ORSON WELLES is “enourmosly impressive” in the Peter Brook production of Shakespeare’s KING LEAR now out on DVD
The Archive of American Television in partnership with E1 Entertainment has just released Orson Welles 1953 Television debut as King Lear in a deluxe DVD package. It is highly recommended, since although this historic TV show is still mastered from a kinescope copy, it looks far better than the blurry VHS copies that have long been in circulation.
The DVD also comes with over 90-minutes of bonus features, including:
* A 5-minute preview of King Lear, including rehearsal footage of the blinding of Glouster's eyes, along with interviews with director Peter Brook and composer Virgil Thompson. Peter Brook also shows us a series of drawings, (presumably rendered by production designer Henry May), which are much more detailed and elaborate then what eventually ended up in the production itself. See a excerpt on YouTube HERE.
* A discussion on staging Shakespeare by Walter Kerr, including scenes from Hamlet.
* A 43-minute report from the Yale University Shakespeare Festival in 1954 by Omnibus host Alastair Cooke.
* Dr. Frank Baxter on the Globe Theater, with Mr. Baxter explaining William Shakespeare’s famed theatre (10 minutes).
* A nicely designed 16-page booklet with rare photos taken during the performance, and a comprehensive background essay by Simon Callow, along with a short introduction from director Peter Brook, who relates his memories of working with Orson Welles.
Here is a review of King Lear that appeared in The New York Herald-Tribune:
ORSON WELLES AS KING LEAR ON TV IS IMPRESSIVE
By John Crosby
October 22, 1953 – The New York Herald Tribune
Orson Welles, a great ham of an actor, undertook the role of King Lear, a great ham of a part, on Omnibus last Sunday and was, I thought, enormously impressive. This was the great Orson’s television debut and it was a fortunate inspiration to cast him as Lear. No other part is big enough for Welles who suffers from gigantism of manner and mind.
Welles, whose five year sojourn abroad has added quite a lot of poundage to his face and the rest of him, was every inch a king, a phrase that came from Lear, and his voice, a redoubtable organ, was superb in declaiming some of the most sweeping poetry in all of Shakespeare.
I had never seen King Lear before. It isn’t done very often and when it is performed, is seldom, I’m told, well done. In fact, a body of opinion holds that Lear, magnificent as it is in print, doesn’t play very well, that the appalling rage of good and evil simply is too outsize to put on a stage.
After watching it Sunday, I fail to see this argument. King Lear is not the most plausible of Shakespeare’s plays. Lear’s abysmal stupidity at the opening of the play, the two daughters Regan and Goneil, conceivably the most evil characters in all literature, the shining nobility of Cordelia, the lust and cruelty and avarice and insanity of some of the characters are a little hard to take all in one play. Shakespeare really threw the book at us in this one.
Still, when put in the hands of a good cast—and this was a very good one—the play comes to life beautifully. Peter Brook, the brilliant young English director, cut the plays from two and half hours to something under 90 minutes. The main plot—Lear’s mistreatment at the hand of his wicked daughters—remained substantially intact. The subplot—the Earl of Gloucester’s parallel experiences with his two sons—disappeared.
However, since there is a certain overlapping between main and subplots, some of the sense of the play disappeared with it. Gloucester’s main function in this version was to have his eyes plucked out, a scene I had just as soon Shakespeare had never written. Since he did, I would have been happy if Mr. Brook had performed the operation out of camera range somewhere. But no, it was all in there in all its gory details.
The end of Lear is a tough thing for anyone to pull off successfully. Practically everything is happening at once. The King of France invades the land. Cordelia and the king are captured and imprisoned. Goneril and Regan are both making passes at Glouster’s bastard son, Edmund. Regan is about to walk off with the boy when Goneril poisons her. Incidentally, this was purely inexplicable. Regan suddenly collapses and dies without, to my knowledge, any explanation. In the text, Shakespeare dismisses this particular homicide with only a few lines, but a director must see to it that these few lines are properly emphasized.
Given such lines as “Howl, Howl, Howl, Howl! O you are men of stone,” the temptation must be strong to any actor to howl down the wind. Welles resisted it. You can hardly give a restrained performance of Lear, but Welles kept himself decently reined in, even in the storm scene where the language is as wild as the elements.
The production, I’m happy to report, followed classic lines. For once, they didn’t put the actors in costumes out of The Student Prince against settings out of Louis XIV. The castles were appropriately medieval, full of portcullises, drawbridges, flickering torches and the like. Welles was bearded and majestic and caparisoned like a king.
Altogether, it was a memorable hour and a half and I hope Mr. Welles proposes to tarry in this country long enough to do a few more plays on television.
Adapted from the play by William Shakespeare
and staged by Peter Brook
Produced by Fred Rickey
Television director: Andrew McCullough
Music composed by Virgil Thomson
Associate producer: Paul Feigay
Production designer: Henry May
Set decorator: Gene Callahan
Artistic consultant: Georges Wakhevitch
Lear, King of Britain -- ORSON WELLES
The Fool -- ALAN BADEL
Cordelia -- NATASHA PARRY
Regan -- MARGARET PHILLIPS
Coneril -- BEATRICE STRAIGHT
Poor Tom (Edgar) -- MICHEAL MacLIAMMOIR
Duke of Albany, (husband to Goneril) -- ARNOLD MOSS
Earl of Kent -- BRAMWELL FLETCHER
King of France -- WESLEY ADDY
Oswald, (servant to Coneril) -- DAVID J. STEWART
Earl of Gloucester -- FREDERICK WORLOCK
Duke of Cornwall, (husband to Regan) -- SCOTT FORBES
Duke of Burgundy -- FRED SADOFF
First Gentlemen -- LLOYD BOCHNER
First Servant -- FRED GAMPEL
Doctor -- LE ROI OPERTI
Omnibus series host: ALASTAIR COOKE
Originally broadcast October 18, 1953 on CBS-TV * 75 minutes.
Hear Orson Welles's 1946 radio broadcast of "Scenes From King Lear" at the Museum of Orson Welles HERE.