He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning away from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters.
At that, as if it had been the signal he was waiting for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton closes on the image of an aged Newland Archer sitting on a bench near Les Invalides in Paris. It is 26 years since the death of his perfectly lovely but ultimately un-lovable wife, May. Through a twist of fate part orchestrated by his grown-up son, Newland is presented with the opportunity to finally meet with Ellen Olenska, the magnetising cousin of May and the one true love of Newland. Now everything, each individual avenue of Paris is pointing towards Newland and Ellen being able to be together. Yet after one tentative moment in the doorway, Newland sends his son up alone to meet Ellen, and instead waits on a bench in the street below.
Perhaps only those who have read The Age of Innocence and travelled through the preceding 307 pages (in the Vintage edition) will truly appreciate the crush of this image. After reading the novel, the sight of Newland on the bench haunted me. From the perspective of narrative, it is surprising, but that does not entirely account for its impact. It is, as demonstrated above, written in fairly simple language, yet somehow it contains within it such unfathomable pathos.
There is a scene in Tom Morris’s new production of King Lear at the Bristol Old Vic that echoes Wharton’s finale. Lear (Timothy West) rests awhile on a bench, his fool (Stephanie Cole) by his side. Slightly dwarfed by Anna Orton’s rotating set, the pair sit in a manner entirely suited to watching the world of a Parisian street go by, and provide each other with little hand-patting gestures of comfort. It is reminiscent of Newland waiting on the bench both because of the small sadness of the tableau, and because – in both Wharton’s book and Morris’s play – the sorrow is accompanied by intense stillness. It is like we have entered entirely into the present tense, the sort of state that Mindfulness gurus are always suggesting people aim for. The realisation for both male characters as they sit on their respective benches is that the events of the past are unalterable; they cannot take back previous actions. And so we have this pause. This little wait on a bench.
Until this moment, I was watching King Lear with the feeling that this was a production that was obviously good, and yet I couldn’t quite give myself over to it. In this state of self-awareness, I searched for its soul, wondering why some plays swallow you whole whilst others leave you semi-aware of the lack of armrest, the people next to you in the wrong seat numbers and the uncomfortable shoelace biting at your second toe. And then in an Amazing Grace instant, I found what I was petulantly demanding of someone else’s art sitting on a bench.
If there is an emotion most frequently taken from Lear – the emotion most closely linked to the term ‘Learesque – then it is likely rage. Yet West’s Lear does not rage very often, instead he weeps or looks hopelessly to the sky like a small child overwhelmed by the mounting horrors occurring around him. There is even, despite the character’s fame as a symbol of unsagacious behaviour, the suggestion of wisdom. As he wanders forlornly in the rain, you suspect he does so because he knows there is no hope left in this situation and has given himself up to the elements and the natural, terrible, progression of his fate. It’s as though he has accepted half-returning to childhood en route to returning to the earth.
Morris’s King Lear eschews dwelling on the violence and the madness, and instead finds the thread of sadness running throughout the play. There is something quiet and contemplative about the endeavour – reflective, even. In the choice of casting three professional actors, West, Cole and David Hargreaves, with the final year students from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, the subject of age is very present. Michelle Fox’s Reagan is beautifully slick, costumed in queenly floor-length nude and Anne Boleyn burgundy by Aldo Vazques Yela. Jessica Temple brings to Goneril the feeling of genuine hurt resulting from her father’s cruel insults. Both confirm what is always felt watching King Lear, that there is something in these two Mean Girls that would make them far more fun to drink wine with than the slightly precious character of Cordelia, here given a marginally more no-nonsense air by Poppy Pedder in sensible slacks.
However, it is the older actors’ performances that present an alternative take on King Lear, one removed from the usual sound and fury. Cole’s soft delivery rotates and inverts the fool’s lines, letting the necessity and futility of humour in tragedy float through the auditorium. Familiarity and friendship are present in the way each of the three gently moves the others around the stage, the lightest of touches on a forearm or, to return the bench, a pat on the hand. There’s no weariness in the sense that they have seen it all before, but there is a certain acceptance that one imagines nearly always comes with age.
Within the last week, much has been said about divisions between liberal youth and regressive pensioners. Focusing on the hope of progress contained in each new generation is fine, but unanimously pouring scorn on all elderly people is just as distasteful as dismissing the young and generalising their views. “The oldest hath borne most: we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” The chances are that thanks to penicillin and Google-financed research into longevity, the young will live far longer than the current generation of elderly people, but this famous quote still has something to say with regard to insight. Against the squall of instant reaction, there is a need for reflection and the ability to see history as something in landscape formation, not snap-shot portraiture. There is a danger that, as we battle on in righteous indignation, we succumb to the boring cliché of the arrogance of youth.
As Newland waits on the bench, his affable son Dallas ascends to Ellen’s apartment on the fifth floor. He has been instructed to explain his father’s actions as the result of Newland being ‘old fashioned’. Within the structure of Wharton’s novel, Newland is also symbolically old fashioned, one of the last products of a way of life on the way out, an American lifestyle never to be returned to after the First World War. Dallas, as Newland reflects, will know just what to say and will stride confidently into the room. Yet Newland knows when to wait. When to sit awhile on a bench. At what age, I wonder, does one learn to wait?
King Lear is on at Bristol Old Vic until 10th July 2016. Click here for more information.