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Excellent production of butchered King Lear


Excellent production of butchered Lear

Nahum Tate's King Lear revived

Nahum Tate's King Lear


King Lear and Kent in silent storm scene (Photo Evan Cohen)

The History of King Lear, adapted from Shakespeare by Nahum Tate, directed by W. Stuart McDowell; at the Riverside Shakespeare Company, corner of W 86 St. and Amsterdam, New York City.

The opening act of the New York City-based Riverside Shakespeare Company's 1985 season was Nahum Tate's baudelairized King Lear. Finding Shakespeare's Lear to be "a heap of jewels, unstrung, and unpolished," Poet Laureat Tate rewrote it in 1681, giving it new subplots, new motivations, and a happy ending. Strange indeed, but Tate's Lear was exceedingly popular and held the stage for 150 years. Now, after a hundred years of dust, it has been revived.

In Tate's Lear, the action revolves around Edgar and Cordelia's love for each other, and the lust arch-villain Edmund shares with co-villainesses Regan and Goneril. No one -- neither Glouster, Cordelia, nor Lear -- dies except the three major villains and minor villain Cornwall. In the final scene Edgar and Cordelia marry and become rulers of England, while a care-free Lear retires once more, this time with his cronies Albany and Kent.

Shakespeare's themes (the path to self-knowledge and the nature of the parent-child relationship) are replaced by Restoration themes: love conquers all, the good are rewarded, and the evil punished. While Shakespeare's verse is magnificent, Tate's is impoverished and serves as a mere plot summary. In short, while Shakespeare's Lear is the greatest tragedy ever written for the stage, Tate's Lear has all the makings of a cheap Restoration comedy.

Why, then, perform the Lear of "a mere rhymer, whose dullness has become proverbial," when you can do the real thing? One possible excuse is that while Shakespeare's Lear is staged year-round world-round, Tate's Lear hasn't seen a stage for a hundred years: by staging the latter Lear, you provide a unique and interesting experience for the theater-going public. At least that's the idea. Or, motivated by the grisly prospects of four more years, you can -- as director W. Stuart McDowell did -- stage it for its happy ending and uplifting themes.

The real reason for performing Tate's Lear, however, is that it's easier to direct, easier to act, and, crucially, easier for modern audiences to understand. A simple theme and clearly stated character intentions combine into an easy directorial task. Complex acting issues are papered over with plot summaries. For example, only the extremes of Lear's state (sanity, madness, redemption) are shown; the difficult transitions the actor must make between these extremes are edited out. Finally, the play has clearly identified the do gooders and evil-doers, and when things get complicated, Tate's liberal use of character asides to the audience clears everything up.

By way of redemption, director McDowell made all the right choices in staging Tate's Lear. It is presented as a play within a play: in the opening scene, the famous Restoration actor David Garrick proposes to restore Shakespeare's Lear to the stage (out of love for the verse), but is persuaded otherwise by the eminent Dr. Samuel Johnson (because of the barbaric unhappy ending). To placate Garrick, they agree to have a silent storm scene so that the verse may be heard.

The play-within-a-play device allows the actors both to perform their roles sincerely and to parody them. Each person on stage represents three characters: himself, the actor he is playing, and the character that the actor he is playing is playing. The thought of actors playing actors playing characters in a Restoration Shakespeare adaptation is inherently humorous, and the actors (which ones?) successfully exploit the humor using the audience. When Edgar reads the letter Goneril sent to Edmund proposing that they marry after Edmund kills Albany (Goneril's husband), the three characters that Edgar represents react to the news in turn, and the audience loves it.

To highlight Tate's plot summary and keep the audience abreast of the action, director McDowell freezes all stage action and spotlights characters for their explanatory asides to the audience.

The acting was excellent across the board: the best I have seen in a long time. The actors were relaxed and natural despite their complex three-character roles. The verse was wonderfully spoken (a relative rarity), and the actors firmly established solid relationships with other actors and with the audience. The play's climax is fine, full, perfect, and rages with intensity: as Regan and Goneril fight with each other over Edmund's dying body, each reveals that the other has been poisoned; each claims Edmund's love only to discover that Edmund has pledged his love (and more!) to the other. A thorough rehearsal process lay at the core of this acting excellence.

The great promise of the production lay outside the play itself. If the talent brought to bear on Tate's Lear had been brought to bear on Shakespeare's Lear, I suspect that the Riverside Shakespeare Company would have produced the best Shakespeare I could ever hope to see.

Eric Sven Ristad->