The Purdue University Design Exhibition of King Lear at Ground Zero premiered at the Prague Quadrennial from June 12th to the 29th, 2003. We invited visitors to share their thoughts and feelings about our exhibition in the pages of our production book that stood on display in front of the model. As you can see from the quotes above, many visitors responded, and, as expected with such a controversial exhibit, we found a wide range of responses in the margins of our book when we returned home. We were somewhat surprised at the amount of interest in this project: we had printed about 300 business cards with our logo and a link to this website on them. We distributed all of them in the first couple of days of the exhibition, and had to tape our last card to our exhibition in hopes that interested visitors would copy the address down, and still be able to find their way here. So, if you are reading this now, you have found your way to our web site, one way or another, and are hopefully finding the experience provocative and engaging.
Since some time has come and gone now since the PQ, it has given me an opportunity to put some of those responses into focus, and an opportunity to provide some final comments on our journey that may help those who visit our site understand our project a little better. Hopefully these end notes will help you understand the production itself better.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the King Lear Exhibition came from the audience it found in Prague. There was rarely a moment in the eighteen days of the exhibition that the exhibition was without visitors.
The journey for all of us on the KLAGZ team began last January in a class we developed at Purdue University just to create this production for the 2003 Prague Quadrennial exhibit, A Lear for Our Times. We knew from the beginning that this was to be a 'paper' project-one that would not be realized, and that knowledge gave us some freedom to explore concepts and ideas that we might not normally consider. We also knew that our 'paper' project would ultimately play to an international audience-an audience whose opinions about Americans and the events of 9/11 would be diverse and far ranging. We also knew that Shakespeare's King Lear is one of, if not the most, challenging plays ever written; certainly it is considered by many to be the greatest play ever written. Even if the guidelines for the project were no more complicated than designing a production of King Lear, we knew from the outset what an extraordinary challenge that would be for all of us.
There were so many challenges tossed at us in this project: "find a site specific space" that "reveals this ancient play in new and fresh ways;" create a production that was relevant to "our times;" create an exhibit that would ultimately serve as the performance, rather than a design for a performance that would later be realized; challenge and provoke an international audience that we only vaguely understood; find a way to communicate the entirety of our concept to an audience that we knew going into the project would typically spend about a minute on our exhibit. To make matters even more challenging, we added to all of that the need to create a learning experience for a group of extremely talented theatre students from Purdue University.
Our solutions to all of these challenges evolved over time. We started with no preconceived notions, and began reading what others had written about the play-most notably Harley Granville-Barker, and John Russell Brown; also, the essential production history of King Lear, The Masks of Lear by Marvin Rosenberg. We tried to get an idea of the scope, characters, and themes of the play. Out of this month long investigation, we finally hit on about a dozen or so caveats that any production of King Lear must address:
I had been personally troubled by the mandate that this paper project of King Lear must address "our times" from the beginning-a beginning that came hard on the heels of the 9/11 tragedy. And so I avoided even considering 9/11 and King Lear, all the while aware that 9/11 has become the signature event of "our times," and to not find the relationship between this, the greatest play ever written, and 9/11, would be to avoid the whole point of the project. We went through many ideas about where this play could be staged, and how that would relate to "our times," all the while, avoiding the only subject that could truly address the challenge of "our times."
Then, late one night, about 4:00 in the morning, an idea occurred to me that caused me (and ultimately, several other students) to not sleep for several nights after: "what if King Lear, were not a man, but a personification. What could the play then tell us about our times? The concept of Uncle Sam as King Lear was born.
This idea of King Lear as a personification proved to be one of the more controversial ideas at the PQ. Many insisted that King Lear could not be a personification, that doing this would reduce one of Shakespeare's greatest characters to a "cardboard soapstar;" the contrary argument was elegantly expressed by a young student:
"It is more about America on a domestic level, America as a person; it makes Uncle Sam as a real person [that] we can relate to, Uncle Sam looking to the mirror and examining himself. It's more about America as a real person rather than as a conceptual idea."
We knew that this would be an extremely risky, perhaps even dangerous undertaking. Many would be outraged or offended; so we were not surprised to witness reactions at the exhibition such as:
"Sleep with one open, HACK! You fucking appall me!"
For me, this is actually a marvelous thing, a sure sign of a successful production: theatre should incite, provoke and stimulate; the only real offense in theatre is boring your audience; fortunately, that was not one of the comments our exhibition elicited.
I shared the idea of casting Uncle Sam as King Lear with the other students-the idea that if we just allow this single "what if"-what if the character of King Lear were portrayed by Uncle Sam-we could let Shakespeare tell his story, and we could discover what Shakespeare and his play had to say about "our times." And so, we went back into the script and spent about a month reading the script in great detail, insisting that we let the script tell our story, rather than force a concept on the script. There was actually a point in the reading where I got pretty scared-I realized about half way in that the play would wind up in war in Dover, and it would be hard to ignore the obvious connection between Dover and Afghanistan. More sleepless nights. Eventually, we just had to trust that Shakespeare could tell his story and resolve this problem. We had to have faith that Shakespeare's technique and genius could pull us through this problem. It did.
The result of that work later became the research column in the book we produced: reactions to the story that Shakespeare was telling us about ourselves. We did not change a line of Shakespeare's text, the only editing of the script we did was for dramatic purposes rather than thematic or philosophical. When we finished our study of the script, we found a story that was so compelling and troubling that it became almost impossible to consider any other site for this play about "our times." Setting the site at Ground Zero was a natural choice, a place where Shakespeare's "titanic" story could resonate against the most "titanic" of tragedies.
There was considerable controversy regarding this choice of site, of course:
"I know you are trying to come to terms with the unbelievable, but the site of 3000 deaths is not to be bandied around as the [site] even for a serious play. Would you do an open-air performance in Belsen? Please try and have some dignity."
Contrasted to a very short, but significant assessment that resonated with our own conclusions:
"An excellent use of the site."
The choice of site did provoke an interesting discussion in its own right: what is the appropriate use for such a site? We believe that it is entirely possible that the performance of Shakespeare's King Lear at this site might prove vastly more beneficial to our country than some of the current plans proposed for the site (e.g., more office, retail stores, etc.). Almost 3,000 people lost their lives on September 11. Untold numbers of them gave their lives in heroic service to their country. Shakespeare tells their story in King Lear too; we concluded that we owed it to ourselves to examine what they died for.
There was also considerable controversy regarding whether Shakespeare's King Lear was any match for the events of 9/11:
"Shakespeare's King Lear is dwarfed by the event of 9/11-Never before has such a cataclysmic event (God forbid we should forget it), been etched on our minds through global media coverage."
Ironically, in our research, the first criticism that we encountered in our initial research regarding King Lear was that the play was "The most titanic of tragedies;" "essentially impossible to be represented on the stage;" and was "too huge for the stage." We found ourselves challenged not only to find a site that was an equal to the play, but one that helped us to better understand "our times". What site could possibly hope to fully serve this "greatest play ever written," this most "titanic of tragedies?" After over a year of studying this particular script, we find ourselves immeasurably overwhelmed with what Shakespeare's play has to say about America at the turn of the 21st century-not its politics per se, but the way the human condition has evolved in our country. These ideas are articulated in the running commentary we provided in the book. Shakespeare wrote his play almost four hundred years ago. While we also hope that September 11 will never be forgotten, the widespread production of Shakespeare's play almost four hundred years after it was written speaks volumes about the greatness of this play, and we believe pretty strongly that we should not underestimate that greatness. We came to the play with a very special apprehension of its greatness. Through careful and lengthy study, we found that the play is not only up to the challenge of explaining America on September 11, 2001, but offers deep insight into the human condition that 9/11 illuminates. Contrary to the comment above, we concerned ourselves with choosing a site that the true greatness of the play would not dwarf.
Nevertheless, there is the issue of closeness-we are a scant two and a half years away from 9/11; and the closeness of the events to "our times" undoubtedly provoked such reactions as:
"This scares me. I could not attend."
"I couldn't either"
"We were very moved to see your exhibition. Our hearts are with you. Continue being so creative and free."
The heartbreak of this catastrophe cannot be denied; indeed it is the colossal size of the emotional devastation that truly helps us understand King Lear. More importantly, we have found that King Lear is an extraordinary work of theatre that helps us understand the devastation of Ground Zero. For many who are very close to the events of 9/11, this emotional devastation will simply be too overwhelming, too much to bear, at least at the present time. We understand that. However, comments such as:
"Quite clearly Ground Zero is a place with its own stories, emotional and political. The lead up to, event itself, and continuing aftermath and potential consequences are almost beyond imagination. By staging a theatrical event, you are trivializing much."
are much more troubling to us. It is a shame that our perception of theatre, even amongst theatre practitioners has been reduced to such an unimportant function, i.e., that theatrical events "trivialize much." Theatre explores the intersection of what we know and what we don't know. It is a place to explore life's deepest mysteries-just as it was for the Greeks, for the Christians in medieval times, and as it was for Shakespeare. The perception that theatre can "trivialize much" is a scary indictment of what theatre has become to many-an entertainment (one perception of our production even went so far to conjecture that it could easily turn into "Ground Zero-the Musical"). Or perhaps, there is a prejudice in the world regarding what American Theatre has become , and a subsequent assumption that this production must then be part of that genre?* The real unfortunate problem with this particular reaction, is that we strongly believe that the roots of America's strengths and weaknesses are eloquently illuminated by Shakespeare in this play. It would be an incredible shame to throw out the American baby with the supposed "bathwater" of King Lear. After living in the play for almost a year, we were concerned that some may have been 'trivializing much" about the play itself.
Pamela Howard, organizer of the A Lear for Our Times exhibit, provides a television interview with Purdue University Theatre's King Lear at Ground Zero as the background.
In addition to the problem of the strength of the emotional connection to 9/11 that might keep many away from this production, there are very real problems regarding what the audience brings into our production. One of the risks we knew we were taking when we chose the concept was that we could not predict how world events would unfold after 9/11 leading up to our exhibition in June of 2003. The invasion of Iraq by the United States undoubtedly produced strong reactions in our audience that we could not have predicted when we began, but nevertheless had a profound impact on what our audience brought to our production.
"Have you ever considered that the 9/11 tragedy is in part due to the oppression of the developing world by the western powers like the USA? King Lear's blindness is analogous to America's blindness."
That certainly is a viable take on America's problems one can find in our conception. The difficulty lies in the possibility that the visitor to the exhibit could not get past a stereotype about Americans to find this fairly obvious story within our production of Shakesepeare's play.
"Has no one in your country realized that they chose those buildings for a reason. This denial proves you deserved it."
Beyond the frightening implications of the second sentence, we did encounter two very different and contrasting reactions to our exhibition in Prague: pro-American visitors seemed to be outraged because the play was so "anti-American;" those with anti-American biases voiced a similar outrage over what they perceived as the strongly "pro-American" biases in the production. Neither exists in the production any more than Shakespeare wrote them in, of course. But we are so close to the events of 9/11 that most visitors to our exhibit bring strong emotions and opinions about "Uncle Sam" with them. One of the things we discovered in our exhibition was how hard it can be to get our audience past those prejudices. This manifested itself in a very real and tangible way in our exhibition-many visitors, both pro and anti American alike, seemed to be unable to get past the opening scene of King Lear dividing the world-the pro-American visitors seemed to be outraged that we would portray America as a colonizing empire; the anti-American visitors seemed to be equally outraged that we would apparently use King Lear to justify America as a colonizing empire. That image proved so controversial that some of our audience had a hard time sticking around (even mentally or emotionally) to experience the consequences of Lear's actions (even though the consequences in the story are, of course, well known!).
A marvelous example of this particular problem surfaced in a discussion I had after the Scenofest Stage presentation with a Belgian student. He was particularly distraught over what he perceived to be strongly pro-American bias in the conception. I started asking him his opinion about some of the ideas we had for staging that we showed in the presentation. He couldn't remember having even seen them! When I asked him about this a little bit more, he admitted that he was so upset after the first couple of minutes that he didn't really pay attention to the rest of the presentation!
Pro American visitors suspected that our treatment of Lear's division of his world was hugely and unfairly critical of America's foreign policy; anti American forces assumed that our presentation was a justification for the same policies. While we see this as an extraordinary triumph of theatre-the interaction between the performance and the audience, we can't deny that the experience for some was so highly charged that they could not experience the rest of the production; regardless, it certainly is an unusual problem for theatre today: an audience so engrossed in a production that they have such strong emotional reactions.
I came home from the 2003 Prague Quadrennial just in time to celebrate America's birthday, the fourth of July. The Detroit News ran an editorial that spoke eloquently to the experience we had all just gone through:
From the Detroit News, July 4th 2003:
Today, America is celebrating the birthday of a changing nation. It's an America that is more powerful but more vulnerable, wielding greater influence yet getting less respect. Seldom have Americans felt so good about themselves. Seldom has the world thought so poorly of them. America is a nation living in the shadow of an attack on its shores, while watching its soldiers come home in boxes from a distant land.We should all be asking, what does the Fourth of July mean to us, right now? What does it mean to be an American?.September 11 reawakened a longing for identity and meaning. Doesn't it mean something more to be an American than what we can buy? What does our flag stand for?
In the end, we too believe that America has a tremendous need for introspection and soul searching. We believe that it is so important that we are willing to risk offending those whose loss in 9/11 is too fresh and raw, and we believe that despite the fact that we will alienate many who bring very strong prejudices into our production, we will also help many others understand not only our country better, but the relationship between our country and fundamental principles we have learned about surviving the human condition. There's no doubt, from some of the comments we received that we achieved some success in this:
"I shook when I walked up to your exhibit and read the intro. Simultaneous feelings of joy and sorrow. What a wonderful idea, finally people are speaking the truth and I wish you all the luck in the production of this piece. Thanks."
Perhaps our favorite picture from the exhibition. It can be hard in a visual exhibition to persuade visitors to spend more than a moment or two at any of the hundreds of exhibitions. In this particular case, one visitor to the King Lear at Ground Zero exhibit was sufficiently engaged by the exhibit to find a comfortable seat on the floor to study the production book from cover to cover.