Award winning Portland playwright C.S. Whitcomb’s other plays include Holidazed, Book of John, and The Wilde Boy. These are her author’s notes about Lear’s Follies.
Why write a new version of King Lear?
When Michael Mendelson, the artistic director of Portland Shakespeare Project, asked me to write a new version of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, I accepted without hesitation. The story of an old man who has had power and prestige, who has ruled his world and after retiring, loses everything, seemed like a natural story for today.
There has never been a time in American history when more people were reaching the age of retirement, worrying about aging, health issues and feeling disenfranchised. Lear’s story is not just relevant, it’s personal. Add to that an Alzheimer’s epidemic and people’s children shunting them off into adult care facilities and Lear’s story is every boomer’s nightmare. Luckily we can learn from his fatal mistakes. And as a kind friend pointed out to me, only one of Shakespeare’s 37 plays was not adapted from another earlier version.
Why the Great Depression?
I chose to set the story during the last great depression because it resonated with me. I became enamored with the idea of The Fool being an aging vaudevillian. And I loved the idea of Lear as a man whose life span included being a young soldier in the Civil War, coming into power at the turn of the 20th century during the height of the industrial revolution and then living long enough to lose everything at the time of the stock market crash in 1929.
I needed to find an empire for “King” that was American yet still had power, scope and was something that could be handed down from father to sons. So I created a tobacco empire in Virginia. It felt like there was something poetic about an empire that could literally go up in smoke. Plus I needed a storm and what better than a hurricane? Shakespeare even coined the word “hurricane” in the great storm speech in King Lear.
I changed the two older daughters, Regan and Goneril, to sons. In Shakespeare’s world the most powerful person on earth was a woman. Elizabeth had her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, put to death, to secure her throne. Regan and Goneril sprang from that world view. America has never had women with that kind of power. We have founding fathers. Male presidents. In 1929 women hadn’t even had the vote for a decade. I hope women and particularly actresses will forgive me (a woman playwright) for changing two daughters to sons.
For many people Lear is one of the more difficult of Shakespeare’s plays to understand. Having watched many versions in preparing to create this one, I know how complex and somewhat confusing it can seem. Hopefully our version will be more accessible and bring people to appreciate a classic who may not have before.
I never thought there would be this much joy in writing tragedy. I hope you enjoy the play as well.
C. S. Whitcomb Fall, 2011