The King and I
The Lost Story of The Lost Scene
During my first semester back-at-school, that would be Sac State of the mid-1980s, I was enrolled in a class on Shakespeare. I was finishing up a BA started a decade earlier at GWU, in Washington, D.C., and those intervening years of experience, work and otherwise, had added enormously to my life’s sum of adventure and knowledge.
I was informed by the students in this evening class that the teacher, a Professor Bertanasco, was of a certain sexual proclivity and he intensely disliked women. He never gave out As, and he especially never gave an A to a woman.
Okay. The ground rules were set. I therefore sat at the back of the class, and figured I’d get a good enough grade and enough enjoyment of the Bard to justify having chosen this particular class that filled a requirement and time constraint. It was an English course, held in the evening (Tuesday and Thursday), so that I could still work my full-time job at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a clerical doing technical writing work.
When Professor Bertanasco entered the classroom, I sized him up. It’s always important for any student to size up the prof at the head of the class, but, please bear in mind, as I never did during those halcyon days of my youthful innocence, that the prof is also sizing you up.
He was tall, a bit thin, with graying brown hair that was balding and cut like a monk. Sean, with a beard, pulled the look off quite well in the Robin and Marian film; but I thought the Friar Tuck hairstyle was going a bit too far with getting into the Elizabethan mood. His historic coiffure ceased to matter once I heard and watched him teach. He was an instructor of the highest order, and he was teaching dramatic and comedic literature of the highest order.
Unlike everyone else in that mandatory course on Shakespeare for English majors, I read the works of the Bard in my spare time; and I had read many of his tragedies prior to this class. I’d not read King Lear, however.
This tale of a despairing and somewhat despotic king, the egomaniacal father of 3 daughters (note the classic use of the trilogy), is derived from the legend of Leir of Britain. The themes and drama of this mythological pre-Roman Celtic king hearken back to the Ancients, Sophocles in particular. The nobility of the youngest daughter, Cordelia, smacks of the noble suffering of Antigone; and the tragic fate of Lear is redolent of Oedipus the King.
I read the play with interest, although to be quite honest, I must state that this reading was a night-time activity, one that had to wait until after all my other work was finished, and house-sitting a rental in South Natomas was part of that work. It was a flood year. In fact, it was, historically, the wettest hydrologic year on record for northern California until the recent deluge water year of 2016-17.
Driving from South Natomas, a rain-soaked part of Sacramento, clear across town, to CSUS (also a bit soggy) was a bold effort, Homeric in scope, considering the rusting metal chariot that I was driving. Since I-5 South had become flooded over the Sacramento River, the freeway exit into downtown Sacramento onto J Street was closed. I therefore took an alternate, lengthy, and woebegone, route that I’d bike-ridden often during one of my non-vehicle-owning phases. Those back roads connected “Natomas” with mid-town Sacramento. My path to that class was then clear to drive down mid-town J Street and into the eastern portion of college-town.
I was committed, if not driven, to see to the end of this course. Professor Bertanasco had begun to call on me routinely during the hour-and-a-half class, not only to offer my interpretation of characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night (it was a fast-paced curriculum!), but to suggest acting tips to whoever might like to play certain parts on-stage.
Perhaps he’d seen me roll my eyes at the desk-coupling of a young male student and a much older female student, a divorced Wife of Bath type. The duo had struck up quite a fancy, with overt vulgarity (although I do not suppose there is such as thing as subtle vulgarity). Or maybe he’d overheard my jibe to the mature wench, “The play’s the thing!”
The Professor asked me one night, “Miss Tanis, how would you draw attention to your character while on the stage with several other actors, all of whom outrank you in importance?”
“Nothing obvious. I’d make a very subtle, slight gesture with my hand, once or twice, in a way that could not be ignored.”
Friar Prof nodded his knowing nod, and he smiled.
It was becoming apparent to the other students that Miss Tanis was not detested like the few other females in the room who had dared to take this session from Bertanasco. It was also becoming apparent to this student that this Shakespeare prof was one heck of a literary and dramatic teacher. Unbeknownst to him, he was vying to outdo Professors Thibault and Claeyssens, my mentors at GWU.
Just weeks before the end of this class, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland was in full-swing, or full-downpour. It was late April and the rains had not abated much in the region. At that time, I was still very new to California, and knew very little about Oregon. I’d never heard of this festival. My introduction to its ribald existence, Renaissance-Fair-style, was the intended trip that Knavish Swain and Divorcée Wife of Bath were to share (TOGETHER) right after class. They’d brought their gear, including sleeping bags, into the classroom, for all to see.
It was a most vile sight.
At the end of that Thursday evening session (another rain-soaked night), the wooing couple, the trash-crossed lovers made their grand exit. I was still seated at the back of the classroom, and happily so. Professor Bertanasco looked a bit green around the gills. I felt a bit sorry for him, although I think the next assignment, handed out that next week, redressed the balance between this devoted scholar of William Shakespeare and the groundlings seated before him.
As part of the upcoming final exam, the students were asked to write A Lost Scene from King Lear, a scene that Shakespeare might have written at the time of the original composition in 1605-06 — but which had become lost. The professor had chosen several Acts into which a Lost Scene could be ingeniously inserted. (Actually, in the mind of Bertanasco, he’d done the hard work.)
I was completely intrigued by the idea. The other students looked gob-smacked. And I would like to say that I burned the midnight oil in that little house in the flood plain that was still flooding along I-5; but I didn’t spend much time on the writing of it. I did, however, spend a lot of time thinking about which character “I” would play —
amidst the written scenarios of sorrow, suffering and despair, betrayal, madness, poison, eye-gouging, suicide and, then, the tragic hanging of the heroine — which occurs despite a useless and sudden change of heart by the incompetent dastardly bastard son who can’t even get the death order done right. (Long before the Idiot Nephew, there was the Idiot Bastard Son.)
It had become my very certain opinion that this play was an absolute downer. I know that actors throughout the centuries have lusted to play Lear, mostly to prove they can act, only to reveal their decrepit deficiencies on the stage, and elsewhere.
I therefore took the tack of going against-the-grain of this nearly nihilistic play with the typical Shakespearean high-body count, and the convenient military invasion and machinations that lead to the high-body count of most of the major characters. I was also of the opinion that the grabby, greedy, brown-noser, treacly phoney older sisters were yapping all the time, while Cordelia wasn’t getting much of a say in this matter of life-or-death, especially her life-or-death, after she’d been banished by her cruel father right away, first-thing in the play!
Thus, the sincere but none-too-savvy Cordelia earned my stab at eloquent dramatic verse:
I wanted Cordelia to at least speak her piece before she dies. I looked to insert some hope amidst the despair, a smile suggested in the copious tears, an element of selfless love to wipe out the groveling greed of those two conniving older sisters, the hypocrites Goneril and Regan.
In essence, my doomed Cordelia refused to suck up to her father for anything, not for money, not for land, not for love. She’d rather receive nothing from him, which does indeed become her reward, than have to stoop to receive anything, even from her beloved father. And she grants to him the reasons why her love cannot be bought.
I am writing this scene from memory, because, after the final exam was graded, Professor Bertanasco asked me if he could keep this piece of my writing. He’d written on the top page: A very moving scene, with some very touching moments . . .
I gladly donated this piece of playwriting to this professor. He then asked me for the reams of photocopied notes that he’d handed out to each student for each Shakespeare play that he’d so masterfully taught. Bertanasco had not stated ahead of time that those notes were always to be handed back to him at the end of the semester. He assuredly, adamantly and most insightfully did not trust the student, any student to not sell off the notes to further plunder Shakespeare and himself.
With some discomfort, I stated that I had torn up his notes.
He gasped. Bertanasco was wordless.
I explained that this method is the only way that I have to be sure that the info and knowledge are in my head, and not left on the page. If I’d known that he would have demanded the return of those papers, I would have photocopied the photocopies to shred.
Professor Bertanasco was not happy, but he was convinced of the method to my madness. He scowled. I comforted him with this thought: “You have my Lost Scene instead . . .”
The other students all gleefully predicted that now I would not get the A. I was fairly indifferent to my grade-fate. The next semester, a summer session, was looming at me. I did nonetheless receive an A from Bertanasco, a man whom I did not fear.
Lugging my Riverside Shakespeare tome with me to each nightly session of that class probably didn’t hurt my image as a dedicated student of the Bard. My notes are still written in pencil on the delicate pages of text.
Decades later, Dear Daughter lugged that tome with her to her Sierra College English class. By then, the spine had become (unintentionally) faded from having been placed in a bookcase exposed to morning sunlight. Dear Daughter claimed that the faded spine gave the collectible book a vintage look, and maybe even helped her to get her A. She’d not had to fight floodwaters to reach that classroom; Mom drove her there — in a much nicer Caddy chariot — in between writing chapters of THE DAWN.
Fearlessly, I had braved the floodwaters of the Sacramento River to reach that university, a muddied ivory tower that has since become a paper mill. In my time, I’d merely had to fight the slings and arrows of white trash kulture, lounging in that classroom. The kulture then expanded well past the student body and into the faculty anatomy.
My dramatic reading of the only lengthy dialogue of Cordelia is brief. This brevity underscores her lack of verbiage regarding her own tragedy, as well as the tragedy of her power-mad, gone-mad father. Some might say, and I definitely do, that the character of Cordelia was more than a touch under-developed in this drama! I intrepidly did my best to expand her eloquence and beef-up her verbal bravado.
King Lear, that unwise father, was bleak until I wrote that Lost Scene!
Act I, Scene I:
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.
Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
Act V, Scene III, the British camp near Dover:
We are not the first
Who, with best meaning, have incurr'd the worst.
For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
Myself could else out-frown false fortune's frown.
Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?