Review of play seen on 29 April 2014

No, sorry to say, I was not happy with Simon Russell Beale’s Lear at the National. I was not helped by the fact that my partner, who’d never seen Lear on stage, discovered that he hated both the play and the production. It’s hard not to be influenced by someone sitting close and obviously unconvinced. On the other hand, the other people in the audience near us seemed pretty happy. The upshot was that I was glad to have seen the show but found myself slowly alienated from it.

Is it the play itself that’s impossible? There are moments, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde on the death of Little Nell, when it’s hard not to laugh. The finale when Lear arrives, howling and staggering onto the stage with the dead Cordelia in his arms, is never very convincing. No wonder that actors playing the part of the youngest daughter have to be feather-light. At other moments, the deaths of Regan and Goneril are also hard to take, as they writhe and go ‘Aaaargh!’ like cartoon characters. Let alone the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes.

But Shakespeare’s melodrama of regal and family meltdown is known for its difficulty of staging. What of Sam Mendes’s production? Did he surmount, or at least, corral the difficulties? My answer is in the negative. The switches from quiet scenes to super-storm were well done. And the lightning and thunder effects were almost too brilliant. Yet the production seemed to veer uneasily between presenting the characters with dour realism or as surreal archetypes. The extra chorus of figures in army fatigues were introduced to supply an air of menace behind the political power brokers but I found their parades distracting as they had little to do. At one point a line of characters, holding umbrellas, marched across the stage, to indicate that it’s raining. But then most disappear, as they are superfluous to the scene in hand. It’s just itchy movement for no gain. Indeed, the whole production, including Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Lear, was all too fidgety.

So, yes, the actors? I detected from the body-languages of Regan (Kate Fleetwood) and Goneril (Anna Maxwell Martin) that they were offering contrasting types of scheming and outwardly charming womanhood, who came to bad ends. But it is difficult to understand their words – that is, they were audible but not easily comprehensible. Their intimate style of discourse did not project across the huge auditorium at the National. Meanwhile Edmund (Sam Troughton) was convincing early on as a clammed-up character, fretting over his illegitimacy; but unbelievable in later scenes as the ardent, if self-interested, lover of the ugly sisters. Edgar (Tom Brooke) did his best between fooling and delivering the final message of wisdom (‘speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’), as did the Fool (Adrian Scarborough). The other goodies were dignified in adversity and the baddies malignant. But, overall, this play depends upon its Lear. I have seen Simon Russell Beale in many roles, always admiringly. I thought that his flat, unbelieving, delivery of ‘Never!’ five times in a row (just before he expires) was wonderful. Overall, however, on yesterday’s evidence, his Lear was far too stagey, fidgety and predictable to be tragic. I didn’t quite laugh but I didn’t weep either.

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If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

What does it take to get a long-surviving reputation? The answer, rather obviously, is somehow to get access to a means of endurance through time. To hitch a lift with history.

People in sports and the performing arts, before the advent of electronic storage/ replay media, have an intrinsic problem. Their prowess is known at the time but is notoriously difficult to recapture later. The French actor Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), playing Hamlet on stage when she was well into her 70s and sporting an artificial limb after a leg amputation, remains an inspiration for all public performers, whatever their field.1  Yet performance glamour, even in legend, still fades fast.

Bernhardt in the 1880s as a romantic HamletWhat helps to keep a reputation well burnished is an organisation that outlasts an individual. A memorable preacher like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, impressed many different audiences, as he spoke at open-air and private meetings across eighteenth-century Britain. Admirers said that his gaze seemed to pick out each person individually. Having heard Wesley in 1739, one John Nelson, who later became a fellow Methodist preacher, recorded that effect: ‘I thought his whole discourse was aimed at me’.2

Yet there were plenty of celebrated preachers in Georgian Britain. What made Wesley’s reputation survive was not only his assiduous self-chronicling, via his journals and letters, but also the new religious organisation that he founded. Of course, the Methodist church was dedicated to spreading his ideas and methods for saving Christian souls, not to the enshrining of the founder’s own reputation. It did, however, forward Wesley’s legacy into successive generations, albeit with various changes over time. Indeed, for true longevity, a religious movement (or a political cause, come to that) has to have permanent values that outlast its own era but equally a capacity for adaptation.

There are some interesting examples of small, often millenarian, cults which survive clandestinely for centuries. England’s Muggletonians, named after the London tailor Lodovicke Muggleton, were a case in point. Originating during the mid-seventeenth-century civil wars, the small Protestant sect never recruited publicly and never grew to any size.  But the sect lasted in secrecy from 1652 to 1979 – a staggering trajectory. It seems that the clue was a shared excitement of cultish secrecy and a sense of special salvation, in the expectation of the imminent end of the world. Muggleton himself was unimportant. And finally the movement’s secret magic failed to remain transmissible.3

In fact, the longer that causes survive, the greater the scope for the imprint of very many different personalities, different social demands, different institutional roles, and diverse, often conflicting, interpretations of the core theology. Throughout these processes, the original founders tend quickly to become ideal-types of mythic status, rather than actual individuals. It is their beliefs and symbolism, rather than their personalities, that live.

As well as beliefs and organisation, another reputation-preserver is the achievement of impressive deeds, whether for good or ill. Notorious and famous people alike often become national or communal myths, adapted by later generations to fit later circumstances. Picking through controversies about the roles of such outstanding figures is part of the work of historians, seeking to offer not anodyne but judicious verdicts on those ‘world-historical individuals’ (to use Hegel’s phrase) whose actions crystallise great historical moments or forces. They embody elements of history larger than themselves.

Hegel himself had witnessed one such giant personality, in the form of the Emperor Napoleon. It was just after the battle of Jena (1806), when the previously feared Prussian army had been routed by the French. The small figure of Napoleon rode past Hegel, who wrote: ‘It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it’.4

(L) The academic philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) and (R) the man of action, Emperor Napoleon (1769-1821),  both present at Jena in October 1806The means by which Napoleon’s posthumous reputation has survived are interesting in themselves. He did not found a long-lasting dynasty, so neither family piety nor institutionalised authority could help. He was, of course, deposed and exiled, dividing French opinion both then and later. Nonetheless, Napoleon left numerous enduring things, such as codes of law; systems of measurement; structures of government; and many physical monuments. One such was Paris’s Jena Bridge, built to celebrate the victorious battle.

Monuments, if sufficiently durable, can certainly long outlast individuals. They effortlessly bear diachronic witness to fame. Yet, at the same time, monuments can crumble or be destroyed. Or, even if surviving, they can outlast the entire culture that built them. Today a visitor to Egypt may admire the pyramids, without knowing the names of the pharaohs they commemorated, let alone anything specific about them. Shelley caught that aspect of vanished grandeur well, in his poem to the ruined statue of Ozymandias: the quondam ‘king of kings’, lost and unknown in the desert sands.6

So lastly what about words? They can outlast individuals and even cultures, provided that they are kept in a transmissible format. Even lost languages can be later deciphered, although experts have not yet cracked the ancient codes from Harappa in the Punjab.7  Words, especially in printed or nowadays digital format, have immense potential for endurance. Not only are they open to reinterpretation over time; but, via their messages, later generations can commune mentally with earlier ones.

In Jena, the passing Napoleon (then aged 37) was unaware of the watching academic (then aged 36), who was formulating his ideas about revolutionary historical changes through conflict. Yet, through the endurance of his later publications, Hegel, who was unknown in 1806, has now become the second notable personage who was present at the scene. Indeed, via his influence upon Karl Marx, it could even be argued that the German philosopher has become the historically more important figure of those two individuals in Jena on 13 October 1806. On the other hand, Marx’s impact, having been immensely significant in the twentieth century, is also fast fading.

Who from the nineteenth century will be the most famous in another century’s time? Napoleon? Hegel? Marx? (Shelley’s Ozymandias?) Time not only ravages but provides the supreme test.

1  R. Gottlieb, Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt (New Haven, 2010).

R.P. Heitzenrater, ‘John Wesley’s Principles and Practice of Preaching’, Methodist History, 37 (1999), p. 106. See also R. Hattersley, A Brand from the Burning: The Life of John Wesley (London, 2002).

3  W. Lamont, Last Witnesses: The Muggletonian History, 1652-1979 (Aldershot, 2006); C. Hill, B. Reay and W. Lamont, The World of the Muggletonians (London, 1983); E.P. Thompson, Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge, 1993).

G.W.F. Hegel to F.I. Neithammer, 13 Oct. 1806, in C. Butler (ed.), The Letters: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831 (Bloomington, 1984); also transcribed in www.Marxists.org, 2005.

See http://napoleon-monuments.eu/Napoleon1er.

6  P.B. Shelley (1792-1822), Ozymandias (1818).

For debates over the language or communication system in the ancient Indus Valley culture, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/

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