In her interview about the book she has co-authored with Tina Packer, When Action is Eloquence, the distinguished actor and teacher Bella Merlin reflects on how she came into contact with Shakespeare & Company and her three year progression through the completion of a manuscript based on her own deep knowledge of acting and her participation in the Company’s month-long intensive course.
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.
Art is a hungry master, often demanding no less than all. Chekhov’s Nina, at the end of “The Seagull,” found this to be a drudgery, but there are many of the un-famous out there who render homage to the quest. Few professions require the level of perseverance that a life in the arts demands. Yet those who do persist, many unsung, make rare things every day and enjoy the inestimable privilege of hearing Shakespeare and Mozart come out of their mouths. Being an artist is making the trip to Baudelaire’s island. Once you have heard that performance or two which cannot be forgotten, which showed you what was really in the piece, which made you feel that this was the performance you always knew but hadn’t heard – there is no going back.