I have, over the years, been sufficiently fortunate to have seen several actors play King Lear on the stage. Of these, the least impressive by some margin was the performance given by Sir Ian McKellen. This is not, I hasten to add, because Sir Ian is not an actor of quality: far from it. Rather, it is because not everyone can excel equally well at everything, and, on the evidence of his performance, Lear appears not to be a role suited to his particular qualities. However, his performance was the most difficult for which to obtain tickets; and his performance was the only one that received a standing ovation. The reason for this is not hard to discern: unlike some of the actors whom I have seen excel as Lear – Timothy West, Brian Cox, John Wood, Julian Glover – Sir Ian McKellen is a movie star.
One may see evidence of such “star gazing” in other fields as well. Last Friday evening, somewhat jet-lagged after flying back from Tokyo, I found myself flat out on the settee watching the tennis from Wimbledon. Roger Federer, one of the greatest artists of the game (or indeed of any other game) and rightly admired for being so, was having a bit of a tough time against the unfancied Julien Benneteau. Federer did come through in the end, but Benneteau played some superb tennis, and came close to winning. And yet, while every point won by Federer was greeted by the crowd with enthusiastic cheers and applause, major points won by Benneteau were greeted with distinctly audible groans. And I couldn’t help wondering: were those groaning at Benneteau winning points – often with superlative skill – really tennis enthusiasts? Or were they, like those who gave a standing ovation to Ian McKellen’s lacklustre performance, merely “star-gazers”?
There are many examples of this kind of thing. I have seen people who couldn’t distinguish a square cut from an off-drive swoon at the mention of Sachin Tendulkar. In the Louvre, people walk past without so much as a glance some of the very greatest masterpieces of the human imagination just to have a quick look at the star of the gallery, the Mona Lisa. Prestigious football teams with prestigious players attract large worldwide viewing figures, whereas less-fancied teams who may have reached the later stages of competitions on their own merits spell disaster to sponsors and advertisers. And so on. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that what really matters is not so much love of the sport, or of the art, but, rather, to participate in some way in the prestige that goes with being a “star”.
But before I behold the mote in my brother’s eye (whatever a mote may be), I suppose I should consider the mote in my own. Am I not myself guilty of this sort of thing, at least to some extent, when I find myself reading something such as Barnaby Rudge, say – a mediocre novel at best, and considerably less than mediocre at worst – simply because it is written by Dickens? There are, after all, a great many novels of far greater quality by other writers that I could be reading instead. What is the point of my reading through every single play by Shakespeare? Shakespeare when not at his best is not, after all, easily distinguishable from a host of other writers of his time: why then do I waste my time with the likes of King John or with Pericles? If it is only because they have the magic name of Shakespeare attached to them, am I not every bit as much a star-gazer as anyone else?
I think I can answer this up to a point. I can say that I recognize Barnaby Rudge, despite having the illustrious name of Dickens attached to it, as not a work of any great literary quality; I can recognize that King John is an unremarkable play, and that Pericles is possibly a bad play; and that I read these works not for their inherent merit, but for any light that they may cast on the much greater works written by these authors; that peaks such as Hamlet or Great Expectations can only be properly appreciated once one is aware of the plains from which they arise; and so on. But none of this really refutes the charge of star-gazing: the truth is that if King John or Barnaby Rudge did not have attached to them the magic names of Shakespeare or of Dickens, I wouldn’t have been bothering with them. In short, I, too, am a star-gazer; I, too, am happy to praise the exquisite artistry of Sachin Tendulkar without possessing anything like a full understanding of the finer points of cricket.
So does this make me more tolerant of those who gave Sir Ian’s performance of Lear a standing ovation? Of those who groaned at points won by Benneteau? Sadly, no. This is possibly a point where Matthew and Luke may have got it a bit wrong: considering the mote in one’s own eye does not incline one to be more tolerant of the mote in one’s brother’s: if anything, it has quite the opposite effect. What strange creatures we all are!