King Lear tonight

Ah! Those words! To have been allowed to speak them in public!

| Jul 2, 2010

TORMENT: In this year’s staging of King Lear: John Hutton as Lear and Jamie Ann Romero as Cordelia (Photo: Colorado Shakespeare Festival)
Tonight I shall attend a performance of King Lear. I shall see it for the manyeth time — of a lifetime of teaching it, worrying about it, and acting the damned old king three times. Probably the greatest of all plays. Staged once again at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.

Tonight I shall attend an opening night ceremony of food and drink. There will be the customary speeches thanking almost everyone — except actors and acting. Amid the polite applause, I’ll be off somewhere in reveries of my own King Lear. I’ve appeared in it twice in this very CU Mary Rippon Theatre. First, in my nonage as Kent. Many years later as the king himself — and nearly as tormented an actor as He a king.

Tonight the title role will be taken by an excellent professional actor of middle years who is bound to turn in a workman-like performance through which I shall try not to fiddle experimentally with my hearing aids; but why bother at all as I shall reflexively lip the words right along with the actors — I am that perilously close to knowing the play by heart.

Ah! Those words! To have been allowed to speak them in public! The immense privilege of it!

What will that actor, the poor devil, do with that first line of his tonight? “Attend the Lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester”? It’s a life and death decision that the actor must make; because all that is to come depends on how he reads that short first short, throwaway line. There can be no going back. It will determine what kind of man this Lear is. For better or worse.

And then, some three hours later, it will determine his death. Actors never get a second chance once the curtain is up. But, and I rejoice in this, at the end, by bringing the curtain down, amid audience applause, the miracle of the theatre takes place: the “dead” actor rises up to take his bow and live to act another day! It is the resurrection of the body and glorious.

My fantasy is that something will go terribly wrong with Lear’s performance tonight and I will be hauled up out of the audience, a script thrust into my hand with orders to get on with it, on with the play. But I’m now just too old to be out there doing that sort of thing, playing “His” play, seeking redemption from “His” folly, “His” madness, “His” love. Why can’t that crazy old man take care of himself? I’ve got enough trouble of my own. I wonder that Shakespeare should have written such a play in which the protagonist is too old to play in his own play! It’s like living through your own funeral.

Three Lears: 1975, 1979, 1995.

The first was probably best, the most vivid and true. The last probably the most significant by virtue of its being a breakthrough in the whole process of producing Shakespeare. The middle one, here in Mary Rippon, was a painful flop for me. An obdurately foolish director who would suggest to his cast that the death of John Wayne was a fitting way for us to understand Lear’s tragedy — to me who daily, hourly, waited every rehearsal for word of my mother’s death who had struggled to breathe for ten years out of love for her children. John Wayne! Some ideas are sheerest shit.

So here I am, every bit as old, probably older than He at His “four score and upward.” I’m four score and a lot “upward” — old enough at last to have some direct sense of what is going on in this monstrous-magnificent play, but without the stamina to do anything about it. I’ll do well to sit through it tonight. I don’t think I want to go…

Tonight’s director says that, with her younger, vigorous actor, she will play down Lear’s old age. That is sure to be a comfort to the audience who, in the best contemporary style, is scared to death of old age anyway.

That long first scene of the play is in fact a one-act play in itself and plays like one. It completes its satisfactions in some twenty minutes. And again, so, long ago, I did it, did it for a one-act play festival competition. It carried the day and played like a house afire — those Wyoming high school kids!

Peter Brook speaks of Theatre Temperature, where suddenly, in spite of every possible drawback, every limitation, somehow the action catches fire and life is lived in all its terrible intensity on stage before our very eyes. Somehow those kids of mine raised the theatre temperature of the first scene of Lear to the flash point, altogether unaware of the impossibility, even the absurdity, of what they were trying to do. Nothing that happens tonight will match that for me.

So, three times I did it, and, like my own certain death, I feel I know nothing about His — not for all my academic saying. I feel that I have not contributed anything much to the play, not moved very far beyond a very first reading, so long ago, when, in a long night, in a howling blizzard up on Sugarloaf Mountain, in our cabin, Betty and I pulled the sofa up close to the fire and there, by its light, read the play together. Never was there a moment like that:

Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.

KING LEAR, V, iii, 309.


Gordon Wickstrom is a Boulder native, navy man in the Philippines, CU grad and Stanford Ph.D., professor of drama, director and sometime actor. He retired home to Boulder in 1991, fishes with his wife Betty, and writes books, essays and columns on the angling life and on theatre. He is the oldest living — in captivity — writer about fishing in English, and a member, for the sake of his obituary, of the Flyfishers’ Club of London.