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BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company, award winning actor and writer, John Lithgow as King Lear.

JOHN LITHGOW: This is an interesting moment. I just entered into that window where you can play Lear. When you're old enough to play him, and you're young enough to play him. 'Cause you have to have the strength to play the part, and yet you have to have some sense of impending old age.

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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. And welcome to my guest, King Lear. King Lear, that is, as portrayed by the actor, John Lithgow, who grew the beard for the role and has been frightening our neighbors here in New York City merely by walking down the street at twilight's last gleaming, headed to Central Park, where under the stars, he storms and stalks and strides the stage as Shakespeare's aging, raging old tyrant, descending into dementia, at war with time, his daughters, and himself.

There is no more difficult role in the theater, and no play more relevant to the moment, anytime and anywhere it's performed. With all the carnage and violence around us in the world, King Lear mirrors the folly of reckless leadership, the arrogance of power, and the depth of human anguish.

KING LEAR as portrayed by JOHN LITHGOW: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks! You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts, Singe my white head!

BILL MOYERS: The artistic director of New York's Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, says the current revival of interest in Lear comes perhaps, because “...the possibility of genuine chaos, real cannibalizing barbarism, is closer to the surface than we can possibly imagine.” And he asks: Could the popularity of Lear “… be the high-culture analog to the popularity of ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Walking Dead’ on television?”

I'll put that question to King Lear himself. My friend and neighbor John Lithgow. He is a constant and notable presence on stage, television and in the movies, a two-time Oscar nominee, multiple Tony and Emmy winner, the author of books for kids, a memoir about acting, and editor of a collection of poetry. His delightful and moving new film, “Love is Strange,” opens August 22nd. John, Welcome.

JOHN LITHGOW: Thank you, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: Looking every inch the king.

JOHN LITHGOW: Yes, yes, I have my King Lear beard for you today.

BILL MOYERS: So what do you think? Why is there such interest again in him? Is he our contemporary?

JOHN LITHGOW: I think you're quite right. I mean, I find the process of reading the front page of "The New York Times" every day deeply unsettling. I've almost stopped doing it, it's so upsetting.

And I get on stage and speak those lines. I mean, to me, the most pointed line in the whole play is, "I have ta'en too little care of this." You know, we live fairly comfortable lives. And every day you're reminded of the astonishing misery in the rest of the world.

BILL MOYERS: Are you aware that you, Lear, are speaking to our times?

JOHN LITHGOW: It speaks to all times. I mean, it's a play about big, big elemental things. Growing old, losing your viability, losing your mind, terrible disruptions and dysfunction between family members.

Bringing down devastation on your own life by your own folly and your own bad mistakes and your own vanity. These are all huge ideas and they always resonate. They resonated for Shakespeare, which is why he wrote it. I don't think there is a play which is so nakedly painful. It's just-- in his late scenes, when he says, "Howl," imagine a line that is four words: "Howl, howl, howl, howl!" There was-- there's never been such a gut-wrenching cry of anguish.

Chaos has descended on this poor man and has spread out to his whole world. And it's almost a ritual that Shakespeare takes us through showing us devastation and then restoring order and giving us hope. I mean, otherwise, it's just you can't bear the hopelessness, unless there is some sort of redemption.

BILL MOYERS: Where do you find hope in Lear?

JOHN LITHGOW: He has learned his own folly. He's regained his love for his daughter Cordelia.

BILL MOYERS: Whom he had disinherited--

JOHN LITHGOW: Disinherit--

BILL MOYERS: --early in the first act.

JOHN LITHGOW: And turned on her savagely for the most petulant and vain reasons. He's learned all about himself. Even as he's lost his mind, he's gained a sense of himself. That I think is the story that Shakespeare's telling. When we talk about Lear, where it fits in our time we are in a very strange moment. I look around and I, you know, 50 percent of the big-budget entertainment you are seeing these days is dystopian.

This is the era of "Hunger Games" and blasted landscapes and "Walking Dead." The zombie is the new, sort of, archetype of our times. Like, the avatar of our time is a zombie. I mean, how horrific is that? And somehow or other we've entered-- we've internalized that. We've made that our entertainment.

I think one thing that's drawing people to King Lear these days: Shakespeare is a great philosopher. He puts some sort of order into our-- lends some order to our chaotic thinking. And I think that's what, that's why everybody's flocking to Lear as they have for three or four productions in the last year.

BILL MOYERS: There are no seats at the performances.

JOHN LITHGOW: No, you can't get in.

It's very interesting. I mean, one thing, the most gratifying thing that everybody is telling us was they come back after seeing this show is they talk about the clarity of our production. They keep using the word, it's so clear. They say, "I feel like I'm hearing those words for the first time."

There is, I will tell you, a wonderful sort of sausage-making story from rehearsal. There's a beautiful scene and speech by King Lear which every actor loves 'cause it's so beautiful. And it's so, kind of, tremulous with sentiment. When Lear says to Cordelia, "No, no! … let's away to prison: We two will sing like birds [in a] cage: When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down, and ask of thee forgiveness: [And] so we'll live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh at gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too, who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out; and take upon's the mystery of things, as if we were God's spies…"

Now every actor loves to speak that speech. And as rehearsals went by, I was doing it in my best feel-goodian, plummy style. And Dan Sullivan, our fantastic director, he approached me as rehearsal began one morning and said, "You know, I was thinking about this scene last night. Lear is still crazy, you know?" And it was a transformative moment. The scene suddenly became very ironic, deeply painful. You saw Lear through Cordelia's eyes. She's lost him. And this is still-- he's so relieved and happy to have her back again. And to have her forgiveness. But he's still unmoored.

So the speech is, "No, no! … let's away to prison," you and I, "we two alone will sing like birds" i' the cage: When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down, and ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tale--" You know, he's mad. This-- it's mad to think you're going to have a beautiful, happy forgiven life inside prison walls alone with your daughter.

BILL MOYERS: What's so interesting about that is that when you were growing up, your father directed Shakespearian festivals in Ohio and you told me once that when you were a child, Shakespeare just washed over you like a warm bath.

JOHN LITHGOW: Uh-huh.

BILL MOYERS: And yet here you are, having become this figure, one of the most egomaniacal, one of the most vengeful men in literature. It's hard for me to understand how, even with a great actor, how you become something you really aren’t.

JOHN LITHGOW: Well, first of all, I feel very protective of King Lear. You just talked very harshly about him. I'm very forgiving of him because I do believe even as the play begins, he's already lost something. He's already in serious trouble. Age has happened to him. And my heart goes out to him. So I don't think of him as an egomaniacal, tyrannical monster. He's a man with deep flaws, of course.

But there again, and with Dan Sullivan's guidance, you do get a sense of what a beloved man he has been. What a big heart he has. On his very first entrance, you see him as someone whom everybody loved, who just makes a horrendous mistake. He becomes victimized by his own vanity. I love that particular duality. I love any role in which a character turns out not to be what you expected him to be.

To me, all the great drama comes from good people doing bad things and bad people doing good things. The contradictions in all of us. A beautiful line from Hamlet, "I am myself indifferent honest; [and] yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had [never] borne me."

This is why Shakespeare's is arguably the greatest playwright, is he just had this perception of people that we are all flawed. There's goodness in all of us and there's badness in all of us. And the intermingling, the conflict between those two is where drama comes in.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, yeah. I was watching that first act as a spectator, and then I suddenly became a father, because, when watching it, because when he does this senseless thing, he's gel-- he thinks he's been insulted because Cordelia won't say how much she loves him.

KING LEAR: What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

CORDELIA as portrayed by Jessica Collins: Nothing, my lord.

KING LEAR: Nothing!

CORDELIA: Nothing.

KING LEAR: Nothing will come of nothing.

BILL MOYERS: And he--

JOHN LITHGOW: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: --flits her. When you wonder how many times have you as a father broken the heart of somebody who loves you but can't tell you?

JOHN LITHGOW: Oh, I think parenthood is so complicated. I've made such mistakes as a parent. I have so many regrets. And I'm, you know, I'm a good enough father.

BILL MOYERS: Right.

JOHN LITHGOW: But yeah, I mean, it's-- he makes two mistakes. He rejects Cordelia out of hand for being honest. And he embraces Goneril and Regan for being hypocritical.

BILL MOYERS: His other two--

JOHN LITHGOW: You know?

BILL MOYERS: --daughters. Yeah.

JOHN LITHGOW: Yeah. And he only discovers later that they haven't exactly lied to him. I want to be fair to them too, as in, in fact, I think Shakespeare is. But he has entered that stage in his life when he's misperceiving things. And he has to go through this agonizing process of gaining self-knowledge.

BILL MOYERS: The moment I always remember about King Lear is when he's when the king is on the heath with Gloucester and Gloucester's blind and Lear says nonetheless, you see the world. And Gloucester says, "I see it feelingly."

JOHN LITHGOW: And Lear says, "What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears." I could go on of course.

BILL MOYERS: But--

JOHN LITHGOW: But, "I see it feelingly," is another beautiful Shakespearean line.

BILL MOYERS: And I wonder why does it take the blind to see the truth?

JOHN LITHGOW: Well, that's a wonderful theme running all through the play. There are many, many references to early on his first rage at Goneril he says, "Old fond eyes beweep this cause again, I'll pluck ye out and cast you, with the water that you lose to temper clay." If you listen carefully, you'll hear eyes and sight and seeing and seeing feelingly and needing no eyes to see the truth. That is, in a sense, Lear himself begins to see things in a way that has nothing to do with actual sight. It's perception.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think he changes as a character--

JOHN LITHGOW: Oh--

BILL MOYERS: --through the story?

JOHN LITHGOW: Oh, vastly. The interesting thing is, he becomes more and more out of touch. He becomes madder. You see someone gradually going mad and his madness takes many forms. Early on, it's the madness of sheer anger, irrational anger. When he gets out onto that heath and he sees poor Tom, the naked beggar, in my mind, it's like an electric jolt sort of takes him into a new kind of madness.

When he says, "Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume… here's three on's are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare forked animal as thou art."

And he immediately starts to rip off all of his clothes. "Off, off, you lendings! come unbutton here." That's another stage of his madness, at which point he thinks even the clothes we wear are a lie. We're covering something up with them.

I'm going to be naked. I'm going to face nature as a natural man. I'm going to reject everything that smacks of deceit and hypocrisy. This is madness. But it's also perception. It's also truth that he never had access to before. And that's the profundity of the play.

BILL MOYERS: On your “New York Times” blog, which is a rich source of your own personal insight as well as to understandings of the play, I read this message you got from a fan in Denver. And he says, "I wish you had quoted the ensuing lines which remain so appallingly timely: “Take physic, pomp.'" You do it. I can't.

JOHN LITHGOW: "Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are, that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, how shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you from seasons such as these? … I have ta'en too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, that thou mayst shake the superflux to them, and show the heavens more just." And at just that moment, poor Tom emerges from the hovel. And Lear snaps. He goes a lot madder than he already is. And he begins to see the world with a kind of blinding clarity in madness.

That is the moment where Lear suddenly feels the suffering of the poor. That's his moment of perceiving the horrors of inequality, to wrench us into a very contemporary debate. Lear suddenly sees the difference between a king and a beggar, and sees the injustice of that.

BILL MOYERS: And isn't there a sense of awareness on his part that-- that he's ruled this kingdom without really regard for those he could not see, or for whom--

JOHN LITHGOW: Of course--

BILL MOYERS: --he could not feel.

JOHN LITHGOW: Precisely.

BILL MOYERS: Which to wrench it , as you say, in contemporary terms often strikes me as the prevailing ethos of Washington. I don't want to be political at this. So but your friend in Denver gets it. Your fan in Denver gets it. He says, "From the Rio Grande to Detroit, and from Gaza to the Ganges…lines to ponder just now."

JOHN LITHGOW: Yeah. He--

BILL MOYERS: He gets it.

JOHN LITHGOW: He gets it. And I feel very lucky to be in a play that is provoking that kind of a response.

BILL MOYERS: There's this very lively discussion going on in London as we speak about whether Lear is the embodiment of age-related dementia, the very phenomenon that we moderns are struggling with in the 21st century never before, as never before.

The implications of long life, the shame, the embarrassment, the anger of helplessness, as you know, Alzheimer's is a wrecking ball. Now this could be our inevitable instinct to read into Shakespeare what we want to see there as opposed to what he intended there. But there is this moment in the play when Lear cries out, "Who is it that can tell me who I am?"

JOHN LITHGOW: Uh-huh.

BILL MOYERS: And I remember that in my mother, I remember that in others. Loved-- people we loved who made this passage. Does this comes to you as you perform?

JOHN LITHGOW: Oh yes. I mean, all of us who've gone past the age of 60, we've seen our parents grow old, if we're lucky, if we haven't lost them young. And, you see them lose capacities. And it's extraordinarily painful. I think Shakespeare's depiction of dementia in the very latest, one of his last scenes, when he recognizes Cordelia.

KING LEAR: I fear I am not in my perfect mind. Methinks I should know you, and know this man; Yet I am doubtful for I am mainly ignorant What place this is; and all [my skills] Remembers not these garments; nor I know not Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me; For, as I am a man, I think this lady To be my child Cordelia.

CORDELIA: And so I am, I am.

JOHN LITHGOW: Now, that is an exquisite portrait of an old man struggling with dementia, thinking he knows his own daughter. I mean, what an amazing piece of playwriting 400 years ago. I mean, Shakespeare surely saw demented old men and women struggling to make sense of the world. And he just portrays it so accurately.

BILL MOYERS: Do you fear the withering of your powers?

JOHN LITHGOW: Of course. You try to learn this part.

BILL MOYERS: No, no, thanks. There's a line I won't cross. But it--

JOHN LITHGOW: 11:48:49;26 No, it's, you know, it's an-- this is an interesting moment. I’ve just entered into that window where you can play Lear when you're old enough to play him and you're young enough to play him. 'Cause you have to have the strength to play the part and yet you have to have some sense of impending old age.

BILL MOYERS: Were you circling Lear all these years?

JOHN LITHGOW: I always thought about Lear because you're always asked, "Is there some role that you want to eventually play?" And the only answer I ever had to that was King Lear, which is the obvious. It's kind of the big Mount Everest role. So I've thought about it. And it's, you know, you can't read those speeches without being enormously moved and just wanting to play that part.

I've rarely been in a play where I've been so eager to get on to the next scene. One scene ends and I think, now I get to do that. You know, it's great. I think the most sublime scene is that one that I quoted to you of him recognizing Cordelia. I really can't think of another thing onstage which is as deeply moving as that. And it affects me every single night.

BILL MOYERS: John, King Lear, thank you for being with me.

JOHN LITHGOW: Such a pleasure, Bill, as always.

BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, John Lithgow on his new film “Love is Strange,” and more of our conversation about Shakespeare and King Lear.

That's at Billmoyers.com. I’ll see you there and see you here next time.

Watch By Segment

  • Web Extra: John Lithgow

    John Lithgow joins Bill to talk about the challenges and triumphs of playing Shakespeare’s greatest role, and why we are so drawn to the tale of this flawed, contradictory leader at this moment.

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    Web Extra: John Lithgow
  • Clip: John Lithgow on Love Is Strange

    John Lithgow joins Bill to talk about the challenges and triumphs of playing Shakespeare’s greatest role, and why we are so drawn to the tale of this flawed, contradictory leader at this moment.

    loveisstrangeLEGITcropped
    Clip: John Lithgow on Love Is Strange

Full Show: John Lithgow, ‘King Lear’ and Our Uncertain World

August 1, 2014

As violent, disturbing images on the front pages confront us daily, reminders of the uncertain times we live in, we’re surrounded by productions of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the story of an elderly monarch losing strength and sanity, seeking order in chaos.

Why are we so drawn these days to the tale of Lear and his dysfunctional family? John Lithgow, the award-winning actor and writer is playing him right now in The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production. This week he talks to Bill about what it’s like to perform the monumental role and its significance in a time of so much unrest.

“When we talk about King Lear, where he fits in our time, we are in a very strange moment. I look around and 50 percent of the big-budget entertainment you are seeing these days is dystopian,” Lithgow tells Moyers. “This is the era of Hunger Games and blasted landscapes and The Walking Dead. The zombie is the new, sort of, archetype of our times.”

After the broadcast interview ended Bill also talked to Lithgow about the new film he stars in, Love is Strange, about a newly married gay couple who are forced to live apart.

Interview Producer: Gail Ablow. Interview Editor: Rob Kuhns. Intro Producer: Lena Shemel. Intro Editor: Sikay Tang

All performance images of John Lithgow as King Lear are courtesy of The Public Theater Free Shakespeare in the Park.

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  • Gato Pardo

    He seems to play the most difficult roles with so much ease…….

  • Barry in Melville

    Bravo.
    Thank you for a bona fide discussion about ideas.
    Founded on respect, trust and genuine interest in each other’s thoughts and points of view – and, most of all, their innermost feelings.
    Bravo.

    [Note to Arthur Brooks et al: if you really want to get some insight into what "compassion" is all about, watch this program ... they didn't even have to mention the word.]

  • Robert L

    John Lithgow is the actor’s actor.

  • Anonymous

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  • Anonymous

    Two of my favorite men talking about one of my favorite plays with insight, depth and compassion. The play’s the thing.

  • Anonymous

    While I enjoyed the depth of this discussion I found myself wanting to hear more insight about the public’s incessent need for dystopia entertainment, why that is and what it means in a larger context.

  • Peter Evans

    Please get back to the more urgent stories that require your immediate attention. Leave these discussions to Charlie Rose.

  • Davideros

    Wilde said the problem with socialism is too many evenings. I’d argue that it’s a lack of a sense of humor or any appreciation of how the arts both guide and mirror our lives and crises. There is time needed to consider the bigger picture and how it relates to the urgent stories of the world. The discussion of Lear did precisely that.

  • Peter Evans

    Those of us from the country of Shakespeare and socialism often get an opportunity to have a good laugh at pretentiousness. I wrote two sentences and the morons pounce. As a muralist by profession at kandpinteriors here in Houston I might know a little about art and what it can do. The point was simple. Charlie Rose does this so much better within a daily show. We need the once a week half hour show of Bills to concentrate on real world stories and how they affect us all.

  • MikeD

    Your point is well taken. I still have not recovered from the switch to the half-hour format. So much to cover, so little time…

    But so is the response. We can be so mesmerized by the players that we lose sight of the stage. The in-depth probing we have here provides context to the “sound and fury” of passing events.

    What is happening today might have been mentioned in passing, but every reference to Lear had some bearing on our times.

  • JonThomas

    And here’s the thing…

    We… that is to say… you, I, everyone… don’t really need to have people tell us what to think. Please, I would enjoy your insights.

    The show offered an opportunity for the discussion, I’m sure if you began, others may contribute.

    The internet now offers us a chance to mature… from voyeurs, to participants. For 60 years, an entire lifetime, people have experienced a world wherein only those selected by television producers had a say over what, and who, made up the content of public discourse.

    Do you think those people who have had control over access to the media have brought us to a good place?

    It’s time to say… “Thank you, but I too have something to say. And just because I didn’t act in a movie, write a book, or buy a political office, doesn’t mean I have any less a valuable opinion!”

    We do like to hear from actors like Mr. Lithgow. For one thing, such personalities as his own possess an experienced, practiced art of expression. That has value. But my dear doggirl, you too have things to say.

    Just by your comment you expressed your interest. I for one would like to hear your view.

    Just my own little-valued opinion might conjecture… perhaps people are so close to the edge of security and stability, along with governments showing little ability to offer solutions to problems, and public figures who are little more than demagogues, the ‘leap’ to imagining such dystopian reality is little more than a stumble.

    When the news consists of what some person who is famous for nothing more than being famous is eating for dinner, and what is reported as hard news is actually articles which are really corporate advertisements, is it really surprising to anyone that people’s imaginations are of blighted landscapes and roaming marauders? That is in fact the metaphor of what I just described in the news.

    Your turn. :-)

  • Anonymous

    There are too many people disengaged from reality–what is going on in the world and how it affects all of us. The technology encourages people ,actually seduces them and people are addicted to this particular app and that particular form of entertainment. We are anesthnetized to the pain and violence in the world because it is so overwhleming and uncomfortable to empathize. We are over saturated with the headlines and they become more and more abstract since we are in our own homes, on our computers and far from the maddening crowd. The dystopia entertainment that we are pulled into gives us some kind of a thrill perhaps a way to experience all the pain and suffering around us in a virtual manner–distanced from the real pain and suffering that exists. It gives us temproary relief and satisfaction because our own little world is comfortable and we are free from the real life scenarios–the babies who are blown up, the blood and guts running in the streets (asin the Mid East.) The entertainment (Zombies and reality shows) gives us excitement and stimulates us because as Thoreau told us we really all live lives of quiet desperation and we don’t want to think too hard about that.

  • Davideros

    “The morons pounce?” None of the replies to your comment strike me as that. But your use of the word “moronic” speaks volumes. Please paint.

  • JonThomas

    Interesting. I don’t disagree. I also think, just from a pragmatic perspective, that people are having such a difficult time living in this world as it is, that they actually long for something ‘simpler.’

    It really doesn’t matter what the supposed cause for the societal breakdown might be (zombies, disease, war, Rodents Of Unusual Size…,) what is glomming audiences’ imaginations is the simplicity of those potential worlds.

    Find a safe place to make camp, wake up, find food, avoid dangers, is the obstacle a threat or a help, and most of the problems you encounter are affected by your own decisions.

    As I said, these are simplistic imaginings, but that is exactly what people are looking for… simplicity. They/we want escape from a world that, more and more, is taking them/us outside of their/our ability to affect change and potentiality.

    People recognize that voting doesn’t seem to be helping. Their districts are gerrymandered, both of the ‘viable’ parties (at this time) aren’t acting in the voters interests, corporate and private money has more say in government than individual voice, and what is fed through the media is parsed, refined, and shallow.

    People are, in effect, divorced from their environments. Dystopian entertainment allows the viewer to follow along, and as the characters face the challenges, the audience has the opportunity to imagine what they might do if faced with that situation.

    It’s role playing and simplicity of living at its finest.

  • Anonymous

    There is also something called “compassion fatigue” that shuts people down because they cannot process the violence, blood, death that is on all of our technology, in the news and videos. They cannot feel compassion anymore because they have been so saturated with the images of violence their brains shut it down. I am concerned about that effect because it seems to result in more of the conditions we are talking about. And is there now a correlation between lack of empathy/compassion and the additive persona that comes out with all the technology devices consumerism, gaming, etc…

  • Anonymous

    The four decade tightening of the economic vise on workers has destroyed the American dream for themselves and for their children. Lack of economic support undermines all of our societal institutions with the exception of the church promising a better life in the hereafter. The patina of civilization falls away and we are left with our 100,000 year-old instinctual, tribal roots so powerfully described in the book “Us Against Them” by Bruce Rozenblit.

  • Anonymous

    There is an element of tribalism in what I am describing. The book sounds like a good read. Thanks.