I saw this morning in my email inbox that the Stacey Keach Lear has been extended at the STC in Washington. Which makes me think again of the many ways in which the last scene did not live up to the promise, or the verve, of the opening. Part of the problem, perhaps, is simply the need for things to wind down: the King dies of heartbreak and exhaustion, being “streched out” on the rack of the world (in Kent’s metaphor), but given how much energy is required of the star actor, sometimes that level of physical broken-ness is hard to pull off. (I remember Ian McKellan had some similar problems in the last scene, and Kevin Kline, at the NY Public Theater, even more so.)
But the direction of the final scene was off too: cutting “yet Edmund was beloved” flattens this complex character, and omitting “Great thing of us forgot” may avoid an awkward laugh-line in the middle of the crisis, but it also makes the long scene less complex. The dead Cordelia, a Goth princess no more, looks instead like a sex symbol in her tattered clothes, but that itself is distracting. The repeated lines — “Never, never…” and “Howl, howl…” — are a challenge to any actor (was it Olivier who said the former was unplayable?), but they were among Keach’s weaker, and least inventive, moments.
Is there a tension between 1.2 (the King’s manic dance of kingdom-dividing) and 5.3 (the slow slog into death)? Certainly there is, and perhaps it’s true that in our age-defying cultural moment we’re more open to an energetic (if mad) king than one whose heart breaks slowly.
In Edgar’s final line, about speaking “what we feel, not what we ought to say,” he picks up the stage microphone that the King and evil daughters had used in 1.2, We’re supposed to think, I suppose, that he’s assuming a kind of kingship (though he is on his belly and not commanding the stage), as in the revised Lear-plot in which he married Cordelia and ruled Britain. True to recent habits, this version does not imagine any possible redemptive future for the kingdom. But I also missed the dramatic and poetic force of the floor dropping out beneath everyone.