Chapter 4: Fool, Kent and Lear
The stage lights come up to reveal a new set, with large boulders scattered on the stage, and a sprightly motif on the flute signals the entrance of The Fool to great applause, carrying the traveler’s bundle of Li’Er’s martial costume tied to a stick. In contrast to the preceding scene, his white nose paint unmistakably signals the presence of the traditional chou or Fool character. In fact, experienced Beijing opera audiences can distinguish between different kinds of stage fools solely by the shape of the white nose-paint. The Fool laments Li’Er’s folly, and weeps for him, though perhaps only pretends to weep, since he turns the weeping into fun, including singing the notes of the Western scale. He announces his role directly — “Li’Er’s jester,” and describes his place bawdily as “under Li’Er’s crotch… Li’Er’s pet… Li’Er’s dog.” This leads to varied impersonations of dogs, and speeches on the dignity of dogs, picking up and layering the many references in the text of King Lear to dogs as benchmarks of humanity and human behavior, from Kent’s “if I were your father’s dog you should not use me so” to Lear’s parable of the farmer’s dog chasing a beggar (4.7) which is echoed in Wu’s performance in this scene. The Fool searches for Lear, weeps again, for Li’Er, but then admits that if Li’Er were present he would kick him. Like the fool in King Lear and other stage and court fools of the English Renaissance, Wu’s fool is bawdy, irreverent, mercurial in mood, threatened by punishment but willing to risk it for a laugh or to make a moral or philosophical point. He addresses the audience directly at times, and is able to use his role to criticize the powerful. Wu’s Fool also remains close to the fools of Beijing opera, with his nose paint, crouching gait, characteristic finger- pointing gestures. The Fool exits, promising the audience an example of why it’s a bad thing to grow old before one’s time — and when he reappears, it is, surprisingly, not as Lear but as the Duke of Kent, Lear’s loyal follower.
Kent enters, characterizing himself as a court official — a class whose “swaggering” has been curtailed by the falling fortunes of the king they serve. He tells the audience the story of Lear’s misjudgment in dividing the kingdom and his betrayal by his elder daughters, who shut their castle gate against him. As he tells the story, he reenacts material from the first scene of King Lear , including his own pleas to Lear and Lear’s responses, and sings a song (not in Shakespeare) about how “the hero never stops dreaming in banishment” and yearns to return to the homeland, then, asking Fortune to turn its wheel, rests on the stage, perhaps falls asleep momentarily and as he wakes becomes he Fool again without costume change.
The Fool– still wearing Kent’s brown robe, compares their respective fates, and, hungry, pounces on Li’Er’s pack greedily, resuming his dog persona once more. Remembering that Li’Er once said “look not for gold in trash,” he searches for Li’Er in the rocks or “dog’s den” at the back of the circle. The Fool conceives of the idea that he can smoke Lear out of his den by pissing on it, and dances delightedly at the prospect. Lear speaks from the den, complaining of being awakened, and the Fool sings a song about a rich man in Taipei who bought his daughters each a building, and when they broke their bargain to care for him in return, he hired a bulldozer to knock them all down. The song, perhaps the only unambiguously local or topical reference in the play, is greeted by great applause and laughter. (Wu repeated the song in his 2007 performance in New York, only changing “Taipei” to “New York” in the song — and did not get many laughs or applause). The Fool then dons the beard from the Li’Er costume and moves from this analogy to the story of Li’Er’s folly in dividing his kingdom.
Shakespeare’s Kent is presented, from the first scene, as a loyal supporter of the king, willing to challenge him, and even provoke the sentence of exile or death, in order to get him to see the truth about his daughters (“thy youngest daughter doth not love thee least..”). Rather than accepting exile, he disguises himself as a rough and even more plain-speaking servant and enters the king’s service once again — only to be placed in the stocks by Goneril. Wu’s Kent is rather different in this sequence from Lear is Here, but remains the loyal retainer. Choose three short clips, that illustrate the evolution of the role of Kent in this sequence, attending to gait, vocal delivery and other details of physical presentation of the character.