Grainy grey images, transmissions from a primaeval era less than fifty years ago. Videotape ages more brutally than film, but more hauntingly…. King Lear is carried out of the mill; as Mad Tom leaves with him, men and women converge on childless Gloucester. He is hemmed in by the dark grinding wheels. Goneril and Regan torment him and the camera slowly moves in, manoeuvring, ensuring the viewer will watch in close-up as Cornwall digs his thumb into the socket of Gloucester's eye. The camera does not look away…. Lear and Cordelia are reconciled; suddenly the enemy forces led by their general, Oswald, enter and cut the dialogue short. Father and daughter are seized without a battle…. In a dark corner of a New York t.v. studio King Lear drags a cloak across the floor; his dead daughter lies on it. He re-enters the empty stateroom where he divided the kingdom and he dies slumped in his throne. His last words are “Never, never, never, never, never.” Only Kent and Albany are left alive…
“A perversion…” (Wadsworth 1954)
“Unforgivably bad…” (Griffin 1955)
“This performance went into history as a stern lesson in what not to do with Shakespeare on television” (Rosenberg 1954) 1
In 1953 American academics were outraged by the King Lear broadcast live by CBS TV in its Sunday evening arts slot, Omnibus. Omnibus was prestigious-even in London the New Statesman praised its “serious, intelligent” programming 2 -and King Lear, presented by the Ford Foundation's TV-Radio Workshop, was budgeted generously at $150,000 and was broadcast, unusually, without commercial breaks. Advertised as the play's very first television production, it attracted enormous interest because of the collaboration at its centre: the director was Peter Brook, then the rising star of British theatre, and Lear was Orson Welles making his first appearance in America since film industry hostility drove him to work in Europe in 1948. By now Brook was twenty-eight, Welles thirty-eight, two ex-enfant terribles exploring Shakespeare's vision of old age.
King Lear was seen by 15 million people and won a high approval rating, but