restricted access IV. Acting and Feeling:Histrionic Imagery in King Lear
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IV. Acting and Feeling: Histrionic Imagery in King Lear ι So FAR in this book, when discussing howShakespeare writes for actors, I have tended to concentrate on the acting diffi­ culties presented by the text, and moved directly from them to the dramaticeffects which occur when they are successfully mastered. I have said little about the intervening process, by which the actor overcomes the difficulties. One might think of this as irrelevant to the playwright's art, as having simply to do with the performer's technique and talent. But the art of the playwright consists in making the exercise of that tech­ nique and talent possible—and valuable. Confronted with act­ ing problems in a text, we are entitled to ask (i) what specific means does the text provide to enable the actor to solve its problems, and (z) howdo thesemeans contributeto the action and meaning of the play? In this essay, I want to approach King Lear by focussing on the tools Shakespeare gives his leading player for solving some especially daunting problems in the title role.To dothis, I shall look extensively at the role in terms of what might be called its histrionic imagery. What I have in mind when I use this phrase are various motifs of enactment Shakespeare has built into the part: mental, physical, and emotional move­ ments the actor is called upon to make that are particularly related tohis basic work of sustainingthe partin performance. Let me give an example of what I mean. The first problem that confronts an actor who wants to play Lear is gross and obvious. The part makes staggering emotional demands on King Lear the performer. The actor is required to portray a quick-tem­ pered, eighty-year-old, absolute tyrant, who five minutes into his first scene bursts into the greatest rage of his life at Cor­ delia. Two brief scenes later he bursts into a greater rage at Goneril and carries on with increasing intensity for nearly a hundred lines. Next he gets really angry at Regan; while he is raging at her, Goneril appears and he gets angrier. His fury and outrage mount wildly until the end of the scene, at which point he goes mad. This of course is only the beginning. Three long scenes of madness still lie ahead during which, among other things, the actor has to outshout a storm. After these scenes on the heath come alternations of hallucination and murderous rage in the scene with Gloucester, the ecstatic joy of reunion with Cordelia, yetanother reversal of fortune when the old king and his daughter are captured by their enemies, and finally the anguish of Cordelia's death, a scene in which the actor is required to enter literally howling and to go on from there. "The wonder is," as Kent says, "he hath endured so long," and most actors don't. The actor who plays Lear must appear to reach an emo­ tional extreme at the start, and then go on to greater and greater extremes.The danger isthat he willsoon have nothing left—not so much that he will run out of voice or physical energy, but that he will lose the capacity for discriminating his emotional response, that he will be unable to render the emotions truthfully, with freshness and particularity, and will fall into shouting or scenery chewing or playing what actors call generalized emotion, that is, some sort of all-purpose posturing. If this happens, the actor will not only be doing a great injustice to the text, he will also in a matter of moments bore hisaudience irremediably. DoesShakespeare do anything to help the actor with this problem? Trained actors usually learn a variety of techniques for sus­ taining exact and vivid emotion in scenes of demanding in­ tensity. One technique is to focus on a particular object. If the actor feels in danger of losing an emotion or falsifying it, he may single out a button, say, or a chair, or an eyebrow King Lear and make it the recipient or evoker of his feeling. He may direct his emotion toward the object, or find his emotion by reacting to it. In King Lear Shakespeare has written this tech­ nique into the title role. Repeatedly, at moments of emotional intensity, Lear will focus closely on a specific point—on an area of the body and its sensation or on a small object that produces a bodily sensation. Hetakes a pin and pricks himself with...


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