There is a block in Brooklyn where it storms every daytwice a day, on Sundays. It’s been storming since January, and it’ll last till Mayand then the storm will spread out all over New York. On one side of the street, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Angus Jackson’s King Lear (starring Frank Langella) has just wrapped up. And across the street, Arin Arbus’s King Lear (starring Michael Pennington) opened in March.
It won’t stop with them, either. There are five productions of the play in New York this year. In May, Sam Mendes’ Lear, starring Simon Russel Beale, will be broadcast into New York theaters. Then, this summer, there’s Shakespeare in the Park. Then in September the Globe Shakespeare Company will bring King Lear, to the Skirball Center. At this rate, approximately three hundred eyes will be gouged out and Cordelia will be hanged upwards of 150 times before this storm is over.
It’s tempting to ascribe some greater cultural meaning to this wave of Lears (second term presidency? anti-Boomer rage?). But plays become trendy all the timewe’re recovering now from a Macbeth outbreak, and about two years ago Cymbeline was the hot new thing. The timing of a production often has much more to do with the mundane details of scheduling than it does with artistic vision, as I learned after asking a bunch of bored theater people, “Why Lear, why now?”
Langella’s Lear is the more imposing and tough of the two currently walking the stage. He’s a “man who fought wars,” director Angus Jackson told me. “I’ve seen other Lears which verge on Prospero . . . Our Lear shoots from the hip.” Langella gets physically violent with Cordelia, throwing her to the floor. He menaces Regan while cursing her with bareness. His frightening physicality almost makes his daughters’ wickedness sympathetic.
When Jackson’s Lear reaches the stormwhere Lear, cast out by his daughters, rages amongst the elementsit’s very realistic. It even rains on stage, and Langella has to shout to be heard over the din. Nature doesn’t care if you’re a king.
For the rest of the play, we see a diminished Leara humbled Lear, stripped of his vanity, a man who believes he is a god realizing he is a man. This Lear does not stay mad. But he also does not stay a king. The storm washes away convention: He relinquishes command. When he sees Cordelia again, he collapses into vulnerable, frail, begging forgiveness. When he brings her body onstage, he’s completely broken. In short: be humble, for you are weak and the world is wide. This is the “real world.” Memento mori.
Across the street, we find a more philosophical king. When I asked Michael Pennington about Lear, his first comparison is to the Duke in Measure for Measure, who also briefly gives up his title, but (unlike Lear) successfully seizes it back. Accordingly, his Lear was more regal and more stageyless earthy than Langella, and more calculating. When Cordelia defies him, he doesn’t shove her and barely raises his voice. Yet his edict is just as brutal. Accordingly, his storm takes a different form. Instead of representing a force outside of Lear, it’s what he calls the “tempest in my mind,” made manifest, equal parts blinding rage and startling clarity.
There is no rain. Drums provide the thunder. Flashes of lightning include the houselights, so that the audience itself is sometimes illuminated, before descending into blackness. The drumming punctuates Lear’s words instead of overpowering them. He is not within the storm; he drives it. We are watching an act of creation.
“There is some temperamental extreme, in him, in the stormsomething whooks him,” Pennington says, making a kind of thwacking noise, “so that he’s like two sides of a diamond”both hard and brilliant. After the storm, his Lear becomes philosophical, going as joyfully to prison at the end as Socrates goes to hemlock. After the storm, “He’s better, really, but he improves too late.”
Although he can be philosophic about his own death, he cannot be so light about his daughter’s. When Pennington cries for her at the end, his howls are not the cries of a diminished manbut of a man who had seen wisdom, and thought that he was finally free of human suffering, only to be dragged back into the world. With more time, he perhaps could have endured even thisbut the disconnect between what he knows and what he feels is too great. It is both beautiful and terrible.
The storm is the troubled heart and center of King Lear. Turned out by his wicked daughters, King Lear is abandoned on the heath in a violent storm at night, and he rages at itor with it, asking the weather to destroy the world. Somewhere in this tempest, though, Lear realizes that he cannot smite the worldand by the end of the storm, he doesn’t want to, even though he has cause. Man, he says, is a “poor bare, forked animal.”
What happens to him?
Pennington’s answer is the better oneshowing that the beginnings of wisdom are often as fearsome as they are beautiful. The clarity of thought evident in his performance is what separates a good performance, like Langella’s, from a transcendent one.
Aside from Lear’s mistakes and misdeeds in the opening scene the wrongs committed by others in this play start out as reasonable. Regan and Goneril begin by protesting (correctly) that Lear treats them badly. Edmund, too, has plenty of rational arguments against superstition. After the storm, these reasonable protestations become eye-gouging and murder. How will we know when our own reason leads us astray?
Learwho before he goes out into the storm pleads with his daughters to “Reason not”begins to turn toward something like kindness. His philosophical madness allows him to make that mid-course correctionfrom wishing the destruction of all to consciousness of the frailty of all. Even as the play becomes darker, some kind of moral awakening takes place.
Watching two great productions of Lear, almost back-to-back, the truth of both productions comes home. The storm is and is not there; it is both outside and inside. It is about nature’s ultimate superiority over man and about the transcendent power of the mind. Lear is broken and not broken by the end, made vulnerable and stronger by the storm. He is humbled and ennobled, created and destroyed.
As directors, Jackson and Arbus have to pick one aspect of Lear and play it up: the Lear who shoots from the hip or the Lear who hardens into a diamond. But as audience members, we get to see Lear from one side and then from another, and appreciate how it all fits into one whole. Here’s to all the storms to come.