Saturday, September 03, 2016

`Remember: Like a Puppy'

Peter Brook’s filmed adaptation of King Lear remains as painful to watch as it was forty-five years ago. As with the Civil War, thanks to Matthew Brady’s photographs, so is Shakespeare’s tragedy forever in black and white, thanks to Brook’s version. Cordelia’s death is nearly unwatchable. Her father says, “Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!” and dies. Only a very cold fish is unmoved, and we share Dr. Johnson’s reaction:

“And, if my sensations could add any thing to the general suffrage, I might relate, that 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.”

Included in The Penguin Book of Russian Verse (2015), edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, is an untitled poem by Marina Boroditskaya (b. 1954), translated by Ruth Fainlight and addressed to Lear’s dead daughter:

“Cordelia, you are a fool! Would it have been
That hard to yield to the old man?
To say to him, `I, too, O darling Daddy,
Love you more than my life.’ Piece of cake!”

One of life’s diplomats is talking, the oh-so-logical sort who oozes reasonableness. But tragedy always trumps the soft-headed logic of appeasement. The speaker gives Cordelia a copy of the play and shows her the scene of Gloucester’s blinding: “Look what you've done, you stupid little fool! / OK, OK, don’t cry.” Followed by more advice:

“Like a puppy,
Pull him by the leg of his pants with your teeth
Into the game, into comedy! The laws
of the genre will lead us out to light . . .”

Who is the speaker? A critic? A “life coach”? We know the type. No need to turn the play into a comedy. The comedy, of the grimmest sort (see Beckett’s rewrite: Endgame), is already there. Had Cordelia followed the speaker’s advice and sucked up to her father, we’d have no King Lear. “Sorry I told you off. / Best regards to your father. Remember: like a puppy.”

[Go here for the Russian text of Boroditskaya’s poem and an alternate English translation.]

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