Review: King Lear as Allegory for U.S. Industrial Decline

I saw a preview last night of Quantum Theatre’s new Pittsburgh production of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Carrie Furnace. (It runs May 10-June 2; tickets here.)

Lear is the story of a king gone mad in the sunset of life. Immediately, this stylish production by the Pittsburgh experimental theatre troupe hits the note in a political key: The actors march out chanting the 1931 miners’ union anthem “Which Side Are You On?” Is decline making America go crazy? Can Shakespeare help decode our moment of madness? Is Lear Uncle Sam?

The sets are two rounds — the first, industrial; the second, bucolic — carved out of the Carrie Furnace, now a National Historic Landmark and tourist attraction. The Furnace was part of a steel mill on the banks of the Monongahela river that was shut down in 1982. Within sight is U.S. Steel’s famous Edgar Thomson works in Braddock, still a working steel mill.

This production’s embrace of these themes of industrial rise and fall reminded me of Moundsville (which, yes, you can still rent for $3.99 here) and its characters’ wrestling with loss and identity.

In the program notes, director Risher Reddick makes this Rust Belt meditation explicit:

Our jobs, our status, our wealth, and possessions demand our attention and define us. We can come to believe that these traits are intrinsic to who we are, but what happened when one of these defining pillars of self is taken away? Who are we then? If Lear is not a king, who is he? If Pittsburgh is not a steel town, what is it?

In Lear, he continues

we witness a man stripped of everything that seemed to define him, and through that stripping, find out who he is. Painful as it is, Lear’s journey, like Pittsburgh’s, is not simply a story of loss; it is a story of transformation, redemption and ultimately, liberation. Lear’s story reminds us that in the end we gather – possession, status, relationships – we must let go, and in letting go, we find out what we hold dear.

Pittsburgh has not, in fact, completely let go of steel. From the Carrie Furnace, you can see the U.S. Steel mill in Braddock, a struggling hamlet made somewhat famous by the films of favorite filmmaker son Tony Buba and former charismatic reforming mayor John Fetterman, now lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. (Pittsburgh-based) U.S. Steel is investing $1.2 billion in refurbishing the Braddock mill and its network of plants in the valley.

My companion last night was a writer friend in his 70s who grew up in Braddock during the booming 1950s. The reason the town is poor now, he pointed out, is “not that the factory closed but that the steelworkers in the 60s moved to the suburbs. That was the cool thing to do. My family looked into it, went driving around looking at houses, but my dad liked going for walks around here, and this is where his friends were, so we stayed put.”

In an email today, my friend added:

The town’s history, from olden times to its heyday, is a great thing. It’s worth preserving and building on, in way that you can. But for present purposes we’ve got to stop looking at this place as a 20th-century mill town in decline. This is a 21st-century community with state-of-the-art, 21st-century problems, and the people here need and want to find a better future that can work out from where they are now.

Outside of Braddock, Pittsburgh’s richer, whiter parts prosper, thanks to colleges, hospitals and a rich tech sector, sprouting condos, bakers and vegan restaurants. It is towns elsewhere in Appalachia and the Midwest — like Moundsville — that are having a harder time recovering from the collapse of manufacturing, and struggling with opioids, brain drain, and the resurgence of white supremacist movements.

The Quantum production is straightforward and strong, I thought, with period costumes and classic Shakespearian acting that was mostly very good, with a few flat tones. The play’s text was edited for length. We were back in our cars in under three hours.  The flourishes come from the surroundings and a few clever touches. The fool sings her song of wisdom as a blues number. (“Have more than thou showest…) In the opening scene, Lear walks out carrying his big, heavy cape adorned with the map of his kingdom he’s about to split apart.

Lear can’t handle decline, even as he divides his kingdom between his three daughters so he can

shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death.

The negotiation splits the family and ostracizes the good daughter Cordelia who refuses to “heave [her] heave her heart into [her] mouth” and falsely flatter her father. She flees and leads the French army to wrestle back control of the kingdom from her two evil sisters.

The characters wrestle with decay, what to do when

love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide: in
cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in
palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son
and father. This villain of mine comes under the
prediction; there’s son against father: the king
falls from bias of nature; there’s father against
child. We have seen the best of our time:
machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all
ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our

In King Lear’s case, traveling without his crown is a journey through madness, arrogance and victimhood – “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” he says into humility and truth. The once vainglorious king is left to plead:

Pray, do not mock me:
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

In the end, Lear loses the loving daughter Cordelia to civil war, and himself dies, but not before awakening to the depth of their bond and fostering, in the crisis, burgeoning wisdom from his son-in-law Albany:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Lear teaches us that loss is a trigger. The world spins. You rock. Fight. Cry. Journey. These things cannot be escaped. But we still have choices. If, like Albany, you keep your eye on reality, and love, you can hold on to something decent and sane, and keep going with a stranger strength. An old, useful truth to ponder in the shadow of a dead blast furnace that made steel for 20th century warships.

John W. Miller



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