Ellen McLaughlin in the role of Angel in the groundbreaking 1993 play "Angels in America"

Author: Becca Vaclavik

In ‘King Lear,’ Shakespeare Takes On Life’s Big Questions

Ellen McLaughlin and Carolyn Howarth discuss Shakespeare’s thought provoking tragedy

Some Shakespeare plays are a slow burn. “Othello” is one; “Macbeth”, another. These stories slowly sizzle on stage like a match held toward a fuse. “King Lear,” in contrast, roars across the stage, scorching the earth like a wildfire.

“Sometimes it takes a while to really get a plot moving,” says Carolyn Howarth, who directs the CSF production of Lear opening July 9 on the Mary Rippon.

“But here, we find out what the problem is right in the first scene, and whoosh. It just goes! It really is exhilarating.”

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the “problem” is that Lear, the aging King of Britain, plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, parceled out by how much each of them claims to love him. Two daughters fawn and flatter him, but one declines to participate in his test. She is disinherited and banished. Whoosh.

The play follows the aftermath of this choice, and like so many of the Bard’s works, there are many lessons to be learned. That’s why “King Lear” is actually about a million different things, says Ellen McLaughlin, who is set to play the King himself.

McLaughlin is an actor who has worked extensively in regional, international and New York theatre, perhaps most famously for originating the role of the Angel in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” performing it from workshop through its Broadway run. She’s a playwright to boot, and her works, which often involve modern interpretations of classic myths, have been produced internationally.

According to McLaughlin, the play is “about the microcosm of a family. But it’s also about the macrocosm of the world. And I think that’s the level a lot of us think on now; we cannot forget that the world is in peril.”

McLaughlin and Howarth discuss this idea and some of the other lessons when we meet in the spring. Their conversation circles many topics, from aging to arrogance, from the looming presidential race to the climate crisis. We talk about clues hiding in the language of the play, which is full of repetition and rife with overlapping, shared dialogue. They teach me about the play’s exploration of the word and concept of emptiness and “nothing” (which you can read more about in dramaturg Heidi Schmidt’s note). Samuel Beckett comes up more than once.

But as Howarth and McLaughlin reflect on these themes, they both keep coming back to the same idea, time and again. And it’s a big one: Humanity.

“I once read that “King Lear” is a play about a king learning how to be a man, and I find that quite apt,” Howarth says. “We often rediscover our humanity when we’re on the brink of an abyss.”

McLaughlin adds, “And he learns the lesson too late. If only he had learned what he does in exile earlier on, he would have been a better king.”

Is it ever too late to learn to be a better human? There’s a timelessness to questions like this one, which is perhaps why an early 1600s tragedy about an aging king can inspire artists to also ponder American politics, their own mortality, even the end of the world. Shakespeare was especially adept at using singular stories to pose heartfelt, personal questions to his audiences.

“Shakespeare really talks about the biggest, deepest issues. He’s asking big, wide questions,” McLaughlin says.

“I think it should make all of us think about what life is. What do you cherish when everything else is stripped away? Who are we when what we have left is nothing, nothing, nothing?”

“King Lear” opens July 9 in the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus