King Lear on stage - King Lear

Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005

King Lear on stage
King Lear


The theatrical history of King Lear amply confirms a view of the play as almost unbearably distressing. It was acted during Shakespeare’s lifetime at the Globe Theatre, before King James at the palace at Whitehall on December 26, 1606, in Yorkshire in 1610 by a group of strolling players, and probably on other occasions; at least two revivals took place during the 1660s and 1670s, with Thomas Betterton as Lear. When Nahum Tate introduced a happily ending History of King Lear at the theater at Dorset Garden, London, in 1681, however, the appeal of his sentimentalized adaptation was so powerful that Shakespeare’s play simply disappeared from the theater for a century and a half. Tate was, after all, restoring the reunion of Lear and Cordelia contained in all the accounts of the historical Lear (or Leir) before Shakespeare: in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century Historia Regum Britanniae, in The First Part of the Mirror for Magistrates (1574 edition), in the anonymous play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir (c. 1588—1594), and others. Shakespeare’s vision of an unrelenting tragedy in which injustice is not always righted had to await a modern and disillusioned world in order to be adequately comprehended.

Tate was responding to the same discomfort later felt by Samuel Johnson, who confessed that he found Lear so unendurably painful that he could read Shakespeare’s text only in the line of duty as an editor. Ideas of poetic justice demanded that, as Tate put it in his concluding lines, “Truth and virtue shall at last succeed.” “Regularity” and “probability,” thought to be lacking in Shakespeare’s plot, were needed in order to confirm that the gods are beneficent providers for human destiny. The slaughter of Cordelia, which seemed to imply a wanton universe and to counsel philosophical despair, could not be allowed to stand. Accordingly, Tate not only reunited father and daughter at the play’s end, but also provided a love interest throughout between Edgar and Cordelia (leaving out France and Burgundy entirely). The love story gave the play a much-desired romantic titillation. It also, in Tate’s view, gave a better motivation for Edgar: his disguise was no longer merely “a poor shift to save his life” but rather a “generous design” to aid Cordelia. Tate also eliminated the Fool, motivated presumably by a desire to fulfill neoclassical standards of decorum that eschewed low comedy in a tragedy. Tate’s revisions had a political point to make as well: by eliminating the King of France and the French invasion of England, he transformed the military conflict in Lear into one of horrifying civil war and joyful reestablishment of royal authority—an object lesson not easily missed by Restoration audiences with vivid memories of their own civil war.

Tate’s Lear enjoyed a remarkable success. It was acted in all but nine of the years in the eighteenth century. Thomas Betterton played Tate’s Lear every year until his death in 1710 and was succeeded by (among others) Barton Booth, James Quin, and, beginning in 1742, David Garrick. Anne Bracegirdle, Peg Woffington, Susannah Cibber, and George Anne Bellamy were notable Cordelias of the century. There were, to be sure, some attempts to resist the awesome popularity of Tate’s version. Garrick restored a good deal of Shakespeare’s language in 1756, especially at the start of the play, fitting Edmund’s soliloquy in its usual place (1.2) instead of at the beginning and presenting most of Lear’s scene of the division of the kingdom; nevertheless, Garrick still omitted the King of France and the Fool and retained the love of Edgar and Cordelia, leading up to the happy ending. George Colman the elder suffered a serious failure in 1768 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, when he dared to remove the love story, even though he retained the happy reunion of father and daughter, arranged matters so that Gloucester was blinded off stage, and prevented Gloucester’s too-improbable suicide by the timely arrival of Lear.

John Philip Kemble (with his sister, Sarah Siddons, as Cordelia, and later his brother Charles as Edmund and then as Edgar) began with Garrick’s Lear in 1788 but reverted to a slightly restored version of Tate’s in 1792. This version still had Gloucester speak from off stage during his blinding and brought on Lear in time to forestall the unpalatable “fall” of Gloucester from Dover cliff. Edmund Kean, after doing well with Tate’s Lear (or something close to it) in a production in 1820 that emphasized spectacular scenic effects, summoned up the courage to restore the tragic ending at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in 1823 and in subsequent productions until his retirement. Yet even Kean retained the love story of Edgar and Cordelia and banished the Fool. Literary critics such as Joseph Addison, William Hazlitt, and Charles Lamb, long dissatisfied with the stage Lear, were not mollified; Hazlitt in particular was disappointed with Kean’s halfhearted attempts at restoration. Lear had become, in the view of many nineteenth-century readers, a play incapable of being staged adequately; it existed most powerfully on the page and in the imagination.

William Charles Macready first acted Lear at Swansea in 1833, still in Tate’s version. Prompted, however, by a newspaper article by John Forster urging the return of the Shakespeare play to the stage, he successfully presented a cut version of Shakespeare’s text at Covent Garden in 1834, though he still excluded the Fool. Even when Macready finally restored the Fool, in 1838 at Covent Garden, he did so only after great hesitation and then assigning the part to a young actress, Priscilla Horton—the first of many actresses to play the role. Macready also eliminated the blinding of Gloucester, even when spoken from the wings, and the imaginary fall from Dover cliff. So too did Samuel Phelps at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1845 and afterward. Although Bell’s Weekly Messenger rejoiced that Phelps “produced the entire play as it came from the mind of its immortal author,” in fact the production made many of the same cuts as had Macready’s. Later in the century, at the Lyceum Theatre in 1892, Henry Irving eliminated Gloucester’s blinding and nine other scenes, leaving the play “considerably reduced,” though for the most part, according to The Times, “in the condition in which it left the author’s hand.”

All these actor-managers cut extensively, though preserving in the main the ordering of Shakespeare’s scenes, and provided instead a spectacular array of storm effects and monumental scenery. (Anyone who has seen Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in the film The Dresser has taken a hilarious, albeit exaggerated, backstage tour of the contraptions needed to generate wind, rain, thunder, and lightning for a proscenium-arch performance, with Lear on stage doing his best to be heard over the din.) Macready’s Lear concentrated visually on solid, warlike castles, processions, marches, druid circles on the heath, and lightning flashes that alternately lit up the stage and left it in darkness while the winds howled. Phelps sumptuously decorated his stage in the idiom of Saxon Britain. Irving set the play at the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, providing period costumes and historically accurate architectural details. Though Irving did not bestow the scenic effort on this play he had just given to Henry VIII (1892), he impressively produced for the storm scene a desolate heath, swept, as The Times reviewer wrote, “by furious blasts and beating rain, and illumined by coruscating lightning as dazzling in its brilliancy as the rolling thunder that accompanies it is terrifying.” Through such effects, which took precedence over the text, nineteenth-century theater managers attempted to play up the tragic grandeur of Lear, while still ducking such apparently intractable material as the blinding of Gloucester.

The twentieth century embraced the bitterness of Lear as if discovering in it a way of newly comprehending a world filled with wanton evil and uncertain justice. Restoration of the text to a virtual whole (in fact to a conflation of Folio and quarto texts that was probably never staged in Shakespeare’s day) enabled audiences to see the distressing scenes that had so long remained unknown in the theater. Harcourt Williams’s production at the Old Vic in 1931, with John Gielgud as Lear and Ralph Richardson as Kent, and another by Lewis Casson and Harley Granville-Barker at the Old Vic in 1940, did much to let the play be seen as it was written, preserving its unity and rhythm. Unlocalized setting, employed for example by Nugent Monck in 1926 at the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich and by Theodore Komisarjevsky in 1936 at Stratford-upon-Avon, permitted a new kind of fluidity in staging that recaptured some hitherto lost staging effects of Shakespeare’s original.

Donald Wolfit acted Lear powerfully at London’s Scala Theatre in 1944, a performance that James Agate proclaimed “the greatest piece of Shakespearean acting I have seen since I have been privileged to write for the Sunday Times.” Laurence Olivier directed and starred in the play at London’s New Theatre in 1946, describing his Lear as “bad tempered arrogance with a crown perched on top.” With Olivier’s selfish and inconsiderate Lear and Alec Guinness’s wry and vindictive Fool, the production emphasized the damage Lear inflicts as much as what he suffers. With greater emphasis upon the pathos of Lear’s suffering, Gielgud returned to the role in 1950 and 1955, first at Stratford-upon-Avon in a production he directed with Anthony Quayle, and then at London’s Palace Theatre, directed by George Devine.

One modern tendency has been to see the play in as bleak and unforgiving terms as possible. The Polish critic Jan Kott’s distorted but compelling view of the play as speaking to our existential gloom (published in English in 1964 as “King Lear, or Endgame,” in Shakespeare Our Contemporary) influenced what has been perhaps the most important twentieth-century interpretation of the play, Peter Brook’s production at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1962 and the subsequent film (1970), with Paul Scofield as Lear. In this version Cordelia’s role is reduced and devastatingly offset by the horrors of what Lear and Gloucester must suffer. The setting is wintry throughout. Lear’s followers, crowding into Goneril’s hall in Scotland, are rowdy enough to give plausibility to Goneril’s impatience with her father. Cuts and rearrangement of some speeches are calculated to add to rather than relieve the horror. Lear and Gloucester, together on the beach at Dover in Act 4, scene 6, splendidly invoke a spectacle of ruin as these two old men cling together and behold their world crumble around them. Brook sees little reason to believe that Lear and Gloucester have learned much from their suffering beyond what suffering is like.

The uncompromisingly tragic vision of Brook’s Lear, derived as much from Jan Kott, Bertolt Brecht, and Samuel Beckett as from Shakespeare, gained much of its shocking power of relevance from the disillusionment of the 1960s and 1970s. Other directors have continued to explore and at the same time qualify Brook’s nihilism in ways that are sometimes more complex and less sensational in their view of the play’s emotional dynamics. Trevor Nunn lessened the radical pessimism of Brook’s version in his production on a virtually bare stage in 1968 at Stratford-upon-Avon, capturing the agony of Lear’s experience and allowing an audience to share his suffering. In New York in 1973, Edwin Sherin directed James Earl Jones in a production at the Delacorte Theater, in which Lear, for all his arrogance, was, according to The New York Times, the victim of “a compassionless society, in which everything is usurped by the young.” Donald Sinden’s Lear, in a production directed by Nunn in collaboration with John Barton and Barry Kyle at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1976, displayed the cruelty and self-indulgence of a spoiled child, and, if the performance lacked the tragic dignity that earlier generations associated with the role, it effectively revealed the dangers of unchecked power. David Hare’s production of King Lear at London’s National Theatre in 1986 starred Anthony Hopkins as a man helpless before the brutality his own actions have released.

Productions in the 1990s began to respond to new scholarly concerns, especially the bibliographic interest in the two texts of Lear. Nicholas Hytner’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company almost exclusively depended upon the Folio text (rather than the generous conflation of quarto and Folio of most productions) though, pressured by a number of the actors, he did use the quarto’s mock trial scene. John Wood’s Lear was almost ludic in his madness, finding in his loss of reason a merciful freedom from the cruelty that surrounded him. At the Lyttelton Theatre in London’s National Theatre complex, Deborah Warner directed a very different King Lear. On a stage that was an empty white space, broken up by colored canvas hangings to indicate changes of locale, Warner played the full conflated text of the play in a production lasting well over four hours. Brian Cox’s Lear navigated the stage in a wheelchair, entering in the first scene into a birthday celebration with party hats that rendered the matters of state irrelevant but revealed the infantilizing that marked his relations with his daughters and, at least in part, accounted for their behavior towards him. David Bradley played an angry Fool, frustrated with the King’s refusal to see his own best interests. His affection for Lear was obvious, as was his embarrassment both at Lear’s decline and at his own tired repertoire of jokes.

In 1993, Adrian Noble directed Lear at Stratford-upon-Avon, his second production of the play for the RSC. Some eleven years earlier, Noble had chosen King Lear for his first main stage production in Stratford, but, in spite of Antony Sher’s acclaimed performance as the Fool, this had not been a critical success. Now Noble had Robert Stephens to play Lear, and Stephens produced a Lear of extraordinary emotional power. Ranging from a terrifying violence to a heart-rending vulnerability, Stephens’s Lear suffered in isolation his deterioration from the self-satisfaction born of a lifetime of adulation to the pain and grief for which he knew he was in part responsible, and from which he knew he could not escape. This was all Lear’s experience, and the other characters existed only in relation to him. Similarly, in the Gloucester action, the enormity of his suffering overwhelmed everything else. The blinding scene focused on his terrible ordeal more than on the evil of his tormentors, and the interval came as the blind and bleeding Gloucester stared sightlessly at an enormous moon, which cracked and spilled out sand as the house lights darkened.

Late in the summer of 1997, Peter Hall’s production of the play opened at London’s Old Vic. Hall was completely faithful to the Folio version, stating that “it has the real feel of an acting text.” The stage was almost bare, and indeed in various ways the play self-consciously seemed a Shakespearean version of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which Hall’s company had done earlier in the year. Hall recognized the coexistence of the tragic and the absurd in Shakespeare’s play and emphasized it through the counterpointing of a suffering Lear (Alan Howard) with the outrageous comedy of Alan Dobie’s Fool.

Unsurprisingly, the new millennium saw a number of significant productions of the play, though, arguably surprisingly, the most remarkable was Declan Donnellan’s small-scale Lear, performed in 2002, first at the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon and later in the year at the Young Vic in London. Directing a cast of sixteen actors fresh from drama school, Donnellan made the play less about Lear’s pathos than about the strain the impossible father/king put on everyone around him. Nonso Anozie, the only black actor in the cast and physically considerably larger than any other performer, was arrogant and impulsive as Lear, and always seemed threatening. Even in his suffering, he remained more a figure to fear than to pity.

In the summer of 2002, at the Stratford Festival in Canada, Jonathan Miller directed Christopher Plummer in the title role, in a production of King Lear that was clean and emotionally intelligible but in many ways familiar and conservative—though arguably that was its most radical commitment. “I feel there’s nothing epic or mythic about the play,” said Miller, “in exactly the same way that I don’t think there’s anything cosmic about it,” and from that perception Miller turned the play from an archetypal human tragedy to a seventeenth-century period piece. However, instead of diminishing the tragedy, as the decision might have done, it clarified its emotional energies. This was a Lear set in the world of Hobbes rather than that of Brueghel or indeed of Beckett. Most remarkable was the extraordinary performance of Lear by Christopher Plummer, arguably the finest work of this distinguished actor’s career, as he traced the movement of Lear from the narcissistic petulance of his regal grandeur to the emotional liberation ironically accompanying his distressed state. The production, somewhat revised, was remounted at New York’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center in 2004.

On Shakespeare’s stage, the effect of certain scenes in Lear must have been particularly suited to the theater for which they were designed. For example, the unlocalized setting enabled Shakespeare to place Kent in the stocks in the course of Act 2, scene 2, and leave him there until scene 4 when Lear arrives in Gloucestershire to find him still enfettered; in the interim, scene 3, Kent has slumbered while Edgar comes on stage in a presumably different though nearby location. Visual conventions encourage this kind of theatrical juxtaposition: Edgar ponders the danger of his being arrested and resolves to disguise himself, while simultaneously on stage another disguised outcast sleeps or meditates on his ruined fortune. The two figures are not “literally” a part of the same scene; staging flexibility in the absence of scenery makes possible such a visual pairing.

Later (4.6), Gloucester’s attempted suicide makes similarly imaginative use of stage space. He and the disguised Edgar are on the bare platform stage of the Elizabethan playhouse (or at King James’s court). In this theatrical environment, Edgar then conjures up for his blind father a scene of cliffs, vast heights, and a ship far below bobbing on the waves like a toy boat. What is the audience to believe? This sort of verbal scene-setting is the way Elizabethan actors regularly established a sense of place around them on stage. Only when Gloucester falls forward and is not killed after all can the audience be sure that Edgar is playing a role, acting as director or dramatist, making up a little play for his father that is supposed to cure his despair. Edgar’s theatricality, his changes of costume and voice, his commenting in soliloquy on his own performance, are only a few of the ways in which King Lear is fitted to the theater where it was originally performed, a theater in which the play’s unsurpassed power can be fully experienced.