Three Times, I Done It
It's devilishly clever of Shakespeare to have written a role like Lear, demanding an actor old enough to be convincing and by that time too old to get through it properly. Just like Lear himself who cannot get through his own play. He's too old. He dies before the end.
Most Lears are like mine, only less inadequate than mine.
Laurence Olivier, on film, fiddled around bunnily while going crazy in Mr. McGregor’s garden.
That great Comedian Michael Hordern moved me to the best of tears.
Comedians often make good stuff out of tragedy because they feel how awful life is, while the proper tragedian resorts to the study and intellectual constructs.
Derek Jacobi took revenge on the play by whispering his lines.
Paul Scofield: was dryly momentous, intelligent, and impeccable. Never before was there a Lear like this. It was The New Theatre: the theatre of Peter Brook, and Bertolt Brecht, Artaud, and Jan Kott’s great essay, “King Lear or Endgame”. Not so much tragedy as a disaster in the body politic and in the human heart. A disaster: the wreckage of the world.
Kevin Kline looked like Kevin Kline. But he couldn’t help that.
My visual ideal of the broken old king was and is Edward Curtis’s great photograph of The Whaler.
A noted regional actor decided, along with his director, to play the king as young. Directors get desperate to find some way to be novel. It’s any port in a storm-- as long as it’s different.
One nutty director placed an absurdly masked Lear on a throne “up in heaven”, way up over Lear’s head, to watch and mime what Lear was trying to do below. Fortunately, because I was that Lear, I could not see him up there or I might really have run mad.
That same director asked us to take John Wayne’s suffering with cancer as a model for Lear’s suffering.
Old as I am, there are so many modern Lears I never saw. Writing this makes me think of Clov’s line, designed for our every horror:
“There are so many terrible things.”
I thought that I could not play Acts IV and V wearing proper conventional men’s underwear. And I did not. The costumer was not pleased.
It is considered unsanitary for actors to act without underwear.
I always wonder, first thing, about the underwear Didi and Gogo are wearing….
As the theatre was too nearly broke to provide facial tissue in the dressing rooms, I went on stage one night having stuffed a crevice in my robe with toilet paper for emergencies. I was careless, and, unbeknownst to me, four feet of it was streaming out behind me to the general glee of the audience. And the shame of the ladies of my family who were in attendance that night. It’s easy for me to shame them with my acting.
Those women notwithstanding, what can there be in life comparable to playing Act IV, sc vi, Lear and Gloucester, out on the wilds above Dover?
And Goucester, my dear brother Phillip, in all his majesty on stage, the two of us like great babies rolling around on the stage: horrible joy. With two fingers, I, Lear, poke at old Gloucester’s gouged-out eyes and taunt him with,
Dost thou squinny at me!
And then: Thou must be patient; we came crying hither.
Thou know’st, the first time we smell the air
We wawl and cry. I will preach to thee. Mark.
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.
What is there to preach about after that? Is there cruelty like unto this cruelty?
Once when I played the role, I was badly ruptured. The cast thought it hilarious that I had to lie down on the floor back stage after my big scenes and stuff my gut back in.
It was so bad that I could not carry on the dead body of dear daughter Cordelia. A soldier had to do it for me and put her on the floor and into my arms. (People out front can’t imagine what goes on back stage. The whole damned thing can fall apart on the instant,)
At least you can say that I got Lear where he belonged, down into my bowels.
And then, that END: all the world’s tenderness and love, that father and daughter. “It doth redeem all sorrows that ever I have felt.” Except that it doesn’t, and it can’t.
Both of them still alive-- for just a moment together-- trying to live as if there were still love and forgiveness somewhere on that great stage of fools.
All we can do is, as the play admonishes:
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say
And I promise never to do it again.