Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture










Scream:  October 2010

The Darkly Comical in King Lear by William Shakespeare



Arguably Shakespeare's greatest play,King Lear conjures up images of very weary scenes and a pensive gloom. And certainly, it gains its power because of its ability to penetrate the very superficial boundaries defining social constructions of good and evil and relational boundaries between the individual and nature. But Lear is not a work of romanticism. Nor is it a classic tragedy. Good doesn't trump evil. Only a begrudging balance of sorts is restored and evil is reduced to absurdity.


Working on King Lear to create a production requires so much more than applying artistic considerations. This becomes obvious when seeing a production that uses theatrical solutions to create the dramatic tension or attempting to be arty and relevant for a contemporary audience; or that attempts a no frills back to basics "play-it-as-written" work that assumes the accessibility of the text and audience knowledge of early 17th. century English society.

To present King Lear today means questioning every element in the play and deeply considering the possibilities for choices in performance that go beyond the "objectives/circumstances" model which serves as the basis for much theatre presentation today. It also means going beyond the "design" model where a thematic design over-rides the particulars of the text and informs decisions for staging.

To develop King Lear as a work for the stage means essential consideration of one's own precepts and social constructs. To pretend these are the same as in immediately post Elizabethan England would be a nonsense. While it might be an interesting exercise to emphasise those aspects which were essentially English of that time, one wonders what point would be served as it would be largely incomprensible to all but a small group of academics. 

Viewing King Lear as analagous to our social paradigms, on the other hand, can be very interesting. Considering our Liberal Western traditions dating back to the Enlightenment and still further contained within Christian/Judeo/Greek philosophical thought and its new manifestations will cause us to define the situation very differently than if we were to consider it in terms of a Sharia tradition. Likewise a work based in Feminist paradigms will skew the framing of a production in a particular way that might seem at odds with traditional views. Adaptations of the play for novels and films can be seen as influenced from such a paradigm, eg: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.

But, from whatever framework we approach the text for the purpose of production, we are also limited by what the audience actually will see. A twenty-first century audience in Canberra or virtually any city, is subjected to endless clutter in imagery, messages, sounds and high speed moving through familiar scenarios: emerging from our sleep to travelling to our place of work or study; to social engagements; to entertainment distractions of all kinds; to the way our minds are processed, objectified and distanced by semantics; further processed through smart cards; watched on surveylance cameras; spied upon through our computers where every click can be easily monitored by something or someone ...

There is so much beauty in King Lear. There is so much truth. And it is the truth that is so deceptive in all of us. We curb our expression of truth, as we feel it, in order to be prudent in our family life, our work, our community and even in our politics. But there are thin lines between prudence, placation, deception and cowardice.

In the final passage of King Lear are the lines:

     Speak what we feel; not what we ought to say &ldots;

The irony is that Cordelia imprudently chooses the moment of public ritual dedication to speak what she feels as she sums up the cynicism of her sisters in the situation. Lear as the Nation's leader and family patriarch became accustomed to flattery and well chosen words to feed him what he wanted to hear. In old age, this warped his sense of reality.

We all have choices. As Lear did! We can choose to listen to the feelings of others; to the truths of others and other world views; to the observations and insights of others &ldots; or we can demand lies and flattery from what others "ought to speak" in order to affirm our own tunnel vision of the world and reality. We can call for banishment, the death penalty or burning at the stake for anyone who mocks us or challenges our belief system. We can be indignant when others confront us with the truth of a situation. We can hide behind our position of power or authority as leaders, parents or colleagues and demand a feeding of contrived responses to our calling. But then we cannot be surprised when our reliance on lies has created a delusional world that contrives our own neurosis and denial of reality.

    Can anyone really control the will of others? Lear might have thought he was a successful father. He had compliant children. Yet subsequent events showed the happy family was a mirage. Two of the three children played him and his game. The result was the death of Lear, his children and probably many people from within his kingdom.

    Gloucester was blind to his illegitimate son's need for love. With a relationship build on denial, it required a real blinding to finally see truth.

    There have been Ph Ds contrived around King Lear and many published writings. Students have for decades written their assignments on the play. But when it comes to the particular beauty within the work, it is best found in the relationship between the actors and the text; in the very act of creating and presenting a performance; in the relational quality it has with particular communities and experiences of those communities. It is in these relationships that truth can be identified and examined. And this brings us to the question of the very purpose of art and theatre &ldots;

    Only when the artist, be it actor, is able to tap personal resources and then link these to the observations contained within great texts can the potential of such works be released. As an adjunct to that is the notion of cultural recognition. It is too glib to speak of the universal truths in Shakespeare. That is to presume that people in all contexts and from all time periods feel, react and behave in the same manner.

    The darkly humorous side to all of this discussion can be summarized by a comment made by a fifteen year old student who saw our recent production. We had worked hard in the design and shape of the work to relate it to experiences of old age and passing from one genertion to the next. The play was set in what appeared to be like a hospital or nursing home for the aged. It had hospital style curtains that opened on rails and two beds for Lear and Gloucester. In a post production discussion, the young student audience member picked up on what another was saying about the curtains. "Ah ... now I get it. They're like from a hospital ... and the old guys are ... of course." Then she made the telling remark. "I thought they were cheap hospital curtains because you couldn't afford proper stage ones." 

    Sometimes it is more comforting to keep art remote and seemingly of some other place. It can then be looked at and "appreciated" rather than felt. And in spite of all our efforts to make it more directly connected with the experience of now, there will always be other factors at play that will make the audience receive the work in diverse and often unforeseen ways.



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