“Divided Kingdom” (season 3, episode 1; originally aired 7/24/2006)
In which crying is a virus, and it’s going around
One of my favorite musicals is Sunday In The Park With George by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Very briefly, the story of the show’s first act involves the great artist Georges Seurat as he attempts to create his masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” (You may know it as the painting from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.) At every turn, Georges chooses his art over any connection he might have to the people in his life, chooses his imagined community over the real one bubbling up around him. The story involves him inventing inner lives for the people in this painting, creating them from the ground up, then essentially ordering them around and making them dance. In the show’s second act, however, the action jumps ahead a century, as Georges grandson, also named Georges, struggles to make his own way in the art world. (The roles are traditionally played by the same actor.) My favorite interpretation of the musical comes from Joss Whedon, of all people, and Sondheim himself liked it so much that he and Whedon became friendly acquaintances. It goes like this: Act one of Sunday is about the strain of being a genius, of having so many ideas that they shut the others in your life out. Act two of Sunday is about the strain of not being a genius, which may be even worse.
It took until this swing through of Slings And Arrows for me to realize that this dichotomy has been buried inside of the show all along as well. Geoffrey Tennant is the mad genius of the New Burbage Theatre Festival. He messes things up, he does things that are irresponsible, he loses money all over the place, and he just generally commits more to his vision—which he’s always going on strange quests in hope of finding—than he does to keeping in touch with his humanity. Yet when he can get in tune with that vision, with that genius, what he does is phenomenal. But ask him to describe it—as a British radio host does—and he can’t. He doesn’t know what happens. It’s an alchemy that can’t be pinned down, because if it could, then genius wouldn’t be so precious or rare.
Richard’s the opposite. He’s able to save the festival’s ass, business-wise, and even when things seemed to be headed swiftly downhill last season, he possessed… well, I wouldn’t call it the “courage,” but he possessed the stubbornness to see Sanjay’s plan through until it bore results. He’s ended up at the top of the heap, on the cover of Canadian Business, with everybody praising him for saving the festival. But he’s always got Geoffrey there to remind him of one thing: When it comes to the theatre, Richard Smith-Jones is not a genius. He’s never had a creative thought in his life. He’s dominated by the mundane, by the simplistic, by the very, very basic. If the festival were turned over to him, it might make a lot of money, and it might run like a tightly-wound clock, but it would lose its soul. Geoffrey needs Richard to make the trains run on time—such as they do—but Richard needs Geoffrey to make sure the festival doesn’t become a crass, money-making venture.
Maybe I’m being too hard on poor old Richard. After all, he does have a kind of genius. (Well, I assume. He saved the festival financially when it looked like it might sink into the earth, and that must require at least some level of financial wizardry.) The problem is that it’s just not the genius he wants. And every time he seems like he’s going to get a minor victory—like when he does surprisingly well at his singing audition in the second season finale—something else comes along to trip him up—like when he doesn’t know how to dance in that same sequence. Richard is greatly held back by everything he wants to be, by the deeply-held wish to be someone like Geoffrey. He doesn’t see the way that Geoffrey suffers for his art. He doesn’t see the way that everybody in one of Geoffrey’s casts tends to hate the guy before opening, and he doesn’t see the man who talks endlessly to a ghost. No, all he sees are the acclaim and the prestige and the critical accolades that rain down upon Geoffrey, and he wants them. Oh, does he want them.
How terrible that must be, to work so closely with someone who so clearly has what you’ve always wanted, yet has basically no idea why he has it or what to do with it! Geoffrey spends most of this episode fretting about putting on King Lear and crying when he has to make public speeches—to say nothing of when he can’t have sex with Ellen because he has erectile dysfunction. (She’s back from New York, where Macbeth has been hugely successful on Broadway.) Geoffrey’s possessed of his typically mad ideas, but now, there’s a certain element of people wanting to placate him. If he wants Charles Kingman—an aged man who’s probably too old to be playing Lear—he’s going to get Charles Kingman (though he has yet to find out the man’s a heroin addict), consequences be damned. Geoffrey’s in a place where people can’t really say no to him, and that’s at once terrifying and liberating.
Because if the Richard half of this episode is about the weight of wishing to be something and then constantly having it rubbed in your face that you’re not that, then the Geoffrey half is about the perils of success, about what happens when you pull something off that goes beyond your wildest dreams. Remember where this show began? It was with Oliver leaning on cheap tricks and the “irony” of sheep sound effects to put his Midsummer Night’s Dream over the top. (The show even nods to this by having Charles’ troupe of elderly actors putting on that very play.) Now, however, as Geoffrey preps Lear—as he can’t seem to find Lear—he is surrounded by people who want to do simple gory effects, who want to install machines that will create real storms up onstage, and it’s not hard to see how Oliver eventually descended into being Oliver. Without anyone to push back at him, it eventually became easier to just say yes to all of the over-the-top bullshit, to give up on whatever artistic voice he had and simply go all-in on effects.
And Geoffrey, at present, doesn’t really have anyone to push back at him. After Macbeth, he’s going to get what he wants, as stated, and Oliver is locked up somewhere in a trunk in his subconscious. (The one time he pops up is in a truly unsettling dream sequence, which gets at some of the really strange ways dreams can seem to jump cut between events or even locations.) To get to the point he needs to reach, Geoffrey isn’t just going to have to battle himself and Oliver—as he always does. He’s going to have to battle past the hordes of people who just want to tell him what to do or that what he wants to do is brilliant. Another thing genius requires is for somebody to be there to say no to it, and who’s going to say no to Geoffrey right now? Darren? The man’s a boob. Richard? He’s too envious of Geoffrey to ever see the situation correctly. Ellen? There’s just so much bound up in their personal relationship.
So Geoffrey embarks upon the quest of mounting his version of King Lear, yet another Shakespeare play that’s extraordinarily difficult to stage effectively. The key problem with Lear is, well, Lear, who needs to be a man so decrepit that the audience can buy his decay but also needs to be an actor strong enough to play a very demanding part. The age that many Lears seem to be in recent years is somewhere in their 60s, but this doesn’t really get at the way that Lear has wasted away, not like the play indicates. Orson Welles, for instance, played a great Lear in a TV production, but he was so young that he was never once convincing at bringing out the play’s themes of moral and physical decay—of a man who gains compassion as he loses his mind, as Charles would have it. There’s also always the temptation to overdo Lear, to make the storm sequence one that so dominates everything that it becomes a triumph of stagecraft over anything else. The trick is to thread the needle. In Charles, Geoffrey believes he’s found the actor who will do that for him, but in the final shot of the episode—of Charles shooting up—the writers let us know that, no, he hasn’t.
“Divided Kingdom” is laced throughout with graceful moments that let us know we’re approaching the end. I genuinely have no idea if this season was originally intended to be the end of the show (and, indeed, the writers occasionally talk about doing one more season—for which I hope they do something around Othello and complete the four tragedies), but in “Divided Kingdom,” it sure feels like that’s what was meant to be. Where “Season’s End” boiled down season two’s questions into those of living your life or playing a part, “Divided Kingdom” gets at something more fundamental, at how hard it is to be a genius and how hard it is to not be one, to constantly be surrounded by people who, at best, pity you slightly. Or it gets at the way that success can ultimately cause decay. Or it gets at the way that death is always there for us all, the thing Lear needs to shine and the thing Geoffrey keeps blotting out—literally blotting out, since Oliver is locked up somewhere. Genius needs not-genius to exist; success needs failure (or at least someone willing to call bullshit) to happen; life needs death to be omnipresent to have any joy or potency. Yet it’s always the opposite that terrifies us, the opposite we run from. One way or another, everybody on Slings And Arrows, maybe everybody alive, is trying to escape who they really are.
- Season three is my favorite of this show, but, man, I think it has the weakest theme song. I do like that Frank does a little dance as Cyril sings, though.
- Darren spent the last several months in Amsterdam, where people are so very grim. I always love when he recounts his adventures in Europe. And now, he’s directing a musical! That seems like a natural fit.
- It’s impressive how quickly William Hutt asserts himself as Charles. You really do buy that he’s this lion of the theatre who’s mostly in retirement and comes back to play this one great part the way it was meant to be played. (And the frailty of the character is real. Hutt would die just a year after this season aired.)
- It’s interesting to watch Geoffrey constantly cast about for someone to push back against him. No one will in the production meeting, and even Nahum suggests that what they did in Nigeria to create a storm was rattle a tin sheet. The one person who does push back is someone who says casting Charles is a mistake—and that’s because he wants the part for himself.
- The scene where Richard gets a car is just a terrific little piece of acting from everybody, right down to Mr. Archer himself, who’s trying to be nice, for God’s sake.
- I also like Geoffrey saying that maybe crying is contagious after Richard admits to crying behind the wheel of his new car.
- Another great Richard scene is the one where he talks about how he doesn’t want to sell his old car and says it’s something about how he was raised… or maybe about how he isn’t ready to be done with who he was, with who he used to be. I think that’s a pretty major line to clue us in on what this season ends up being about, and I hope you keep it in mind going forward.
Next week: Lear starts to get up on its feet, and Charles’ peculiar demons take center stage in “Vex Not His Ghost.” (And, yes, you probably know which ghost at this point.)