QueenʼsMen Editions

About this text

  • Title: King Leir
  • Author: Peter Cockett

  • Copyright Queen's Men Editions. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Peter Cockett
    Peer Reviewed

    King Leir

    King Leir, Scene 19

    Perillus: Peter Higginson
    Messenger: Alon Nashman
    King Leir: Don Allison

    With the protagonist's life under direct threat, the stakes in this scene are extremely high and yet it is filled with openly comic devices, double-takes, joking asides, and false exits. The integration of clowning and high drama should be viewed as an extremely advanced and experimental piece of dramaturgy.

    Performing the Messenger (Sc. 19)

    Read about performing the Messenger in Scene 17

    This scene in particular was a big sticking point in rehearsals for Alon and me. My insistence that the role should be clowned and played for laughs sat in direct opposition to Alon's instincts that the scene relied on suspense and would only work if a sense of jeopardy was maintained.

    125Alon was in part correct: if we feel the Messenger offers no threat to King Leir and Perillus then it is hard to emotionally engage the audience with the action of the scene. But the text immediately offers the Messenger-actor a comic opportunity. The Messenger enters without noticing the two old men and jokes with the audience about how embarrassing it would be if he got robbed and the "grey-beards" got away (TLN 1459), and then the stage direction reads: "Sees them and starts" (TLN 1461). What is this, if not a classic comic double-take? Our rehearsal process was a constant negotiation between our two interpretations and the final performance represents our artistic compromise that satisfied the twin imperatives we identified in the text.

    The scene is full of potential for both a comic and serious treatment. When the old men awaken and speak of their nightmares, the Messenger speaks in asides to the audience in lines that have no clear comic intent and can be played to generate a sense of threat as the Messenger promises to make their bad dreams "prove too true" (TLN 1484). When Leir tries to engage him, calling him a "proper man" (TLN 1516), the Messenger comments to the audience in an aside: "'Sblood, how the old slave claws me by the elbow?/He thinks, belike, to 'scape by scraping thus" (TLN 1517-18). In the SQM performance this often got a laugh largely due to the playful relationship Alon had developed with the audience up to this point. Objectively speaking and taken out of context, the line could be played to mark the murderer's despicable intentions. The question is whether the playful relationship that Alon established with the audience is a product of the text or our performance alone. I would argue that the dramaturgy of the play makes a close relationship with the audience inevitable for this character. In other productions the relationship may be made less playful than in ours but only by ignoring the fun of his colloquial asides and playing his amoral, self-serving intent alone. The Messenger's clowning also has a direct antecedent in the comedy of the Vice characters in morality plays.

    When Leir and Perillus assure the Messenger that he can seek favour with the queen by sparing them, the Messenger plays a linguistic trick that results in his request that they murder themselves and save him the trouble (TLN 1552-54). The exchange could perhaps be played to highlight his cruel manipulation of the old men. Performing the Messenger with only a cold-hearted humour would certainly be possible, but the evidence of the text suggests a more playful approach. The king and Perillus "proffer to go out" (TLN 1547) three times, and three times the Messenger summons them back to the stage. In rehearsal, these false exits edged the company towards slapstick rather than high tragedy as the old men shuffled towards the exit, and then returned. The repetition enhanced the effect and the whole sequence became a piece of virtuoso clowning climaxing with the Messenger's triumphant: "Do me the pleasure for to kill yourselves" (TLN 1552-54). In our performance this punch-line resulted in laughter, not raucous belly laughter but also not coldly ironic.

    When Leir asks if the command to murder him came from France, the Messenger falls back into the colloquial prose that we have seen in earlier scenes and that suggests a connection to Richard Tarlton's clowning world of English urban life: "From France? 'Zoons, do I look like a Frenchman?" (TLN 1573-4). The response plays into nationalist sentiment, is clearly designed to get a laugh, and would be totally out of place in a scene designed exclusively to raise dramatic suspense. Alon performed the opening of this speech to the audience, sharing his shock at being called French (a joke that had metatheatrical connotations in our performance where the same actor played the comic Frenchman, Mumford). He then turned to Leir on "Sirrah" with mock-outrage.

    Negotiating this scene in rehearsal led to a performance that balanced my wish to play the scene for laughs with Alon's concern for maintaining jeopardy in such a way that the audience could laugh at the Messenger's jokes and sympathize with the plight of the King.

    Read more about the performing the Messenger

    Watch video of Scene 19 on the Performing the Queen's Men website. (The video footage is password protected. Click on "Cancel" in the pop-up window to obtain password.)

    Performing Leir: God's Chosen Clown? (Sc. 19)

    130Read about performing Leir in Scene 10

    The opening of the scene establishes Leir and Perillus as helpless old men as they enter exhausted, sit down with prayer books - their "weapons of defence" (TLN 1512) - and fall asleep. The actors playing Leir and Perillus emphasized their age and weakness, thus making their sudden falling asleep touchingly acceptable, despite their awareness of potential danger. Observing my work with Alon in this scene, Don Allison, who played Leir, experimented with playing his own part for comedy, giving the king a physically bumbling quality and exaggerating the naivety of his character during the three false exits as the Messenger plays with his hopes for escape. In rehearsal I found that this shifted the balance too far towards comedy and had exactly the effect that Alon feared: the scene lost all sense of jeopardy and dramatic suspense.

    Asking Don to play the moment straight and maintain the dignity of our king and protagonist, however, proved impossible. The three false exits depend on Leir believing the Messenger's promises of safety enough to begin to exit only to be recalled immediately. The speed with which this happens inclined the performance to clowning. Admittedly, we could have made this sequence more serious by slowing the scene down and having the king exit carefully with eyes warily on the dagger, but I feel this performance choice would have been an imposition on the text. Ultimately Don, like Alon, found a middle ground: an element of naivety remained in his responses to the Messenger but at a level that gave his king a vulnerability that increased audience sympathy rather than identifying him as a gull or dupe and the object of unsympathetic ridicule.

    Read more about the performing Leir.

    Watch video of Scene 19 on the Performing the Queen's Men website. (The video footage is password protected. Click on "Cancel" in the pop-up window to obtain password.)

    The Queen's Men Dramaturgy: Medley Style (Sc. 19)

    Read about Queen's Men medley style in Scene 18

    The reality is that the scene could be played either way - actors are always free to make their own choices - but choosing one of the two options is only possible by ignoring evidence that supports the alternative interpretation. Embracing both positions forces us to imagine once again that for the Queen's Men the comic was not in opposition to the dramatic. The scene demands both broad comedy and high drama and the ability to shift from one to the other from moment to moment. Working with this material suggested to me that on some level all the Queen's Men characters need to shift quickly from emotion to emotion as a clown does, playing the moments for themselves rather than concentrating on issues of continuity or psychological consistency.

    Read about the Queen's Men medley style in later scenes

    Performing the Messenger: The Clown Converts (Sc. 19)

    Read about performing the Messenger earlier in the scene

    As was feared by Ragan, the old men's fair words prove very persuasive: in the final stages of the scene the Messenger becomes the subject of a moral struggle. If his earlier manipulation of the King and Perillus are derived from the trickery of the Vice, the latter stages of the scene is reminiscent of Elizabethan clowning's other theatrical forbear, the Mankind or Everyman figure.

    >As Leir pleads with the Messenger to spare Perillus's life, the Messenger remains committed to performing the murder because he seems to believe Leir has abused his daughters and deserves to die. When Leir makes him swear that it is Ragan and Gonorill who have commissioned the murder, the heavens thunder and the Messenger's conscience is awakened: "I would that word were in his belly again..." (TLN 1635-1638). The logical choice here is for the actor to deliver these lines to the audience since neither Leir nor Perillus respond directly to his words. This performance choice invites the audience into the moral dilemma of the clown character and the dramaturgy of the scene from this point builds the audience's engagement with the clown's moral struggle. They are given privileged access to his internal battle as he remains committed to murder when speaking to the king and Perillus but shares his growing doubts and fears in a series of asides.

    135 The real beauty of the scene is that the Messenger's struggles remain comic in spite of the high stakes of the action for him and for Leir and Perillus. At one point he pauses to make a joke about the fact that his life as a "proper" man is of more value than Perillus's whose "good days are past" (TLN 1693-1694). With Leir kneeling before him praying for the life of his old friend, the Messenger stands with daggers in his hands and says in a wonderful comic understatement: "I am as hard to be moved as another, and yet methinks the strength of their persuasions stirs me a little" (TLN 1719-1721).

    In the SQM staging we placed the Messenger at center stage, facing the audience, with daggers raised above the two old men who were kneeling on either side pleading for each other's lives. As Perillus invokes the divinity of the king (TLN 1695-8) , Alon's facial expressions communicated his character's moral struggle. When the heavens thunder as sign of God's providential justice, Alon let one dagger drop, as instructed by the stage direction (TLN 1739). The king expresses his delight that Perillus will be spared and calls for his own death, but the heavens sound its moral imperative again, and the Messenger drops his second dagger.

    The Messenger clown is converted but he remains a clown to the end. When Perillus observes there is "some spark of grace" in him (TLN 1749) he is annoyed rather than grateful, knowing that it is going to cost him money and the queen's favor: "Beshrew you for it; you have put it in me" (TLN 1750). He exits the stage for the last time with a rhyming couplet that jokes at the expense of the physical valour of the old men: "If any ask you why the case so stands,/Say that your tongues were better than your hands" (TLN 1754-1755). Alon Nashman's clown took centre stage in this scene and was able to generate a powerful sense of suspense and jeopardy while continuing to hit the comic moments from beginning to end.

    Watch video of Scene 19 on the Performing the Queen's Men website. (The video footage is password protected. Click on "Cancel" in the pop-up window to obtain password.)

    The Queen's Men and Shakespeare (Sc. 19)

    Read about the Queen's Men and Shakespeare in Scene 14

    The association made between the thunder sound effect and divine justice is one of the most striking differences between this play and Shakespeare's. While Lear rages futilely against the storm on the heath, the providential God of Leir intervenes in the action to save his anointed from the threat of murder. The alignment of God with the monarch is unquestionable in relation to the play's protagonist and his daughter Cordella. The kings of Cornwall and Cambria with their queens do not receive his providential support but the text brings no attention to this political anomaly. Leir remains the true monarch throughout and his good friend Perillus repeatedly proclaims his divine authority. The thunder in this scene is perhaps the most transparent affirmation of monarchical power in a play that very much serves the political agenda of the company's royal patron.

    While the Queen's Men play's perspective on divine right could not be more marked in its contrast to Shakespeare's, the clownish events of this scene may well have served as inspiration for Shakespeare. Blind Gloucester's attempted suicide on the cliff-tops of Dover is represented with a comparable mix of the comic and the serious (Internet Shakespeare EditionsF: 2430). The Queen's Men version -- while mixing the comic and the serious -- remains in a world of romance that ensures the ultimate safety of the protagonist and reduces the distance between the pain of the characters and the laughter of the audience. In performance the suffering of Leir and Perillus had a child-like quality, generating a level of empathy that could be experienced with the reassuring knowledge that all will be well.

    Read more about the Queen's Men and Shakespeare.

    Watch video of Scene 19 on the Performing the Queen's Men website. (The video footage is password protected. Click on "Cancel" in the pop-up window to obtain password.)