Friday, June 30, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 4: Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar, first broadcast February 11th, 1979
  • Possibly written: It was first performed in 1599, possibly his 19th play
  • What’s it about? Brutus joins a conspiracy led by Cassius to assassinate Julius Caesar, to prevent him from becoming a tyrant. Caesar's right-hand man Marc Antony stirs up hostility against the conspirators and Rome becomes embroiled in a dramatic civil war.
  • Most famous dialogue: Either “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” or “Et Tu Brute”.
  • Sources: The main source is Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives. Ben Jonson famously carped that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek.” Instead, he was among the first generation of English speakers to have the classics available in translation, and it turned out that democratizing those works meant that little-educated men of genius could now find them and make more great art out of them.
  • Interesting fact about the play: Shakespeare was never very faithful to history, but he’s a bit too faithful here, because one of the jobs of a writer is to make sure that not too many characters have names that begin with the same letter. This play, however, has an astonishing thirteen characters with “C” names: Julius Caesar, Cinna, Casca, Caius Cassius, Cicero, Caius Ligarius, Calpurnia, Matellus Cimber, Publius Cimber, Cinna the poet, Claudius, Octavian Caesar and Clitus!
  • Best insults: Once again, I can’t do just one:
    • “He’s a tried and valiant soldier.” “So is my horse, Octavius”
    • “A barren-spirited fellow”
    • I am completely baffled by the first half of this insult but I like the second: “He loves to hear that unicorns can be betrayed with trees, and bears with glasses, elephants with holes, lions with toils, and men with flatterers, but when I tell him he hates flatterers, he says he does, being then most flattered.”
  • Best word: Accoutered
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: The Marlon Brando movie is good, but I have never seen a good production on stage. The worst production I’ve ever seen of any play was a post-apocalyptic version of this one, which included, among other highlights, an interpretive dance to Oasis’s Wonderwall.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Once again, we have Charles Gray (Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever, Rocky Horror Picture Show), this time as Caesar. None of the other actors were familiar to me.
How’s the cast?
  • Gray seems too old and out-of-shape to be a dangerous tyrant, and he’s kind of blank, but Caesar himself is kind of a blank in the play, as I’ll discuss later. Richard Pasco as Brutus and David Collings as Cassius both deliver nicely complex characterizations. Keith Mitchell as Marc Antony seems to lack the cunning the part requires (and that Brando conveyed well).
How’s the direction from Herbert Wise?
  • Alas, after a splendid outdoor production of “As You Like It”, we’re very much back indoors here, with an interminable number of scenes set on every side of a huge Styrofoam rock. Wise doesn’t do a good job making it feel like a real war is going on in the second half, but in the first half, I liked how volatile and chaotic his crowd scenes were. I liked how he wasn’t shy about all the blood, with a very long scene (pictured above) in which the actors are basically slipping around in pools of it. The long night of thunder and lightning was well-conjured and properly portentous. It’s always a lame choice, however, to have the soliloquies done as voiceover, since the poor actor is left with nothing to do.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: Always Let Your Audience Decide

I was surprised to discover that this felt like the weakest of the four plays I’ve looked at so far. It’s certainly far more famous and quotable than Richard II, but that one seemed more morally and emotionally complex, because Richard, unlike Caesar, was a three-dimensional character, a complex construction of flaws and virtues tightly enmeshed together, and we were invited to judge for ourselves whether or not he should be overthrown (which turns out to be a hard decision to make). In this play, we just don’t get enough of the title character.

I think the decision not to show us the scene where Caesar refuses the crown three times is a baffling one. Instead, we just overhear the huzzahs, and then we have Casca arrive and sum up what happened though his own jaundiced POV. The whole rest of the play turns on whether Caesar was being genuinely humble by refusing the crown or just feigning humility to seize power. Let us see the scene and decide that ourselves, as we got to do with Richard. Let us see why Brutus and Cassius would see it one way and Marc Antony would see it the other, and let us contrast that with our own independent opinion on the scene.

I will say that the strongest element of the play is its examination of the volatile madness of crowds, and the masterful scene in which Antony plays his half-cocked crowd like a fiddle is the play’s peak. Ultimately, nobody comes off very well in this play, neither the conspirators nor those who would avenge Caesar. The most sympathetic character is poor Cinna the poet, killed by a mob because he has the same first name as one of the conspirators.

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