A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler / Theater

A Singer’s Notes 50: Listening to King Lear

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Dennis Krausnick as King Lear. Photo by Kevin Sprague © 2012

King Lear
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Rebecca Holderness
Musical Director: Bill Barclay

Shakespeare and Company
Lenox, MA
June 16 – August 19

Dennis Krausnick stood bolt upright in bright light at the end of Shakespeare and Company’s King Lear and convinced me with his tired voice that he saw a Cordelia full of life. This was the fit and true ending of a production, by Rebecca Holderness, that was darkly lucent and depended, almost wholly, on the vocal skill of her actors. In Shakespeare’s plays when we reach the heart of the matter, language turns toward silence. Mr. Krausnick voiced his final lines on the edge of silence. After the five “nevers”, each imagined daringly, he turned to listening, and finally to seeing. The recumbent Lear was upright and striving to say the bliss he saw.

The central action of King Lear is listening. This above all has convinced me of the play’s performability. Jonathan Epstein’s Kent and Kevin Coleman’s Fool listened lyrically. When one sees listening on stage that has a speaking focus, one listens with the whole body. I’m thinking particularly of Mr. Epstein’s silent diligence during the awakening scene in the fourth act. Or when Lear listens, in the fullest sense of that word, to the Fool’s manifest demonstrations that the king is the greater fool, the Fool leaves. His work is done. Most of his work has been to listen. Then imagine the effort the awakening Lear must exert to hear the most important and beautiful words in the play, the clear-spoken Cordelia’s “no cause, no cause.” Perhaps she repeats them because he cannot hear them. Then Lear, at the very end of the tragedy, is looking at his daughter and intently listening – to what? He is hearing and finally seeing an altered Cordelia and knowing her as she really is. Not a shadow lying on the ground. Powerless he intimates bliss. Powerful he destroyed it. His sharp comments, “See! Look there!” stop the actors mid-speech.

Dr. Johnson famously refused to re-read the play for some years, remarking that it “did not keep faith with the chronicles” referring, I suppose, to an older play on the same subject. Shakespeare’s alterations were radical. Cordelia’s death is the issue. Nahum Tate saves her, and his version ruled the English stage for decades. These days it is either the bleak version where all hope is banished, or what critics quaintly call the Christianizing version. Like today’s pols, it’s one or the other; the middle lies empty. But there is a middle, very possibly a transcendent one. We have already seen the end of Shakespeare’s Lear twice, first in Pericles, and then The Winter’s Tale. Check the Quarto text of King Lear and you will read that music is called for in the awakening scene of Act 4 – just as Paulina does in the corresponding place in Winter’s Tale. Is there a chance the playwright is out to show that Lear’s so-called hallucinations in his final moments are true vision? This is not bringing a statue back to life – a statue that never died. This is seeing a dead person in a new life. Was this a deliberate challenge the playwright set himself – nothing less than all from nothing? Can we believe it? Was the dying King Lear the only one with the ears to hear? And finally the eyes to see? Is his own awakening scene a dress rehearsal for the promised end? Why are we so willing to deny Lear’s seeing? He himself tests it, puts the glass up to her nostrils. He despairs, but this is not the finality. The finality is open. “It is required you do awake your faith,” as Paulina says in Winters Tale. Pace Dr. Johnson, maybe the old faith is kept, just not shown – forcing the imagination still further, the way that music brings us to the edge of the thing and we hear it in the silence after. Kelly Galvin’s Cordelia made us hear this every time she spoke, gave us an assurance of it. Her speaking was partner to her silence.

The precipitous nature of Cordelia’s death would seem to argue against this. It connects with the body of the play absurdly. Or does it? Lear’s awakening and knowing his daughter for what she is, is the precise moment of his death. This is completion. For me, Edgar’s stock closing lines do nothing to blunt the luminosity. They strike me only as being in line with the sense that there is no center yet to this uncanny character. The intelligent Ryan Winkles understood this. One uses one’s mind in the theater (hopefully) but also one’s heart. The true speaker in King Lear is Cordelia. The heart of her name is “heart.” Beethoven wrote at the top of what is his most complex composition, the Missa Solemnis: “From the heart may it go to the heart.” Go to King Lear and listen to your heart.

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