The Broadway production I saw recently changed the title: not King Lear, which would stress the conventional gender; not Queen Lear, which would provoke guffaws. Just, Lear. And, after reflecting on it, it seems to me the change is both necessary and appropriate, a signpost leading the way to the extraordinary transformation of the title role, as played by Glenda Jackson.
For really, she is genderless—I will call her “it”, not she… or he. A dry, tiny, energy obsessed “it,” a thing or a demon, it lacks both male and female characteristics, too small and physically powerless to suggest a male, too starkly determined and authoritative to suggest a female. The limitation of its physical strength means that it can’t lift its much larger daughter, Cordelia, the virtuous truth teller, in the final moments of the play, when, traditionally, the heartbroken father, no longer king, carries his dead daughter in his arms. It can only hover over Cordelia, a limp body among the broken furniture that litters the set.
I wonder if this is where we are going, toward a future where gender and even appearances are the last rather than the first details we notice and judge in friends and strangers—when the power of it-ness is all. The defining characteristic of Jackson’s king is her remorseless authority, unsubscribed and unenhanced by her little boy suit, her cloak, or, in madness, her long drawers and high socks. This is an authority that lives to be exercised over all other people, and never questions itself—almost impossible for most of us, regardless of gender.
And so this compelling, three-and-a-half-hour performance (and I never thought until much later of the gigantic memorialization required of this 83-year-old actress, seven times a week) seems to show where we are going: to a new version of what is human—or, perhaps, of what is not human.
We who work hard for the election and promotion of women candidates and stand ready to fight for Roe v. Wade, have already glimpsed a terrifying possibility: that women who manage to come to power may also be seduced by it, as we have long seen in the case of men. The inherent virtuousness of women was once a subject of debate but it can’t be any longer, the angel in the house no longer exists and never did, and the gross vulgarity of Lear’s daughters, who loom over the father they begin to threaten and intimidate the minute they receive shares of his kingdom, is another example of “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Every time I hear the cooing tones of another “spokesperson” defending and excusing the outrageous behavior of men in power (and these defenders are always women), I wonder if this is the price most of us are prepared to pay for access to the throne. If so, all our heart-felt arguments for empowerment ring a little hollow, for empowerment surely should not lead to an “it” who, even in make-up and high heels, seeks only to win and subjugate.