Is ‘King Lear’ the Shakespeare Play for Our Times?

  • submit to reddit
King Lear
King Lear at the Delacorte Theater. (Photo: The Public Theater Free Shakespeare in the Park)

This week, Bill speaks to John Lithgow, who is playing the title character in the New York City Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In an essay introducing the production, the theater’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, wonders why the play is so popular right now.

Oskar Eustis
Director of the Public Theater
Photo: Aislinn Weidele
When I was a young man in the 1970s, everywhere I turned, another production of Hamlet sprung up. In those turbulent times, the story of a young man utterly convinced that the leaders of his country were lying, immoral murderers, who knew that they needed to be opposed, but who was utterly confused and ineffective in his efforts to oppose them – well, that story spoke to many of us. It was an age of Hamlet.

In recent years, King Lear seems to have dominated our stages – we’ve had a number in the last decade in New York alone. Why? Why, in our times, does this tragedy seem to hit a resonant chord? Could it be because it articulates some underlying anxiety that is characteristic of our moment? Perhaps the sense that the entire system that holds our moral universe in place is subject to the arbitrary decisions of old, fallible men, and that the possibility of genuine chaos, real cannibalizing barbarism, is closer to the surface than we can possibly imagine? Could the popularity of Lear, among those of us who care about Shakespeare, be the high-culture analog to the popularity of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead on television?

I don’t know. What I do know is that this play moves me like no other, that I quote it more than any other, that sitting at the death-bed of a loved one I think, “Is this the promised end?” more than any other phrase. Lear is powerful, painful (Samuel Johnson famously thought that it was impossible to perform the ending in a theater, that it was simply too dark to be watched, and the 19th century attempted to prove him right by creating a happy ending that feels as false to us as it was successful then) and brilliant. I am very, very happy to bring it back to the Delacorte after an absence of two generations.

  • submit to reddit