Now, Judge Dan Mancini, stand up for bastards!
O! Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven.
Hosted by Alistair Cooke, Omnibus premiered on CBS in 1953, later moved to ABC, and finally ended up on NBC until it left the airwaves in 1961. The series was dedicated to bringing high culture to the American masses. The show—which ran 90 minutes and usually offered up three segments each week—embraced a wide swath of culture, including drama, literature, and music. All sorts of stars contributed to the show: Jack Benny, Peter Ustinov, James Dean, William Faulkner, Gene Kelly, and Leonard Bernstein all made appearances, either as performers or lecturers, dissecting the intricacies of their craft.
With the possible exception of Leonard Bernstein's brilliant lectures on music, no episode of Omnibus is more famous than the one under review here, featuring Orson Welles performing Shakespeare's King Lear.
Facts of the Case
Aged King Lear (Welles) decides he will split his kingdom among his three daughters, giving the largest share of it to the one who most loves him. Foolishly, the old man banishes his daughter Cordelia (Natasha Parry, Romeo and Juliet (1968)), who loves him too much to ply him with false flattery. Instead, he splits his kingdom between conniving daughters Regan (Margaret Phillips, Studio One) and Goneril (Beatrice Straight, Poltergeist). Cutthroat double-dealing ensues, and soon Lear finds himself stripped of his retinue and cast out to wander the heath in his madness and rage, with only his Fool (Alan Badel, Shogun) to keep him company. The once great king learns too late Cordelia is the only of his daughters that he can trust.
Omnibus' presentation of King Lear was a special event indeed. Marking Orson Welles' debut on television, it devoted its full 90 minutes to the play, without commercial interruption. Famed British theater and film director Peter Brook (Lord of the Flies) staged the action and shaped the teleplay from Shakespeare's work. The live broadcast was directed by Andrew McCullough (Family Ties), who cleverly used inserts of miniatures and a couple instances of pre-recorded voice-overs to give the production a slick (by 1953 standards) presentation that doesn't look as much like a filmed play (which it basically is) as one would imagine going in. Alistair Cooke provides a long introduction that makes clear how hotly anticipated Welles' small-screen debut was, as well as explaining and justifying the show's significantly slimmed down version of the Bard's play (performed in its entirety, King Lear is more than twice the length of this television production).
Brook elides the entire subplot involving the Earl of Gloucester's illegitimate son Edmund trying to usurp power from Gloucester's heir, Edgar. The trimming makes the play considerably less epic and more intimate, but that works fine given television's natural intimacy. Besides, Brooks' editorial choices mean that Welles is onscreen for almost the entire play. That's clearly what audiences in 1953 were eager to see, and the great actor doesn't disappoint. Though only 38 years old, Welles is convincing as an old man losing his mind. Of course, he'd already wowed cinema audiences by doing a bang-up job playing an aged Charles Foster Kane when he was only 26 in Citizen Kane, so its no surprise he was able to pull it off in 1953. As Lear, Welles blusters well in the early stages of the play (his deep, silken voice is perfect for it), but is even more impressive as the King becomes increasingly lost, depressed, and angry. Exploiting television's intimacy, he expresses more through damp and vacant eyes than is possible for a stage actor. The rest of the cast acquit themselves well—especially Frederick Worlock (Sherlock Holmes Faces Death) and Alan Badel as Gloucester and the Fool, respectively—but the entire show is about watching Welles step into the formidable shoes of Lear. He does not disappoint.
King Lear was archived via the magic of kinescope, so the A/V quality isn't all that great. The digital transfer on this DVD displays middling contrast, slight flicker every now and then, and plenty of source flaws. Audio is fairly muddy and riddled with distortion. It wouldn't be that bad, taking into account the age of the source, except that the low quality makes it difficult to keep up with Shakespeare's rich and dense poetry. Anyone not already familiar with the play may want to kick on the optional English subtitles just to ensure they don't miss any key turns of plot. Based on the way the show looks and sounds, you'd think someone just filmed a video monitor playing back the live performance. Oh, wait, that's exactly what someone did. Still, having the show preserved on kinescope is a lot better than not having it all.
In addition to the teleplay, the disc contains a hefty batch of extras, all Shakespeare related and all lifted from various episodes of Omnibus. Here's what you'll find:
Backstage Preview (5:22) is a promo for King Lear broadcast during the previous week's episode of Omnibus. Hosted by Cooke, it features Brook directing his actors as well as production design paintings of the sets and a brief conversation with composer Virgil Thomson, who provided the score for the production. The segment denies us a look at Welles rehearsing as Lear in order to whet the audience's appetite. The whole thing is scripted and contrived, but still interesting.
Dr. Frank Baxter on the Globe Theater (9:58) is another clip from Omnibus, again hosted by Cooke. It features Dr. Baxter, a University of California professor, providing a crash course on the layout of Shakespeare's Globe Theater (complete with demonstration model) and how it influenced the conventions of Elizabethan drama.
Yale Shakespeare Festival (42:53) finds Omnibus visiting the annual festival during an episode from 1954. The segment is hosted by Burgess Meredith (Rocky) and features scenes from The Merry Wives of Windsor.
In Walter Kerr on Staging Shakespeare (43:24) the theater critic talks about how Shakespeare worked, what we do and do not know of his career, and how that creates a variety of options in the presentation of his plays. The piece includes several scenes from Hamlet, interpreted in different ways.
It is almost unfathomable to me that the network that now gives us reality TV bilge like Big Brother and three different flavors of formulaic crime-drama CSI used to, once upon a time, air the stuff that's on this disc. E1's DVD presentation of King Lear offers up a heaping helping of high-grade Shakespeare. Not only is Welles' performance in Lear strong, but the academic examinations of the Bard, his plays, and his world are full of substance. Exactly what alternate reality did this disc come from and how can I travel there?
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Studio: E1 Entertainment
• Bonus Segments
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