When I tuned into the PBS Great Performances broadcast of the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of King Lear in 1977, I didn't do so because I was eager to see RenÚ Auberjonois play Edgar. The production had received much press coverage as one of the early multi-cultural castings of Shakespeare, and it drew my attention because of James Earl Jones's presence in the title role, as well as Raul Julia's as Edmund, the treacherous and mesmerizing bastard son of Gloucester. At that time, my interest in Edgar as a character and RenÚ as a performer were virtually nonexistent. By the time the broadcast ended, I was so interested in them that I had nearly forgotten everyone else.
On paper, Edgar looks to be a good role: the dutiful legitimate son betrayed by a conniving brother and a gullible father, he gets to play mad, kill the villain, and, as one of the few characters left standing, give the final authoritative speech of the play. Yet, amidst the consummate wickedness, raised almost to an art form, among Edmund, Goneril and Regan, and the terrible sufferings of Lear and Gloucester, Edgar had always seemed to me a bit colorless, a bit of a dupe and a sucker. RenÚ himself has said that he initially felt the character of Edgar offered him "an impossible/thankless role" before he discovered its complexity during the rehearsal process. When eighteenth-century producers of Shakespeare wanted to give Lear a happy ending, they had Cordelia survive to marry Edgar. That pair seemed the perfect couple, I suppose, the two "good" children, who, while moral centers in the play, also come off as somewhat dull and conventional.
That was my expectation for the character. As for RenÚ, I had seen him in his Robert Altman films, I had seen Pete n' Tillie, and I knew that he was that tall, skinny character actor with the very singular name that did not belong to one of the actresses - somebody who might well get stuck with playing Edgar. (At the time I had no knowledge of his extensive previous work playing major roles in classical theatre.)
I still remember the scene that changed those preconceptions forever. In Act II, scene 4, Edgar, hunted as a traitor, steps on stage alone and tells us in soliloquy that to preserve himself he must transform himself into "the basest and most poorest shape/That ever penury, in contempt of man/brought near the beast." And right before our eyes, RenÚ did just that. Everything changed-- posture, voice, expression--as poor Tom "that's something" took over because "Edgar I nothing am." It was absolutely electrifying; it was like watching Odo morph from callow young aristocrat to wild-eyed, self-mortified, mad beggar, without the benefit of the f/x. By the time the short soliloquy ended I had come to two conclusions: one, Edgar is a lot more complicated than I've ever realized and, two, boy, this guy can ACT!
The twenty years' passage of time have dimmed my recall of other concrete details about the performance, but I firmly remember the general impressions it left me with. RenÚ's Edgar was no wimp, but he was deeply wounded that his brother could betray him and his father so quickly abandon faith in him. The pain in the performance was almost palpable. At the same time, he didn't make the character so saintly that you couldn't sense the anger at this undeserved calamity. Overall, the characterization made me realize just how hard it is to stay "good" in this world, how hard not to succumb to anger and the desire for revenge. It demonstrated that integrity isn't just the default setting on people without the imagination or drive to be selfish and grasping, but rather a strong and active virtue that requires constant practice to maintain.
Once I had seen RenÚ's Edgar, I made sure that the character never got short shrift when I taught Lear to my students, as he often had when my professors had lectured on the play to me. And from that time on I was always on the lookout for other TV shows and movies featuring that "RenÚ ObberJobber," as my poor skills at French pronunciation caused me to dub him. Of all his many performances I've seen since, however, it is Odo who makes me most recall Edgar. Talk about a man who has gone through hell rather than abandon an innate sense of justice and integrity! And like his Shakespearean counterpart, he's done it while the uncomprehending insist on calling him "nothing."