A Licensed Fool

In King Lear, the character of The Fool serves many, many different purposes. He is a storyteller, a singer, a jokester, a political commentator, and can be interpreted as the conscience of the aged King Lear. Logistically, King Lear professionally employs The Fool — this position would have been familiar to an early modern audience as a “Licensed Fool” or a “Court Jester”  — to be entertainment for his royal court. One of the perks of being an official Fool is the ability and license to speak truth to power without being beheaded for doing so: The Fool is one of the only characters who can insult the king without repercussion. The Fool is wise and quick; he would have to be, in order to sustain himself (like Feste in Twelfth Night or Touchstone in As You Like It) being a Fool by trade.  One major difference between The Fool in King Lear and most of the fool characters in other Shakespeare plays is that The Fool in King Lear exists in a tragedy, not a comedy, and is a major character within the play — at least, until his character disappears from the play just over halfway through.

Chris Johnston as the Fool, David Anthony Lewis as Kent, René Thornton, Jr. as Lear, and Zack Powell as Edgar in the ASC’s 2016 production of KING LEAR. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

The tradition of the Licensed Fool dates to early medieval times but is also present in today’s culture. Whereas some people would categorize reality TV stars as fools [editor’s note: they totally are, but not by this definition of “Fool”] I would argue they are not employed to be fools. They can be foolish characters (much like Dogberry is in Much Ado About Nothing) but reality TV stars are not employed to specifically entertain the leaders of our political parties while also keeping them humble and connected to regular humanity (as far as I know). Contemporary examples of the Licensed Fool archetype certainly exist, just not in the employ of political leaders. With the end of the monarchical system of government (and along with the general fact that feudalism is no longer a thing in most of the world) jesters, fools, and the tradition of entertainers are now employed by the general population, instead.

When Shakespeare was writing, only people who could afford to hire a jester or balladeer or any other form of entertainer would have been able to employ a full-time Fool (after all, they require room & board and probably healthcare). In contrast, the masses all pitch in to pay for our modern “fools.” Clowns like the Marx Brothers, the famed vaudeville family who made many movies where they’d joke, sing, and make political commentary, were a huge hit, and audiences who wanted to see their movies were the ones who paid for them (as opposed to the president or a state governor privately funding those films and screening them only for friends and family). Our fools are people like Steve Martin, Dwayne Johnson, Tina Fey, Kevin Hart, Stephen Colbert, Louis CK: paid entertainers with the savage brilliant edge of a fool. With the advancement of mass media, these modern “Licensed Fools” have taken the form of actors, stand-up comedians, improv artists, and the like — for a “Licensed Fool” is simply an entertainer who is being paid for their services. In Shakespeare’s time, there were fools in the court and people playing fools on stage. American Vaudeville performers were paid entertainers. Today our top entertainers are paid for what they do with huge amounts of money.

The Fool in King Lear, however, does more than entertain. Arguably, he is the conscious of King Lear himself. The Fool holds opinions on all of Lear’s daughters and comrades. He shapes the King’s views (or at least the audience’s understanding of the King’s views) regardng Goneril and Regan in Act One, Scene Four by wittingly describing how the two sisters fooled their father. The role of Lear’s Fool reveals the true nature of all the characters using comedy, wit, and the permission to use them. The Fool is a vehicle to express true thoughts, and can be a dangerous character to those who don’t want to hear difficult truths.

The Fool and the idea of the Fool asks a question of us: is the entertainment with which we surround ourselves daily also serving as our conscience? Our opinions? Entertainment has a huge influence on how we view the world and the entertainers who get to have that influence are the ones who are paid. Just as the Fool heavily influences Lear’s world view, so do our modern forms of entertainment influence us. King Lear is a deep play with many meanings — we’ve hardly scratched the surface here — which still ring true today, like the role of the Fool: entertainers have the power to speak their minds, and that power can be dangerous for anyone who wants to stop people from hearing what’s on the Fool’s mind.

As an exercise, myself and my song writing collaborator, Theo Teris, wrote a song for an entertainer. A love song. This song is inspired by the jester-type and is inspired by fantasy and comedy worlds:

‘Dragon’s Will Fly’ A Fool’s Song by Chase O’Neill and Theo Teris-

Extending the experience all the way to Richmond: XXW 2017 field trips!

The XXW isn’t all about interning and archive movie nights – it’s also about roller coasters, water slides, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Check out these pictures from this week’s field trips: Kings Dominion & Soak City on Wednesday, and a trip Virginia Repertory Theatre to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (first) Tony-winning smash hit musical, In the Heights.

Kings Dominion & Soak City


Kings Dominion was a brand new experience for several of our campers. Apparently, not everybody in the entire world enjoys the particular exertions of roller coasters as, perhaps, I might. I still can’t quite believe that, but it’s true.

Luckily, the park has all sorts of other rides and attractions — definitely enough variety for everyone to enjoy themselves.

 

I didn’t want to be pushy or crazy, but I couldn’t help myself when it came to Topher’s vague fear/general disinterest with roller coasters. I mean,  I have five favorite things and one of them is roller coasters (the other four are Batman, Shakespeare, the Beatles, and brains — for those of you keeping score at home) which I used to be absolutely terrified to ride. I was around the campers’ age when a friend tricked me into going on my first coaster (long story) and though I nearly had a heart attack while being strapped in, the moment that coaster shot off, it was all over for me. I was hooked, and I’ve stayed hooked.

 

So of course my favorite thing about the day was Topher’s change of heart. Though he entered the park as a dues-paying member of the “No Thrill Rides for Me, Please” contingent, he walked out many hours later an impassioned convert to the Court of Coasters. Welcome, dude. We’re gonna have so much fun over the course of the rest of your life.

The day was hot (and the Capels were abroad) so the water slides and lazy river were a refreshing treat. The arcade had giant pigs (Vicky’s favorite) as a prize for making a successful half court shot (Vicky did not — but she tried!), we got to see a show called “Cirque” (after which several of us decided to immediately drop the study of Shakespeare in order to pursue trapeze artistry). And for the thrill-seekers, short lines lets us get in a whole bunch of the biggest, baddest, berzerkiest rides available.

 

After a long, hot, wonderfully exhausting day of hurling ourselves through the air at dizzying heights and dazzling speeds with nothing but a lap bar or a nylon seat belt or an inner tube separating our frail human bodies from certain death, we needed sustenance. The human affinity for daredevil acts of reckless, wonderful stupidity (what will the aliens say when they see roller coasters? “you repeatedly defy the automatic survival instinct and place your lives in the hands of machines, straps, and teenage Cedar Park employees… why?” Because we can, aliens. Because we can.) is quite exhausting, after all. It’ll be worth it, though, just to see the look on the aliens’ snarglefrioux, or whatever they have in place of a “face.”

 

All that to say, on the way back to Staunton, we stopped for a quick Chik-fil-a fix.


 




In the Heights at Virginia Repertory Theatre

The next night, we went back  to Richmond to see In the Heights. It was a brand new experience for me, an ardent opponent of musical theatre in most of its forms (except opera, operettas like Sweeney Todd and hip-hoperas like Hamilton, apparently) but that’s what the week is all about, right?

ASCTC alum Catherine Smith

We wanted these campers to see something significantly separate from what they’ll be seeing, rehearsing, performing, and living over the next three weeks – someplace where they do it with the lights off! Except on the (proscenium) stage, where there are all sorts of crazy lights and smoke machines and a big ol’ set and all sorts of other things we never use at the ASC — but that doesn’t mean we don’t like them. We also really like Catherine Smith, an ASCTC alum now working at Virginia Rep. We surprised her by bringing a little touch of camp into her day.

We choose to explore a particular methodology when it comes to putting on plays written 400 years ago by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. We’ve also found that our peculiar little method happens to work quite well for other plays as well — ones written by the contemporaries of drama 200 years ago, or 20 years ago, or 2 years from now (check out Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries to learn more about that). We quite like what we’ve come up with. We also quite like the infinite variety of choices within Shakespeare that allow his plays to work within the framework of any theatrical methodology you could imagine, and love to see our fellow Shakespearean companies around the world explore those choices in performance.

We also recognize that Shakespeare was not the world’s only playwright, Early Modern England not the only era in which humans wrote plays, nor iambic pentameter the only kind of heightened language that works so well on the stage. We want our campers to experience everything, not just the particular magic we have to offer at the Blackfriars Playhouse with Shakespeare’s text and technology. I think we made a big step in that direction — though I’m sure there’s a whole lot more everything out there for us to experience.

A solid attempt at a group shot.

 

 

 

 

(All of that said, I still like Shakespeare better.)