Editor's note: This segment was rebroadcasted on June 16, 2023. Find that audio here.
For decades, Glenda Jackson has dazzled.
The English actress won two Oscars for “Women in Love” and “A Touch of Class,” as well as two Emmys for playing Elizabeth I of England in the BBC’s “Elizabeth R.”
Then in 1992, she became a member of Parliament, taking on conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Now, at 83, Jackson is playing a man, King Lear, in the new gender-bending Broadway production of one of William Shakespeare’s classics. Jackson takes the stage each night alongside actress Ruth Wilson, who plays two characters: Corelia, Lear’s favorite daughter, and his Fool — a recurring character type in Shakespeare’s writings.
Jackson says the idea behind the role was sparked after she visited a friend — a woman — who was playing the character of King Lear in Spain.
“She said, ‘Why don't you do it?’ And I said, ‘Don't be ridiculous. They’d never let me do Lear in England.’ Then the suggestion of King Lear came up again. That's how it happened,” Jackson tells Here & Now’s Robin Young.
Jackson says “modern dramatists’ view of the world” hasn’t changed much when it comes to women's roles in the theater, and Wilson agrees.
“Even if [women are] the lead, they're often still the victims,” Wilson says.
“There is still the prevailing underbelly that if a woman is successful, she is the exception that proves the rule,” Jackson says. “If a woman is a failure, they’re all failures. And that has not shifted. And even though we have made strides and will hopefully continue to make them, it's very hard.”
On women’s roles in theater
Glenda Jackson: “It hasn't changed at all. I mean it's really scandalous. I find that contemporary dramatists don't find women interesting. We are rarely, if ever, the central dramatic engine where there is some kind of adjunct. There have been major changes and still — still — that has not crept into the modern dramatists’ view of the world. And I find that quite amusing actually.”
Ruth Wilson: “We're all conditioned by the patriarchy. So even women are writing stories which still have women at the center [but] who are victims.”
On gender, getting older and playing King Lear
Jackson: “What I brought to [the role] was when I was an MP [member of Parliament], I had to visit old people's homes, day centers, things of that nature. And one of the very interesting things that I saw over the years is that we as individuals [and as we] grow older, those absolute barriers which define our gender begin to crack. They begin to fray. They get a bit smokey. And if you think about it, you know babies are born and then we teach them what their gender is. But as we get older, those areas begin to fray. I find that quite useful. Somebody said to me the other night, quite amazingly, she said, ‘I've seen this play many times.’ She said, ‘It's the first time I've seen that maternal side of Lear,’ and I thought that was very interesting.
“The ‘inside me,’ I think I'm about 15, but unfortunately the envelope that carries me along refuses to do what I tell it to do. I mean it has its own ideas about picking things up and walking and all that is very, very disobedient. And the other amazing thing by getting older is you realize how much you don't know — which is staggering.”
On King Lear’s character
Jackson: “I mean on one level, he's way, way off in some other world but the realities of life for other people is something that is suddenly, he gets punched in the nose because his whole life no one's ever said no to him. And he realizes he's been cheated by those people. And there is this sense of awareness within which is amazing.”
On Wilson creating a show about her own family — and her grandfather’s secret life as bigamist spy
Wilson: “We only found it all out in the last 10 years. I mean a quite spiritual journey I don't think I've really processed it properly. Every day getting inside my grandmother's skin, which is profound. You know when you're a kid you put adults on a pedestal and you see them in a certain way. And certainly to get on to my grandmother at the age of 19 and to tell her story and then tell my dad's story at the age of 18, that's been really amazing for me.”
This segment aired on May 6, 2019.