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May 10, 2007

Lear, Tolstoy, Orwell . . . . and Me: King Lear - RSC at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford

Posted by Lincoln Allison

William Shakespeare's King Lear
directed by Trevor Nunn
Royal Shakespeare Company
performed as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works Festival
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
in repertory 24th March - 21st June 2007

Lincoln Allison reluctantly concludes that Tolstoy was right about Lear.

It was to be expected that the Royal Shakespeare Company would bring their massive Complete Works festival to a conclusion with a production of Lear and that they would employ in the title role an actor, Sir Ian McKellen (from Burnley or Wigan, depending which account you believe), who has both a distinguished "classical" reputation and a popular "star" status. Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear . . . and the greatest of these is Lear: that has been a kind of orthodoxy since Hazlitt. I even did my own little check on the status of the play: invited to a conference on Shakespeare, I persuaded everybody to fill in a survey on their opinions of the plays. Lear was considered both "best" and "most important".

And Lear is, famously, the particular target of Leo Tolstoy's 1903 pamphlet, Shakespeare and the Drama in which the novelist purports to show that Shakespeare is a "below average" writer whose work is confused and badly structured and lacks either ethical significance or spiritual meaning. Its popularity is explained in terms of a). the tricks of stagecraft known to an ex-actor, b). a kind of mass-hysteria in which Shakespeare's merits are like the Emperor's clothes in the Andersen story and c). the appeal of Shakespeare's amoral world-view to certain influential groups which include German professors and the upper classes.

Even more famously, Tolstoy's pamphlet is the subject of George Orwell's 1947 essay, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool". This is one of the most gently insistent and incisive character assassinations in literature. It is not just that Tolstoy cannot stand or understand Shakespeare, says Orwell; he is moved by resentment similar to that which the impotent old man feels for the vigorous young one.

By 1903 Tolstoy has become religious in a fundamentalist, fanatical sort of way and is incapable of assessing anything except by reference to its conformance to his own beliefs. Moreover, these beliefs could not be further from Shakespeare's "humanism"; they are essentially anti-life. Tolstoy thinks that celibacy is "higher" than love and that a sense of doom is better than a feeling of joy. Orwell diagnoses that Shakespeare has "got" to Tolstoy, that Lear is part of a period of Shakespeare's work in which his plays do have themes and morals and that in this case the theme is "renunciation" and the similarity between Lear and Tolstoy's aspiration to become a kind of holy man cum peasant is striking. The simple moral is that if you renounce you should expect to suffer; the more complex idea is that renunciation should not be confused with a renunciation pose in which you consider yourself "above" ordinary mortals and the whole thing is just another expression of your still-massive ego.

From the point of view of someone with my tastes and beliefs there really isn't much left of Tolstoy by the time Orwell has finished with him. West versus East. Freedom versus fundamentalism. Puritanism versus sensualism. Real life versus after-life. It's not just that Tolstoy seems to want to line up with the bad guys every time, he sees himself as their leader.

In any case, I must confess to a strong prejudice against Leo Tolstoy. Some of this comes from having read his wife's diaries, but most of it is because I once found myself incarcerated, during a period of violent unrest, with three mars bars, a torch and a copy of Resurrection. I finished it and my reaction can be summarised in the words of one of my sons on having to read Jane Eyre for "A" level:

Is that the worst book ever written or what?
I do, though, have an important reservation about Orwell's contrast between Tolstoy's "religion" and Shakespeare's "humanism", though it may only be semantic. That is because I think "humanism" can easily become as joyless, dogmatic and absolutist as Tolstoy's version of theism. I would prefer Orwell's formulation of his defence of Dickens: that his great glory was that he was free of all the "smelly little orthodoxies".

Having made all that clear, I now have to confess to a sneaking sympathy with at least some of what Tolstoy says about Lear. Paradoxically, this is because renunciation is not interesting. Lear is a silly man; the consequences of what he does should have been seen by any sensible person from the start. It seems to be no coincidence that the rational eighteenth century (Dr Johnson, for instance) did not rate the play highly and it was much more screwed-up characters like Coleridge and Hazlitt who engineered its uplifted status. Do they not confuse madness, misery and melodrama with profundity? Is it not fair to say that that Lear does rave tediously and inconsequentially? I approach all this from a position more distant from Tolstoy than is Orwell, who says in the essay (George Orwell, Essays, Penguin 1994, p. 414),
Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.
Whereas I share my view of life with Samuel Smiles, Eric Idle, Bill Bryson et al: it is enormously enjoyable and even if it isn't you should fake it and if you can't do that you ought to admit it's all very interesting.

The bottom line is that I've been going to Stratford for forty years and coming back, after the better productions and re-reading the text and re-living what happened on stage, but never with Lear. I've seen lots of good actors play Lear, but none of them has managed to convince me of the merits of the play. Perhaps this time, given my age and the "A team" status of those involved in this production, not just Sir Ian, but Trevor Nunn directing, a former Dr Who (Sylvester McCoy) as Lear's Fool, another star of global TV and the stage (William Gaunt) as Gloucester, etc. . . .

The simple answer is No! The production is set in a vague RSC-land with strong similarities to Russia around the time of the Revolution. This may have something to do with its playing in repertory with The Seagull. That in itself works well: Lear, even more than the other tragedies is set in an alternative universe in which Britain exists, but England does not. This occasionally involves men having to put away their revolvers in order to get on with a sword fight and as you know they are liars and cheats it seems implausible that they would do so, but you don't watch the RSC for forty years without getting used to that sort of thing.

Sir Ian's performance as Lear is remarkably convincing and closely observed. But it is performance which would fit equally well into a "Play for Today" about the problem of old age. The ridiculous decisions and obsessions; the forgetfulness; the bouts of spite and the childish attempts at violence; the "inappropriate" removal of one's clothes in public, in the rain: I have to say that this is an accurate picture of what is generally called senile dementia and, more particularly, Alzheimer's because he did remind me of my own father.

But so what? Add a convincing dollop of biological determinism and you necessarily remove all serious consideration of responsibility, ethics and character. Of course, one feels sympathy, but it is of the form, "Poor old sod! Hope he dies without too much pain and loss of dignity!" I do not have a heart of stone. I left the same director's Porgy and Bess recently trying to disguise a pretty large lump in my throat and (now it can be told) I was not unmoved by The Sound of Music. Yet here even Gloucester's shuffling blindness and Lear's reconciliation with Cordelia gave me no real emotion. Shit happens - age and death and such - and here it mainly happens to some pretty nasty people. How do you end up with two psychopathic daughters, anyway?

For the record I think most of the performances are competent, though not much more. William Gaunt as Gloucester gets the closest to arousing real emotion. Philip Winchester plays Edmund with Sher-like hissing villainy as if he's saying, "Pencil me in for Richard III" and Monica Dolan is just about the nastiest Regan I've ever seen, "getting off" on all the violence and cruelty. But I am reluctantly forced into some level of agreement with Tolstoy: only "mass hysteria" or "German professors" or something along those lines could have convinced anybody that this is a great or profound work.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.


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Liked the article. First, unlike academic lit crit, it actually made a value judgement. Second, unlike journalistic lit crit, it didn't simply gush because everyone else gushes. It actually gave reasons for the value judgement. It didn't simply place King Lear on a pedestal, or on a pedestal on a pedestal (among Shakespeare's oeuvre), and mindlessly worship.

However, if there is a dud among the four great tragedies, it is Macbeth, not King Lear. After all, how are we supposed to sympathise with someone whose response to being promoted to Thane of Cawdor by King Duncan is prompty to murder him? Lear may be the victim of ingratitude, but Macbeth is its exemplar.

It seems odd to say that King Lear is about renunciation. Lear doesn't make a song and dance about renunciation, a la Tolstoy. He simply wanted to retire, which most people (including Lincoln Allison) do, but kings generally do not.

Lear's division of his kingdom is merely the trigger for the events in the play. Whilst it was clearly a foolish decision, it is understandable that someone who is accustomed to being obeyed all his life should but slenderly know himself. It is also understandable that he should be blind to the fact two of his daughters are psychopaths.

There is a logic, or psycho-logic, to Lear's reaction to Cordelia's stance, given that he has a somewhat childish attitude towards being obeyed, which is one reason why critics still argue about whether she was culpable in not going along with his game. In some ways it is a requirement of a tragedy that the tragic hero screws up, and that, as a result, shit happens. Look at Othello, or even more so Leontes. Tragic heroes have to be imperfect, yet still elicit some sympathy.

Of course, if the play is not primarily abour renunciation, this leaves it open what, if anything, it is about. Grand, and grandiose claims, have been made, as they tend to be about tragedy. One would have thought that the division between good and evil in the play is so stark that the play cannot but be at one level at least about that ever-mysterious polarity.

Posted by: Conolly at May 11, 2007 09:52 AM
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