The king, Olivier, and I

AS Laurence Olivier and I well know, to play the title role in ''King Lear'' is to scale a very large height. Lord Olivier, of course, has a bit more experience than I and the student cast I performed with shortly before his recent television production. And, as Dogberry says, comparisons are odorous. Still it was uncanny to watch Olivier - whom I have admired since my repertory and salad days in Britain some 25 years ago - playing my part.

To put it simply, I was profoundly moved, not only by his performance and this greatest of plays, but by the spectacle of a renowned and brilliant actor delivering only his second portrayal, I believe, of this awesome role, which Charles Lamb and some others have deemed so great as to be unactable.

But great tragedies for all their size and weight and seriousness can deliver to a hard-working cast an exhilarating joy, even fun. The term hardworking is apt; our director, a drama department colleague, informed us that scientists somewhere had measured in ergs or footpounds, or whatever, the energy put forth by an actor playing a major Shakespearean tragic role, comparing it with the efforts of a miner working at a coal face. The actor's output was greater.

Besides, the actor playing King Lear is entrusted with a task not normally falling to a coal miner: He must carry Cordelia onstage in his arms at play's end and lay her tenderly down, speaking Shakespearean verse the while. And although I recall having earlier mentioned via Dogberry the undesirability of comparisons, I nevertheless would like to mention that an American magazine reported that Laurence Olivier's production allowed him a Cordelia who, while he carried her, was suspended by a steel cable, a winch actually taking the lady's weight.

Alas, we had no such device, a fact allowing for such comments in rehearsal as that now we knew why Lear finally expires. At the risk of seeming invidious, however, I will hazard that my Cordelia was lighter than Olivier's.

She was in any case a delight to carry, even though our set, an abstract of a prehistoric Britain, called for her to be lowered onto a ramp of such precipitousness as to qualify for the cliff the poor deluded Gloucester of the subplot imagines he is falling from.

Still, to return to Olivier:

This portrayal was of a king who has reached the great age called for in the play's text, upward of fourscore years. Here was a sometimes childish and occasionally doddering old man who had lightning flashes of reversion to a previous more violent and authoritarian behavior; this as counterpoint to such moments as his near-helpless and tearful frustration at Cordelia's failure to speak her love in the ritual declaration Lear demands of his daughters before dividing his England among them.

In the matter of the kingdom's division, incidentally, Olivier seemed to me to succumb to the prevailing opinion that Lear's settling of the kingdom on his daughters is a foolish act. Some scholars even apologize for Shakespeare's beginning his play in this way.

To me, the division seems a move so politically astute as to be unassailable. Through attaining a balance of power, Lear's kingdom can enjoy peace.

No, Lear's naivete is neither political nor military. It lies in his inability to recognize the evil of which Goneril and Regan are capable. Having by means of his political masterstroke trustingly rendered himself powerless, he is thrust out of doors to die. Shattered by the recognition of his daughter's perfidy, the old king, in the famous scenes upon the heath, descends into a madness that delivers him horribly lucid glimpses of the fact that he is a man like any other and, furthermore, a man who has failed disastrously to serve the needs of his family and his subjects alike. Having lost all, he finally gains understanding and, more important, compassion, demonstrating the latter by comforting his daughter during their period of capture.

I had long known the situation from the classroom and the study. Now I felt it in my bones after taking the role upon the stage.

Gazing intently at Olivier I relived the experience, catching my breath with apprehension as I saw him struggling, I thought, to recall a line at the very spot where I, too, had stood in danger of forgetting.

He not only brought me his King Lear but gave me mine again in a perspective tinged by fellow-feeling.

And as I watched this superb actor speak those lines of Shakespeare's which had been in my own mouth so recently, I realized it is possible he might make this his farewell to King Lear or to any other major Shakespearean role. Actors of briefer and less arduous experience have ceased to perform them.

For this reason, and in gratitude for his vivid theatrical example down the years, as the play came to its close I wept.

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