Sam Mendes’s current production of King Lear at the National, starring Simon Russell Beale, is fascinating in many ways, perhaps the most notable being the ramping up of the body-count of this bloody play. In most stagings, the Fool disappears, his death referenced in a passing sigh, “my poor Fool is hanged”; at the National, he is beaten to death in front of us. Goneril and Regan, too, both die onstage, contrary to the stage directions, as does Gloucester, whose heart “bursts smilingly”. Add in Lear, Edmund and Cordelia, and that’s quite a pile-up.
But this steep body-count isn’t a modern invention. There are 66 deaths in just 11 of Shakespeare’s plays. (Titus Andronicus has a hefty 14, The Winter’s Tale has only one, if you assume that a man who “exits, pursued by a bear” isn’t going to get very far.) In fact, that Shakespeare and blood go hand in hand is so well known that the National’s bookshop sells a poster entitled “Everybody Dies”, with handy pictograms of the fates of Romeo, Juliet and their unfortunate friends.
So the recent pout from the playwright David Hare, who has called the high death rate in contemporary crime-drama “ridiculous” seems wilfully obtuse. “At what level of reality is this meant to be happening?” he huffed.
The obvious answer is, at no level. That’s why it’s called “drama”, not “reality”. Aeschylus, who knew a thing or two about drama, reminded us to “Call no man happy until he is dead” – we can’t know how a person’s life turns out until it’s over. Since one of the joys of drama is that it gives shape and coherence to the random events that constitute our lives, death is a dramatic necessity.
It’s not as if this is a secret. Almost all opera could be subtitled “Dead Women”. Elizabethan drama would have to pack up and go home without murder: “When the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy good”, says the central character in The Revenger’s Tragedy, before killing his enemy by giving him a poisoned skull to kiss – oh, that old trick – and for good measure pimping out his sister. In The Spanish Tragedy, two of the characters die before the curtain rises, but nevertheless have speaking roles.
If we were to stipulate that reality was the starting-point for drama, where would crime-fiction, films and mini-series be set? Not in Europe or North America for a start, with their death rates hovering between 5 per 100,000 (ultra-violent US), 1.8 (calm Canada), and 0.6 (safe Sweden). Monaco would be out: 0 per 100,000. Sorry, Mr Bond, no Casino Royale for you, you’ll have to head to Honduras instead: 82.1 per 100,000.
Hare, promoting his new BBC drama, Turks & Caicos, says that he wants to “restore tension”, like Hitchcock who “never killed anybody”. Say what? The Hitchcock I know had no problem killing his characters, from the 1920s The Lodger, which begins with a woman being murdered, through Rope (the victim not merely strangled, but then stuffed in a box on which dinner is served – more “reality”, no doubt). And unless I’ve misread Psycho all these years, Marion doesn’t get out of that shower, dry her hair and find a good place for brunch. There is even a film-clip on YouTube where, to save time and trouble, 36 Hitchcock films have been spliced into 2 minutes and 50 seconds of murderous denouements.
Chekov’s gun is a famous theatrical dictum: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” This is more a warning against dragging in material that isn’t going to be used. But it also returns us to Aeschylus. Until the end is known, until we get to the ever-after, no story can be judged. And art, finally, is judgment. Reality is death. None of us gets out of here alive.
First published in The Telegraph