In the spring of 2007, Gardner-Webb University Theater mounted a daring postmodern deconstruction of Shakespeare’s play King Lear entitled LEAR ReLoaded, written and directed by Scot Lahaie.
This retelling of the King Lear myth explores the weak dualities of god/man and blessing/cursing in order to underline the medieval mindset of the original work and reposition the narrative as a post-modern dramatic event. Although the play is a derivative work, it preserves much of the Bard’s original language.
An Introductory Essay
According to Wikipedia, “deconstruction is a term in contemporary philosophy and social sciences, denoting a process by which the texts and languages of Western philosophy (in particular) appear to shift and complicate in meaning, when read in light of the assumptions they suggest about and absences they reveal within themselves.”
In a performance context, deconstruction is a postmodern tool employed by theater people to ferret out the unspoken underlying assumptions of a work of art, as well as point up certain underlying assumptions about literature, reality, philosophy, and worldview. It is also a critique upon the modernist assumption that a work of art can be unified at all, a claim made by the modernist of the early 20th century. In a story dominated by the masculine, for example, the absence of the feminine is often overlooked. In a deconstructive analysis, however, the work of the critic in this instance is to dethrone the masculine from its place of dominance at the center of the story, drawing attention to the overlooked or marginalized other with the hope of striking a balance between the duality. In many ways, this is taking a work apart to discover its structure and thereby see how it works. Unlike philosophical or literary deconstructions, however, the theatrical deconstruction has to be performed. This implies a need to reassemble the parts in a new order, discarding some pieces, and adding new materials to complete the process, all for the purpose of telling the story from a different advantage point.
In our production of LEAR ReLoaded, a deconstruction of Shakespeare’s play King Lear, we have chosen to play up the original medieval mindset of the play, which has often been overlooked in contemporary productions of Shakespeare’s original work. We have done this by emphasizing the dualities of cursing/blessing and spirit/material. This has brought a strong Christian worldview into focus, which has been very rewarding for us as Christian artists.
A deconstructive analysis begins with a search for weak dualities (meaning the second half of the duality is poorly represented or absent). In King Lear there are many dualities present, such as Male/Female, Old/Young, Greed/Generosity, King/Servant, Wise/Foolish, Seeing/Blind, to name a few. These are, however, strong dualities, meaning that both halves are strongly represented in the play.
What drew my interest most strongly during my study of the play were the weak dualities of Cursing/Blessing (blessing being absent) and Spirit/Flesh (spirit being strangely absent).
We see the King curse his daughters and his closest associates. At the end of the play, the majority of these people are dead. His blessings are completely absent from the play. In a modernist or rationalist viewpoint, a curse is understood as words meanly spoken with the intent to cause psychological harm. In short, King Lear is just a grumpy old man with a bad temper and a mean disposition. But this modern reading of Lear undercuts the medieval mindset of the play (the play is set in pre-Arthurian Britain.) In such a framework, the King’s curse spoken in the name of a god (Apollo, Jove, Jupiter, et al) was expected to unfold with power as the gods worked together with the powerful ruler to execute his will. Similar expectations were placed upon blessings, which can be seen in the biblical example of Balaam blessing the Israelites, and when Isaac mistakenly blesses Jacob instead of Esau. Concerning the duality of Spirit/Flesh (or even god/man and heavenly/earthly), we hear the King regularly call upon the gods to fulfill his curses, but we do not see them. Indeed, for all the talk about gods in the show, there is a strange absence of things spiritual. Death is discussed mostly in terms of ending this earthly journey, but not in terms of heavenly punishment or reward. Priests, clerics, or chaplains do not appear. Religious rites, festivals, and temples are all non- existent. Such a strong absence of the spirit (or even religion or heaven) has further reinforced the rational mindset concerning the king’s curses.
The deconstructive analysis continues with a need to reinvent or reinterpret the hierarchy of the play, and thereby recognizing rebel voices and challenging the authority of the “one voice.” In our production, we have chosen to strengthen these weak dualities by adding a “chorus of gods” to the play to give voice to the missing spirit half of the duality. This choice supports the notion that curses are spiritual, prophetic acts, and not just mean words spoken by a grumpy old man, which turns the rationalist interpretation of modernism on its ear. We refer to our chorus of gods as “the people of the fog,” a choice that arises from Lear’s curse on his daughter: “Infect her beauty, you fen-suck fogs drawn by the powerful sun to fall and blister.”
A Deconstruction often denies the plot, which is an odd notion since Aristotle tells us that plot is the most important of the six elements of drama (plot, character, theme, diction, music, and spectacle). And yet, it is the hallmark of many postmodern theater events. In an attempt to challenge how a tragic narrative works, we have chosen to employ an ironic narrative (which may at times be mistaken for comedy in this context) to tell the story. This allows us to spotlight the excesses of the play so strongly that things which previously seemed regal now appear absurd. In the final wash, we are telling this story through theme instead of a grand plot. What elements of plot are found in LEAR ReLoaded are recursive and ironic, often not related in action to the original play.
The ultimate goal of a deconstructive analysis is to resituate the story to find a new perspective, one that resituates the play to defy its dualisms, marginalized voices, or singular rationalist viewpoint. To do this, we must “reauthor” the story, allowing the play’s hierarchy to be resituated (with centers) and a new balance of views to be attained. We believe we have accomplished this task and created an exciting piece of theater in the process. In a nutshell, we have extracted all of Lear’s curses from the play and presented them consecutively in the first act of the play. In a like manner, we have extracted all the deaths in the play and presented them consecutively in the last act of the play. This draws a direct connection between these events. The second act is an ironic retelling of the inciting incident (Lear dividing his kingdom), while for the third act we have extracted all the scenes of insanity from the script and perform them collectively.
–Scot Lahaie – 2007