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By Maureen Dowd
WASHINGTON — For weeks, the hottest ticket in town has been the British director Simon Godwin’s searing “King Lear” with a phenomenal Patrick Page, put on by the Shakespeare Theater Company.
“It’s a critique of the gerontocracy,” Drew Lichtenberg, the theater’s dramaturg, told me, a parable on clinging to power “when leaders are too old and unwilling to step down and let others learn how to do the job.”
Carl Hulse and Annie Karni wrote in The New York Times about Washington’s actual gerontocracy and the challenges of governing with “an old and frail group of lawmakers.” The advanced age of many senators — with their ailments and chronic absences — has diluted the power of the Democratic majority. Now everyone in D.C. is also wondering how long Mitch McConnell will stay as the head of the Senate Republicans.
The 81-year-old minority leader is recovering from a fall at a fund-raiser that resulted in a concussion and a broken rib. Dianne Feinstein, 89 and suffering from shingles, has barely been in the Senate this year. The Judiciary Committee she is supposed to sit on can’t advance judicial nominations to keep pace with the way Donald Trump and McConnell reshaped the federal courts; their handiwork is visible in the horrible abortion rulings being handed down. Chuck Grassley, 89, had a fall and a hip replacement this winter and has already filed to run in 2028; at the end of that term, he’d be 101.
We’re ramping up to a likely geriatric rematch between Joe Biden, who would be 86 at the end of another term, and Trump, King Leer, who would be 82.
Exploring dotage in a postindustrial landscape, Godwin’s production evokes Trump, Vladimir Putin, Rupert Murdoch and his “Succession” doppelgänger, Logan Roy.
The first scene is redolent of Trump, with Lear striding off his jet and theatrically waving official documents. Goneril and Regan are flashily costumed like Trump daughters.
Like Trump, Lear uses an ego arithmetic to measure his manhood and success. Trump would brag about (and exaggerate) ratings and crowd size — and even tally the magazine covers Melania was on. Lear brandishes his retinue of knights, which Goneril and Regan whittle down from 100 to zero, stripping their father of his pride and sanity. “I am ashamed that thou has power to shake my manhood thus,” Lear cries out to Goneril.
Other moments bring to mind the 70-year-old Putin, puffed out and militarized, driven mad by a shrinking empire. Blindness is a theme of the play; and Putin suffers a moral blindness as he pursues an evil war against Ukraine, and he has tried to make his country blind to the injustice of the invasion. As Gloucester says, “’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.”
HBO’s “Succession” was conceived as “King Lear” for the media-industrial complex, as the executive producer Adam McKay put it, a blend of Lear and Rupert Murdoch. Logan Roy and Lear hurl thunderbolts of sadism, pitting their children against one another for control of the empire. (In Old French, “king” was “roy” or “roi,” though now it’s “roi.”)
Watching potentates negotiate over their children’s love, Lichtenberg said, it’s easy to see how the controlling part of ourselves can lead to our undoing. “The scariest thing that you can do in life, when you’re staring down the end of your life, is to ask if you are truly loved,” he noted on “Shakespeare Hour Live,” his online show.
Health issues felled the 84-year-old Logan Roy but legal issues may fell the 92-year-old Rupert Murdoch. The $1.6 billion Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation case against Fox News goes on trial in Delaware Monday. At long last, after a shameless career built on spreading poisonous lies about everything from climate to Covid to Trump’s stolen election blather, King Rupert, as Vanity Fair calls him, may be losing dominion over his dominion because of Dominion.
The Australian immigrant who ran anti-immigrant news organizations and let Fox News thrive on the racist “birther” lie about Barack Obama reaped billions by putting Americans at one another’s throat.
It’s hard for a journalist to argue that a news organization should be penalized, but Fox News isn’t a news organization. It’s a greedy business that freaked out when some Fox News reporters actually told the truth about Trump’s lies, and then it proceeded to broadcast the lies.
It would be swell to see someone held accountable for the grotesque deceptions that corroded our democracy and sparked the Jan. 6 insurrection. Just as social media companies torqued their algorithms to spin up conflict and profits, Murdoch torqued the news, giving viewers what they wanted to hear and blinding them to the truth.
Thanks to the despicable likes of Murdoch and Trump, America is now “this great stage of fools,” in Lear’s phrase, howling at the storm.
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