Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Shakespeare's politics in Arin Arbus' King Lear

It's the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth and the 398th anniversary of his death. At least, it's when we celebrate it. Putting foolish questions of authorship aside, William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, traditionally performed three days after birth. And Elizabethans used the Julian calendar; under the Gregorian one, the anniversary of Shakespeare's birth/death is May 3. Coincidentally, that's Lady Hotspur's birthday too!

Still, I come here to praise Shakespeare, not to bury him. But as much as I love his plays, the problems I have with them are many, deep, and they do keep me up at night. Shakespeare is big on a rural aristocracy, while the urban multitudes disgust him; I’m pretty much the opposite. And we disagree about authority—state, domestic, religious, you name it. Some of his worldviews I can appreciate intellectually, like the redemption of Christ—until he relates it to Jews. He writes strong female roles but often to nasty purposes.

Shakespeare’s social assumptions are deeply embedded in his plays, such that you can’t extricate the pros from the cons. Yet many politically-minded productions try to modernize the plays in just that fashion. Orson Welles famously turned Julius Caesar into an anti-fascist play in 1938, but most directors can't match that audacity and talent. It’s difficult to pull off a political take on Shakespeare that doesn’t violate the play itselfusually the solution is to consciously subvert it. So I appreciate how well Arin Arbus and her company (at Theater for a New Audience) fit an impulse to social engagement into their King Lear.
photo: Carol Rosegg
Arbus and dramaturg Jonathan Kalb don’t shoehorn new material into the already titanic script. Instead, they retain a few beats that usually get cut. The speech that perked my ears was during the tempest of Act 3. Lear (Michael Pennington) is left alone onstage while Kent and the Fool look for shelter. The king, at the brink of madness, says to himself:

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

It’s the play’s second mention of a destitute underclass (earlier, Edgar imitates a beggar; he enters in that disguise immediately after this speech), and implies a population of indigents haunting Lear’s kingdom. Pennington’s delivery of “I have ta’en too little care of this!” suggests that Lear momentarily gains a social conscience as part of his harrowing.

The last 3½ lines are hard to parse, but Pennington clarifies them admirably. His Lear aligns himself with the poor naked wretches, and urges other aristos (“pomp”) to join him, so they too may help (“shake the superflux”, or excess riches). He reads “just” to mean “justice”, which implies that charity will shame the heavens into better treatment of the hungry, poor, and homeless.

photo: Carol Rosegg
Pennington and Arbus use the soliloquy’s format, a form of audience address, to put the viewers in the position of Lear’s apostrophized aristos. Houseless heads and unfed sides have increased in New York City, against national trends. It’s a rare Shakespearean production that can remind its audience of that, and a successful one that can do so without imposing a modern interpretation over a play built upon very different social and economic assumptions. But the opportunity is there. By foregrounding it, Arbus, Pennington, and Kalb make Shakespeare matter.

I’ll just mention another beat that counters the feudal rigidity that’s so alien to the modern viewer. Later in act 3, a servant stabs his own lord to prevent the blinding of Gloucester. Most productions frame his motivation as a reaction to horror: fair enough. But in the context of Arbus’ Lear it’s a moment of populist revolution, as a man chooses ethics over fealty. A few moments later at the scene’s end, Kalb and Arbus salvage another beat from the cuts: one of the servant’s fellows resolves to help Gloucester to first aid and a guide:

Second servantLet’s follow the old Earl and get the bedlamTo lead him where he would. His roguish madnessAllows itself to anything. Third servantGo thou. I’ll fetch some flax and whites of eggsTo apply to his bleeding face. Now heaven help him!

This beat, in a rough quarto but not the Folio, is one of the few altruistic actions in a very dark play. By retaining it, Arbus and Kalb illuminate Lear’s nihilism. In these subtle ways, Arbus and her company make Shakespeare matter. The result is a profound piece of social conscience as well as a work of great tragedy.