Tackling KING LEAR by ORSON WELLES – plus “An American Approach to Shakespeare” by MORRIS CARNOVSKY
Here are two pieces on approaches to acting in KING LEAR. The first is by Orson Welles, the second an interview with the distinguished stage star, Morris Carnovsky.
Welles wrote his piece on KING LEAR for the January 8, 1956 edition of The New York Times shortly before he opened in KING LEAR at the New York City Center. He mentions, in passing that LEAR hadn't been presented on the New York stage for five years, but fails to note that his old partner, John Houseman was the man who directed the 1950 Broadway presentation at the National Theater, starring Louis Calhern as King Lear.
Housesman's version, like Welles own production, featured music by Marc Blitzstein, as well as several actors from the Mercury theater. In fact, Houseman's staging of LEAR had more Mercury actors than Welles own production. Everett Sloane was slated to play the fool, until he clashed with Louis Calhern and resigned. He was replaced by Norman Lloyd. Martin Gabel played the Earl of Kent; Nina Foch was Cordelia; Joesph Wiseman was Edmund and both Wesley Addy, who played Edgar and Arnold Moss, who played the Earl of Gloucester would go on to act with Welles (but playing different roles), in the Peter Brook TV version of LEAR broadcast in 1953.
As an introduction, I have taken Welles comments about Shakespeare's Othello, from Filming Othello, and substituted King Lear where Welles actually says Othello.
King Lear is something more than a masterpiece. It stands through the centuries as a great monument to western civilization. Take an arbitrary figure: Twelve. Name twelve plays which could be called great. King Lear must be one of those twelve. Of that twelve, at least nine (which is another arbitrary figure) are by Shakespeare. That leaves three on our list for all the other writers who ever lived. Is that putting it too strongly? Or is it too high? You can't go higher than that, and Shakespeare remains immortally number one. Among all dramatists the first. The greatest poet, in terms of sheer accomplishment, very possibly our greatest man.
TACKLING 'KING LEAR'
By ORSON WELLES
Many critics consider "King Lear" not only the most difficult but also the greatest of Shakespeare's works, and all to many of these critics have added that it is impossible to act the play in a theatre. In a profound sense, this may be at least partly true, but such a negative opinion is surely of poor service to the theatre itself, whose skyline can scarcely afford the loss of so sizable an edifice.
Without denying at all the solitary intoxication's and heady delights the dramatic poem offers to the reader, one must acknowledge that no matter what losses "King Lear" may suffer at the hands of actors, it was for actors that the play was written that all its effects were intended.
We of the theatre may never manage the beginning of any sort of justice to this towering and tremendous work, but it is clearly up to us to make a brave try at it just as often as we may.
The trouble is that our attempts are all too few and much too far between. In England, I can think of at least six major productions of "King Lear" since World War II. New York has had fewer than that to boast of since the turn of the century. A number of friends, wise in the ways of Broadway, have been at pains to point out to me the folly of choosing to presenteven for two weeks at the City Centeranother production of this play a bare five years after it was last seen by the town.
It was by no means easy to reject so much well-meaning and expert advice, but the simple truth is that I am not getting any younger, and if Lear must wear long white whiskers, by a grim paradox, few actors capable of growing such a beard are still physically capable of getting through the role. In the whole Shakespearean canon, there is no more demanding assignment, and in all dramatic literature, there is no old man for which a young man's energies are so urgently indicated.
It strikes me, after almost a quarter of a century in theatre service, as high time that I make my first attempt at the play and the role. If I don't now, whenat least in Americawill I be able to do it again?
If a man can get anywhere close to "King Lear," be must have a good go at it more than twice. Sir John Gielgud has performed the old thunderer in no less than five productions, each separated from the other by several seasons and each marking a new and distinct phase in the development of the life and work of that distinguished artist. Without pretending to deserve Sir John's opportunities, I must confess to a most acute need for them.
Even if my fond project of founding a classical repertory theatre on Broadway should become the most fruitful fact, let playgoers be well assured that I would not impose a half-dozen of my Lears on them. On the other hand, let those who would come to hear, see and judge this year's essay remember that there are no tenors who would care to be remembered for their first season's "Tristan" and few bassos whose "Boris Godunov" was born at full scale in the first opera house where it was attempted. No alibis are offered here for the inadequacy of this year's "King Lear." Rather, I've tried to point toward our glaring lack of a permanent theatre dedicated to poetic drama.
It is to help build and operate such an institution that I came back to Broadway. We were to start with a repertory of two plays, "King Lear" and Jonson's "Volpone." My producersMessrs. Margolis and Gabelwere persuaded' by Miss Jean Dalrymple to forego commercial consideration in the interests of a short season at the City Center, whose budget unhappily cannot be stretched to include "Volpone."
It should be easy to see why I would have been more at ease if had been possible for me to present my credentials as a classical theatre man to a new generation of New York playgoers with two productions instead of one. I can only hope that if this new "Lear" should be considered redundant after all, such an opinion will not extend to, or discourage, our hopes for the founding, as soon as may be, of a solid theatre establishment.
For more information on Welles City Center production of KING LEAR, including the original playbill, see this link at Wellesnet:
Reading Welless article on KING LEAR, recalled to mind an interview I did with the great stage actor Morris Carnovsky back in 1975. At the time Mr. Carnovsky was appearing in another production of KING LEAR, but his early fame in the theater came largely through his appearances in plays by Clifford Odets presented by the Group Theater in the thirties, at the same time Welles' own Mercury Theater was at it's zenith.
As Carnovsky notes in his comments, he found the glories of acting in Shakespeare quite late in his career, and ironically, through the invitation of Orson Welles old associate at the Mercury, John Houseman.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Your portrayal of King Lear has been widely recognized as one of your greatest acting achievements. How has the role changed for you since you first played it in 1963?
MORRIS CARNOVSKY: The role has basically not changed. I had a very strong conception of the part the first time I played it, and together with Allen Fletcher, my first director, we worked out a very viable mise-en-scene for the play, which I have adhered to throughout the years. I've played it a number of places across the country, (in California, directed by John Houseman), and I found it very convenient to simply repeat what I had already done in the way of obvious physical activity. Of course that doesnt mean to say that the inside of the role has not changed. It has changed over the years, just as I've changed over the years. The part itself has become perhaps simpler, perhaps mellowerI don't knowbut it is a part that never ceases to bring out the creative juices. There are certain facets of the character that I've overlooked until now. The part of Lear is a constant re-discovery. There's really no end to it, you see. So it's not to be wondered that from time to time the part may change in the direction of depth.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Having played King Lear in several different productions, would you say its your favorite Shakespearean role?
MORRIS CARNOVSKY: I would say it's the most demanding one. As you say, I've worked more on this role than any other, but the role to which I owe every bit as much, is the part of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (co-starring Katherine Hepburn as Portia). Then, along the way I played the part of Prospero in The Tempest. So first Shylock, then Prospero, and finally King Lear make a kind of tripod on which my Shakespearean reputation rests. But Lear has certainly demanded more of me than any other role. It is a part that doesn't let you alone. There's always something more to be done with it. It's monumental.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: As an actor then you find its more rewarding?
MORRIS CARNOVSKY: Everything in Shakespeare is rewarding. You cant compare one part to the exclusion of another.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Do you approach Shakespeare from an American viewpoint, as opposed to the English tradition?
MORRIS CARNOVSKY: That's a very interesting question. My answer would be very debatable. You see I am basically a realistic actor, having been formed from the point of view of acting technique developed by the Group theatre, which was basically a realistic theatre. Now, having been bent in that direction, what I brought to the playing of Shakespeare was my sense of reality. To that I found it necessary to add and amalgamate a sense of poetry, which Shakespeare demands. So this is what, I think, makes the possibility of an American approach to Shakespeare. The English, in a sense, have it over us, because they possess the language, they had it before we did. But sometimes they use the language in a rather superficial way, simply for languages sake, while I suggest that the poetic language must be subdued to what's happening within the character. The amalgamation then, of realityI don't say realismbut of reality, and poetry is what I think our theatre ought to strive for.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: After acting for 36 years, how did you finally discover Shakespeare?
MORRIS CARNOVSKY: Shakespeare discovered me! In 1956, John Houseman, who was then the general director and producer at the Stratford (Conn.) Shakespeare Theater, called me up and said, would you like to do some Shakespeare? I said, Yes, of course! So thats how I began. The first year I did a part in King John, a part in Measure For Measure and a part in The Taming of the Shrew. Then I proceeded to learn what Shakespeare was all about, in light of the realistic method of acting that I had discovered during my years with the Group Theater. And the following year I found myself doing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and that was really the opening of the can of peas, for me.