The Private and Public Life of King Able
Notes from the Playwright – Raymond Keen
The play is about a king who lives alone, seemingly abandoned in his palace. He is a very old king, but sprightly for his age. He makes vague, accusatory references to the queen who has left him. It is not clear if the queen is his wife or mother or fantasy.
He is an “unreal” king. Short and rotund, he wears a kingly uniform with white fur collar and cuffs, red silk, etc. He may even remind one of “The Little King” cartoon. Yet in some of what he babbles, there may be a little of “King Lear.”
The king is named “King Able.” He considers himself an “able” king. He works hard on his radio addresses to the people, and expresses good thoughts (clichés). He could also be considered “King Abel,” for he is a victim of the “forces of Cain.” Throughout the play there will be anonymous men in masks who appear to be watching him in silence. They are dressed exactly alike, their white coats and masks projecting an insidious and possibly malevolent clinical detachment. So he is an apparent victim of anonymous men observing him throughout the play who, at the very least, pose a mysterious threat.
This “abandoned king” is an “undifferentiated everyman.” He speaks in clichés, ruminating about his situation, and remaining utterly clueless about who he is. The king is a victim of his own lack of self-knowledge, as he lets himself be duped through the many years that his radio program is getting through to the people. He is duped by his own language: What he says has almost nothing to do with a real understanding of his situation and plight. For years he has remained alone in the palace, ruminating and babbling for self-comfort, but doing nothing to understand or change his dire circumstances. He is a victim of what he tells himself, a “victim of language.” The king’s “tragic flaw” is that (not unlike Oedipus) he believes what he says is reality. He is blinded by language. The king does not realize he speaks only empty words, not truth.
Although the king is tragically unable to get beyond the reality of words to any kind of authentic self, there is at least in scene one a sense of “freedom” in his speech.
The usual “public and private” is reversed in the title, The Private and Public Life of King Able. The irony of the play’s title is that the king has neither a private nor a public life. He is always being watched and monitored, so there is no privacy; his human contact with the people through his radio addresses is a fiction, so there is no real public life.
Everything has apparently been running smoothly for King Able for “decades.” When things stop going smoothly for the king, he at last makes a tentative decision, maybe even a brave and “tragic” decision at the end of the second scene, to leave the palace.