My bridge collapsed when I heard the searing news that Nora Ephron was dead. She was my generation’s Dorothy Parker, an earlier wit who once quipped that “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.” Ms Ephron wore glasses, but everyone was in love with her. With her passing, we have not only lost a great screenwriter, filmmaker, accomplished playwright and essayist on par with Parker. We have also lost a conscience, a woman who even saw the humor in someone like Clarence Thomas. She was no “Wallflower at the Orgy.”
As news of her death came in, I was also puzzling over a recent poem that appeared in the New Yorker by M.S. Merwin. It seemingly had nothing to do with Ephron, but was focused on the mystery of Queen Lear and why she’s lost in time with no trace of who she was. Why do we know almost nothing about her? It’s such an obvious question, but I had never bothered to wonder.
So as I consumed the tributes to Ephron, I began to wonder how she would have approached the non-story of Queen Lear and the themes of ingratitude, greed, jealousy, murder and madness in the play King Lear, an especially dark tragedy that sports two of Shakespeare’s scariest female protagonists, Regan and Goneril.
I first questioned whether as a parent Ephron could have guided these daughters toward their better natures or whether she would have been forced to put a heavy boot on the necks of these two bad girls: As she said about parenting in her book I Feel Bad About My Neck,
“Suddenly, one day, there was this thing called parenting. Parenting was serious. Parenting was fierce. Parenting was solemn. Parenting was a participle, like going and doing and crusading and worrying; it was active, it was energetic, it was unrelenting.”
I wondered what she as a mother and feminist would have made of the slaughter house these motherless women brought forth. Perhaps if only Queen Lear had lived and served as a good maternal example, things would have turned out differently. Such questions don’t seem to bother the Bard. He gives no hints about what kind of mother she was to have given birth to the girls from Hell as well as to sweet and nearly silent Cordelia. Would Ephron have left us with such questions?
Merwyn’s poem reads:
If he had ever asked me
I could have told him
If he had listened to me
it would have been
I knew them before
they were born
with Goneril at by breast
I looked at the world
and saw blood in darkness
and tried to wake
with Regan at my breast
I looked at the world
and covered my mouth
with Cordelia in my arms
at my breast
I wanted to call out to her
in love and helplessness
and I wept
as for him
he had forgotten me
even before they did
did not forget
but when asked she said
So we’re left with a hole in the fabric. Who was this woman, the mother of two of Shakespeare’s most appalling women as well as of Cordelia, the only daughter who really loved her mad father and suffered greatly for it? And why is Queen Lear only mentioned once in the play and only fleetingly at that? (Act 2, Scene 4)
In contrast, Ephron was very much a woman of her time, helping others and proving a strong role model to younger women. In a tribute to her in the 27 June New York Times, Alessandra Stanley referred to Ephron’s famous Wellesley commencement address in 1996, in which she said:
“Maybe young women don’ t wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I’ve had four careers and three husbands.”
But could she have imagined the likes of Regan and Goneril in that class and urged them to “embrace” their mess? What would she have done with those particularly nasty women whose ambitions were ruthless and lethal? Hard to find any humor in that situation. With daughters like this, I can see Ephron writing Queen Leer out of the script entirely to let her exit stage left just to get away from these greedy and remorseless villains.
Of course, she would have had a heyday coming up with various answers as to why Lear is portrayed as more a fool than his Fool is. Not too far a stretch to see Carl Bernstein as the impetuous and egotistical Lear giving in to infantile wailing when he doesn’t get his way. Just go back and watch Heartburn. Nothing like having a little payback for a philandering husband than by portraying him in a child like rage from being deprived of maternal care.
Later when Regan and Goneril are both lusting for Edmund, the immortal line of Carl Reiner’s mother, “I’ll have what she’s having,”from When Harry Met Sally, comes to mind and takes on a darkly twisted and sinister meaning.
Once again echoing Shakespeare, Ephron transforms Cordelia, the only daughter who loves Lear, into Meg Ryan. In her magical style, the transformation is done in an uplifting and funny way. Whereas Cordelia won’t play daddy’s “who loves me most” game, Ryan is more than a match for Tom Hanks in the You’ve Got Mail love game. And best of all, it has a much happier ending.
And as we read in the tributes to her, Ephron, above all, was a happy and generous woman. She was the Myrna Loy’s Nora to William Powell’s Nick in The Thin Man. Like Myrna’s Nora, Ephron was immaculate and fussy about her hair. She made a point of having it professionally blow-dried twice a week and quipped in a line that Nora Charles could have said: “It’s cheaper by far than psychoanalysis and much more uplifting.”
As Charles McGrath wrote in the 26 June New York Times,
“It’s hard to be funny without malice, and discontent is so often the flint for humor. Nora turned dross to gold and didn’t hold on to rancor. She suffered fools. That fundamental good humor was a high octane fuel that let her produce five times as much as anyone else and still find the time – effortlessly – to host a dinner, show up at a protégé’s book party, or make a photo album to celebrate a friend’s 50th birthday. She not only showed up at a last-minute Super Bowl party, she brought a huge block of chopped liver she had molded into the shape of a football – with ketchup lacing.”
And with her good humor, I like to imagine her scolding Will for not drawing out Queen Lear into a full human being. After all, we need to know something about her to understand why two of her three daughters turned out to be such monsters. If Will was dancing over her without giving her the attention she deserved, I can just hear the tongue lashing from Ephron:
“Will, shame on you. Queen Lear has a big part to play and you barely mention her. It drives me crazy that you simply chose to ignore her. When people ask why she’s not in the play, I’ll tell you where she was, queen or no queen: In the laundry, making the beds, scrubbing the floor, chopping vegetables, making chutney, turning the mangle, hanging out the wash, mending the hole-ridden socks, picking up fruit in the orchard, dusting, sweeping, feeding the chickens, hunting for their eggs, milking the cows, stacking the wheat, whinnying the chaff, chopping the firewood, spinning and knitting, chasing the spiders, taking beer and sandwiches to the harvesters, grooming the horses, weeding the herb garden and God knows what else.
“The poor soul simply didn’t have time to make her presence known. No wonder she had such a dysfunctional family.
“And as for you, if she had been your wife, she probably would have found time in her idle moments to copy your script while you chewed your feather pen and couldn’t even remember to take the garbage out.
“And, believe me, I know a thing or two about writing scripts.”
May her soul be forever bound up in the eternal bonds of life.