Upon Cordelia, the beloved and loving daughter who has "Nothing, my lord" to offer by way of obsequious flattery of her father, that father in a towering rage has passed sentence that "Nothing will come of nothing."
Brent Carver, the Edgar of the King Lear that director Jonathan Miller has brought into Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater with Christopher Plummer as Lear, has the temerity to disagree with Shakespeare's furious old monarch. "Everything comes from nothing," says Brent Carver with the same quiet, yet fiery sensibility that won him a Tony Award for the role of Molina, the jailed gay window dresser of Kiss of the Spider Woman, and a Tony nomination for his lynched Leo Frank in Parade. He is only four days into the Lear rehearsal as he says this, and with the wisp of a smile adds: "That's what I say now, but ask me five weeks later and who knows?"
Edgar, the good son (as opposed to villainous Edmund) of the drama's other old man, faithful Gloucester, spends much of the play in the guise of "Poor Tom," a madman, wandering around a barren, storm-wracked heath as a seeing eye, of sorts, to his blinded and despairing father, who does not recognize him. Only late in the game, when Edgar encounters the now truly mad Lear, does Poor Tom reveal: "My tears begin to take his part so much / They mar my counterfeiting."
Hand to his brow, Carver nevertheless says: "I think it important we don't make the blanket supposition that this man is feigning. He makes a choice to enter into this nothingness, [and] he becomes one with it. Becomes one with that ecstasy" — i.e., madness — "which for him becomes absolutely real." Does that mean Edgar really thinks he's Poor Tom?
Two seconds for thought. Then: "I'm not going to answer that." Two more seconds. Sprinkling the cliché with a light dust of irony: "Appearances are deceiving. The whole thing's about that." Tiptoeing through a minefield: "In one's life . . . in one's journey . . . in one's self. . . to see clearly, to find one's whole self, one has to become nothing, whether it's forced on one or is done by choice.
"It's in the experience of nothingness," he says, fingers linking and unlinking. "In that experience you will find out how you will react, how you will respond. When you think you are at the lowest, you can go lower," says the man who lost his own father to Alzheimer's.
"This is such an amazing play," Carver says. "For what it does with the relationship between child and father, father and son, father and daughter." With a hand now shielding his eyes: "My dad died the week before we finished Parade here [at Lincoln Center]. He was almost 79 and had had a struggle the last couple of years. This play speaks so much to that whole idea, in terms of aging, in terms of decision making, in terms of who's the caregiver and who's not the caregiver."
Kenneth Carver of Cranbrook, British Columbia, husband of Lois Wills Carver ("she's fine, she's fantastic"), was in the lumber business. "A beautiful man, vibrant, wonderful sense of humor. Was a non-commissioned officer in World War II for four years, in England, Sicily, Italy, ending up in Ghent, Belgium. And then to have that kind of chaos at the end of his life . . . "
"Yes, and like Edgar's father" — blinded Gloucester. "What Edgar does is find out the importance of shedding the assumed things. Shedding things that . . . well, again, appearances being deceiving . . . "
I'm grasping, says an interviewer. Trying to get your deeper meaning.
"So am I," says Kenneth Carver's son Brent.
In a great 1947 essay, "Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool," George Orwell wrote that Tolstoy's quarrel with Shakespeare was as "between the religious [Tolstoy] and the humanist [Shakespeare] attitudes towards life," and that it had been given to Edgar in Lear, mad or sane, to sum up the humanist attitude in a few of the most telling words in all Shakespeare: "Men must endure / Their going hence even as their coming hither. / Ripeness is all."
How ripe, the actor is asked, do you suppose Brent Carver might be?
Hand now cupping chin: "Whewww! . . . hmmmm . . . well . . . depends on . . . maybe . . . when something is ripe, it falls from the tree, undergoes transformation and continues on its journey. A company like this, a play like this, the beauty and sorrow and compassion. Somewhere we have to recognize that joy is possible, that joy is not just the opposite of non-joy."
Nothing times nothing equals something. Equals, in fact, as the man said, and proves nightly onstage — any stage Brent Carver's ever been on — everything.