“The possibility of genuine chaos, real cannibalizing barbarism, is closer to the surface than we can possibly imagine.”
Oscar Eustis, artistic director, New York’s Public Theater.
Why such an upsurge in the popularity of a 400-year-old Shakespeare tragedy? A new production of King Lear has just opened at Central Park’s Public Theater in New York – the fourth new production so far this year. Artistic Director Oscar Eustis says our fascination with Lear is because this play, like no other, helps us understand the human condition.
He calls it “the high-culture analog to the popularity of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead on television.” We have all become the tragic anti-heroes of a dystopian world that’s descending into insanity.
Lear is one of those tragedies that show us what happens to a potentially great person and everyone around him when hubris takes over in a surge of arrogant self-confidence. Not only does the central character destroy himself; he brings down everything and everyone around him.
And just as, in this drama, the king descends into insanity and drags the whole kingdom down with him, so too, in today’s world, we have all become the tragic anti-heroes of a dystopian world that’s descending into insanity.
Interviewing John Lithgow, who plays the king in the production, Bill Moyers says no play is more relevant to the times in which we live.
“With all the carnage and violence around us in the world, King Lear mirrors the folly of reckless leadership, the arrogance of power, and the depth of human anguish.”
Lithgow replies that he finds the process of even just reading the news each morning “deeply unsettling and upsetting.” While we Americans still live fairly comfortable lives, “every day you’re reminded of the astonishing misery in the rest of the world.”
It’s precisely this kind of out-of-touch comfortableness that characterizes the hubris that sets all classical tragedy in motion. Lithgow says we’re living in “a very strange moment.”
“I look around, and 50 percent of the big-budget entertainment you are seeing these days is dystopian.
“This is the era of Hunger Games and blasted landscapes and Walking Dead. The zombie is the new sort of archetype of our times. Like, the avatar of our time is a zombie. I mean, how horrific is that?
“And somehow or other we’ve entered– we’ve internalized that. We’ve made that our entertainment.”
On the surface, in our day-to-day lives, we’re still in deep denial. This is America, after all; how can anything go wrong? But even the mainstream media can no longer avoid reporting the global catastrophe that’s unfolding. Just this week, any number of disasters compete for first place in the nightly news lineup: the growing menace of the Ebola virus; the massive carnage in the bombing of the Palestinian people; the extreme, escalating drought in Western states; wildfires across the country; the poisoning of Lake Erie by toxic farm runoff as tap water turns green.
Nature is one of the actors
In King Lear, as in all tragedy, nature itself is one of the actors. When Lear places himself above the natural order of things, nature itself is violated. Lithgow describes it as “bringing down devastation on your own life by your own folly and your own bad mistakes and your own vanity.”
In Shakespearean tragedy, order and harmony are eventually restored. But for there to be redemption and restoration, the central character has to come to terms with his own folly. And that generally involves a lot of blood getting spilled, including his own.
Many of today’s popular dystopian movies and TV series follow the same essential story arc. The natural order is violated – perhaps with a self-confident scientist ignoring safety protocols and releasing a deadly virus, or a politician putting personal ambition before integrity.
As a result, as Hamlet describes it in another of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, “The time is out of joint.” And in the real-world drama currently being played out by humankind on a global level, the time is massively out of joint, with nature being violated on a colossal level. As the collective “king”, we humans believe we can dominate the other living creatures and the entire world of nature – all for the greater glory of ourselves.
But such violation comes at a terrible cost. For example, before we began to plunder the African rain forest, the Ebola virus never really bothered humans. Today we’re wiping out entire species, going ever-deeper into the forests in search of bush meat to sell as gourmet delicacies all over the world. And so it is that a virus that lived harmlessly among fruit bats and monkeys for thousands of years is being released into the human population, where it is deadly.
In the global drama being played out by humankind, the time is massively out of joint. Nature is being violated on a colossal level.Undaunted, we continue to tell ourselves that the natural “resources” of the planet – the animals and plants and oceans and atmosphere – are our birthright, existing purely for human benefit. We even create belief systems and economic philosophies to support this absurdity.
Why do we do this? In Lear’s case, his self-destructive behavior stems largely from his fear of old age and death. It’s the basic fear that haunts us all – the awareness of our own mortality, the knowledge that we are animals, just like all the other animals, and that we must all end up as nothing more than food for worms. It’s a fear that drives us to collective insanity as we attempt to conquer nature and rise above our own nature – even transcend death itself.
But in our bones, we know the inevitable outcome. When it comes to violating the natural order, we can only reap what we’ve sown.
As we try to deal with this knowledge, Lithgow tells Moyers, “We’ve internalized that. We’ve made that our entertainment.”
Whether it’s a revival of one of the greatest works of theater or the latest apocalyptic movie, it’s as though we’re trying to come to terms with what we know is unfolding. And while we carry on as normal, trying to ignore the fact that we’ve set in motion a mass extinction to which we, too, will likely fall victim, we can’t help knowing that something is terribly wrong.
Right now, we’re still in Act One of that drama. Along the way, there will be much suffering for all the living creatures who have been subject to our arrogance. And by the end, as always, nature will find a new balance.
Order will be restored. But that doesn’t mean you can expect a happy ending.