BookRags Literature Study Guide Lear by Edward Bond Copyright Information



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Critical Essay #3

Critical Essay #3

Sinfield uses the occasion of concurrent productions of Shakespeare's and Bond's similar works to compare Bond's modern version with that of its classical inspiration He concludes that, despite criticism to the contrary, Bond's play is not a satire or "hostile critique" of Shakespeare's work but merely employs the story to relate themes both universal and contemporary.

King Lear is a great play. By itself, the proposition seems harmless enough, and I don't mean to dispute it, but its ramifications in English culture are considerable. The 1982 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company at their main theatre in Stratford and the concurrent presentation of Edward Bond's Lear at The Other Place provoke fundamental questions about the way we use Shakespeare.

Since Its first production at the Royal Court in 1971 Bond's play has been regarded, in the main, with horror and respect as a modern gloss on King Lear. What critics have found It difficult to say outright, because of this matter of greatness, is that Bond's Lear amounts to a systematic and hostile critique of Shakespeare's play, at least as it is usually understood.

King Lear suggests that loosening the conventional bonds of authority m society gives rein to all manner of violent disturbance. Bond believes the opposite: that the State, as we have developed It, is the main source of injustice, cruelty and misery: "Your Law always does more harm than crime, and your morality is a form of violence." We need not regard this just as Bond's act of faith; the same conclusions are reached by Richard Leakey through his palaeoanthropological research (see Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, People of the Lake, London, 1979). By making his Cordelia the leader of an insurrection which, when successful, re-establishes most of the repressive apparatus of the government it has overthrown, Bond draws attention to the fact that m King Lear Cordelia seeks to redress the wrongs committed by her sisters by having her army fight their army. In other words, at the level of the State and its readiness to take and to sacrifice the lives of ordinary people, King Lear does not envisage the need for an alteration in principle. Shakespeare's king perceives that the State has perpetuated injustice: "Take physic, Pomp;! Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel/That thou mayst shake the superflux to them," but pomp is not called upon to revise its authority, only to distribute superfluity. Albany's final proposal is that Kent and Edgar should "the gor'd state sustain." Bond's point, in relation both to King Lear and to certain modern ideas about revolution and social change, is that you cannot expect to modify the repressive Lear society without challenging its fundamental structures.

Shakespeare's and Bond's attitudes are dependent finally upon divergent views of human nature. When Shakespeare's Lear demands, "Then let them anatomise Regan, see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts?," there is no reply. It seems that we must refer the answer to the gods, who are not as systematically concerned for humanity as Lear once thought The autopsy on Fontanelle in Bond's play leads Lear to appreciate the potential beauty and goodness of humanity: "She sleeps inside like a lion and a lamb and a child. The things are so beautiful. I am astonished. I have never seen anything so beautiful." For Shakespeare the problem begins when authority is weakened. That is why there is no prior motivation for Lear and his daughters: established hierarchy guarantees order and no remoter source is in question, except perhaps the gods. Bond, however, shows that his characters have been socialised into paranoia and violence. Shakespeare's Lear spends most of the play discovering what the world is, essentially, like; Bond's Lear discovers that things do not have to be the way they are.

The positive force in Shakespeare's play is the personal loyalty of Cordelia, Kent and Edgar. It is shown to transcend the punitive ethic assumed by the king:

I know you do not love me, for your sisters Have, as I do remember, done me wrong: You have some cause, they have not No cause, no cause.

But the play knows no way of relating this generosity of spirit to the structure of State authority. That is why it is difficult to reconcile Cordelia's initial legalism with her subsequent magnanimity: one belongs to the endorsement of formal order in the play, the other to the interpersonal ethic which responds to the collapse of order. Shakespeare, with great integrity, makes his inability to relate the two apparent when he has Cordelia's army defeated. The interpersonal ethic remains as a subversive intuition of another way of relating, but the reconstitution of the State over the dead body of Cordelia is offered as the most satisfactory attainable conclusion.

The most provocative aspect of Bond's Lear, conversely, is the repudiation of merely personal solutions. The Gravedigger's Boy represents a pastoral withdrawal which is destroyed, initially, through Lear's selfish intrusion. His ghostly presence helps Lear to recover his sanity through the experience of personal affection (the combined role of the Fool and Cordelia in Shakespeare's play). But Bond makes his Lear realise that this is not enough. Whereas Shakespeare allows Lear to rejoice m the prospect of imprisonment with Cordelia and the selfishness of this sentiment is not foregrounded, the Boy's notion that Lear should withdraw from political engagement, put a wall around them and accept the demands of the State, is recognized as a temptation. So Lear allows him to die and sets out to begin dismantling the wall. Individual "redemption" through interpersonal love is not enough, the State must be confronted.

In August 1982 Bond's Lear seemed relevant enough, With the Falklands, Lebanon and Poland in mind. Without necessarily agreeing With Bond, we can see that he has engaged with major political issues. The RSC production by Barry Kyle was excellent. The epic mode of the play is not immediately suited to a small space with the audience on three sides, and it may be that this staging altered the implications of the violence in the play, bringing it into our homes (as it were) rather than keeping it out there in the political arena where it belongs. But perhaps this corresponds to the effect of TV-the medium through which most of us experience political violence-and is therefore appropriate. Barry Kyle made strong use of diagonal lines where a conventional stage would have permitted depth, and managed to establish stylisation and allusion-for instance, taking the clothes-line behind which the Gravedigger's Boy is killed diagonally, and the final interview between CordelIa and Lear, with the Boy behind him, at right angles to that line. Bob Peck was massive as Lear; it became quite excruciating to follow his weary, painful limbs in movement Mark Rylance was both gruesome and winning as the Boy and his interaction with Lear was physical and moving. It falls to these two actors to repudiate any imputation that Bond is deficient in positive human feeling-to show that the rejection of the interpersonal pastoral is grounded in sufficient awareness of what is sacrificed. To my mind they achieved this.

Adrian Noble, who produced King Lear, was evidently conscious of the main lines of Bond's critique. Bob Crowley's set, a towering, bleak imperial facade (the back of which was torn out when Lear is exposed on the heath) was reminiscent of the wall which dominates the Bond set; many of the costumes were the same-rough, clumsy greatcoats, the gear of an army on the march, exposed to danger, accustomed to discomfort. Some of the casting of the two plays overlapped significantly, and Bob Peck looked like Michael Gambon, who was Shakespeare's Lear. I am about to make a number of intricate and critical points about this interpretation of King Lear, so it should be established at the start that Gambon's performance was an extraordinary achievement: entirely convincing, broad in scope, moving though not In the expected places, inventive but not quirky.

As a member of the International Shakespeare Conference I had the advantage of a question and answer session with Noble, so I know that it was his intention to bring out a contemporary political dimension in King Lear. He said that the effect of concurrent work on Bond's play was like a steady drip of cold water, preventing them from keeping King Lear In a separate historical pocket; that the country was at war when the play was in rehearsal, that he wanted to show "the potential for violence which you get within an absolute State," and that they had felt the events and value system of the play to be relevant constantly in the current political climate.

In many ways this was a triumphantly political interpretation. "We did want to put a war on stage," Noble remarked, and the sense of unnamed people moving about a recalcitrant terrain, menaced by each other, was strong, and the sense that they had to lift really heavy objects, had trouble keeping warm, keeping going. The great achievement was the refusal or suppression of the transcendence which is usually assumed to be the goal of certain episodes. In this production Edmund, Goneril and Regan are not evil incarnate (nor is there any attempt to make them seem justified, as in Peter Brook's version). Edmund (Clive Wood) is butch, sulky and scornful; Goneril (Sara Kestelman) is like an obsessive landlady, tidying up the set, who goes on to accosting the lodgers in the hallway. They are cruel and selfish, but they are people. The account of CordelIa shaking "The holy water from her heavenly eyes" is all but smothered by soldiers humping sandbags around the stage; "Ripeness is all" is shouted, desperately, over the drum of the preparing army in turbulent lighting Frequently lighting is used to disconfirm the centrality of the main protagonists. it refuses to focus them but, instead, moves independently, so that they come in and out of it. When Edgar flees, the spotlight rakes the stage and the audience, as if from a watchtower m a prison camp.

The whole effect is to quell the commonest interpretation of the playas "tragedy," wherein the king, especially, transcends events by the intensity of hIs inner experience. So Noble reserves attention for the range of characters and for the power of political relations. Gambon's Lear is not inward looking: he does not discover reality in the depths of himself. He is mad for much less of the time than is commonly supposed, so that there is far less pitiful raving, far less sense that the essential struggle, the essential reality, is inside his head. In the disputes with Goneril and Regan he retains the unwavering baleful glare with which he began; hIs anger is rarely uncontrolled, he is frail but determined, nobody's fool. In particular, he is rational at the Dover meeting with Gloucester, so that "A dog's obey'd in office" comes through as powerful analysis. This scene was most effective: there was little courting of expressionist significance, but two old men seeing the way the world goes, nodding, chuckling and crying together. Again, when Lear wakes with Cordelia, the whole impression is of a bemused old man, and of physical frailty: it is a human incident, and the visual key is given by pyjamas rather than the customary flowing white robes of an Old Testament prophet/penitent. "Come, let's away to prison" is spoken matter of factly, flatly, as a clear perception of the kind of life that may be left to them; and at the end Lear is sane, though he has trouble coping with a stage full of people. At every point in the latter part of the play Noble and Gambon prevent Lear becoming an ultimate representative of "man."

This assault on the transcendence often ascribed to the "tragic hero" is expressed most importantly in the treatment of the blind/sight imagery-"I stumbled when.1 saw." The production is very physical throughout Lear is ready to strike anyone, and also to hug anyone-be hugs Goneril, the Fool, Kent, Edgar, Gloucester. "I see it feelingly," Gloucester says. The production takes this up, and so disqualifies the whole dichotomy of mundane versus transcendent vision. The point is not insight into a further reality, there is no further reality-just the material world in which people and systems do things to you, and you respond to it most fully through the sense of touch. Touch is both more basic (in Platonic thought sight is the highest sense, touch the lowest) and more communicative, more to do with human interaction. For this Lear, the chaos and threat is not, finally, inside him; the precision of Gambon' s acting is all directed towards responding to other people. This is a Lear of reaction, not distraction.

We have, then, a production which turns one eye towards Bond, which is aiming at a political awareness relevant to the problems of the world today. At the same time, in the middle of the production, there is an alternative, incompatible conception, equally powerfully realised. This split exposes with almost brutal clarity the uses to which Shakespeare is put by the RSC and English culture at large.

The Issue is focused by the storm, which is brilliantly staged with flashing lights, billowing smoke, and noises which were those of the elements but which also (several people remarked) led one to think of an air raid on Beirut (the current international horror). This was a tour de force, a land of infernal discotheque. And perched above it all, on a platform on a pole fifteen feet above the stage, were Lear (looking like a Blakean deity) and the Fool clinging to him. But all this magnificent effect worked against a socio-political understanding of what was going on. A society in dissolution was transformed into the universe in apocalypse. The idea is in the text-"Is this the promis'd end?" but Doomsday is not a socio-political concept.

Noble said that his Idea in staging the storm was to show "what it's like inside that head .. what it's like when the horizon tilts." Fine, but this is suddenly to transform the action into the interior monologue which in other respects it is not. The presentation of real human relations, with all the disparities of power, suffering and understanding, and their implied ramifications in society at large, could well continue through the scenes on the heath. But Noble is tempted into another manner--he mentioned Ian Kott's essay "King Lear or Endgame."

The Beckettian aspect is developed through the Fool, who is played with great agility, inventiveness and conviction by Antony Sher. Initially his relationship with Lear is played realistically: he tries to cheer Lear up but cannot avoid mentioning the source of Lear's disquiet. But the manner of the professional clown is already hinting at a more abstract notion of the Fool's role. When he and Lear crouch at the front of the stage and peer desperately at each other, their shadows thrown monstrously on to the back wall, and when the Fool, left for once to himself, goes off like a spring released, cavorting manically round the stage and shaking his fist at the sky, we begin to suspect that the Fool is supposed to stand for something, perhaps an aspect of Lear's psyche. Adrian Noble in fact confirmed that this was his conception: this is why, in the most striking innovation of the production, Lear kills the Fool.

Lear is anatomizing Regan-plucking handfuls of feathers out of a pillow (a few are still in the air in the closing scenes of the play); he flings the pillow across the stage, sending a light swinging, and the Fool, who has Jumped in fright into a large dustbin (Endgame) catches it; Lear stabs the pillow, and the Fool through it; Lear never realises what he has done. Noble meant this to be Lear killing his conscience, that of which he is ashamed. I didn't think of this at the time, and I don't see how Lear is supposed to manage without a conscience in the second part of the play (he seems to have it at the reunion with Cordelia).

Two general reflections arise from the confusion in this production-three if we begin, as we should, by granting without reserve its sheer professional competence, intelligence and power to provoke thought. The first concerns the RSC. In the 1960s it was a spearhead, in some ways more important than the Royal Court, of a left-liberal involvement in the theatre and ultimately in the country. By the end of the decade, this movement had become established-had become an establishment. In theatre, it had purpose and committed audiences when the West End was floundering; it successfully challenged censorship; it had the endorsement of national subsidy; it gave birth to the National Theatre. The dominant influences were Brecht, representing political concern; and Beckett Artaud, representing a sense that the human condition is fundamentally absurd and violent. Together, these influences destroyed the assumptions of naturalism and opened the way to vital developments in theatrical stylisation, but, finally, they are incompatible. The first is materialist and optimistic about humanity, tracing our ills to changeable political structures. The second is essentialist and nihilistic, discovering in the depths of personality inexorable tendencies towards cruelty, alienation and self-destruction. Their co-occurrence in the work of Peter Brook for the RSC, including his King Lear of 1962 (much influenced by Jan Kott), The Marat-Sade and US, rendered this work powerful but politically and artistically incoherent The same conjunction infonns the 1982 production of King Lear.

But the original movement, contradictory as it was, was of its time. These were new, exciting influences, and the confused and compromised political stance was characteristic of other institutions in the period. Bond's use of violence to shock us into awareness also shows signs of Artaud. What we must ponder now is how far the RSC is living off the manner which served it before, how far it is depending on the thought of an earlier generation rather than assessing, clarifying and challenging that thought Two pieces of evidence are quite disconcerting. One is Noble's appeal to Jan Kott ("one has to read Kott")-Lear even leaves his boots at the front of the stage, like Estragon The other is the programme. The RSC pioneered the intellectual programme, but this one is all design, a production job, in which pictures and quotations from the inost diverse prestigious intellectual sources are jumbled together in an evocative collage (including Auden, Dylan Thomas, Keats, Kozintsev and Dostoyevsky); and, in particular, we find the political awareness of Orwell and Bond ("Our world is not absurd-our society is") alongside the apocalyptic transcendentalism of Ecclesiastes and Yeats. It seems, at least, that the RSC is in danger of parodying its former achievements

However, and this is my second general reflection, it is probably not fair to blame this gifted company for problems which may be traced much further back, namely to our whole conception of Shakespeare and his" greatness." Since King Lear is a great play-I think this is the underlying argument-it must speak to our condition. And If our condition seems to involve brutally destructive political systems and profound inner compulsions which threaten a general apocalypse, then the play must be seen to address such issues The text as we have received it tends to encourage certain ways of seeing the world and to inhibit others and does not, of course, envisage modern society. Therefore the play and current concerns must, by one means or another, be brought into line.

Hence the extraordinary conventions which govern contemporary productions. In the attempt to get the play to "work" as the director wants, almost anything may be cut, almost any "business" may be added to affect the significance of the words and, increasingly, words may be altered or added. But all these developments are mashed together so that only the expert can see what has been done, and the impression that we are "really" seeing Shakespeare is preserved For an excellently detailed and discriminating description of such practices, see Stanley Wells's account in Critical Quarterly of two productions of Measure for Measure. Of one production he concludes: "Some of the ways in which it departed from tradition were entirely legitimate. Others required textual tinkering. The resulting play may be more sentimental, and happier, than that suggested by the script that has come down to us, but in its own terms it worked." But Dr. Wells still speaks, throughout, of "the play:" It is assumed that we remain, importantly, in the presence of Shakespeare's original genius.

My objective is not a theoretical discussion of at what point this or that production becomes no longer "the same" play; nor is it a complaint that Shakespeare's text is being tampered with (it is still there for another day). I am trying to identify the cultural assumptions, based on a conception of Shakespeare's greatness, which hold that we can and should ventriloquise contemporary significance through the plays, and the manipulations of presentation which ensue.

In part directors are trying to cope with the fact that most people in the audience don't understand the language: part of the greatness is that Shakespeare speaks to us even across such barriers of comprehension. Hence the business which breaks up a conversation or a line unexpectedly, making a joke unanticipated in a straightforward reading (it is called "making the scene work"). But also, the cutting and business are designed to wrest the text away from what seem to be its dominant concerns and into a preferred dimension of meaning, using every slightest cue, nuance, crux and hiatus to develop an "interpretation." If, instead, the company reworked the play explicitly, the interpretation would lose the apparent authority of Shakespeare, and Shakespeare's basically conservative oeuvre would lose the apparent authority of speaking to all conditions. This is the great collusion in which most productions of Shakespeare have become involved. The shuffles commonly conducted maintain both these dubious authorities, and more adventurous treatments-like Bond's and Charles Marowitz's become objects of suspicion.

It is these pressures that he behind the kinds of efforts the RSC makes to achieve relevance. This production pushes the conventions of interpretation to the limit by having Lear kill the Fool and by omitting (as Brook did) Edmund's attempt to save Cordelia and Lear. The first is designed to develop Lear's inner experience in a way barely suggested by the text; the second is designed to suppress issues of good, evil and the perversity of fortune and to leave the responsibility for falling to secure the safety of Lear and Cordelia with Albany who (No ble says) is preoccupied with the feud in his own family-so that the theme of the damage done by arbitrary rule is sustained to the end. In so far as these intentions are (as I have argued) contradictory, they witness to a theatrical mode which is in danger of ossification. By offering extreme instances of the conventions of presentation which accompany that mode, they draw attention to their artificiality. Noble leads his audience (or those to whom I spoke) to ask whether this is really Shakespeare.

The questions which should be asked, however, are whether any production which aspires to modern relevance is really Shakespeare; whether our conception of the greatness of King Lear- meaning capable of speaking positively to all conditions-is honest; and whether attempts to ventriloquise a modern political stance through the play will inevitably be confused by countervailing implications in the text. It may be that the only way to produce a more definite political theatre (or criticism) is not to interpret King Lear but, as Edward Bond sees, to quarrel with it

Source: Alan Sinfield, "King Lear versus Lear at Stratford," in Critical Quarterly, Volume 24, no. 4, Winter, 1982, pp.5-14.


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