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The First Time

Ianmckellen I have a crush on Ian McKellen, making it the first time I've found myself taken with an English gentleman, gay and 40 years older than I, and I've never even seen Lord of the Rings. But I saw King Lear last Sunday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, sitting at the edge of my seat, alternating between hunched and stick-straight, depending on the devastation or bluster of the moment, for nearly four hours.

I was there with three bona-fide scholars: English professors and/or writers and linguists and/or published experts on Shakespeare's life and work. I have never cracked the book of Lear, William's greatest tragedy, they say. I knew something about a mad king, I knew Ian was sure to knock it out of the park, and I am sure he did just that. He was brutally good -- as you all know by now. I'm also sure I missed most of it: not the gist or the sorrow or the genius, which were all breathtaking. I missed most of the actual words.

But in those last 10 minutes, when Lear is carrying his dead daughter on fast-buckling knees and crying "howl!," and I could hear muffled crying from every direction in the audience and my husband had to put his hand over his face to stave off sobbing, my eyes were dry, and clear, because I didn't want to miss a single second. And I'm sure I had the best time of all my expert companions.

What does a novice, pleasantly ignorant, get out of a performance that a seasoned veteran never would? I think it was spectacularly for the best that I knew almost nothing about the play before I sat down. I never thought, "I don't think they nailed that line," or "That's not what that meant." I didn't know what was coming, so emotions were always running high. I found flaws in the production by virtue of not knowing things my cohorts knew; my confusion pointed to weak points in the direction or diction that one should have taken pains to make clear. Most importantly, I got to hear those lines -- Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so/That heaven's vault should crack -- Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say -- brand new. What would I have felt in that instant if I'd known that that were coming?

It must be like wine. You don't have to be a connoisseur to know what you like, and what is good, and what is marvelous.

The American Film Institute just released its 10th anniversary list of the top 100 American films of the past 100 years, and I watched the countdown a few nights ago. Only a few minutes were given to each masterwork, so they had to hit the highlights. They call me Mister Tibbs. I coulda been somebody. Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world ....  What would it be like to hear these lines for the first time? Would you know what you were hearing? Be able to take it all in? I think of how chilling some of the most infamous lines of cinema and theatre are to me now, decades after they debuted, dozens of listenings later, having in some cases heard them before I even saw the performance. Just imagine the chill in the moment.

Or maybe not. Maybe you wouldn't bolt right out of your seat. But you might still have that vague heavy feeling that you'd really seen something, a feeling you can't shake for hours, that leaves you mildly bewildered and unable quite to focus.

That's how I felt after Lear, and I'm pretty sure it's Ian McKellen's fault. I'm no expert, but I know what it means to deliver a great line. I'll have to go rent X-Men.

--Anna Bengel

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