By LENNOX FARRELL
Can a play written five centuries ago define life today? Recently, Bill Moyers of WNED-TV interviewed John Lithgow. The latter won Academy Awards for his roles in The World According To Garp (1982) and Terms of Endearment (1983). A writer and seasoned Shakespearean stage actor, Lithgow was performing the lead role as king in Shakespeare’s King Lear at the time of the interview. Incidentally, on staging King Lear, Samuel Jackson said that being so dreadfully morose, it should be performed in theatres where there is more gloom and less light.
In pursuing the idea that this play is a magnifying glass enlarging the details of our times, Lithgow told Moyers: “This is the era of the blasted landscapes, (depicted in movies and television shows as) The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead.”
Films of betrayal, depression, and death – genres especially appealing to youth – these themes suckle at the nipples of hopelessness which infuse the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Possibly the father of situational ethics – in which the only absolute is anything relative – he said, “You have your way. I have my way. As to the right way…it does not exist.”
In The Hunger Games, a series of fight-to-the-death contests are set in a post-apocalyptic future of totalitarian control, terror and abject poverty. Here, the rulers force youngsters from different “districts” to compete in these nationally televised games, staged as entertainment and for intimidation.
Reflecting on Lithgow’s observations, one can see why King Lear, in his vanity, excess, need for senior care and dementia, brings into focus what is so self-evident about these challenges in 21st century leadership. In summary, the play as you recall is about dysfunctional families; rulers out of touch with the desperate realities in their domains; and with late-arrival transformations. The major irony is of an individual, once powerful, who impoverished finally gains sanity, even as he loses it.
In more detail, King Lear, deciding to retire, tests the love and loyalty of his three daughters: the older Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, the youngest. The latter chose to express her love for their father in simple, unembellished terms: “I love your majesty according to my bonds (as daughter), no more no less.”
The older two, pandering to their father’s enormous vanity, proclaim their love for him in overstatements: “Dearer than eye-sight, space and liberty; beyond what can be valued, rich or rare…”
Displeased with her, King Lear warns, “Cordelia, mend your speech, less it mar your fortunes.”
Steadfast, she replies, “Good my lord. You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I obey you, love you and most honour you…”
Enraged, he decrees, “Let it be so then, thy truth be thy dowry.”
He throws her out, penniless and desperate. She appeals to him, with her unadorned truthfulness. But, even in the presence of the visiting King of France, he tells her, “Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.”
Later, in short order, the other two sisters, Regan and Goneril, now in control of the kingdom, disgusted by “the infirmity of his age (and) the waywardness of infirm and choleric years that age bring with them”; and unwilling to care for him, kick him out. Now a pauper, losing his mind and grip on reality, he finally recognizes the deceit inherent in vanity. He also comes face to face with the extremes of the poverty affecting his subjects, especially set against his former excesses. Advised by a pauper, he now seeks order in the chaos around him. In his madness, he is sane enough to finally recognize – too late – what he earlier couldn’t: that Cordelia is his true daughter.
These themes of excess and dementia transferred to today’s global and national leadership, mirror those depicted in King Lear. For example, consider the excesses and impoverishments associated with staging over-budget spectacles as the Olympic Games, the Pan Am Games, the World Cup, etc. Billions are expended on new hotels, athletes’ villages and facilities, much of which have occurred in China and Russia, now house rats and bats. In Brazil, the World Cup, staged against the disgraceful backdrop of vast, crime-ridden favelas, further impoverish these slums of the desperate poor.
“Why are we so drawn these days to the tale of Lear and his dysfunctional family?” Moyers asked Lithgow. “What is it 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?”
Lithgow replied, “We are in a very strange moment (in which) 50 per cent of the big-budget entertainment you are seeing these days is dystopian.”
Likewise, in The Walking Dead, these are also the times when the zombies rule. Prowling everywhere in the normative arts, fashions, attitudes and behaviours, these openly advocate cannibalism. This movie is thereby a metaphor for the world in which the manufacturers of designer items we use consume the lives of child slaves. And, too, while in the “underdeveloped” Third World, one half of the world’s population dies of starvation, in the “developed” First World, the other half dies of gluttony. An irony compounded by the reality that most of the foods and goods consumed in the First World come from the lands and hands of the Third World starving.
Finally, are today’s only choices those between cannibalizing and being cannibalized? Or are there other choices between the hopeless depictions of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and the Biblical compassion of the Good Samaritan?
To be continued: Of zombies and neighbours – Part Two.