Friday, July 2, 2010



     Tonight I shall attend a performance of King Lear. I shall see it for the manyeth time-- of a life-time 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 pubic! 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, Gloster”. 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, throw-away 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 break-through in the whole process of producing Shakespeare. The middle one, here in Mary Rippon, was a painful flop for me. An obdurately misguided 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 an audience  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, over a long night in a cabin up on Sugarloaf Mountain, with a blizzard howling outside, 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.


Anonymous said...

I could read this man's writing, his essays, his magnificent writing forever. I lack the words to express my emotions. Thank you Gordon

San Fran Hussy said...

Hi, Gordon! Lisa (Lizette) here. Just got the latest gazette issue and look forward to digging into it. You beseeched us to come here and post, so I am doing just exactly that!

Larry Hart said...

This posting, a favorite of your many, ignites in me that flash point of Theatre Temperature of which you so eloquently speak. A shy skinny Wyoming farm boy was handed a line snatched from Gloucester, "Here's France and Burgundy, my noble lord". A banner in hand and thrust forth into "a life in the theatre". And there could be no better rite of initiation. To be a member of this troupe of players: Sir John Thomas as Lear, the Vande Veegaete Duo- Walt and Ramona as Kent and Cordelia (her beautiful brave Cordelia still brings tears to my eyes). Merchant, Hallam, Cockburn, my memory fails.

Thank you Wickstrom.

What a gift you gave me. When I brag to friends of my life in theatre, I tell them of the wonderful talented people I've had the privilege to work with.. Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Howard DaSilva, Morris Carnovsky, James Earl Jones, Len Cariou, Eugenie Leontovich… but when I brag to friends in theatre, there is only one I praise. Gordon Wickstrom. I tell them of a magical time in the late 50's and early 60's. In a small rural Wyoming town. I tell them of how I learned of Shakespeare, Shaw, Synge, Williams, Pinter, Arrabal, and Rice. Wild Mountain Men of the Blue Feather stealing bodies from the undertaker to celebrate life. Of becoming a young Irish lad fleeing murdering his Da, and when found out, flipping like a fish out of water across the floor of a Shebeen, burned with a hot coal by his new found love, Pegeen Mike. I was stage struck. Theatre was my new religion. Without the required audition, I was accepted by the prestigious "Goodman School of Drama/ Art Institute of Chicago " only on the written letter of recommendation from the famous Wyoming Fulbright Scholar-Teacher-Director-Actor-Writer-Doctor-LeftWingedRadical and friend.
Sir Dr. G. Wickstrom Esquire.

t h a n k y o u t h a n k y o u t h a n k y o u

These two links are to my current work as a short art-film maker.

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