Monday, March 21, 2005

Poor Brutus, with himself at war

So how did you spend the Ides of March?

Me? Well, let's just say that if there is any way you can see the Daniel Sherman production of Julius Caesar, now in previews at the Belasco, go.


I confess it. I went because of Denzel Washington. I did not even know whether he would be good on stage. I am not proud of this, that I know so little about stage actors that I was drawn to the name of a cinema celebrity. (But privately, he was marvelous.)

In fact, I had little desire to see Julius Caesar itself.

Maybe you had a similarly horrid experience reading it in high school. There was no chance to SEE it, or maybe only in a very stilted filmic version from god knows when. And the language is so distant, so that when some kid is reading the part of Brutus they don't have any idea how to intone it, inflect, imbibe it. Then you can't picture what is going on--who is on stage? what is the context for this interminable speech? how are the people listening responding? Let alone everyone's--especially mine--lack of the political knowledge to understand the characters' motivations as well as the lack of emotional experience to imagine why someone might run on his sword, the coward.

I have a friend in London this semester who is in charge of a bevvy of college students and who is teaching them drama in part by taking them to see plays. Those lucky dogs--what I would not give to be in such a class!

But before my friend left for her semester away, we were talking about what the students would see, and it turned out their Shakespeare was to be Julius Caesar. Oh MAN, I said. I know, she said.

We were wrong.

I don't know if I had seen Julius Caesar performed before, but if I did it was during a summer Shakespeare festival at William & Mary when I was a wee thing, still unable to understand the damn thing. And probably everyone was wearing togas. And I see by the lack of a paperback copy of the play on my shelf that I did not read it in college or teach it as a TA.

All of which is fine, because all of this ignorance, all these low expectations, all this fear of cardboard rhetoric let my socks get blown off, right there in the fourth row at the Belasco.

Sherman's set puts the audience firmly in the decay of empire, with crumbling edifices, rebar peeking through, headless statues (holes revealing where metal has been torn for new purposes), rusting steel, exposed lightbulbs and scaffolding. It is a little like the crumbling Colosseum in Rome, but more. Maybe like that giant was back in the day when an unsuspecting Daisy Miller could get her share of malaria. But this Rome is grimmer than that: this is not tourism; it is civic dissonance.

You're right when you note that this is a weird historical move: after all, it was Julius Caesar who imagined an empire for Rome, and Augustus who consolidated it, finding Rome a city of brick and leaving it a city of marble. But this Rome, this imperial city, is already rotten.

The play's costumes are modern--suits, stubbly shaved heads, shades, machine guns. Armies fight with assault rifles and helicopters as well as swords, and they wear fatigues, berets. The murderous hordes avenge Caesar's death, killing 70-100 senators (depending on which report you believe), and they do it wearing black with black ski masks, and they behead their captives with swords--pace those videos that certain TV stations did not want to air.

In case you weren't sure whether such a historical play could resonate, remember this is a play about empire, set at the moment of the republic's death. The conspirators against Caesar are already nostalgic for republican ideals, even as they believe they can revive them through a single act of murder. After they kill Caesar (oh come on: did I really need a "spoiler" notice for Shakespeare?), and justify their act to his friend Mark Antony, the conspirators charge offstage, all bloody from their deed, cheering "Peace! Freedom! Liberty!"

For a brief moment, when Brutus is speaking to the crowd, explaining the deed--"not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more"--we believe that these ideals can win out.

But in a play also about rhetoric, one man's speech is so quickly trammeled by another's, and Antony's funeral oration--where he repeats not fewer than 6 times that Brutus is an "honorable man," emptying out those words of their meaning--wins the day, ripping the city into chaos.

And empire is impossible to beat, once its wheels are in motion. Octavius' arrival in the city quells some chaos, and his prowess on the battlefield defeats his opponents, the conspirators Cassius and Brutus. At the play's end, Sherman has the mantle which had signified Caesar's rise in power (and borne the proof of his murder) placed on Octavius' shoulders, and the symbols of kingship that had startled Brutus and Cassius at the beginning return, their power beyond that of the man whose shoulders they grace, whose portrait they hold.

Why is it that the people so desire a king? Who had bedecked the city of Rome with Caesar's trophies, those images that Murellus and Flavius disrobe in act I? Who cheered, when Antony offered Caesar a crown (one of these coronets)? Who denied the ideals of which Brutus spoke, preferring instead the tyranny that Antony offered? Octavius brings security, remember, his machine-gun-toting soldiers quelling the chaos that killed Cinna the conspirator and Cinna the poet.

This is the Pax Augustae. Clammoring for such peace, we might remember Arundhati Roy's remark, that
for most people in the world, peace is war--a daily battle against hunger, thirst, and the violation of their dignity. Wars are often the end result of a flawed peace, a putative peace. And it is the flaws, the systemic flaws in what is normally considered to be "peace," that we ought to be writing about. We have to--at least some of us have to--become peace correspondents instead of war correspondents.


pk said...

furious is reminding me of my own high school reading of Julius Caesar. I liked the play, but don't believe I read it at all well. That is: I tended to buy Brutus's bull.
This Shakespearean is ashamed to admit that it was not my college reading of the play that improved my vision but a reading of Isaac Asimov on the subject.
Two details (without checking for accuracy): Brutus tells Cassius of Portia's report to him of hurting herself. She's shows him the scar on her thigh. Cassius is moved. Brutus didn't know what his wife's thigh looked like!?! How's that for character development?
Detail 2: Brutus brags to Cassius that he's no good at extorting taxes for war. That's right: he wants Cassius to extort them for him!

Isis said...

I believe you misremember Portia, and therefore her actions' impact on our sense of her relationship with Brutus.

She shows Brutus not a scar but a recent wound (self-inflicted, and as she says, "strong proof of my constancy"). So no surprise he had not seen it. On stage it was gory, and checking the text, I see that while Shakespeare's text is not especially descriptive (to be seen on stage, after all), Plutarch, his source, describes the wound as "a greate gashe withall in her thigh, that she was straight all of a goare bloode" (unmodern spelling because this is Sir Thomas North's translation, 1579).

What Brutus reports to Cassius is his wife's death: that "Impatient of my absence, / And grief that young Octavius with Mark Antony / Have made themselves so strong--for with her death / That tidings came--with this she fell distract, / And, her attendants absent, swallowed fire."

What I took from this was (1) Portia's investment in Brutus's actions and (2) the danger Portia believes she faces in being left behind in a hostile Rome.