Lear is a re-telling of the story of Lear, premiered at the Royal Court in 1971. With a brief passage before the cast list Bond reminds the reader that:
According to ancient chronicles Lear lived about the year 3100 after the creation. He was king for 60 years. He built Leicester and was buried under the River Soar. His father was killed while trying to fly over London. His youngest daughter killed herself when she fell from power. (Holinshed and Geoffry of Monmouth)I took this as a reminder that Bond's intention is to take the same liberties with this scrap of ancient history as Shakespeare did - not to rewrite or comment on King Lear - but to create an entirely new play.
There are 53 named roles in the play and space for an assortment of soldiers, workers, strangers, court officials and guards to be represented as well. The play is told in three acts. The first two acts have 7 scenes each and the final act has 4. The principle characters are Lear and his two daughters, Bodice and Fontanelle and a Gravedigger's Boy and his wife, Cordelia.
Lear is building a wall. The play begins with a worker being carted onstage dead, an axe in his head, and a summary judgment of death by firing squad leveled on the worker who accidentally did it. The wall is a mud pit, the work is not going well, every one is sick and to boost production the worker is killed to keep everyone in line. Lear envisions a wall that will keep out his enemies - particularly the Dukes of North and Cornwall. His daughters have been inspecting the wall with their father and use the firing squad as their moment to publicly question their father's judgment, suggest that he is insane, and announce their plans to marry North and Cornwall. Then the battle begins.
In the first act war is waged, the sisters try to out maneuver one another and their father, their confidante is tortured - tongue cut out and ears poked with knitting needles so that he will not blab, they have their husbands killed and defeat Lear's armies. Lear wanders to the forest, starving, and is taken in by a Gravedigger's son, who has left his father's profession to farm on this patch of land. He and his wife (Cordelia) raise pigs, grow food and live peacefully. The boy takes in Lear, feeds him and invites him to stay, he relates the troubles that he's had since the wall has been under construction - people forced to work rather than take care of their families, the injuries and death - he and others have been sabotaging construction. There's a moment of calm at the farm, broken by the daughter's soldiers who murder the boy, rape his pregnant wife, kill his pigs, poison the well and haul Lear off to prison.
In the second act Lear is imprisoned, the sisters continue their pursuit of power and as Lear begins to lose his mind contemplating the depth of injustice, he is visited by the ghost of the gravedigger's son. He and the boy's ghost comfort one another - and Lear asks for his daughters to appear - they do, as ghosts- but also as visions of their childhood innocence and seeking comfort from Lear. He tells them:
I know it will end. Everything passes, even the waste. The fools will be silent. We won't chain ourselves to the dead, or send our children to school in the graveyard. The torturers and ministers and priests will lost their office. And we'll pass each other in the street without shuddering at what we've done to each other. (Act 2, scene 2)The tide soon turns and the wife of the Gravedigger's Son, Cordelia, has organized a rebel army and comes into power. The prisoners are force-marched to and fro, many are executed - including both daughters, and Lear is left to go mad in the hopes of doing himself injury. A prisoner, hoping to be smiled on - puts Lear in a straight jacket and removes his eyes - but it won't hurt because it's 'technological.'
In the final act, Lear has become a prophet of sorts, keeping house at the farm, taking in strangers and writing letters to Cordelia, faithful that she can be made to see reason. Soldiers come, more are imprisoned. Cordelia has renewed the wall building effort and Lear is shot dead in the woods.
I didn't intend to do such a long re-cap of the narrative, but once I started I wanted to work through it - and there's much more in the play of course. Bond lays out in his introduction what his political beliefs are (socialist, with faith in art/humanity over technology), the questions he is wrestling with through the play, and how he hopes to inspire hope and effect change through his art. The play reflects this and lives in it, depicting the cycle of violence, the fear motivating those in power, the plans and designs for peace and security that lead further into repression, desperation and insecurity.
There are glimpses of ways out of it - the fragile moments of peace on the farm, of comaraderie amongst the prisoners, of the ghost daughters - even Bodice is given a monologue seeking a reason for her new found power leaving her more fearful and alone - but they are only glimpses quickly dashed by the arrival of soldiers, guards, even workers rushing to their own oppressors.
Bond consitently asks the question of who's laws? and in service of what? by presenting the arbitrariness and 'justice' serving whoever happens to be in power. Lear's former councillor turns up at the end, seeking deserters in order to bring them back and punish them. Lear condemns his 'views' that they deserve their fate:
O I know what you think! Whatever's trite and vulgar and hard and shallow and cruel, with no mercey or sympathy - that's what you think, and you're proud of it! You good, decent, honest, upright, lawful men who believe in order - when the last man dies, you will have killed him! I have lived with murderers and thugs, there are limits to their greed and violence, but you decent, honest men devour the earth! (Act 3, scene 2)At this point Lear gives up and wants to be left to live in peace, in the woods somewhere, so he can grow old and clever as a fox. His wish is not granted.