The actors came out for the curtain call. Cordelia looked shell shocked, even though in her last scene she’d had nothing to do but lay there naked. Goneril was still wiping the tears from her eyes, looking slightly stunned at the audience applauding, as if she couldn’t quite believe that it was, after all, just a play, and she was not really the nightmare she’d spent the last three hours becoming.
We applauded and whooped. The rest of the company stepped back then as Keach walked out. We stood up and roared. He smiled, and bowed to the audience, his face full of gratitude, as if to say, “We survived it again. All of us. Together.” Then they all left the stage quickly, to go through whatever their individual rituals are, to reassure themselves that they are actors and privileged to be doing this work and that the real world is not as dark and hopeless as the world they try their best to create on stage night after night. I was in the front row, a couple of seats right of center. It’s not always my favorite spot to see a play, ‘cause I don’t quite get the full effect of the staging, but it’s the place to be if you want to see if any of the actors are faking. They weren’t that night.
The scene is late 20th century Yugoslavia. If it were staged in a traditional Elizabethan setting, you might be able to fool yourself into thinking that we're better than that now – that the horrific stupid cruelty and blindness was exaggerated by the playright. But, no. Bringing it into our time makes it clear that we still are those people. Shakespeare was easier on us than we deserve.
Worst of all was the battle scene. The stage is strewn with blasted rubble. Overturned cars and piles of junk. The sounds of battle rage offstage. And then the women start dragging the bodies in, wrapped in bandages, like mummies. We know they’re just props, made of paper and rags, but the way the actors drag them in, it's clear they're carrying the full weight of lost loved ones. Then a man comes in dragging two small bodies. That’s when I started crying. They keep coming. There will be no end to it. Gloucester is dead on the stage now too, and Edgar has run off looking for revenge. Two medics come out. The only traces of nobility in this play seem to come from the nameless. But they can't do anything more than pick up the bodies and throw them into the pit. But the bodies keep coming. The medics are exhausted and their faces are traumatized (we’ll see one of them later, in the last miserable killing scene, his wits gone with madness, dragging a teddy bear). They throw Gloucester in the pit, and a couple more of the bandaged bodies, but then they leave the stage. There are just too many.
I can well understand why the actors and the director and the designers and the crew want to sink their teeth into this stuff. It’s magnificent. And I kinda get why we want to watch it (although Lynn would have hated it). Partly it's for the skill with which it's presented, of course, but mostly it's the way that art can enable us to face some of the dark truths about ourselves without making us go mad.
What I don’t understand is how somebody could write it. He did a great job with those comedies and those history plays, and the earlier tragedies. But what in the world must’ve been going on inside a man that he could write King Lear?