Thursday, July 18, 2024

The Play That Explains ‘Succession’ (And Everything Else)


This story contains spoilers through the ninth episode of Succession Season 4.

Roman Roy was ready. He had written his eulogy for his father—a great man, he would say, great despite and because of it all—on hot-pink index cards. He had practiced the speech in front of a mirror. He had “pre-grieved,” he kept telling people, and so could be trusted to fulfill, one last time, the core duty of the family business: to love in a way that moves markets.

But Roman failed. His grief overcame him; trying to speak, he sobbed. The funeral that had been so carefully scripted suddenly broadcast dead air. Kendall, ad-libbing, stepped in to speak. Then Shiv. Their addresses—honest, calculating, and hewing to the talking points—were valedictories for Logan, and for their show. They also returned Succession, in its penultimate episode, to its original premise. The declining monarch, the children who compete for his crown, the rotating cast of lackeys and fools: Succession is King Lear, retold for the age of the media empire. And Logan’s funeral punctuates the translation. It transports Lear’s famous first scene to a cathedral on the Upper East Side. Kendall and Shiv are Goneril and Regan, complying with their father’s demands for flattery. Roman is Cordelia, the youngest and most devoted, unable to turn love into a show. Their performances will carve their kingdom, and this is both a ludicrous circumstance and a logical one: Family, for them, is an endless act of politics.

Lear treats loyalty as a fact so remarkable that its presence doubles as a plot twist. Succession is not alone in finding resonance in that concession. Late last month, having cited Lear’s connection to our “savage and judgmental” political environment, Kenneth Branagh shared his plans to stage it in London and New York. The news followed Al Pacino’s announcement that he, too, would be adapting Shakespeare’s play. Lear has been used as a lens for understanding, among many others, Dianne Feinstein, Elon Musk, Boris Johnson, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, and Trump’s children. (In response to the former president’s indictment in March, the older sons, like Gonerils with Truth Social accounts, offered up theatrical rage; Ivanka’s wan response, meanwhile, had a whiff of both crisis comms and Cordelia.) Maureen Dowd recently treated Lear as a metaphor for American gerontocracy. She was inspired by the fact that, this spring, “the hottest ticket” in Washington, D.C., was the Shakespeare Theater Company’s take on the tragedy—a production channeling the chaos that comes “when madmen lead the blind.”

Lear may be, as the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley called it, “the most perfect specimen of the dramatic art existing in the world”: a five-act ode, sprawling and taut, to the hard work of being human. Aging, selfishness, sacrifice, love, loyalty, grief—the play’s wisdom aches across the centuries. But Lear’s psychological insights are not, I think, what account for its new currency. Its political insights are. Shakespeare’s tragedy is a study of monarchy in crisis—of all that goes wrong when a leader’s problems become everyone else’s emergency. With every new staging, conditions that Americans prefer to think of as relics of an older, sadder time—inherited rule, incompetent despotism, coups—reveal their abiding impact. Lear’s ubiquity, in that sense, is understandable. It is also deeply embarrassing. The play should not translate so well. But here it is, all the same, ancient and acutely familiar. “Was he, maybe … losing it, a little?” Roman Roy asks himself, preparing the eulogy he will not deliver. He is talking about his father but also speaking to us, the audience. We might wonder the same. We, too, are the heirs of kings in decline.

Logan was not supposed to have survived Succession’s first season. The patriarch was originally set to die fairly early in the show, leaving his children to battle in the world he left behind. But the writers changed course. Logan lived. The decision made Succession even more directly Lear-like than it might have been. Succession’s characters speak, at times, with early-modern dudgeon. (“This is the day his reign ends,” Kendall announces as he executes one of many failed plans to usurp his father.) Sandy and Sandi Furness, the Roys’ rivals and sometime collaborators, call back to Horace Howard Furness, the 19th-century Shakespeare scholar, and to the son who shares his name. Connor spends the series living out an extremely Shakespearean joke: Logan’s oldest son, his most obvious heir, plays the role of the illegitimate child.

It is through Logan, though, that Succession transported some of Lear’s most famous iconography to the small screen. He is played by Brian Cox, an actor so famous for performing Lear that he wrote a book about the experience. Logan, the patriarch named for a king, wanders on seaside moors. Ailing, he is confined both to hospital beds and to a body that proves ever more unruly. He rages at his children, and his fury strikes like thunder.

Lear features more references to the natural world than any of Shakespeare’s other plays. Civilization and wildness, the allusions suggest, are never as distant as they might seem. And the two collide, in Lear, in the figure of the king. The monarch is, in the play, nature itself: the natural order exerting its brute continuities. But Lear violates that system. First, he abdicates. Then, he loses control over himself. Both forms of decline lead to destruction for everyone around him. The fragile order crumbles. Among those who seek to take his place, pettiness turns into violence. Bureaucracy gives way to brutality. Humans reveal themselves to be what they have been all along: animals, clawing their way to the top.

Lear’s own fall is both natural—to age, Lear concedes, is to decline—and exceptional. He raves. He acts like a child. Because of that, he is sometimes dubbed the “mad king.” (Performances of the play were banned during the reign of George III, for fear that the fictional monarch might remind audiences of the real one.) The play, though, resists a direct diagnosis for its main character. It treats Lear’s madness less as a conclusion than as an all-consuming question. Has the king lost his temper, or his mind? Where does being mad end and going mad begin? Do the distinctions, in the end, matter?

Succession applies those ambiguities to its own wayward monarchy. The show does not suggest that Logan has lost his sanity. Instead, it asks whether Logan’s brute rationality might be its own form of madness. Succession is, like Lear, preoccupied with the animal world—its hierarchies, its insults, its violence. And the show weaves that dour Darwinism into its treatment of power. Logan is, in every way but the most specific, a king. His health is a market indicator. His body is, like Lear’s, a proxy for nature. Logan makes his own climate. His whims become everybody else’s weather. He is selfish. He is cruel. In him, the assumptions that drive our political systems—market competition, callous individualism, survival of the fittest—come to their logical conclusions.

Read: The bodily horrors of Succession

The eulogies delivered at Logan’s funeral, by people who have spent their lives in his storm, are reminders of that. “He had a vitality, a force that could hurt,” Kendall told the crowd. “And it did.”

His pain is eloquent. It is also, in some sense, an answer to the question Roman asked as he rehearsed his eulogy: Had Logan, maybe … lost it? Roman answered that query as he answers most others: noncommittally. (“Who knows?” he shrugged to himself, on the matter of his father’s sanity. “But.”) And his indifference, like Kendall’s acknowledgement of Logan’s abusiveness, is something of a thesis statement for the show. Logan himself is not mad. He spreads madness all the same.

That tension makes for one of Succession’s most jarring, and powerful, tributes to Lear. In the show, as in the play, madness defies definition so insistently that the defiance itself begins to look like the point. Analyze these men however you want; debate their mental states as you will; they’ll keep doing what they do. They will keep inflicting their flaws on everybody else. They will keep seeing themselves not as agents of misfortune but as its victims. The rational mind acknowledges not only the reality of life but also the humility of it: The world does not belong to you; you belong to it. But the unfettered power that both men have enjoyed abets their delusion. Their ravings are arrogance gone awry.

And the delirium, crucially, is contagious. In Succession, it settles on Roman when, finding democracy to be personally inconvenient, he becomes a one-man act of election fraud. Kendall cedes to it when, after his panicked ex-wife tells him that she fears for their children, he dismisses her concerns: “You’re too online,” he tells her. “Okay? You’ve lost context. Everything is fine.” Rava is alive to the world in a way Kendall is not. The violence is spreading. It is violence that the Roys have brought about. But Kendall refuses to see it. He takes refuge in his fantasies. This is madness. It is also his true inheritance.

Succession can be hard to watch. Its satires—insights powered less by ironic distance from the world than by proximity to it—stab and sting and chafe. Logan is most obviously a stand-in for Rupert Murdoch, a man who, like Logan, made billions promising people that the world can be made simpler than it is. But he is also a proxy for Trump. Pundits have spent years analyzing the former president’s mind: Is he a narcissist? Is he gripped by dementia? Are his ravings real or merely extensions of his show? The answer is the same for Logan, and for Lear: It doesn’t matter. Trump does what he does because he can. His mind exerts itself wantonly. His delusions become inescapable.

And then, in short order, they become destructive. Trump is instability incarnate. Institutions pride themselves on minimizing the power of chance over people’s lives. Corporations have boards. Governments have redundancies. Every day, though, Trump lays bare the ease with which the weakness of one man—that addled brain, that cold heart—can settle into a system. The age of Trump is also the age of rampant conspiracism, of misinformation, of, in general, error run amok. Rantings and ravings are no longer exceptional; they are our rule. We live in a world that goes, every day, a little madder.

That is why Lear is so able to reach across the centuries and punch modern audiences in the gut. The typical Shakespearean plot is dense, full of jams and twists; Lear’s, though—teeming with affairs, betrayals, murders, tortures, banishments, poisonings, hangings, blindings—is especially frenzied. Story arcs lead to high-speed collisions; chaos becomes a narrative proposition. The tumult serves one of Lear’s most urgent insights: Power, when it becomes unreasonable, begets nihilism. The critic Harold Bloom has observed Lear’s obsession with absence. (“Nothing will come of nothing,” goes one of the king’s most famous lines.) And the play’s soap operatics abet all the emptiness. They disorient and overwhelm. Even in a play—even with action that is contained, neatly, to a stage—there is only so much chaos we can take before we give up trying to make sense of it all. For Lear’s audience as well as its characters, madness becomes environmental.

Read: King Lear, from the June 1880 issue

Shakespeare, in that way, anticipated the discord that shapes, and misshapes, this postmodern political moment. Monarchs, in Shakespeare’s time, rationalized their reigns tautologically: They were proxies for the divine, they claimed, ruling because they were meant to. Their ascendance to the throne, whether achieved through battle or treachery or accident of birth—and the choices they made while in power—were matters of godly will.

Americans, learning that history, typically take pleasure in mocking it. But we defer, too, to dynasties. We structure our society around birthrights. We allow inheritance—familial privilege, educational privilege, generational wealth—to act as a form of destiny. Succession indicts that inclination. The news offers daily reminders of it. “The question is, when Rupert dies, how are the kids aligned?” a former News Corp executive told the reporter Gabriel Sherman about the Murdoch family’s succession drama. This is a throwaway quote that says everything. Inheritance, for the Murdochs, is a game of musical chairs. It is a battle of attrition that will be won or lost in whatever arrangement happens to be there when the music ends. One family’s fortunes will become, in short order, everyone else’s fate.

Succession twists that dynamic, applying the vulnerabilities to its monarchs. At every turn, characters’ grandest plans are waylaid by mundanities. One of Kendall’s early attempts to overthrow his father is stymied by a traffic jam. Another attempt fails—and a man dies—because a deer, at just the wrong moment, leaps into a road. A shareholder meeting that will determine the fate of one of the world’s most powerful conglomerates falls apart because of … a urinary tract infection. (“The piss-mad king,” Roman pronounces the ailing Logan.)

Few would argue that the state of affairs that Succession is highlighting—so much power, concentrated among so few—is optimal. Systems, working well, have redundancies and safeguards, checks and balances. They will not crumble when one person goes rogue. In Succession, as in Lear, the people who will bear the brunt of all the melodrama are largely absent from the stage. That does not mean, though, that they are excluded from the stories. Audiences of Shakespeare’s time, taking in the tale—failing fathers, greedy children, madness, machinations, victors, spoils, chance—would have recognized their own history. And they would have understood, intuitively, the true impact of all the palace intrigue. When kingdoms are divided, the king’s subjects will bear the burdens.

Succession emphasizes the same thing. The show’s first episode closes with a shot of an apartment building in New York City. It is nighttime. The windows are ablaze with the flicker of televisions. The image captures the extent of the Roy family’s power. It also acknowledges the people who live under their rule. It clarifies the stakes of the show’s satire: We believe, still, in the divine right of kings. We merely outsource the old entitlements to newer gods.

A common criticism of Succession, and a fair one, is that the show, over time, has become repetitive. It recycles storylines. It reuses language, themes, and tropes so reliably that the viewer might wonder whether the echoes are resonant or simply redundant. But that recursiveness—Succession’s steady development, over its four seasons, of a sense of no ending—is integral to its messaging. In this universe, despite the appearance of world-shaking drama, very little meaningfully changes. The wealth that gives the Roys their power also gives their show a stifling sense of inertia.

The antics, and the stasis, resonate. We live in the wreckage of consequential absurdity. Succession came from a moment that was similar, in its way, to Lear’s: 1606, the year Shakespeare wrote his tragedy, was a time of relentless crisis. King James had ascended the throne in 1603, with hopes of joining England and Scotland into a unified Britain; he failed. In late 1605, a group of dissident Catholics attempted to destroy Parliament while the king and his family were in attendance. The Gunpowder Plot—“5/11”—was foiled at the last moment. The summer of 1606, in London, brought an outbreak of plague.

Shakespeare channeled the instability into his story of a kingdom fighting for its sanity. His Lear was a telling of another play, the True Chronicle History of King Leir. The original story ended happily, with Cordelia and her father raising an army together and reclaiming their kingdom in triumph. But Shakespeare, a bit like Cordelia herself, chose not to flatter his audience. He changed Leir’s ending, reshaping it to conform to that elemental definition of a Shakespearean tragedy: Pretty much everyone dies. In the process, he created an ageless omen. No redemption will come when the madmen lead the blind. The final tragedy of Lear is not that the king declines. It is that the king declines and takes everyone down with him. His madness spreads. It seeps. It writes itself into every story, and soon enough into history. And then—the greatest tragedy of all—the history repeats.