Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Political Theater: How Orson Welles Used Julius Caesar to Warn Against The Rise of Fascism

by Nomad

This post will take us on a merry ride through history, both ancient and modern. It involves a murder of a tyrant and a play about that murder and how that play served as a warning about the rise of another, more ruthless, dictator.

Like a Colossus

When the 22-year-old Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre players took on a Broadway production of Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, he made some interesting changes. 
Only a man like Welles would have had the audacity to "streamline" Shakespeare, but he dared to do so for a very good reason. 

In fact, anybody coming to see a Shakespeare play or yearning for a play of spectacle and diversion would have been in for a shock. For one thing, a modern-dress with sparse stage decoration.  But it wasn't just about costumes.

For the audience, there could be no mistaking the references Welles was making. Welles had cleverly turned the 340-year-old play in an innovative comparison to contemporary Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany
In the play, Caesar was portrayed not as the proto-typical ruler of the Roman world, but as a political gangster. Charles Higham writes:
Caesar wore a Sam Browne belt and a dark green uniform, exactly like Mussolini; the conspirators bent on the assassination of Caesar wore fedora hats turned down at the brim and turned-up coat collars, like gangsters in Hollywood “B” movies; and Brutus wore an ordinary civilian suit, not unlike that which a politician might sport during a campaign.
In addition to the costumes, the stage lighting provided another unmistakable reference. Welles mocked the lights Hitler had used at the Nuremberg Conference
And when the lines were said:
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs,and peep about 
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
everybody in the audience knew exactly to whom the words referred. 

A key scene in the play was the murder of Cinna the poet. Based on actual history, the incensed mob mistakes him for another Cinna. Shakespeare seemed to be saying that even a harmless poet was not saved at the hands of the angry plebeian class.

Here's how one critic describes the scene:
Cinna, by now wide-eyed and cringing, offers samples of his poems to the mob around him, only to have them wadded up and thrown back into his face. One step at a time, they converge on Cinna. From out of the shadows comes the pronouncement, "Tear him for his bad verses!" Cinna, backing away, turns from one to the other imploringly, "I'm Cinna the Poet, not Cinna the Conspirator." At the this poin, the mob's ranks are doubled with extras and together they swallow him up. Blackout. Silence. Then, a last frenzied cry- "But I am Cinna the Poet!"
Welles depicted the plebeians who murder Cinna as Fascist Brown-shirts. In an interview, the actor who played the role of Cinna,  Norman Lloyd‘ said:
This was the most immediate scene to the audience because they understood immediately what was happening in the world and they understood what the play was about actually. Because it was done as an anti-fascist play. Everything had an immediacy, it was of today, now. This was a play just written yesterday. And that scene dramatized it to its fullest extent.
Welles - never one to play down his own brilliance- had achieved an act of near-genius. Ancient history translated through the words of an Elizabethan playwright was re-cast as a yesterday's newspaper account. The theater-goers were asked to reply to Shakespeare's question:
Upon what meat doth this our Cæsar feed,
That he is grown so great?
The opening date Of Welles production was Thursday, 11 November 1937. 
Only a few days before, the opposing sides in was to be a new World War were formally established. Italy joined Germany and Japan in the Anti-Comintern Pact, an anti-Soviet agreement. This surely pleased Western capitalists who saw the Communism as the biggest threat to business.
In hindsight, the trilateral pact was to lay the groundwork for came to be known as the Axis Powers.

Theater as a Mirror of Our Time

Back in the US, Americans, by and large, tended to dismiss the European fascists as clowns, not to be taken too seriously. It could easily be dismissed as politicians doing bad imitations of gangsters. (Indeed, the top cinema draw for the same month was the escapist melodrama, "The Last Gangster.")

Welles' timing could hardly have been more accurate. Within months of the premier of Welles' production, the situation in Europe was looking much more ominous.  

On 13 March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria. With the threat of military action, he seized the Austrian government by force and united the Austrian nation with Nazi Germany.

One of his first steps was to close theaters. By summer of that year, the Nazi had hastily closed about half of the city's theaters. Most of them were closed for good and others temporarily. The power of the theater to educate, warn or even entertain had been silenced. Ideology would come first, art a distant second.

Around April, Joseph Goebbels had reportedly attended the opening of Vienna's Burgtheater production of "Julius Caesar" and immediately launched a crackdown on all Viennese theater.
As Minister of Nazi Propaganda, Goebbels could see how subversive the play actually was. He saw what Welles had already seen and had revealed to the American public. 

If the intellectuals in the US had once laughed at the buffoonery of these dictators, Welles was sending a message: the time for ribald comedy was over. This was no farce. The stage, Welles warned. was being prepared for a tragedy.  
The rise of fascism in Italy and Germany was no longer something the disinterested American public could ignore.

Power Alone Can Justify the Cause

Orson Welles' interpretation of the Shakespeare tragedy would have been something the ancient historians would definitely have approved of. 
Theater was a living thing and if it did not stir the audience- with more than just a sense awe at the spectacle- then it was as cheap and pointless as any battle between man and beast in the amphitheater or gladiatorial combat.

From its earliest history, the theater of the ancient Greeks addressed issues of current events and social trends. 
It was literally a platform to express weighty ideas that most citizens would not have thought too much about. Theater was seen as a method to raise consciousness and influence public opinion and challenge prejudices.

The political theater had considerable influence on public opinion in the Athenian democracy.
As Wikipedia notes:
One must marvel at the open-minded examination of controversial and critical topics that took place right in the political heart of Athenian society, allowing a courageous self-examination of the first democracy trying to develop and refine itself further.
As we shall see, how and that tradition came to an end in Roman times.
*   *   *
Roman historians - at least, the one who attempted  an objective study- usually described dictator Julius Caesar  as something of a self-promoting thug who, through a variety of brilliant but underhanded method seized power.
Those methods included alliances through marriage and adoption, brute military force, patronage for the useful (and wealthy) nobles, playing to the mobs and outright bribery of public officials.
In the power-grab, he had laid waste to the last vestiges of Republican freedom.

Caesar made no pretense of respect for either the institutions or the individuals of the old Republic. Like most Americans of today, the Roman citizen had an inherent dislike for kings and, (probably rightfully), accused Caesar of casting himself in the role of Rome's monarch.

Roman historian Suetonius records that Caesar was preparing the population for a new style of ruler - one man, stronger than rule by committee, whose judgments would become the final word. Romans were frustrated by the inadequacies of politicians, of the time-wasters and money-grubbers, the plotters and the lies. Rome was ready for a new kind of leader.

 For sovereign power alone can justify the cause.

Suetonius catalogs an extensive list of Caesar's insults to the nobility and the Senate. His path was cleared by the disenfranchised underclass, a self-absorbed aristocratic class, and an overgrown military. All of these weaknesses, he successfully manipulated to his advantage.
Here's a description of his  Caesar's cronyism, according to a historian of the age:
When he had placed himself at the head of affairs, he advanced some of his faithful supporters, though of low class to the highest offices; and when he was censured for this partiality, he openly said, "Had I been assisted by robbers and cut-throats in the defence of my honour, I should have offered them the same compensation."
It was to be a foreshadowing of what was to come, post-Ceasar. 

Monarchy in All but Name

The epitome of might and muscle make right was to become the unwritten motto of the Roman Empire, the institution that replaced the dead Republican form of government.

The Romans considered the position of emperor to be distinct to that of a king. The first emperor, Augustus, successor to Caesar, absolutely refused to be recognized as a king. 
In practice, however, there was no difference whatsoever. 
The long reign of Emperor Augustus was merely the first step. While a facade of the Republic might have been promoted, the real power rested on the wisdom and whims of a dictator. When his stepson, Tiberius, took over in AD 14, the pretense was harder to maintain.
For the next three hundred years, this hypocrisy of autocracy and empire continued. All serious attempts at restoring the Republic were doomed and ultimately, dismissed as impractical.

As the reign of emperors became more and more decadent and brutal, few would dare call a king a king. Any honest critical account of Caesar would be a reflection of the present ruler. 

Therefore, historians in the age of Empire were forced to write carefully about the past. That was especially true when it came to the original Caesar whose rise became the imperial mold for all of the emperors that followed.

Emperors by their natures are a touchy lot and a historian could easily be charged with sedition or other crimes against the state, simply for stating what everybody already knew.
It's hard to imagine a historian rummaging through ancient texts being seen as a real threat to a paranoid tyrant's hold. Yet, there were certain subjects that only the most courageous writer in that time would dare to investigate.

History as a Theater Production

Ancient historians had much in common with playwrights. 
Roman historiography, scholars tell us, is indebted to the Greeks, who invented the form. The Romans had great models to base their works upon, such as Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BCE) and Thucydides (c. 460 – c. 395 BCE).

It's no accident that Shakespeare- a man in search of good material- reportedly based his play on the recently translated work of the Roman historian Cornelius TacitusSir Henry Savile'translation of four books of the Histories of Tacitus pre-dates the play by about 9 years (1591). 

Shakespeare's line that all the world's a stage "where every man must play a part" is pure Tacitus.
The Roman historian's philosophy was very much summed up in Shakespeare's quote:
All the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances.
Like story-tellers and in the tradition of Greek theater, ancient historians like Tacitus strongly believed the history was shaped by the character of the participants. He searched for penetrating insights into the psychology of  individual and how this affected power politics.
That was especially true when historians tried to tell the story of the murder of Caesar. 

Even though the title of the play was Julius Caesar, Caesar is not the most visible character in its action, appearing alive in only three scenes. Actually, the key player in this drama was the virtuous Marcus Junius Brutus.  

This was a close friend of Caesar and it was around whom the assassination pivoted. 
For Tacitus, Brutus was considered a good man faced with a difficult moral choice. As Shakespeare calls young Brutus, "a foe to tyrants, and my country's friend."

Not a wild-eyed assassin with an obscure agenda or insane grudge- the kind we in the modern age have unfortunately grown accustomed to. The man who helped murder Caesar was a man of noble birth, highly education and of fine character.  
After all, Brutus had come from a noble family and been a well-respected senator. In the play, Mark Anthony says of Brutus:
"This was the noblest Roman of them all;
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Cæsar."
Brutus was something of a hero-assassin in his day.

The Moral Question that Made No Difference

For ancient historians, the story of Caesar and Brutus posed a series of ethical questions:
  • Is political assassination ever warranted? 
  • Was it was morally right to allow the great Roman Republic to fall into the hands of an ambitious tyrant who was preparing to destroy the nation? 
  • In such a case, was it or was it not better to resort to personal betrayal and the murder of individual?  
In fact, the actual history showed that it ultimately made no difference. Brutus- like his fellow assassins and the concerned patrician class- had misinterpreted of the rise of Caesar.

By the time Brutus was faced with this moral choice, the outcome of whatever decision he made would have been the same.

This dictator was not the true source of the collapse of the Republic.
Caesar was a symptom of a larger problem.
The Roman Republic was doomed and Caesar simply dealt it a finishing blow. his death was, in turn, both a catalyst for utter demolition of a great and proud nation. But his dictatorship became a  model for all usurpers and political assassination became the only way to remove tyrants until the present age of political accountability. 

The weakness of the Roman Republic was matched only by the selfishness of the aristocrats and the stupidity of the mob. None of these players seem to understand the wider implications of allowing one man so much unchecked power.
Not just Caesar, but any ambitious person.

The assassins had mistakenly imagined that once Caesar was gone, the Republic could be revived. That's why Brutus had easily been persuaded into thinking that the only recourse to the threat that Caesar posed was a political assassination.

It was a fatal misjudgment.
The war to punish the assassins soon became a war between would-be tyrants to follow in Caesar's footsteps. Each of them was convinced that only he could restore order and, ironically, was ready to destroy the country in that pursuit.

The attraction or addiction of absolute power was simply too strong. The Republic was crushed into a thousand pieces. And like Humpty-Dumpty, none of the powerholders could glue the pieces back together. 

In the end, the story of the empire became a struggle for supremacy, and not a struggle to restore what had been lost.

That struggle to be the top dog, to control as much turf as possible and to destroy any and all contenders would go on for centuries. In a basic sense, the Roman Republic was transformed into a gangster organization and they called it "Empire."

And for that, progress for all humanity was, for the most part, crippled for two thousand years. The authority of kings - a hand-me-down from the Roman Empire- was the only rival to the hegemony of the Catholic church which itself was the heir of the Roman empire.

With the Renaissance and  later with the Age of Enlightenment came a new era of political accountability. That new message was that being a powerful leader alone- whether a king or a pope or a gangster- did not qualify one to rule. It required the both a high degree of transparency, an obedience to the rule of law and, most importantly, the consent of the governed. 

Theater as a Suppressed and Lost Art

As I mentioned earlier, the ancient Greeks, for the most part, invented political theater based on a prehistoric tradition of story-telling.  
With the establishment of the Roman Empire, the tradition of political theater went silent. This was not a coincidence.

Actors were not highly thought of, socially hardly better than prostitutes. In the book, "A Short History of the Drama" Martha Fletcher Bellinger points out:
In Greece actors had enjoyed a position of eminence and respect; but in Rome their condition was mean and contemptible.
They were not respected and Roman emperors repeatedly sent them packing. Over time, what was banned became unimportant and unappreciated. Our source explains:
Roman drama had never been much more than a plagiarism of Greek tragedy and comedy. Very little original drama was developed in the Roman Republic, but there had at least been some interest in literary drama. Unfortunately, as far as Roman drama on the whole is concerned, it is clear that "no one wrote for the stage except to make money."  ... Farce and pantomime came to replace comedy and tragedy in the Roman Empire.
Medieval theater, the period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. and the beginning of the Renaissance in approximately the 15th century A.D,  drama fared no better. 

The Church had taken over the salvaged parts of the Roman Empire, actors always risked excommunication for their chosen profession. Stories from the Bible were the only productions that were absolutely acceptable. In the 6th century, the Emperor Justinian of the theocratic Byzantine Empire finally closed down all theaters for good. 

Historian James Buckley reminded us in his book, "Christians and the Theater"
Many bishops, priests, and monks have strongly condemned theatrical amusements, and they even declared the actors to be 'instruments of Satan', 'a curse to the Church', and 'beguiling unstable souls'.
Any attempt to pass along social commentary through the theater was impossible. According to the Church, the theater caused people to “indulge themselves in amusements which its fascinations interfere with the prosecution of the serious work of daily life.
This attitude remained unchanged until the Renaissance.

Ironically this gentle shift or relaxation came about primarily in England at about the time of Shakespeare.
With the English schism from the Catholic hegemony in the Elizabethan age, the theater became a popular form of entertainment. It also slowly but surely returned to its ancient role.

During this time, the social and political commentary could be presented so long as the playwright was careful not to insult the king or queen or the nobility in general. In order not to offend the powers that be, all references had to be indirect with a large heap of bawdy comedy or showy spectacle. 

There was another consideration too. Audiences would tolerate political messages as long as they were not preachy, insistent or constant.
Shakespeare's play in some ways represented a reinvention of political theater. according to some academic scholars, with plays like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus as well as King Lear and Macbeth, Shakespeare is considered by many, to be the father of modern political theater. 

In her book, Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare author Clare Asquith claims that Shakespeare was a rebellious radical who wrote in a kind of code in order to convey political ideas in "a time in which opposition voices were banished and censorship meant the burning of illegal pamphlets and printed works."

In effect, by daring to combine political education and entertainment and art, Shakespeare had returned the theater to its former role and glory. Back to the traditions of ancient Greece before the suppression by autocrats and repressive regimes. 

It is perhaps no coincidence then that Orson Welles' used the tragic story of the murder of a tyrant to warn the people of his own time of the greater tragedy about to take place: the murder of any entire people and sacrifice of an entire nation to the will of one ambitious man.