No halfway measures will do

by Norman Fischer | February 07, 2014 at 4:43 PM

Blog. Feb 4, 2014

Finished Dharma seminar on King Lear last week— this week Chris begins her month on the Lion’s Roar of Queen Shrimala, an important sutra related to both the Lanka and Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, one of my favorite texts. The Wayman translation of Queen Shrimala has a great scholarly intro.

Lear was profound to think about — just so happened last week on TV Frank Langella — who is playing Lear now in Brooklyn — and Peter Brook, the great director— were both on Charlie Rose. Acting is interesting, very much like practice in that in both cases you have to project yourself imaginatively into your life, be fully committed to the truth of who you are, what you are about, at any moment — be willing to open up your life completely, no half way measures will do. Ritual is like acting— in fact theater comes from ritual — in which you heighten your presence in order to perform a non-ordinary imaginative act. I feel like that every time I put on my okesa and stand in front of the altar. Buddha facing Buddha. It’s just me — but at the same time I have to be more than (less than?) me. Just like an actor who has to be convinced of the role in the moment of enacting it. Langella had a lot of stuff like this to say about portraying Lear. Too bad I missed most of it. Brook was also eloquent on Lear (Charlie asked him about it because he’d just been talking with Langella the day before).

My idea of Lear is that there are four distinct phases, four Lears, each time he appears on stage he’s in another phase of his development — almost a different character. First he’s bombastic and arrogant, thinks he’s a lot more in control than he actually is. Next he’s enraged, and his rage carries him all the way to madness. Then, having hit bottom (where he learns that there actually are other people in the world— even beggars and madmen are human), he becomes the wise fool: he sees the world clearly and can laugh at it because he is free of it. Finally, in the final scenes, reunited with Cordelia — the only person (besides Kent) who actually loves him —he feels love maybe for the first time — and is happy. He dies happy, even though yes, as Andrea pointed out in the seminar, Cordelia’s death is terrible for him. He can’t bear it. Sad, yes, but at least he has learned to actually love— which was his journey.

Brook doesn’t see Lear as actually mad. For Brook yes he falls, but it isn’t madness. He loses it in Act I Scene 1 when he banishes Kent and disowns Cordelia - which he does out of power and pride, according to Brook - and spends the rest of the play paying for this tragic mistake. To me, though, this sudden erratic action is already madness — the madness of aging, not knowing you are losing it, and, terrified of that, starting to act stupid. Old people are often difficult in just that way, willful, insisting on their competence. A great danger for us all! Better to let go gently, save all that trouble. Lear thinks he is doing exactly that. But he isn’t. He thinks he’s wisely giving up his power while actually he wants to retain it — his majestic self-opinion. When it turns out the daughters really have power over him he can’t stand it. Being nobody is too much for him.

Brook talked about acting in the most profound way — as training for life — or as life at its most profound. How hard it is, he said, to actually live life completely. Usually we’re so distracted by all we feel and don’t know we feel, we’re not even there for our life. When you act you have moments of cutting through that — too bad it is so much harder to do in life, he said. He likened the actor to a light bulb or a cell phone. If you ask the bulb or the phone “How do you do that?” the phone or bulb says, “It isn’t me.  It’s the current that runs through me.” This is what I say all the time! That’s liberation, to know life isn’t you, it’s what runs through you and liberates you from you. That’s what we are trying to realize in zazen.

Meantime, Philip Seymour Hoffmann died of an overdose the other day. Really powerful actor. Seems like having a lot of suffering makes you a better actor. You can get down there into the underlying suffering of any character you play— and what character doesn’t have suffering as basic motivation? That’s why Hoffmann was so good. Maybe too hard a way to live though. Same thing in practice — you better understand and appreciate suffering. No escape— and truth lies that way. You give yourself 150 per cent. Brook saw this point, too, in what he said. But for Brook it’s not a tragedy, it won’t do you in. Going into the suffering, and integrating it, you have a good life. Maybe not pleasant all the time, but good. 


Norman Fischer