‘King Lear’ in Washington’s Day – Part 2

King Lear is known far and wide as William Shakespeare’s finest tragedy but it has not always been the preferred version of the story. In part one, we saw how Shakespeare popularized the old story of King Lear by crafting a story aimed directly at Elizabethan audiences experiencing great political upheaval. In part two, we see how Shakespeare’s Lear changed to reflect the life and times of Restoration England and, ultimately, George Washington’s America.

Not long after the first printing of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the English Civil War brought a temporary end to the monarchy and closed theatres, in part, to prevent civil disorder at public gatherings. Soon, however, laws specifically targeting theatres followed as an outgrowth of Puritanical notions that saw playhouse as dens of vice, sin, and extravagance.

Playhouses’ disfavor ended in 1660 when the Restoration returned King Charles II from his exile in France and placed him on the throne as his father’s successor.  Charles’s return sparked new style of theatre that boasted elegant costumes, fanciful farces, happy endings, and, for the first time in England, women on the stage! It should be no surprise that with a new king and new type of theatre, a new Lear was sure to follow.

Nahum Tate, 1652-1715. Public domain.

Enter Nahum Tate, the son of a Puritan Irish clergyman and a playwright, whose adaptation of King Lear reflected his loyalty to the crown and the Restoration’s jubilance over the monarchy’s return. The History of King Lear debuted in 1682 and brought a new take to the age-old tale. Tate felt Shakespeare’s original was “a Heap of Jewels, unstrung and unpolisht” and needed modernizing. He gave King Lear his own restoration back, removed the questioning and criticizing fool, and added a romance between Cordelia, Lear’s daughter and true heir, and Edgar, Gloucester’s son and true heir.  Tate even gave Gloucester a line clearly referring to Charles’s Restoration: “Conduct me to his Knees to hail; His second Birth of Empire; my dear Edgar; Has, with himself, reveal’d the King’s blest Restauration [sic.]”

For the next 150 years, actors performed and audiences lauded Tate’s version. Not only was the happier ending preferred but Shakespeare’s work was considered like any other Elizabethan playwrights’ work, free to be changed and augmented.

Cover of Tate’s “The History of King Lear,” first performed 1862. Public domain.

Tate’s Lear was not without criticism, of course. In 1711, Joseph Addison, author of Cato (George Washington’s favorite play) lauded Shakespeare’s ability to enact poetical justice and felt that Tate’s version “had lost half its beauty,” by allowing the good to triumph. To a certain extent, Samuel Johnson agreed writing in 1765 that “The Tragedy of King Lear is deservedly celebrated among the dramas of Shakespeare” even though he found Cordelia’s death so sad and tragic that “I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play.” While Johnson appreciated the Bard’s tragedy, he still preferred a lighter Lear.

David Garrick, a star of the 18th century stage, led a movement to immortalize Shakespeare as England’s national poet. He wrote a poetic eulogy about the Bard’s work at the first-ever Shakespeare festival.  Surely he would prefer Shakespeare’s original text? Not quite. When Garrick staged the play and starred as a King Lear in 1756, he restored a good portion of Shakespeare’s original text but also kept Tate’s happy ending and the Cordelia/Edgar romance.

George Washington, Fielding Lewis, and other 18th century colonial Americans would have known Tate’s happier version of King Lear.  American audiences would have to wait to see Tate’s version until after 1752 when the first professional actors arrived in the colonies from London. The first instance of King Lear being performed in any of the colonies comes in 1754 with a performance by Lewis Hallam’s London Company of Comedians in New York. Because so few playbills from the era have survived, this instance might not be the first time the company performed it in the colonies, but it was most certainly not the last.

This sketch of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London in 1813 — not long after it opened — gives an idea of how one of the world’s finest theaters appeared in the early 19th century. Colonial America’s theaters would not have been this elaborate. Indeed, many traveling acting companies like those that occasionally performed in Fredericksburg performed wherever they could.  Performances usually took place in taverns but sometimes even in barns. Public domain.

Washington loved theatre and attended the playhouse frequently throughout his life. While Cato was his favorite play, he attended the theater whenever he could. One of the first plays he ever sees is right here in Fredericksburg. Indeed, on June 2, 1752, nineteen-year-old Washington wrote in his diary that he and his brother paid for admission to an evening of theatre. The amateur company that probably performed that evening would have most likely not have attempted a performance of Lear. Later in his life, Washington saw the London Company of Comedians by then renamed the American Company of Comedians many times including during a season in Williamsburg where Nahum Tate’s King Lear was part of their repertoire.  In fact, this company of actors performed in Williamsburg during the fall of 1771. Washington and Thomas Jefferson both attended several nights in a row and the company presented Lear on November 12, 1771. We don’t know if Washington and Jefferson attended on that particular evening or if one of the other evenings also featured a performance of Lear.

Shakespeare’s Lear would have to wait until the next century to be fully restored. In 1838, William Charles Macready finally would restore Shakespeare’s text entirely, nixing the love story, bringing back the fool, and allowing Cordelia and Lear’s deaths to conclude the play.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

See Shakespeare’s King Lear during Historic Kenmore’s Shakespeare on the Lawn. This weekend’s performances at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday or again at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday are the last chance to see the Bard’s popular, yet heartbreaking tragedy, at Kenmore this summer.  Event details can be found at http://kenmore.org/events.html.  See more photos from last weekend’s performances here.

King Lear (Marcus Salley - center) decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters but demands they declare how much they love him first. Goneril (Corinn Keene - far left) makes her disingenuous declaration.

King Lear (Marcus Salley – center) decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters but demands they declare how much they love him first. Goneril (Corinn Keene – far left) makes her disingenuous declaration.

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