Season Two: Week 12

Tuesday / September 11

Written by Matt.

We are reaching the end of King Lear! After checking in (all good things today), we set out to finish Act 4. We jumped right into reading, since we had left off in the middle of Act IV, scene vi, which is a sprawling, disjointed scene that we mostly finished last week.

As we got through the end of the scene, one of our most active members fixated on the connection between Edmund and Edgar--the ways in which they are similar while still being opposites. “Look at this!” he said, excitedly pointing at the page in his book, which is already dogeared from reading and rereading. “Edgar the legitimate is playing like he’s base, and Edmund the base-born is playing like he’s legitimate!” Another member brought us back to Edgar’s regret at killing Oswald from earlier in the scene and contrasted it with Edmund’s lack of empathy. “He’s not after vengeance,” another man agreed. “He’s not like the other ones that’ve been done wrong, and are only out for vengeance.”

After finishing this scene, several of the guys were eager to get to playing improv games. We played a simple game of Bus Stop (a variation of Hitchhiker) in which one character is waiting for a bus, and another comes and tries to get the first one to leave. It is a game of desire and motivation: the characters’ goals are opposed. After a few rounds, we stopped to ask what worked best for these little scenes. “Commitment to character,” immediately said one of the men. We moved on to Party Quirks, which they had tried for the first time last week, and which is more complicated. The “host” of the party was utterly confused by a few of them, including one whose “quirk,” improbably, was that he had balloons tied around his neck but very sticky feet. “Hey, uh, you invited me here,” he said, trying to help out, “and I feel like it was a trap.” He paused for a second. “A Venus Flytrap!”

We turned back to the play to finish Act IV. The scene, which reunites Lear and Cordelia at last, moves along quickly, but we paused often to reflect.

“I sense remorse from Lear,” said a longtime member, “and he seems apologetic.” Another noticed how much more coherent Lear is in this scene than in the last one. He has had time to sleep. One man was clearly affected by the language. “This verse here,” he said, “starting on line 45: You do me wrong to take me out o’the grave./Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound/Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/Do scald like molten lead.” He looked up. “My own tears scald do scald like molten lead. I’m sorry, dude, sometimes I hear things like that, and I just... “ he searched for the words for a moment. “I just love words, and-- he’s just so grief-stricken. The tears feel so hot they’re just burning trails into his cheeks.”

“Lear finally gets what he was looking for: redemption,” added a normally vocal member of the group who had been quietly contemplating the scene for some time. Another noted that Cordelia asks for Lear’s blessing. “It’s totally humbling,” added the one who had been brought up short by the earlier description. Then he added, “What’s with all these people clutching to their disguises?” We discussed a bit about the use of disguises, literal and metaphorical, in the play. One member connected the masks with our discussion last month of madness: “They had aspects of the madness in them from the beginning,” he noted, “and they disguised it. But they’re getting back to the madness at the end.” After discussing that idea a bit, he added, “The problem is that Lear has always related everything back to his being a king--not to being a father or a man. And now he can own up to his mistakes as a father, and as a man.”

“This reminds me of--wait, who’s that king in the Bible?” asked one of the men. Another, who is better versed in the text of the Bible than the rest of us, clarified gently that is was Nebuchadnezzar.

“Right! Nebuchadnezzar had to go because he was too proud, and he could only come back when he had humbled himself.”

At that moment, we ran out of time and rushed to put the ring back up. Each scene in Lear offers opportunities for reflection and self-reflection. The men (and facilitators!) in that room meet the challenge directly, and we are so looking forward to wrestling with the end of the play with them.

Friday / September 14

Written by Frannie.

After a rousing game of tape ball, we settled in to read Act V, scene i. One of the men sat down next to me and asked if this play was ever staged as “Queen Lear”, or with any (or all) genders reversed, and what I thought about it. I said that that’s done all the time, and that it’s not an invalid way to do it, but that my own feeling is that the play is heavily dependent on the psychology of men and power, and that father/daughter relationships are differently charged than other parent/child relationships. He said that he wasn’t sure that that was true, and that Goneril’s and Regan’s roles seemed very much in keeping with men’s jockeying for power. I reminded him that a major theme in this play is that things are topsy turvy — and, as a part of that, the women behave in stereotypically male ways. “But, you know, if you set this in a matriarchal society, you could flip it the opposite way, and that could be really interesting,” I said. “I didn’t even really think about all of this in depth,” he said, “But, yeah, gender is really big in this play. I’m gonna think some more about that.”

The guys really like reading scenes on their feet from the get-go, and, while this creates some challenges, it’s also a neat way to take stock of people’s comfort levels. Today, for example, two men who have often been hesitant to get on their feet immediately volunteered to play Goneril and Regan.

After summing up the scene’s events, I called our attention back to the exchange between Regan and Edmund right at the beginning. It’s quick, but it’s important to flesh out before we get to the final scene. At first we sort of danced around things — the scene is somewhat sexually charged, and, as with previous plays, it’s up to me as the female in the room to set the tone. This content is nothing to shy away from, and I never have, with the men or the women. In the first place, it’s in the play, and we can’t truly understand the play unless we cover all of our bases. It’s also an opportunity to engage intellectually (and maturely) about a subject that a lot of people haven’t ever been able to talk about in this way. It breaks down a lot of barriers for folks.

So, okay. What’s going on in this scene?

It’s clear that Regan is very attracted to Edmund and jealous of the possibility that her sister slept with him. When did this attraction and rivalry begin? People immediately saw it as being connected with power — perhaps it was when Edmund became Earl of Gloucester, or when Cornwall died, leaving Regan free to pursue Edmund. But attraction can precede action, we all agreed.

One man cautioned, “I feel like how you read it is more important than the words alone.” He said we should be reading between the lines — is this all about lust, or is there more going on? “Lust and obsession and possession — those things are powerful… You forget about that power stuff because you’re falling in love with that girl or that dude.”

Another man wasn’t so sure. “There’s no love there — they’re all just jockeying for power. It’s not even about lust. It’s about whatever they think is important to them at the time. They fight for these things, and once they’ve got it, they throw it away… It’s not enough… It’s not Edmund, it’s what he represents.” One man said, “It’s about the boy. The power is a byproduct.”

I questioned, too, the idea that these two are in love. “Look at the way they speak about each other… They’re objects to be ‘enjoyed.’ They don’t talk about each other as human beings, the way other lovers in Shakespeare do.”

Lust for sex and power can overwhelm, we all agreed. And I wondered if maybe Regan’s judgment was clouded. “There’s no strategic reason for Regan to kill Goneril — she’s not gonna marry Albany for his power. All she’ll gain is Edmund.” One man said, “Now that they have that power, they don’t need to scheme.” Another laughed and said, “Man, I grew up in a house full of female cousins and things. I know how this story ends.”

One man suggested that this was all part of Edmund’s plan to begin with — that Edmund is “straight out of The Art of Seduction,” and that he convinced the sisters to go after him and take each other out. “Did he convince them, or did they convince themselves?” asked another man. “They both just had this desire to have him. And at that point, it became a rivalry.” Another man chuckled and said, “He’s a rake, bro.”

I wondered about whether any of this was intentional on Edmund’s part, or if he’s along for the ride, taking opportunities as they come. “I see him totally in control of the situation,” one man said. “He’s that manipulative and deceitful… He gets a taste of that power, and he wants more and more and more and more. It’s not, he’s being taken for a ride. He’s pulling it in. Don’t think for one second that all his dreams aren’t coming true.” I said that I didn’t think the two things had to be mutually exclusive, but this clearly wasn’t part of the original plan, or he would have told us at the beginning of the play. He didn’t orchestrate Cornwall’s death. So, even if he was sleeping with one or both sisters prior to that, he couldn’t have anticipated the opportunity to marry one of them. Perhaps now he’s in control, but this stuff is unexpected.

Another man agreed, saying that Edmund’s only original goal was to get Edgar’s land. “Having a different title doesn’t change who you are, though,” he said. “When you have a viewpoint what it’s gonna be like… it doesn’t make those expectations true… He’s not quite at the end yet, so he’s still trying to figure out that plot… His whole thing was, ‘I don’t want to be seen as base. And if I get a bunch of power along the way, awesome.’” He continued, “He didn’t want to be king; he wanted to be acknowledged… If anyone’s had a sibling, where you feel like you’re living in their shadow, you know that you can get caught up… and you keep chasing it. They’re chasing an idea. Some people end up in prison, chasing those kinds of ideas.”

A lively debate ensued about Edmund’s motives: recognition, legitimacy, power. Matt pointed out that Edmund got what he wanted but lost the love of Gloucester along the way. I did a bit of a fast-forward to the final scene, when Edmund, finding out that the sisters died over him, says, “Yet Edmund was beloved,” and then tries to save Lear and Cordelia before he, himself, dies. So that’s probably part of it, too — a longing to be loved.

One man was particularly fired up, as he has been about Edmund since the beginning. It’s very clear that he has a strong connection to the character. As he literally leaned to the discussion, another man grinned at me and said, “I think he should play Edmund.” I grinned right back. Things could always change, but, more often than not, when the ensemble sees a connection like this, they clear the way for that person to play the role.

Back to the sisters. What is it they see in Edmund? One man said that Edmund seemed to the the opposite of their husbands, which plants the seeds of attraction in many cases. “He’s a bastard, too, remember,” I said. “He’s from the other side of the tracks. He’s different. He’s exotic.” Another man said, “YES. Exotic. That’s the word I was looking for!”

We decided to read Act V, scene ii, before we left, since it’s very brief: Gloucester alone as the battle rages off stage. I asked why everyone thought that it was written this way when other plays put the action of the battle right in front of the audience. One man, who is often unfocused or antagonistic, had an epiphany: “I don’t think the battle scenes are what make this play this play. It’s everything that happens around the battles.” People nodded in agreement, and one man said, “Good job, [NAME],” and walked over to give him a high five.

Another man expanded on that. “Why do you need battle scenes when you got battle scenes through the whole play: battles of the mind. Of the human psyche, of morality, of power and ideals…” The man whom I talked to at the beginning of the day said, “And gender.” The first man excitedly said, “And gender! You’re right!”

We decided to spend all of next week on the play’s final scene. And then we’ll see how much time we want to spend on exploration before we cast it.