I just saw King Lear at the National Theater of London – via an HD broadcast at a Seattle cinema. Directed by Sam Mendes, with Simon Russell Beale in the lead, it had some fresh approaches, with mixed success. But for all that worked or didn’t work for this playgoer, the power of the text remained intact, just as the validity of the mass is independent of the presider’s worthiness.
The play’s opening crisis turns on Cordelia’s refusal to join in her sisters’ ‘glib and oily’ flatteries of their father the king. Lear, sensing the imminent waning of his vitality and power, has an insatiable need for reassurance, but the one daughter who truly loves him refuses to play that hypocritical game. The filial bond, she insists, goes without saying. In fact, no words can do it justice. Better to remain silent than say something inadequate or inexact. If only she had compromised a bit, tossed some verbal meat to her famished parent, she might never have come ‘between the dragon and his wrath.’ But she is as proud and stubborn as her sire, and so the dysfunctional Lear family begins to implode, plunging the kingdom – and all sense of stable, coherent reality – into the abyss.
Clare Asquith, in her controversial book Shadowplay, finds Shakespeare’s dramas full of pro-Catholic allusions and references to the political and religious situation of his time. The figure of an unwise ruler offered a salutary warning to James I, whose stern policies of religious conformity endangered English unity; Lear’s need for his daughters’ professions of loyalty mirrored the judicial interrogations of suspect Catholics and Puritans; the virtuous Edgar’s flight into wilderness and disguise suggested the plight of the Jesuit priests preserving the persecuted old faith in secret hiding places. Mendes’ version contains its own timely references, from the waterboarding torture of Gloucester to the implicit diagnosis of Lear’s madness as Lewy dementia.
But if the play were only “contemporary,” whether for a seventeenth-century audience or a twenty-first, it would not have the same power to haunt and trouble us. King Lear, in Martin Esslin’s words, provides “an image of aging and death, the waning of powers, the slipping away of our hold on our environment.” These are universals of the human condition, the dark foundation upon which any spirituality must be constructed. But even when we try to salvage something from the wreckage (Did Lear learn and grow from his suffering? Does it matter that two good men, Edgar and Kent, outlived the tragedy to bear witness?), the apocalyptic storm on the heath, reducing all our certainties to ‘nothing’ (a word repeated many times throughout the play), continues to echo long after the curtain falls.
But in the National Theater broadcast, there was no time for the themes to resonate once the play was done. After Edgar’s mournful speech (“The weight of this sad time we must obey, / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say…”), the stage went black. But before we could even begin to measure the weight of tragedy, the London audience began to applaud, the lights came up again, and the players, now smiling, returned to the stage to take their bows. Their characters had vanished, replaced by the contemporary personalities of the actors themselves. Such hasty return to ordinary life felt unseemly. Could we not linger in Lear’s universe a moment longer, let the emotion begin to settle and subside before politely pretending we had not just been ripped apart by the howling storm of Shakespeare’s text?
When, years ago, I saw Theatre du Soleil’s legendary production of Richard II, such a transition was in fact provided, for which I have always been grateful. The French company had performed in whiteface, with costumes and ritualized movements drawn from Japan’s kabuki theater. The ceremonial strangeness of the production utterly removed us from any sense of the familiar or natural. If we were not actually transported to a medieval Neverland of ritual and transcendent constraints, it certainly felt like it. And after the play’s stunning, tragic conclusion, the company took care not to wake us too quickly from that dream.
They did it by remaining in character. The whiteface still veiled their personalities, as any kind of mask does. While wearing a mask, you are not yourself, but the role. And their whitened faces remained intense and unsmiling, even as the applause thundered our Amen to the experience they had given us. It was still Richard and Bolingbroke on that stage, not some modern imposters. Even their bows, formal and liturgical rather than personal and spontaneous, prolonged the sense of gravity.
Performing arts, like religious ritual, strive to take us somewhere else, to give us something we might not receive in any other way. But too little attention is given to the transitions between ordinary life and the concentrated/consecrated space of a performance, whether artistic or liturgical. How does the environment we enter help us prepare for what is to come? And when the “play” is over, is there a way to linger, absorb, and reflect before it melts into thin air? I once saw Zubin Mehta, after conducting an emotional performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony” (even the musicians were wiping their eyes) keep his arms raised for a full 20 seconds after the last notes subsided, finally lowering them ever so slowly, in order to preserve a proper silence just long enough. But most performances – and liturgies – simply end with a jump cut (no slow dissolve!) back into whatever we were calling reality. As though nothing had transpired. As though we had not been changed.
What if (as I witnessed after a screening of Robert Bresson’s heartbreaking Au Hasard Balthasar) an audience just sat in stunned silence, not talking or moving for several minutes? What if (as at every Sunday mass with the radiant monks and nuns of Paris’ St. Gervais) you arrived at church twenty minutes early to find a hundred people already there, engaged in silent prayer? What if (as is common after Holy Week liturgies) the congregation exited the church without a word, still wrapped in the mystery of divine presence?