in the Barbican, in 1999. I was lucky enough to see that production twice, and found Hawthorne’s performance lucid, memorable and entirely compelling. His surviving script and notes are characteristic:
When Albany says of Lear “He knows not what he says”, Albany is wrong. Lear knows exactly what he’s saying. He knows his sanity comes and goes.
He knows that Cordelia is dead.
But the production got some poor reviews, and “for Hawthorne the critics’ reaction ‘hurt like a deep knife wound, and I shall never be able to erase it from my mind’”.
Sadly, this turned out to be Hawthorne’s last major performance: he died in 2001.
For literary scholars, the most durable of these three books may prove to be The Great William, Theodore Leinwand’s powerful and subtle investigation of seven “Writers reading Shakespeare”, as the subtitle has it. Leinward turns up a remarkable number of connections between his chosen writers, who include Coleridge, Keats and Virginia Woolf; all of them engage adventurously with the lively immediacy of Shakespeare’s writing.
Shakespeare is apt to bring out the preacher/lecturer in Coleridge, for example:
As the Audience knows that Juliet is not dead, this Scene is, perhaps, excusable – at all events, it is a Strong Warning to minor Dramatists not to introduce at one time many different characters agitated by one and the same Circumstance.
Keats’s responses to Coleridge are discussed and illustrated in the second chapter, along with some lively battles with Johnson – “Fie”! – as well as between youthful poet and long-dead playwright:
Glimpses of Keats, settling, learning, wafting, and prostrate (also underlining, asterisking, and cross-hatching) help us to imagine both a more or less literal physiology of reading and a variety of metaphorical stances towards Shakespeare, any one of which may be our own.
Turning to King Lear once more, Virginia Woolf picks up on the interrogative, conversational rhetoric of her own responses to reading: “Why is there a fool?” she asks. “What does this gibberish mean?” And three troubled American poets – Charles Olson, John Berryman and Allen Ginsberg – have grappled in numerous ways with “The Great William”, at times truly furiously and truly madly: “Olson (like Hughes) writes that scholars are too ‘timid’ to ‘risk’ an edition like the one he has in mind”.
At other times those noisy writers mingle their confusion with considerable delight:
Hours spent studying Shakespeare could feel ruinous to Berryman, but they also made for a salutary discipline (recall Virginia Woolf: “Shall I read King Lear? Do I want such strain on the emotions? I think I do”).
It is Theodore Leinwand’s own deep engagements with “The Great William”, as well as the play’s many recent appearances on stage, that make me wonder whether the period of Hamlet’s unchallenged supremacy is now beginning to give way to fascination with the darker, deeper, grimmer and less resolved age of King Lear. The answer to Virginia Woolf’s question may be that nowadays most of us do “want such strain on the emotions”. This development has not come about because we have all become jaded sensation-seekers, but because we are too grimly aware of our world’s abundance of “poor naked wretches”.