Nicholas Wright's Masterclass: The art of theatre 16: Rewrites

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The Independent Culture
THE Lear folio is either Shakespeare's advance on the quarto, or the company's 'improvements' or a mixture of both - so whether the giving of Goneril's lines to Lear is a vital character touch, or simply covers an awkward entrance, is hard to tell.

But it's certainly more interesting if Goneril enters quietly, waits and then lets fly, than if she walks in shouting her head off. What fascinates me is how seamlessly the play rearranges itself around the rewrite: one small word-change ('stock'd' for 'struck'), and an entirely different incident is recalled - and the defensive daughter's words sound perfectly appropriate coming from her irate dad.

Dialogue which seems on the face of it to be highly specific can be oddly adaptable. In Terry Johnson's brilliant new play, Eleanor is odd-woman-out at a gathering of fans of celebrated comedians: 'odd' in the sense that she's the only person there with much sense of humour. It's also necessary to know that her husband, Richard, claims to have lost all interest in sex. (Bet you've heard that one before.)

Lisa, a suburban blonde, is a lot less dumb. Why does she faint? She's already claimed to have had a psychically-induced migraine when Benny Hill died, but we didn't believe her: it seemed like swanking. But now - in the draft first sent to the Hampstead Theatre - she passes out at the precise moment of the death of Frankie Howerd.

But we won't find out that Howerd has died till the end of the play. There's clearly something not quite right here: a rewrite duly appeared:

RICHARD: Because you're not funny.

ELEANOR: Yes I am] I'm funny] And I'm attractive] And I'm good company . . .

and moments later -

I'd probably make a wonderful mother. In fact I do make wonderful mother; his.

Richard snaps back, and Lisa faints in the course of - because of? - a ratty exchange between husband and wife. But is that quite enough? Johnson brought a third rewrite into rehearsal and this is the one which stuck. Eleanor still has the joke about 'mothers'; Richard snaps back; then, abruptly, Eleanor breaks the mood:

(to Richard) If you don't touch me soon. Not sexually, necessarily, not by appointment. But just casually, accidentally even . . . a simple touch. If you can no longer touch me, I think I shall go mad.

For the audience, Lisa's faint now makes perfect sense: a direct response to Eleanor's despair. Eleanor, meanwhile, has revealed her inner life more frankly, more openly than at any other moment. The stage goes still. You can't imagine the play without the rewrite: this is its heart.



GONERIL: Who struck my servant? Regan, I have good hope

Thou didst not know on't.


Who comes here? O heavens]

KING LEAR by William Shakespeare, Act 2 Scene 4: Quarto



Who stock'd my servant? Regan, I have good hope

Thou didst not know on't.

Who comes here? O heavens]


ELEANOR: A man took his wife to the doctor. The doctor examined her and told the man she either had Alzheimer's disease or Aids. The man said; how can I find out? The doctor said put her in the car, drive her out into the woods about four or five miles, drop her off . . . and if she finds her way back, don't fuck her. (A pause. Then Nick laughs)

ELEANOR: There you go; he laughed. Why don't you ever laugh at me, Richard?

RICHARD: Because you're not funny.

LISA: You'll have to excuse me. I'm feeling a bit peculiar.

BRIAN: Oh, sweetheart, what's wrong?

NICK: (FRANKIE, ie doing his Frankie Howerd imitation) No, take no notice; she's a peculiar woman.

ELEANOR: You've gone very pale.

NICK: Poor soul. No, it's cruel.

LISA: Frankie?

NICK: Don't mock the afflicted. (LISA faints)

DEAD FUNNY by Terry Johnson, Scene 3: draft, Feb 1993