The tragic tale of Caesar; A rewriting of history can make any man noble
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 26 August 2008)

A grandfatherly kiss on the forehead during the closing farewell scene is as close to eroticism as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival can deliver in Des McAnuff's glowing production of Caesar and Cleopatra, George Bernard Shaw's artful and deceptive version of a famous encounter that most of the world has always considered a love story.

Shaw's script plunges innocent audiences into two conflicts, the war of the Egyptian succession on the surface and Shaw's own ideological struggle with his fellow writers in the background. Shaw's excuse, if he needed one, was the precedent provided by many writers who used Caesar to make debating points in the two millennia since the Ides of March, 44 BCE. Over the centuries, Caesar served as everything from a supporter of Christian mythology to an argument for the virtue of assassination.

In 1898, Shaw decided the London stage was wasting its time with the subject of sex. The "deification of Love" distorted the theatre and allowed playwrights to ignore issues such as war and peace. Shaw wanted to turn English theatre away from "the drama of romance and sensuality to the drama of edification." So he created an intentionally anti-erotic play about a notoriously erotic event, the Caesar-Cleopatra affair that (history teaches us) resulted in, among much else, a baby. Shaw decided their collision would be more amusing if he made it chaste, though occasionally flirtatious.

He drew Caesar as a world-weary but lovable old gent, Cleopatra's genial instructor in the art of government. Cleopatra he imagined as a wild, selfish child, anxious above all else to secure the throne by killing her brother. Shaw did all this so deftly that we have the pleasure, 110 years later, of seeing Caesar and Cleopatra performed (till Nov. 9) by the suave, sure-footed Old Master, Christopher Plummer, and the energetic and totally convincing Nikki M. James.

Shaw's comedy was one among many imaginative works that expanded Caesar's posthumous celebrity. There were about 50 operas, for instance, one of them by Handel.

Maria Wyke, a witty and ingenious professor of Latin at University College London, examines the blossoming of the Caesarian reputation in her superb new book, Caesar: A Life in Western Culture (University of Chicago Press). Her account of how writers have used him explains why he's achieved what he most wanted when he was alive: to be acknowledged forever as the greatest Roman.

Laying the ground for an innocent relationship, Shaw made Cleopatra 16 years old (the real Cleopatra was 20) and made Caesar much, much older (he was 52). Plummer plays him as 78, Plummer's age. This makes him just a couple of years short of five times Cleopatra's age, an unlikely sexual pairing even by Woody Allen standards. Caesar pretends annoyance when she makes fun of his baldness, but he indulges her.

This gives Shaw plenty of time to explore Caesar's views, all of which turn out to be Shaw's. His Caesar is remarkably ready to forgive his enemies and eager to release his prisoners (rather than dragging them back to Rome behind his chariot, the style of the era).

Shaw was far from the first to make Caesar an admirable character. In the 13th century a French chronicle, The Deeds of the Romans, imagined him as a perfectly virtuous Christian knight -- except for the lustfulness that made him Cleopatra's victim. In the Renaissance he emerged as the subject of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, perhaps the most reprinted and most-studied-in-schools of all his work. The title character gets killed off early but there's no doubt that his death was a tragedy. It was one more chance for Shakespeare to remind us that killing the king produces chaos.

On the other hand, 18th-century radicals considered king-killing an excellent idea. This made Brutus a hero of the revolutionary age. Producers in pre-1776 America routinely cut lines critical of Brutus from Shakespeare's script. Over the next century, Wyke notes, the play became a favourite in American schools, a way to bind the new nation's mode of government to the principles of republican Rome. After all, it was Caesar's destruction of republican ideas that justified killing him.

That argument, alas, impressed John Wilkes Booth. He performed Shakespeare's tragedy with his two brothers on Nov. 23, 1884, in New York. Over breakfast the next morning he ranted about Abraham Lincoln growing so powerful he would soon be would crowned king of America. Less than five months later, on April 14, 1865, he combined drama and reality by shooting Lincoln -- in a theatre. He cried out to the audience, "Sic semper tyrannis. The South is avenged." In the diary he kept while being chased by the Union army, he wrote: "With every man's hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for."

Shakespeare's play was given another contemporary spin in 1937 when Orson Welles founded the Mercury Theater in New York with an exercise in propaganda advertised as Julius Caesar: Death of a Dictator. Welles used the style of documentary radio, all quick cuts and brutal sound effects, combined with fascist-type uniforms, meanwhile chopping up bits of the script and re-arranging them. In a program note, Welles said the unruly gangs of Romans Shakespeare depicted should be seen as "the kind of mob that gives you a Hitler or a Mussolini."

Benito Mussolini, unfortunately, turned out to be Caesar's most passionate fan in the 20th century. He presented himself as a new Caesar, showering gifts on the people, referring constantly to Roman examples and annually placing a laurel wreath at the ruins of the tomb erected in Caesar's honour in the Roman forum. He stirred the mob by promising to recreate Italy as a new Roman empire with a vast African colony, Ethiopia. Instead he turned into a clown and a satellite of Hitler, the perfect example of history repeating itself in the form of farce.

Caesar's name still lives, in TV shows and the name of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, but since Mussolini no one has discussed his role as a possible influence on modern politics. Still, his day might come again. The population of dictators in the world is once again growing and any day now one of them, reading of Caesar's grandeur, might decide he still makes an admirable model.

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