Living Shakespeare Recording (1962)
Recorded for a series that encompassed all of Shakespeare's plays, Sir Donald Wolfit's King Lear has been widely congratulated as one of the greatest in postwar British theatre; the jewel of his Shakespearean repertoire. First performed on tour in 1941-2, and restaged in London in 1942, 1944 and again in 1949, his Lear was invariably a sellout, according to Wolfit's own account-books. He brought the production back to London in 1950 and again in 1953, but by then theatrical tastes had shifted, and his box-office receipts suffered as a result.
Although recorded in a severely truncated (43-minute) form, with the entire Edmund-Edgar-Gloucester plot omitted, this production, directed by Wolfit himself, offered some fascinating insights as to why it was such a success during wartime. Lear began in imperious mood, roundly proclaiming his desire to divide the kingdom into three while retaining the trappings of authority. Wolfit spoke the speech "Know that we have divided in three our kingdom," in stately fashion, as if expecting his court to take heed of his words. When Cordelia (Rosalind Iden) refused to play along with his charade, repeating "Nothing, my lord," in monotonous tones, Wolfit's Lear took a long pause and deliverd the next line "Nothing? Nothing will come of nothing, speak again," in a quiet yet menacing manner. He was clearly unused to being defied in public. Cordelia's subsequent assertion that she loved him "according to (my) bond" sent him into fits of rage; like a child he expelled Cordelia and Kent (Derek Francis), both of whom tried in vain to reason with him. Lear was nothing more than a despot, fond of the sound of his own voice, who refused to entertain any opposing voices. Wolfit's reading of the opening scene must have seemed uncomfortably familiar to wartime playgoers accustomed to the pronouncements of Hitler and Mussolini.
But Wolfit was at heart a romantic actor, who could not have attracted such a loyal following, both in London and elsewhere, if he had created wholly unsympathetic leading characters. As he travelled to Goneril's (Coral Browne's) and Regan's (Barbara Jefford's) houses, he discovered to his cost the consequences of his actions. Far from welcoming him, the two sisters spoke in flat, authoritative tones; it was clear they wanted him out as soon as possible. Lear responded at first with anger: the line "into her womb convey sterility" was spat out, with a hiss on the first syllable of the word "sterility." However he soon became a plaintive child as he spoke the "reason not the need" speech in a high-pitched whine. Faced with a situation he had never previously encountered, Lear's state of mind suffered, veering alternately between anger and childishness.
In Wolfit's interpretation, Lear's sojourn on the heath became a voyage of self-discovery, as he encountered Poor Tom (Thomas Johnston) and blind Gloucester (Joseph O'Conor), and began to understand how despotism has a destructive effect on ordinary people. Hence it was not surprising that Lear should deliver the "poor naked wretches" speech as a prayer, his voice sounding quiet yet measured, as if trying to voice the opinions of the downtrodden poor. For London audiences coming to Lear in 1944, at a time when performances took place amid the frightening experience of V-2 bombings, this speech took on added significance: many of the city's people had been reduced to "poor naked wretches," as their homes and most of their possessions were blown away.
But Wolfit stressed that it was not sufficient for Lear just to empathize with his people; he had to ensure the same process of suffering that they had previously experienced during his reign of terror. Cordelia's death was described in matter-of-fact tones by the narrator (Michael Benthall); this was followed by a short pause, preparing the way for Lear's great "howl! howl! howl! howl!" speech. Wolfit delivered the first two words in high-pitched tones, sounding like a wild animal; this was followed by another short pause, and then the last two "howls" were delivered in softer tones. This suggested some kind of mental processes going on in Lear's mind; having lost his daughter, his initial reaction was an instinctive one. But then he checked himself, as he understood - perhaps for the first time - that such catastrophes are inevitable in times of strife. He consoled himself with the thought that he would soon be restored to Cordelia in a world where no one could separate them any more. As he delivered his final speech, his voice remained calm, almost serene, as he asked Kent to "undo this button." This moment was unbearably emotional, as Lear embraced death as a means of reconciliation rather than loss.
In a perverse way Wolfit's interpretation ended optimistically, as Lear understood that he would no longer have to suffer or cause suffering to anyone. Now he understood the significance of family ties, he could enjoy them in perpetuity. It is this sense of optimism, I contend, that made this Lear so powerful in wartime: as they emerged from the theatre audiences could feel they had discovered something about themselves and how they should cope with bombing raids.
In 1949 the war had been over for four years, but memories of the conflict were uppermost in audience's minds, which explains why Lear was still a box-office success. By 1953, however, the advent of the Coronation plus other feelgood events such as the climbing of Mount Everest led to a change of circumstances: audiences wanted something different. They could still admire Wolfit's technical and vocal skills, but his production now seemed old-fashioned, the product of more pessimistic times. When the recording was made in 1962, Wolfit had long given up performing Shakespeare on stage, but by committing Lear to disc, he left a lasting record of his greatest stage achievement. For this we should be eternally grateful.