I don't like going to the theater. Sitting still for hours in the company of coughing strangers is not my cup of tea. More often than not, the performances are silly, mediocre or overblown. Nevertheless, on a recent visit to Chicago, I bought tickets for a performance of "King Lear" on the theory that one must occasionally pay a staggering price and undergo an painful ordeal to improve one's mind.
My heart took a nosedive when I read a description of the production. It warned me of rude shocks including nudity, sex, violence and loud explosions. I anticipated one of those avant-garde attempts to breathe life into Shakespeare by dressing up the characters like Nazis or Hell's Angels, gunning their motorcycles around the stage.
The curtain went up on a men's room urinal, that tiresome cliche to which the movies seem addicted. There stood Gloucester, Kent and Edmund with their backs to the audience, relieving themselves. I was sure this was not what Shakespeare had in mind. When that business was finished, the urinal installation mercifully disappeared into the floor and the curtain opened on a scene suggesting a retirement celebration for a million-dollar salesman or a minor crime boss. Rap music was blaring. Oswald was jiving at the microphone like a dee-jay on amphetamines.
In sashayed King Lear dressed in a green leisure suit and white booties, snapping his fingers and dancing a little jig, showing off for the crowd. In spite of his tacky attire, he cut a charismatic figure. With a showman's flourish, he set about cutting up his kingdom, represented as a huge cake, and after a few moments, I became vaguely aware of something strange. I - and the rest of the audience, apparently - were completely entranced. For the next three hours, we sat spellbound, watching a stunning performance of one of the world's greatest dramas unfold.
It might seem unlikely that the story of a bygone king who divides his kingdom among his three daughters could speak to a contemporary audience. But the actors breathed everyday life into the language, and Shakespeare's play is a timeless creation. Its hero embodies anyone who faces the humiliations and agonies of old age. His like can be found in any nursing home: an old man - or woman - possessed by an insatiable craving for affection, attention and respect, refusing to "go gentle into that good night." Harold Bloom argues that Shakespeare "invented the human" and that "Hamlet" and "King Lear" possess an "infinitude that transcends the limits of literature," constituting "either a kind of secular scripture or a mythology."
When Lear asks his daughters to declare "which of you : doth love us most," he sets in motion forces that will destroy his kingdom and embroil his family in murder and mayhem, a disruption in the social order that is reflected in Nature itself. And yet, nothing in the story seems farfetched or out of date. Most of us have known of parents who have been transformed into tyrants by debilitating age, children who have been turned into monsters by sibling rivalries. The lust for money and power can still pervert love into vengeful hate, as much as it did in Shakespeare's day. And since everyone is the sovereign of a kingdom that he must eventually lose, everyone can identify with King Lear.
"King Lear" has been called Shakespeare's darkest play because it seems to offer no hope for the triumph of reason or for salvation, no vestige of a caring God. The play has been compared to "Waiting for Godot" for its evocation of the meaninglessness and absurdity of life, a fit emblem for the 20th Century and its futile, catastrophic wars. Images of blindness and declarations of nothingness echo through the play. "Never, never, never, never, never," cries Lear on the death of his beloved Cordelia in a kind of refutation of prayer.
The only hint of redemption is in the king's progress towards self-knowledge. By losing his authority, vitality and sanity, Lear awakens to injustice, the abuses of power and the plight of the poor. Cast out in a violent storm, Lear has his first epiphany:
Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
By experiencing life from the point of view of the dispossessed, Lear begins to earn his own humanity and a measure of grandeur.
As the howling storm reached its terrible climax in our performance, Lear and his few attendants seemed to step out of Time for a magical moment, transformed into whirling spirits, dancing as if in tune to some kind of cosmic music. It was a stunning theatrical stroke suggesting that even in the midst of calamity, we are part of some reconciling order, some peace and beauty beyond our understanding.
When the play was over, we got up from our seats emotionally exhausted, yet somehow exhilarated rather than depressed. I felt that for the first time I'd experienced the kind of spiritual renewal Aristotle claims tragedy is supposed to deliver. It's become fashionable among some sophists to downgrade Shakespeare and other classic Western authors as mere mouthpieces for an oppressive, dominant culture. I don't think you'd have found any support for that thesis in the theater that day.