I admit, given the very cold temperatures outside, I wasn’t sure how big a crowd there would be at last night’s This is Not a Reading Series event by Pages Books, promoting Priscilla Uppal’s new book, To Whom it May Concern. To my great pleasure, and I’m sure the author’s as well, the Gladstone Hotel ballroom was packed. With people carrying heavy coats.
It was King Lear’s fault. I’m sure of it. He’d been conscripted to help promote the book – it was built on the underlying motif of his own story, after all – and everyone was dying to see how he’d push it.
He spoke through five monologues by educators, writers, and actors examining just where Lear, and Shakespeare in general, belong in our lives.
From author Shyam Selvadurai recounting how Learesque elements crept into the experience of his Sri Lankan grandparents fleeing their country and living serially with several of their children in North America, to York University professor Deanne Williams describing her crown attorney friend who recites Henry V’s “Saint Crispin’s Day” speech to rev himself up for going to court (“And gentlemen in England now-a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks / That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day”) – the monologues were alternately gripping and hilarious.
Writer and high school teacher Anthony De Sa regaled the audience with the story of how he hooked his students into enjoying Lear (“Was King Lear an incestuous pervert?”), while playwright and actor Linda Griffiths told of her journey from “dirty theatre” (in every sense of the word) to doing Hamlet for the first time, lying in a corner just offstage between her own scenes so she wouldn’t miss a single word of the play.
And author Andrew Pyper of Stratford, Ontario, who always identified King Lear with his own father – most especially in the way both seemed to love to talk– told us how the man had recently suffered a stroke and lost his ability to speak. Yet he can still sing, and Pyper played us a recording of his father singing “Happy Birthday” to one of his brothers who was turning 50.
Then at last the main event: Quill & Quire Reviews Editor Steven W. Beattie interviewing Priscilla Uppal about her book. Ms. Uppal is lively and interesting and smart – I’m always impressed with someone who can speak of “epistemology” with casual familiarity – and I was intrigued by her description of how she writes. She doesn’t so much write a linear, chronological novel as she writes scenes that interest her. And then pieces them together in a coherent order (chronological or otherwise).
She described To Whom it May Concern as more of a collage of characters’ letters, journals, and even some images. Indeed, one of the characters is herself constructing a collage with schoolmates, each person contributing a piece that represents them, and that collage is itself entitled, “To Whom it May Concern.” So it sounded as though the collage of images, ideas, and even experience was a vital theme of the entire book.
In fact, I was more intrigued by the collage than by the “Lear” elements of the book, at least as Uppal described them in the interview. That concept – the breaking down and reconstructing of a family’s identity and even its history – was what really set my mind racing.
So it was possible that Lear did a little too good a job, building up to the interview and setting up Ms. Uppal’s book. I’m sure I’ll read it sometime. But I came away from the event even more enthusiastic about rereading the original: the play “King Lear” itself.