Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King, now showing on Broadway, is being billed as a comedy. While the play is shot through with an antic sensibility, “comedy” is as adequate a description of it as “music-hall show” is of The Magic Flute. This little-known work, written in 1962, is rather a profound and sometimes tragic exploration of mortality, delivered here by the most wondrous stage performance seen in New York in recent memory.
King Berenger (Geoffrey Rush), the 400-year-old monarch of an alarmingly decrepit kingdom, is reminded at the play’s outset that he will die by the end of the evening. For the next two hours, he argues with increasing urgency that it is simply impossible that he, the center of the universe, could be extinguished, even as his already aged body shrinks further before our eyes. Despite his determination to survive, the signs are not good. Berenger’s realm has all but collapsed. His retinue has diminished to his estranged first wife, Queen Marguerite (Susan Sarandon); his second wife, Queen Marie (Lauren Ambrose), an impetuous young woman with disheveled strawberry-blond tresses who is still touchingly in love with her geriatric king; an overworked and underperforming maid (Andrea Martin); an ironic court doctor (William Sadler); and a dense young guard in clanking medieval body armor (Brian Hutchison). The court convenes in an empty throne room whose moth-eaten tapestries threaten to tumble from the walls, while the castle’s fortifications, beyond our sight, crack and disappear. The once-populous kingdom has diminished to several hundred elderly subjects; nature sends out dire portents—seasons that change overnight and trees gone barren.
Rush’s king is at once the embodiment of this decay and its most determined opponent. He bursts into the throne room in a swirl of disheveled royal symbols, his fake ermine train loosely draped over blue-striped pajamas, his crown slipping continually from his head. His face is a mesmerizing, androgynous image of sickness tricked out with artificial liveliness: white powdered cheeks covered in rouge, stringy orange hair, eyes drowning in asymmetrical pools of midnight blue eyeliner—a haunting mask of desperate artifice that recalls the infected and deluded Aschenbach in Visconti’s Death in Venice. This striking face is just the start of Rush’s astounding performance. He is an enormously physical actor. His long, elastic limbs splay every which way, yet, like Charlie Chaplin, he can convey a world of chagrin with the slightest movement of an eyebrow. Rush’s Berenger breaks your heart with his increasing vulnerability, even as he tries to maintain a whirlwind of flamboyant activity. But his powers are fast disappearing. He asks his young wife Marie to walk to him; she remains eerily anchored in place, unable to move. He asserts that his legs are still strong, yet they are collapsing under him, and by the second act, his doctor has shoved him unfeelingly into a wheelchair. He loses his orange wig to reveal piteously thin white hair, sticking out from his head like strands of bleached straw.
But though his body ages and his physical powers dim, his mind keeps fighting against the inevitable, bringing back images of life. About to lose everything, he is overcome with wonder and longing, thinking of the many shades of light in the sky, the jewel-like colors of strawberries and eggplant at the market, and the unappreciated marvelousness of carrots. He cries out for warm arms to hold him and recalls his dear orange tomcat, which he rescued as a baby. Ionesco’s writing in such passages of love for the things of this world is lyrical and beautiful, though unless one has read the original script, it is impossible to know how much of the language is Ionesco’s and how much the result of Rush’s and director Neil Armfield’s adaptation. The pitiless Queen Marguerite keeps reminding the king of the shrinking number of minutes remaining, however. As his senses fail him and time runs out, the people around him disappear in puffs of smoke, leaving him terrifyingly alone in an ever-darker chamber.
The play’s cast members, especially Sarandon but also Rush, have emphasized in interviews the parallels between Berenger’s washed-up realm and George Bush’s America. According to Armfield, Sarandon was particularly determined to bring out an echo to the Iraq war. The audience guffaws, too, at seeming harbingers of Wall Street’s meltdown. Berenger’s failing kingdom is more appropriately viewed as a metaphor for the course of a human life, however, than as a cautionary tale about reckless empire. The king’s realm stands for the power of the body and mind that reach their apex, then inevitably decay into nothingness. His furious self-involvement reveals the inevitable solipsism in each of us, to whom we are, as the center of cognition, the most important thing in the universe. In a particularly surreal passage, Berenger’s faithful guard tries to cheer him up by reminding him of his vast accomplishments—composing the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as all the critical commentaries on those epics; inventing the hoe, scythe, automobile, and rocket; and writing Shakespeare’s plays. Berenger, then, is not a temporal monarch who foolishly wasted his resources in foreign adventurism or out-of-control spending; rather, he is the summation of the human race in all its genius, folly, and transcendence.
The supporting cast is uniformly strong, with one glaring exception: Sarandon, who is unable to deliver lines naturally or use her body convincingly. Toward the end of the play, Queen Marguerite removes invisible thorns and other annoyances from the king’s body. Sarandon has no capacity to mime a three-dimensional object, her hands do not close over anything, and they convey nothing of weight or substance. Her physical awkwardness contrasts all the more sharply with Rush’s plastic genius. Rush, however, was determined to nab her for the production, whether for box-office reasons, political affinity, or a misguided assessment of her fitness for the role.
Romanian-born French playwright Eugene Ionesco is most famous for his association with the Theater of the Absurd. Absurdist elements are kept in check in Exit the King, however, and are used to amplify the natural mystery of life without undermining the dramatic imperative of clarity. The play is neither a comedy nor a tragedy, but rather a unique merger of the two. Rush’s dazzling performance (for which he has been nominated for a Tony award) allows you to laugh at heart-wrenching situations. The play is an updated King Lear for a more individualistic age, in which the dominant problem is not dynastic continuity or filial piety but rather one’s relationship to one’s own self.
Whether or not you’ve meditated yet on your own mortality, if you have or had an aging parent, Berenger’s physical decline will pierce you with anguish about the depredations of time. But however heartbreaking the images on stage, you leave Exit the King exhilarated by the power of art to express the human condition.