Saturday, April 11, 2015

`A Very, Very Grim Play'

“I am convinced that Lear dies deceived into thinking that Cordelia is going to come back to life, which she is not, and that this is the last self-deception that he goes through.” 

That’s why King Lear, after repeated readings, remains as harrowing as the first time almost half a century ago – more so, because now I have three sons . There’s nothing cheaply manipulative or sentimental when Lear enters carrying Cordelia’s lifeless body: “This feather stirs; she lives! if it be so, / It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows / That ever I have felt.” He refuses to accept the undeniable, and speaks to his dead daughter:  

“Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.” 

And then Lear’s final words before he dies: “Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!” It’s the physical immediacy of Lear’s desperate longing for any sign of life in Cordelia that makes the scene so powerful, coupled with its reversal of all that the king has done earlier in the play. Lear finally realizes he is responsible for Cordelia’s death and so many others. The observation quoted at the top is from an interview Anthony Hecht gave less than a year before his own death. For this most learned and elegant of poets, the sheer human desolation of the final scene spurs his admiration. No doubt he would have echoed Dr. Johnson, who writes: “. . . I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.” Hecht goes on to say: 

“It’s a very, very grim play. Nevertheless, it’s a play that is full of extraordinary, touching scenes of real love and real devotion of Cordelia to him and him to Cordelia that don’t redeem the action on the stage, but do something to elevate the spectator or the reader in a way that I find very moving. 

“That’s what good literature can do. It doesn’t evade any of the terrible things in life. It faces them and faces them squarely, but puts them in a context in which they have a richer meaning than they would as simply raw, descriptive facts.” 

I thought of Hecht’s observations while reading Orwell’s “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool.” With tact and obvious respect for the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Orwell efficiently deals with a great novelist who was a foolish critic.


Brian said...

"King Lear", like many great works, easily rebuffs the critical. Certain things are beyond criticism once they have been felt in their full power. The tiresome nags of cultural relativism and social justice can only appeal to the failed reader. When secrets of the universe are in your hands, the sensible critics spend their time revealing, not criticizing.

I confess that the most moving words for me are Kent's last lines:

"I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; My master calls me, I must not say no."

Subbuteo said...

Is it too simplistic to impute things as childish as vanity and envy to Tolstoy as well as his unacknowledged smarting at the similarities between his and Lear's renunciations? He must have seen himself as a candidate for the greatest writer ever.

Interesting comments from Orwell about spiritual and political bullies too.