By Brett Steven Abelman, Dramaturg
You might have it in your mind that King Lear is a big, difficult play, a challenge or a chore to attend and understand. But the basic story of Lear is as elemental and easy to relate to as any ever told, by Shakespeare or anyone else. It is not as violent as Macbeth, as philosophical as Hamlet, as torrid as Othello, or as adolescent as Romeo and Juliet. Anywhere there is family and age, inheritance and regret, King Lear can go.
It makes sense to think of the play’s web of betrayals not as political maneuverings amongst nobility, but rather as the problems of two unhappy families. The fact that Lear is a king might make him seem distant to us, but the fact that he is a father approaching his retirement brings him much closer.
It’s a familiar failing that he demands his daughters prove their love to gain a portion of their inheritance, and so a pity that, when youngest daughter Cordelia fails to flatter him, he disowns her only to be left out in the cold by his more flattering elder daughters. Meanwhile, Lear’s friend Gloucester is betrayed by his bastard son Edmund, who convinces him to cast out his kindhearted son Edgar. In the end, both fathers see the error of their ways, and die at the sides of their beloved children.
This simple plot has proven quite adaptable across pop culture through the centuries. And in every adaptation, the tale which seems so lofty to us now – even though it was quite familiar in the Bard’s time – is made all the more familiar for us.
It’s worth remembering that “familiar” and “family” have the same root; and each version of Lear comes down to one question: “who is the family?” The basic myth can be traced back to folk tales, those most homely of stories. Tales abound of kings who cast out a youngest daughter because she has failed to offer an over-the-top declaration of love. As you might expect with a fairy tale, these stories often have happy endings, with a reunion of the royal family, in contrast with Shakespeare’s tragedy.
By the late 19th century, when the power of royalty had waned, adaptations of Lear began to appear that placed the story in new settings more familiar to the audiences of the time. One such work was The Yiddish King Lear, written by Jacob Gordin, which became a seminal production in the history of New York’s Yiddish theatre. He chose as his Lear figure a wealthy Jewish man, and replaced the daughters with sons-in-law of varying Jewish practice.
Novelist Jerome Weidman took a more roundabout approach to Lear in his midcentury novel I’ll Never Go There Anymore. He tied in Shakespeare’s subplot of good son Edgar’s betrayal by Edmund, making those characters the same children who the patriarch depends upon. The novel led to a series of film adaptations and re-adaptations, locating all sorts of families for the Lear-derived plot. House of Strangers, in 1949, may have been the first of this kind to use the criminal underworld as its setting, with a crooked banker as the ‘King’ and the good son an honest lawyer.
The next film adaptation, 1954’s Broken Lance, turned to the Old West, with a powerful rancher as its Lear. Two years later, Weidman himself re-adapted the tale for television, this time with the crystal-clear title The Last Patriarch. And finally, in perhaps the most unexpected version, there was 1961’s The Big Show, in which the patriarch was now a circus owner whose sons take his entertainment business from him. This Lear dies tragically like Shakespeare’s, but in a scene more reminiscent of the death of Gloucester: Despite his age, he vainly attempts to fly the trapeze again, fails to catch his son in the air, and then falls into the net, dead from seeming heartbreak.
Perhaps the most famous of all the Lear adaptations is Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1985 film Ran, which among other changes makes Gloucester’s family and Lear’s family related by marriage. Unlike the previous films, which found modern settings to make the story more familiar, this version is set in 16th-century feudal Japan. Of course, when Shakespeare wrote his play around 1603-1606, the world he was depicting was a Britain of centuries before. In both cases, the historical setting spoke to its contemporary audience.
New envisionings of the Lear story have continued to appear through recent years. The 1990 film Where the Heart Is found comedy in the tale by having the patriarch, a businessman, kick out all of his children, forcing them to live together in a packed house. Jane Smiley relocated the tale to an Iowa farm in her Pulitzer-winning A Thousand Acres (also adapted to film). Smiley flipped the story by focusing on the older daughters, who in her complex, feminist version have very good reasons to turn against their father. With plot points such as the Cordelia character pursuing a law career and the decline of the Midwestern family farm, the tale was brought fully into the 90s.
Also finding another angle for us to understand the Lear story was Christopher Moore, recently, in 2009, with his novel Fool, focused on the title character who accompanies Lear throughout Shakespeare’s drama. And so on: The Lear figure was again a criminal in 2001’s My Kingdom, and once again a rancher in the 2002 TV movie King of Texas.
But it was only two years ago that perhaps the most prominent adaptation of Lear debuted. The still-running TV show Empire – in the top 10 ratings nationwide every season thus far – has explicitly based its plot on Lear, according to its co-creator Danny Strong. Taking place in the music business, with the Lear figure a former drug dealer who has made good in the entertainment world, it continues to bring the ancient tale to modern audiences.
Through all these reshapings, Lear has retained the themes that Shakespeare illuminated with his celebrated verse. Parents and children estranged, the decline of age, unappreciated loyalty and love, the desire for recognition and the desire for a legacy: from kings to clowns to criminals, families of every kind have wrestled with these everyday struggles. This coming May and June, Avant Bard leaps into this tradition of the familiar King Lear with our own version of the Bard’s story, featuring Rick Foucheux in his final acting role.
We’ll be changing Gloucester from a father to a mother, with Cam Magee helping us see that this is a story of parenthood, not just fatherhood. And we’ll be bringing in many members of the Avant Bard family, including Artistic Director Emeritus Christopher Henley (as the Fool) and company members Sara Barker (as Edgar) and Frank Britton (as Cornwall). We sincerely hope to bring this universal story to a new light, for a new audience.
Brett Steven Abelman is a DC-native creator of stories. He is a proud producing playwright with The Welders. Recent projects include co-creating Play Cupid and Balloon Plays at Capital Fringe Festivals. Brett also reviews at DC Theatre Scene and sometimes blogs at babelwright.wordpress.com.
Avant Bard’s King Lear starring Rick Foucheux as Lear plays May 25 to June 25, 2017, at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA 22206. Tickets are available online or by calling 703-418-4808.