Skip to main navigation menu Skip to main content Skip to site footer


Volume 37, Number 1 (2016)

Challenging Age Binaries by Viewing King Lear in Temporal Depth

June 10, 2016
April 1, 2016


Contemporary Western theatrical productions with themes about aging and old age often yoke aging to decline by highlighting narratives of dependency and loss in their live performances. One reason is a tendency to interpret scripts through the lens of chronological time, a sense of time that defines age solely in terms of number of years lived, and creates rigid expectations about life-stages. Recognizing the limitations of the life-stage model, postmodern theorists, building on Judith Butler’s discourse on gender, have considered age in terms of its performativity and looked to theatre as a way to study this. Such discourses dismiss the idea that aging involves embodiment of time because, in postmodern tradition, they do not want to understand time as simply progressive and linear. However, some age theorists argue that postmodern definitions of age are problematic because they deny the very real effects of time on the body. By contrast, theatre and age studies scholar Anne Davis Basting insists that there can still be a postmodern poetics of the aging body that acknowledges its temporal component. In this article, Julia Henderson uses Basting’s "depth model of aging" to analyze age-effects in a Vancouver production of Shakespeare’s King Lear by Honest Fishmonger’s Equity Co-op. Through a close reading of the actors’ embodied performances and her affective response to them, Henderson argues that Basting’s model reveals how the contemporary production of a classical work can engage with postmodern concepts of time while still considering age. In doing so, the production highlights more positive age narratives rather than reinforcing a narrative of decline. Henderson extends Basting’s model by drawing connections with Marvin Carlson’s theory of theatrical ghosting, suggesting that reception of theatrical performances of age is not only influenced by layering of memories of past performances of age on stage, but also by a kind of anticipatory quality engendered by the ghosting process, which she terms a "ghosting forward." Connecting these theories offers a way to differentiate between performances of age without relying on a chronological sense of time or restoring age binaries. Henderson’s analysis contributes to the rather new body of research at the intersection of age studies and Canadian theatre studies.