"Nothing will come of nothing: speak again."
~ William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act I, Scene 1
The first time I saw the play, King Lear, I was in high school. It was a drama club field trip to the Geary or the Curran, one of the theaters downtown, on a Wednesday afternoon when the rich matrons donned their furs and jewels and went to the theater--which I had been pronouncing thee-ATE-er until Mr. Crawford, the drama director, corrected me. We sat in the first row of the balcony on the left, and what I remember most is sitting literally on the edge of my seat, arms folded on the balcony railing, chin resting on my arms. I was figuratively on the edge of my seat as well. This was the first Shakespeare play I had seen done professionally, and though we had played out different scenes as class assignments—from Taming of the Shrew, Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar—this was a new experience, exciting and challenging and I wanted to remember every minute. What I'm left with more than 50 years later is the hush of the theater when the lights went down, the whisper of the curtain being pulled back, and the sound of footsteps on a stage. I think I cried.
“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” Act I, Scene 4
What I wanted more than anything in the world at 16 years old was to be an actor (back then, a female actor was an actress, but I don't use that anymore). I was shy, uncertain, lacking confidence in so many ways, but I found a tiny little flame, a surge of I-can-do-this that broke through all of my reserve and landed me the lead role in the high school fall play the year before. And Shakespeare, for some unknown reason, made sense to me. I memorized and recited a speech from Julius Caesar for my speech class final, when everyone else was reciting Poe's "The Raven." I chose that one, too, but Mr. Crawford said he was sick of hearing it, and he handed me "Friends, Roman, countrymen . . . " and I nailed it.
“Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” Act V, Scene 3
But Lear? All I can say is that I was so young—too young. And I was naive. I must have missed 75% of the meaning and probably all of the nuance. When we left the theater in the early evening, all I wanted to do was come back and see another one. I wanted to see more, see it all, read Variety, study O'Neill and Hellman and yeah, sure, more Shakespeare.
I lost my desire to be an actor when I took my first college drama course—and hated it. I didn't like the teacher or my fellow students and wouldn't know what a zeitgeist was if it bit me on the butt and here was this teacher asking me to find my personal *zeitgeist (at 18 years old, for crying out loud) and perform it for the class. Good god! I learned years later that therapists use this technique and call it psycho-drama.
In spite of that college teacher/therapist-wanna-be, I never lost my love of theater and a damned good story told on a stage, always trusting that I'll be able to follow along and I usually can. Even Lear.
* zeitgeist: the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.