Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A Comedy of Terrors

The title for this post came from Peter, who was commenting on the unlikely resurgence of humour which seems to have arisen in Act 4, and particularly 4.1, the "Cliffs of Dover" scene.

Okay, I admit; it's mostly my fault. I knew right from the start that I wanted to be on the lookout for any and all opportunities to lighten the mood in this generally bleak (and sometimes downright nihilistic) play. Having read about the unexpected laughter which issued from audiences at the recent Globe production of Lear (2001), I felt justified in looking at the play as a tragedy with dark comic undertones. And, as the director, I was within my rights to nudge those undertones a little closer to the surface now and then.

Hence my bawdy opening sequence, with Gloster and Kent discovering Edmund in flagrante with a maidservant behind Lear's throne. And hence the soldiers who show up to collect Lear in 4.1 (who developed more than a hint of Three Stooges as we blocked their schtick). Some actors have helped a lot. Dale improvised a delightful little bit for Lear in Act 3, when he awakes and follows an imaginary butterfly off-stage. That isn't even black comedy, although the humour does arise from Lear's insanity, I guess. More importantly, it doesn't feel black, and because of its lightness it almost seems sublime.

However, the character who has been forced to adopt the red nose the most often has been Gloster. Peter has borne my suggestions for comedy like a trooper, acknowledging that, yes, certainly, at the beginning of the play, Gloster comes across as a lech and a gull. But I think Peter hoped that, once Gloster's story took its tragic turn (ie. the blinding), I would keep it in that vein. Making fun of the recently blinded Gloster is dark fun indeed. When I tried to turn the scuffle between Edgar and Oswald (in 4.1) into slapstick by having Gloster wander blindly into the fray, the choreography itself seemed resistant (we found a way to make it work, but I don't know if it's going to get a laugh).

Anyway, last night, we were working on Gloster's suicide attempt. Edgar has deceived the blind man into thinking he is at the top of a cliff, and when Gloster hurls himself forward and meets only the level ground, Edgar then pretends to be a passerby at the foot of the cliff. "Ten masts at each would not make up the distance / Which you have perpendicularly fell," he tells Gloster, concluding that "Your life's a miracle" and encouraging the blind man to accept his lot in life.

While finalizing the blocking for this sequence, I was fighting two contradictory urges. I wanted to make Gloster's character arc clear, and this was obviously a key moment--a 180 degree reversal from suicidal ideation to "my life's a miracle." I think the moment is also thematically crucial, for it is the point at which Edgar is able to share his own personal discoveries about empathy, and the value of perseverence in the face of pain.

But, for all that, I couldn't seem to escape from the absurdity of the whole thing. Gloster thinks he's leaping off a cliff, when really he's dropping from his knees onto his chest--less than three feet. It looked funny. I gave Peter a blanket, asked him to lift it up before the "leap" and then let it settle over him. It gave the "plunge" a bit more gravity (no pun intended). Then I noticed that the blanket seemed to settle over his head--even better, I thought. It looks like a shroud.

Then along comes Edgar. "Sir, what are you, Sir?" He asks, and very naturally, Max pulled the blanket back to expose Peter's head. Gloster's next line is, "Away, and let me die." How do you dramatize this impulse, I wondered? Well, if I were Gloster, I would probably want to shut out Edgar altogether, along with the cold air on my face, and all other signs of life. So I suggested that, on that line, Peter try to tug the blanket back over his head.

I could tell from Peter's reaction that I had gone too far--that a gesture like that would almost certainly solicit laughter, and deflate the moment. But he tried it, and he found a way to make it work for him--playing Gloster's frustration and helplessness rather than sheer denial. But now the whole thing has left me wondering: what is the purpose of humour in a play like this? Are we laughing the characters or with them?

I'd like to think that, whereas the audience laughs mockingly at Gloster in 1.1 while he boasts about his infidelities or gets sucked into Edmund's plots, the audience finds occasion to laugh with Gloster in 4.1--and it has to be a bitter laughter, because they were there when he was blinded, and they know what he's been through. Perhaps you reach a certain point, a nadir, after which there's nothing you can do but laugh. Perhaps the audience can give Gloster the cathartic chuckle that he needs to move through his own pain, and come out the other side.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. With this sort of stuff, there's just no way to know how it will play until there's an audience to play it to. And they will probably react differently from night to night. It's partly why this stage of rehearsals is so frustrating; we know we're not quite ready to face the public yet; but I'm sort of running out of things to fix.


Blogger cpc said...

I'm not sure that Glouster pulling the blanket back over his head would elicit laughter - it is a very reasonable response in his situation.

On the other hand, patients who are dying or have come close to death often engage in black humour (as in there's nothing else left to do). But not all of your audience will recognize that.

Still, *I* think you're on the right track.

1:04 p.m.  

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