I’ve been extraordinarily remiss in not commenting on The Acting Company’s recent production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which I saw last month in New York at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. Julius Caesar is a problematic play, structurally – basically it falls apart in the second half – and in terms of its principal character, the chilly, remote Brutus. Shakespeare created many powerful, moving characters who are relatively opaque to themselves emotionally, who don’t really know who they are – Othello and Coriolanus are the most prominent examples – and he also created many cold, head-focused characters, of whom my favorite is probably Hal/Henry V. But Brutus is the only major Shakespeare character I can think of who combines both elements, being both cold and intellectual and remarkably un-self-aware. It’s a problematic combination, because it leaves us, in the audience, very little to latch onto – we can’t really admire him, because we don’t really know him, but we also can’t feel for him, because he doesn’t seem to have feelings, exactly.
The play does have at least three secondary characters of enduring interest: Mark Antony, Cassius, and Caesar himself. But one of these is dead by the midpoint of the play, and the other two have basically nothing interesting left to do after Antony’s funeral oration. And then, of course, there’s the problem that the play is so appallingly sexless – again, very nearly unique in the Shakespearean canon. All in all, it adds up to a play that, for all that it has a handful of powerful set-pieces, just doesn’t work for me.
So what to do? Well, one way out of the box the play puts you in is to take the ideas of the play seriously – or, at least, to take the idea of taking them seriously seriously. And that means connecting them to ideas that people we know take seriously.
Which brings me to this production. Director Rob Melrose has set his Caesar at our precise historical moment, in Obama’s Washington, D.C. The capital is rocked by “Occupy Rome” protests. His Caesar (the suavely confident Bjorn DuPaty) is a tall, charismatic African-American politician; he doesn’t look or sound much like Obama (he more closely recalls Michael Jordan), but the audience is unquestionably going to read him as an Obama stand-in nonetheless, particularly when his opponents bear a marked resemblance to Eric Cantor (Sid Solomon’s snappy terrier Cassius) and Mitch McConnell (Kevin Orton’s cynical old pol Casca). Even Mark Antony is recognizable as a standard Democratic politician type, Clinton/Gore division.
This could all come off as very cheap and obvious, but it doesn’t for two reasons. First, because the rhetoric of the Tea Party opposition to Obama partakes of an intellectual tradition that self-consciously traces its lineage back to Brutus: republican as well as Republican, a tradition that includes both Jefferson Davis and Patrick Henry. What one thinks of that tradition as a whole, and what one thinks of the people who currently invoke it is another topic – but the people who invoke it do so for a reason. John Wilkes Booth, who had played Brutus, quoted the Roman assassin immediately after murdering the man he saw as the American Caesar. He did not choose his words idly.
Second, because the director made the interesting choice to cast another African-American, William Sturdivant as Brutus, and it is his performance that really makes the play. Sturdivant does a pitch-perfect black conservative intellectual – more specifically, the thoughtful, reserved type of black conservative intellectual, a coil of carefully controlled tension. There were times I thought I was watching John McWhorter up there on stage. He managed to give Brutus a shadow of interiority that he so frequently lacks, and to add a whole other dimension of pathos to Brutus’s decision to ally with Cassius. This Brutus is not merely the noblest of Romans in the sense that he is an exemplar of the patrician class – no; he’s the one character on stage whom we know has chosen, affirmatively, to affiliate himself with the ideas for which he kills, who believes them because he believes them, and not merely because they are in his interest. It’s a splendid choice.
And the play is riveting right up through Antony’s funeral oration, which is delivered with a fine sense of rhythm by Zachary Fine; his Antony is conscious from the beginning of what he has to do, but plainly gains confidence as the oration goes on. And then . . . well, then it all falls apart. Because watching Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell tramping around the stage in battle armor is just silly, there’s no way around it. Metaphorical civil war we can believe in; to get us to believe that we are on the brink of literal civil war, and that these pampered politicians will actually get into battle would take . . . I don’t know what it would take – I literally have no idea what would make me believe that.
The closest solution I’ve come to in my own head is to find a period that means something to us and something to the play, and that would mean setting the play in an alternate 1865, in which the assassination of Lincoln ignited a kind of dead-end resistance by the South. But even that doesn’t make very much sense. In the end, if the first half of the play is to connect with a contemporary viewer on a visceral level, its ideas to have some actual impact, the warfare that dominates the second half of the production will have to be understood as a kind of rhetorical fantasy – a fantasy apparently shared by many who harken back to Brutus today. It might not be a bad idea to see that fantasy fully played out, but I can’t imagine what would do that successfully on the stage.
Perhaps Riddley Scott will make a movie?