By Jeremy Fiebig, Artistic Director
There’s a group of people who will show up to a King Lear production and who will tell you King Lear has to be one thing: sad.
It has to be sad, they’ll say, because it’s the saddest of the Shakespeare plays, because it is utterly catastrophic. Because everyone dies, and especially dead is the sweet daughter of a foolish, fond old man, and some other sympathetic characters.
These people, the ones who say King Lear is really sad, aren’t entirely wrong. I do think it’s sad in places, especially at the end. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that part of the reason so many of these folks think King Lear is especially sad is because someone told them it ought to be. That someone might’ve been an English teacher or a theatre director or an actor. And, look, I like all those people.
And I think sadness is not, in fact, the point of King Lear. Or its sadness is not what makes it great.
I can think of other things which contribute to making it great–things like horror, depravity, a sense of the mythic, and the love and controversial grace in it.
See, when we get to the end of King Lear, there are three dudes left standing: Albany, a man who flips sides really easily; Kent, a hot-headed but well-meaning exile who looks after Lear as he goes mad; Edgar, a desperate, perhaps even unstable, presence of protection for Lear throughout the play. Their presence is controversial, in my view, like three chiefs of staff watching the world burn impossibly and destructively, and still choosing to fight the fire.
As I once was a religion major in college, I have just enough theological jargon to get me into trouble. But trouble is where we live, and so: the word apocalypse, in Greek, means “revealing.” In theology, apocalypses are the things that happen at the cataclysmic ends of the story:
-Adam and Eve are banished from the garden.
-All but Noah and his family are washed from the face of the earth.
-The Hebrews live in slavery under Pharoah.
-The Hebrews are exiled to Babylon and Assyria.
-The Temple is destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again.
-The earth ends in fire and brimstone.
-Job loses his family and wealth and curses the universe.
Hollywood has picked up on the destruction part of the apocalypse, of course, in every movie from Superman to Armageddon to Transformers, and it’s what sticks with us. Tragedies and apocalypses are valuable to us, you see, because they allow us to affirm our lives, and life itself, in the face of destruction.
Our world likes to take the tragic and apocalyptic frame and apply it wherever possible. 9/11. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Shootings. Bad Presidents. And it likes to say, quite cheaply, if you ask me, “watch this with your sad hat on.” Some folks call it tragedy porn.
But on a theological, literary, and theatrical basis, the sad apocalypse thinking doesn’t hold up for too long. Eventually, that actor is going to have to stand up, take a bow, and come back to do it all again tomorrow night. A hero will rise (use your best movie trailer voice). The actor playing Cordelia is still breathing. There is room for laughter in this play, just like there is room for sadness. And for horror.
The theologians of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament have a phrase for this. It’s called the deuteronomic cycle.
-Banishment from the garden leads to restoration, children, and freedom.
-Noah gets a new start.
-The Hebrews escape Egypt and make their way back to the land of milk and honey.
-The exile ends.
-The Temple becomes people.
-Jesus is resurrected.
-A new earth begins.
-Job is restored.
The good news is always there, the other side of the same coin, the last Jedi, the secret key, the dodged bullet.
My calculation for our production of Lear was this:
It’s pretty bad out there right now for a lot of people. People are sad. Bad things are happening. Wouldn’t it be good if, in exploring the apocalypse of King Lear in a way that might remind us of all those very bad things, if we — just a little bit — caught a glimpse of the restoration?