The Wheel Is Come Full Circle: A Production History of King Lear at the Public Theater Part I: 1962 & 1973
This fall from October 18 - November 20, 2011, the Public Theater will be presenting a new production of what many consider Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, regal, emotionally powerful, complex, gory and notoriously difficult to pull off: King Lear. I will take this occasion to examine the production history of King Lear at The Public Theater (originally called The New York Shakespeare Festival.) They’ve done Lear four times, and all of the productions have had their own strengths and weaknesses.
The first Shakespeare in the Park production ran for two weeks in August of 1962 at the Delacorte Theater and was directed by NYSF’s legendary founder, Joseph Papp. Starring as Lear was Frank Silvera, a Jamaican-born light-skinned black actor whose racially ambiguous appearance allowed him to be cast as characters of various ethnicities on stage and screen before color-blind casting had become standard. Silvera, an active Civil Rights campaigner also founded the Frank Silvera Theatre of Being, in Los Angeles.
The cast also featured Bette Henritze, Joan Potter and Betty Miller as Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, Roy Poole as Gloucester, Lee Richardson as Edgar, Donald Harron as Edmund and Michael Higgins as Kent. The future musical theater star John Cullum played the King of France. The production was fairly well reviewed, though the New York Times’ Martin Gelb complained that the fledging Delacorte Theater still hadn’t sorted out the acoustic problems on an open-air theater.
The Public’s next Lear was also at the Delacorte, in July and August of 1973, this time directed by Edwin Sherin. The Public’s commitment to color-blind casting was evident in this production, which featured James Earl Jones as Lear, as well as African-American actresses Rosalind Cash, Ellen Holly and Lee Chamberlin as Lear’s daughters. Audition notes in the New York Shakespeare Festival Records illuminate a conscious policy on casting minorities.
Jones got raves for his famously powerful voice, natural authority and emotional range. Mel Gussow in the Times thought the rest of the production—including Public Theater favorite Raul Julia’s Edmund and Paul Sorvino’s Gloucester—was uneven. Douglass Watson’s Kent, Rene Auberjonois’ Edgar and Tom Aldridge’s Fool were well-received. This production was filmed for the Broadway Theatre Archive and is available on DVD.
Stay tuned for the next installment of this blog, in which I’ll discuss the Public’s more recent productions of Lear: 1996 with F. Murray Abraham and 2007 with Kevin Kline.