She died offstage.
That was the problem with Lear. All three of the major female roles died offstage. Goneril poisoned Regan, then killed herself. News of Cordelia's death is brought to Lear in his final moments. Three sisters: all dead offstage.
Our director pointed it out at the first rehearsal: here she was, a woman, directing a man's play, about men, and as powerful as the women seem, we soon learn that they are merely pawns in the machinations of the men who design their fates: Lear, Albany, Edmund. The women die offstage.
It's difficult to reconcile this with Shakespeare's other plays: Juliet is a flighty teenager who throws away her own life for the fleeting passion of youth, and yet she has one of the most poignant death scenes in the history of theater, where she begs for another drop of poison to kill her. Desdemona, in her last moments of life, is granted a sort of supreme power over Othello- we're left to wonder if she's awake, if she's complicit in her own death, does she choose to let her husband strangle her, is his murder of her really a suicide?
But here we have Lear's three daughers: Goneril, Regan, Cordelia. And over the course of the play, they wield more power than most of Shakespeare's women. Look at Goneril: Goneril singlehandedly orchestrates a massive military coup, convinces her husband that it's his idea, and then...commits suicide offstage, where no one can see her? Because her illicit lover is also having an affair with her sister? Really, Shakespeare? Really?
This is the discussion we had early in the production. And we decided that Goneril and Regan, at least, should get to die onstage. After all, we put on Death of a Salesman last season, and as we all know, attention must be paid.
The director said that she wanted to make people feel for this woman, for despite all her flaws, despite betraying her father and her younger sister, she is undone when she realizes that she was never in control, that Edmund has been pulling her strings the whole time, and she descends into a grief sharpened to a knife-point by the betrayal of the man she thinks is her lover. Of course she's a villain, but this is a villainy people could understand. She wanted to make them feel that, wanted to make them feel Goneril's utter despair when she becomes aware of her complete lack of agency. She didn't want to walk off and never come back, be pronounced dead from behind a velvet curtain.
So Goneril would die onstage. She would poison Regan and shoot herself- the beauty of a modernized production is that guns are much quicker and neater than, say, the Peter Brook film where she somehow manages to crack her own skull open by slamming her head violently against a rock. The day we watched that movie as a company, the collective cry of disgust couldn't mask the sharp crack as it drowned us out in surround sound stereo: gruesome and visceral.
So it was agreed: a gun. A gun to the throat, pointed upward, one click, one bang, and a fall to the ground. Goneril is a master planner: she would choose the quickest, most painless, most effective and foolproof death for herself.
The first night, she held the gun beneath her chin and fired. One click, one bang, and she fell backward. Someone in the audience cheered. Someone else shouted, "take that, bitch!"
We discussed it the next day. Was it too much to expect sympathy from the audience for a master manipulator who gets her comeuppance with a side of hubris? The director gave her notes; the actress playing Goneril nodded and considered them. It was better the next night. No tears, but no hecklers.
Still, she became quieter as the show went on. She shared a dressing room with the other two sisters, and nights went by where she said nothing to them at all. They said she seemed to be retreating into her character, and every time the audience seemed unmoved, she became quieter and quieter. She took it as a personal failure, whereas our director had set up an impossible task. When she did speak, she would often wonder aloud: what would she need to do, to evoke the response they wanted?
The run was coming to a close. Night after night, we performed to relatively full houses, and six weeks in, we were going through the motions: lines were recited like precision tuning on an assembly line; lighting cues were timed to perfection. Nothing was missing, nothing was forgotten, nothing was mistaken. We operated like a well-oiled machine.
She said her last line: "Ask me not what I know."
And while Edgar prattles on about Edgar-ish things as Edgar is wont to do, she slips poison into Regan's cup, and brings a pistol to her head.
There is a click. A bang. She falls to the ground.
Blood blossoms on the stage beneath her, spreading out in a tiny pool, rich and deep and red. A man wrests the gun from her limp hand, and his face goes pale.
"It's hot!" he exclaims. "It's smoking."
We all start. This isn't quite the line, and Edgar and Albany have lines before that. When they implore him to speak, he's meant to say, "it's hot! It smokes!"
But he skips ahead, and like any good company, his fellow actors pick right up from the following lines.
"Who dead?" asks Albany. "Speak, man."
The man shields his eyes with one hand, squinting out into the audience. "Is there a doctor in the house?" he calls.
Is there a doctor in the house? Every actor is conflicted about that line, in equal parts waiting for the day they will have a chance to say it, and fearing why they might someday have to.
But there is a hole, a deep, black hole, penetrating one side of her skulll and exiting the other, and a bullet lodged in the wooden floor of the stage. What good will a doctor do?
We run to her side, a finger in the blood says it is warm, it is real. No one remembers who picks up the gun first, but the gun? A fabrication of plastic and fiberglass; it does not even have a hollow barrel, let alone a working trigger.
But there she lies, unbreathing, unmoving, in a pool of her own blood.
The theater is sealed. One by one, every cast member is searched, every audience member is searched; no one has any kind of weapon, save for six pocket knives and three nail files that look vicious enough that they could possibly give someone a shallow flesh wound.
Wealthy middle-aged couples started complaining- because of course they couldn't possibly at fault, because rich people are never guilty of any crime more serious than tax evasion, and shouldn't we all know that? Finally, the police had no reason to keep anyone else there.
The coroner said that from the way the shot entered her brain, it had been shot at point-blank range, pointing up, not down, the same way she held the gun onstage.
The ballistics expert had frowned at the bullet when he saw it, and when the results came back...the bullet had never been fired. The bullet should not have even existed; it was, I heard, a funny amalgam of plastic and fiberglass. Impossible.
The last weeks of the run were cancelled. The funeral was well-attended; she had been a pretty young woman with many admirers, and a large extended family who all sat there looking stiff and pallid and uncertain of the zany theatrical types who kept coming up to them to offer their condolences. The service was a rigid, dour thing, not the kind of thing she would have wanted in life.
Still, there was not a dry eye in the house. Finally, a performance that moved everyone to tears.