Book Review: “Dunbar” by Edward St. Aubyn

Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

The Hogarth Shakespeare series  is producing a set of new novels, written by selected contemporary authors, riffing on plays by Willie Boy. It’s a gimmick, but to date, the results have been quite successful. (Vinegar Girl, New Boy, Hag-Seed)

Edward St. Alybyn’s entry in this game is Dunbar, based on King Lear. He has done a nice job, keeping in the spirit of the original, updating it, but not trying to compete with the Bard.

I’m not especially well up on my Lear, but I do recall that it is a study in the psychology and psychopathology of power and family. So fasten your seat belts, this isn’t going to be pretty.

The original olay is about a nasty King and his nasty family, and the vicious and violent struggle for succession to the throne. St. Albyns updates this story to be about a nasty media tycoon and his nasty family, and the vicious and violent struggle for succession to his conglomerate.

This update works pretty well.

The original play is a tragedy, with few good guys, no one unscathed, treachery everywhere, and a lot of roaring rhetoric. Good people are harmed, bad people thrive, and the king goes mad and loses everything.

The modern story has no poetry, but the old man has three daughters, two wicked daughters he trusted and one estranged good daughter. Treachery abounds, and almost everyone is fighting over his media kingdom.

As in the original, the old man has lived an arrogant and ambitious life, dedicated to the pursuit of power. In the tragic events of the story, he dances at the edge of madness, and ultimately comes to treasure a fe real friends and his youngest daughter above all, though he loses everything in the process.

Like the original play, Dunbar is pretty awful stuff, and we find ourself aching for justice, peace, and sanity. But peace will not be found here, though there is a glimmer of hope that even the worst of us may be redeemed by love.

  1. Edward St. Aubyn, Dunbar, New York, Hogarth Shakespeare, 2017.


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