King Lear Reviews
April 13, 2009
When Raul Julia died, [i]Life[/i] magazine's epitaph for him was a regret that he would never perform as Lear. It has seemed to me to be an ultimate compliment--and one, needless to say, with which I heartily agreed. Lear is known to be one of the most challenging roles in Shakespeare, possibly in literature. An actor playing Lear must be experienced enough for the range of emotion, old enough to be convincing as the father of three grown daughters, and hearty enough to carry one of those actresses across the stage. He must convey dignity, madness, despair. There is more to the character than most, and it takes a great actor to do it well. James Earl Jones does a great job here--but oh, how I wish I could have seen Raul Julia do it.
King Lear (Jones) is growing old. He wants to enjoy the last years of his life without responsibility, so he decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and then live on their hospitality until he dies. He makes the women tell him how much they love him in order to decide how much of the kingdom they'll get. His older two, Goneril (Rosalind Cash) and Regan (Ellen Holly) swear wildly, claiming that they give him all their love. His youngest, Cordelia (Lee Chamberlin), will not so swear, believing it is beneath her father's dignity and her own. Her father disowns her; her first suitor, the Duke of Burgundy (Lou Quinones), rejects her, but the King of France (Jean-Pierre Stewart) declares her honesty the only dowry he needs. Of course, Regan and Goneril begin to mistreat their father pretty much as soon as they get the land. Lear is driven out into the storm with his Fool (Tom Aldredge). Edmund (Julia), bastard son of Gloucester (Paul Sorvino), is working to supplant his brother, Edgar (Rene Auberjonois); he ends up the object of interest for both Goneril and Regan--who are, of course, both married.
There is a company called the Broadway Theatre Archive that has produced several of the DVDs we've gone over. I like them. They have taken stage shows and filmed them, preserving such performances as Jones's for future generations. It's handy stuff for those of us who are interested in plays. Many of these performances would never make it to the big screen. It's true that there have been more than a few productions of [i]Lear[/i], with another one slated to premiere in 2010. However, it is one of the more complicated of Shakespeare's plays, and I don't just mean that kind of soap opera-y plot up there. The life of Lear is not a simple one, and neither are his motivations. Most people know the name, I suspect, but I'm also pretty sure that most people haven't seen it and have only the barest awareness of its plot. What's more, you may have noticed that it's a hell of a cast. Even in 1974, that would have been kind of pricy for what is essentially an art-house project.
Now, of course, there is the hazard of a filmed play. There seem to have been a couple of cameras, which is more than you generally get. Actually, I'm rather impressed with the quality of the camera work, given the limitations that would have been faced. However, the actual quality of the film isn't very good. There are the telltale blurs around the torches, for example. Now, I doubt the camera misses any kind of subtle detail on the sets and costumes, as the audience would as well--so there's no point in that level of detail's even being there. The acting is a bit more overblown than film acting, as the performance must be just as powerful at the back of the audience as in closeup. All in all, though, I've seen more histrionic performances in movies.
Though I doubt most people know it, there are several quotes from the play that have become part of common life. The best-known, I think, is "More sinned against than sinning." It's frankly true that Lear's situation is at least part his own damn fool fault. I understand the wish to retire and live in peace, but he chose how badly. Dividing his kingdom by the lipservice his daughters were willing to pay to him and punishing the one he knew was honest? That was stupid. Not setting up some kind of trust for himself so that his daughters wouldn't be able to take advantage of him? Well, to be fair, he couldn't've expected that they would have treated them so--at least, if he didn't know them very well. But Regan and Goneril intentionally betrayed their father, their husbands, their sister--and, if you think about it, the kingdom as a whole. This is not good for the people who rely upon them. But of course, this is a play of kings and nobles; the fate of the common people doesn't enter into it.