Monday, July 10, 2006

Macready's Lear

Feb. 10th, 1838.— I saw last night Macready in King Lear, and little expected, in the present degraded state of the stage, to see any performance that would give me such pleasure. First of all, it is Shakespeare's Lear: not a word is added to the text; the painfully fine catastrophe is acted; and the play, in the regular theatre phrase, well got up, excepting in the female parts, which were almost as ill dressed as they were acted. I cannot conceive a better model for a painter of Lear than Macready exhibited in face, figure, dress, and apparent age.

The latter seems to me the leading point of his representation of the character, in which he substitutes the imbecility of age for insanity, which I have hitherto considered as the leading feature of Lear. The more I think, the more I am inclined to believe that this was the intention of the poet; at the same time, I must own that it has, as far as dramatic effect is concerned, some objections. The curse, the appeal to the elements, which one has been used to dislike as a rant, appeared tame and ineffective, partly, I believe, because so early in the play I had not entered folly into the conception of the actor; but I still think upon retrospect, that both, especially the curse, might have been made to tell with singular effect if repeated in a tremulous and very solemn manner. I hope to judge of this ere long upon a second view.

I felt almost as if I had never read, certainly never seen, that finest of all scenes, that on the Heath, so much was I delighted with the effect produced by the Fool (now reinstated for the first time for many years). The artless affection, shrewdness, archness displayed by Miss Horton, the sweetness of the snatches of song, seemed like the drop of comfort infused into the bitter cup of the poor old King. They made me feel that the commentators who assert that, when in the last sad scene he says, ' And my poor fool is hanged” he cannot mean to allude to the boy, had never seen it so acted.

Much as I admire the strict adherence to the text, I must say that one omission quite new to me pleased me very much. When poor blind Gloster, fancying himself on the edge of the cliff, says, ' Now, fellow, fare thee well,’ instead of falling down, he is interrupted by the arrival of Lear, and you are spared the absurdity of persuading a man whom you have seen falling from his own height, that he tumbled down over a precipice.

In battle there was one novelty which I think from a greater distance than the box in which we were, might have a great effect. The scene was a distant view of a battle, or rather of heaps of slain; when the challenge is given, a champ clos is immediately formed by a palisade of spear and battle-axes. The last scene is almost too painful; I felt it would have been quite, if Cordelia had not been such a detestable snub-nosed creature. I suppose it would be high treason against Shakespeare to alter the catastrophe, and to give to it what might be called a melodramatic German character; but I could not help wishing the representation to conclude when Lear says-
“She lives! If it be so,
It is a chance that does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt."

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