Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Julius Caesar and Literalism

It is inevitable: someone will post an article or a promotion about a controversial opera production in one of the European houses and the negativity usually starts immediately.  “It disrespects the composer!” Or “It doesn’t follow the libretto!”  And then the production is dismissed as “Euro-tr—h” and the commenter moves on.  Well the production is not trash, and the use of the E word is insulting and ignorant.  I have no patience with it.  Do we really need to call names and insult an entire continent in order to feel superior?  Additionally there are plenty of American stage directors who are just a creative.  In other words, the phenomenon of “Regie-Theater” is not confined to Europe.

But the bigger issue to me is this claim that somehow we are disrespecting the composer.  How do we know this when the composer has been dead for a couple hundred years?  Well, “it’s all in the libretto.”  Is it?  It seems to me that these folks who look at opera libretti as holy writ neither know nor understand the libretto. Is the essence of “Tosca” in making sure that the opera is set for two of its three acts in the actual Castel Sant'Angelo?  Is the essence of the libretto to be found in the stage directions that instruct Tosca to enter here and Spoletta to exit there?  I think that is missing the point.  This is just literalism plain and simple.  And literalism limits our vision; it disables our ability to enter into the deeper meaning of a text or a story; literalism keeps us on the surface and denies us the profundity of the depth of meaning that these texts, literature, art and music contain.  In my view literalism is anti-art; it is anti-human growth because it never challenges.  It just confirms our own worldview and allows us to avoid the deeper meaning and implications of a work.  And this is true whether that work is the Bible or Tosca or Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar!"

There has been a lot of hubbub about Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar.”  Specifically, a production of the play is being performed in Central Park which updates the action to our present time and some of the characters seem to bear some resemblance to current political figures.  Since the title character (supposedly played to be similar to our current president) is assassinated this has caused upset.  Some of these folks have even been threatening violence themselves. Both Delta Airlines and the Bank of America pulled their support.  Folks angry about this interpretation have crashed performances and even threatened summer Shakespeare companies who are not even performing Julius Caesar (you do know that William wrote a lot of plays, right?  The most pathetic is the company who has received numerous threats of violence for performing... wait for it.... "The Merry Wives of Windsor!").  The problem for me in all of this, at least initially, is that it would seem from what I have read that not one of those who are upset with this play (or production) and are throwing around these cowardly threats and taking back their money have seen it.  In fact, it appears to me that many of them have not even read the play.

So for those who are feeling upset and especially for the good but uninformed and rather ignorant people at Delta and Bank of America – here is "Julius Caesar 101": First of all, we have to start by understanding that the story (based on historical facts, but not limited to them! – that is important by the way) began quite a long time before the play opens.  Shakespeare’s audience would have been quite familiar with the story of Caesar the brilliant general who conquers most of Europe, and the Caesar who “crossed the Rubicon.”  Caesar was not only a brilliant military strategist but an equally brilliant politician who knew how to capitalize on his military popularity to become a populist leader and move the Roman Empire (which he actually pretty much created single handed) from being a democratic republic to a authoritarian empire.  This is where the play starts.  Senators such as Cassius, Casca and Brutus are alarmed at Caesar’s political moves to undermine the republic and come to the conclusion that the only way to stop him is to assassinate him.  Their end goal is to protect the republic, but they choose to do this with violence. The personal dimension is provided by the fact that Caesar considers Brutus to be his dear, close friend.  So the issues of personal betrayal ("E tu Brute?), the struggle between private vs. public good all are a part of this play - which is one of the things that makes it a masterpiece!  

And so, on the Ides of March, after being warned to stay away from the Senate, Caesar arrives to begin the day's deliberations. Just as the affairs of state are beginning, Casca strikes the first blow with his knife and the other conspirators follow suit.  They then bath their hands in the dead Caesar’s blood and head out to the marketplace.  They are assuming that Rome will rally to them. After all they had saved Rome from an authoritarian dictator.  But they (Brutus in particular) make two major mistakes in judgment. First, his speech justifying the action is ineffective and unconvincing.  The blood on his hands unnerves him and the crowds in the square. And while the speech gets initial lukewarm acceptance it is ultimately ineffective.  The second mistake is allowing Caesar’s great friend Mark Anthony to speak.  The speech is amazing.  The conspirators had underestimated Mark Anthony’s rhetorical ability and as the speech builds he begins to rally the people to his side.  By the end the conspirators have fled and the tide has turned.

(Mark Anthony’s speech is one of the greatest of Shakespeare’s creations.  Here are two performances: Charlton Heston in the film from 1970 is first.  I think this is one of his best roles.  And the other is Damian Lewis.

But, violence begets violence.  The poet Cinna is mistaken for the Senator and conspirator Lucius Cinna and is brutally killed in the streets.  Rioting and burning engulfs the city of Rome and Mark Anthony, the General Lepidus and eventually Caesar’s heir the young, but equally brilliant and exceptionally power hungry Octavius Caesar (eventually to be known as the Emperor Augustus) consolidate their power by executing anyone they deem as disloyal (historically this included the great Roman orator and lawyer Cicero).  Then they raise and lead an army against the conspirators.  All the combatants meet at Philippi and the forces under the command of Octavius and Mark Anthony are victorious, the last of the conspirators are killed or commit suicide. 

One of the great points of this play is that the violence of the initial assassination unleashes a power those who resorted to violence cannot control and that ultimately the violence destroys them all.  In other words: violence does not work!  Period!  Those who resort to violence, no matter how noble the goal, are ultimately destroyed along with many, many innocents with them.  Violence does not work!  This is one of the major points of the play!

And it seems to be a point that was missed by both the protestors and the poorly informed folks at Delta and Bank of America.  This play does not advocate violence – on the contrary, it decries it!  It condemns it.  And anyone who suggests or threatens violence in relation to this play is aligning themselves with the conspirators, who are destroyed in the end.

I have not seen this production.  It is obviously updated, but there is nothing wrong with that.  Of all the productions of this play I have seen most of them have been updated, including a magnificent RSC production set in Africa.  But can we not look past the setting and allow the stage director and the actors to lead us into the depth of the meaning of this incredible play and then take to heart one of the main points of the play: Violence. Does. Not. Work.  Violence is evil, it is seductive and violence will destroy those who rely upon it.

This brings to mind another great Shakespeare play – "Macbeth."  There is no noble motivation in "Macbeth."  Personal advancement provides the impetus for Macbeth and his wife to begin their murderous careers.  But once they start they can’t stop.  “What is done cannot be undone” and the insecurity and fear which preys upon them as a result eventually destroys them. In other words the motivation is irrelevant.  Violence. Does. Not. Work!  This is at the heart of both plays.  So rather than protesting and getting all upset and making cowardly threats and taking our money and going home and all of that maybe we might take a little time and read the play and understand what it is that Shakespeare wants us to understand.  And, really, remember, Shakespeare is truly objective in regard to 21st century American politics.  He truly “doesn’t have an iron in the fire” as they say.

Finally, one of the great betrayals of this country has been going on now for a number of years – so we can’t blame 45 for this exclusively, though he isn’t helping -  That is insidious the idea that the arts and the humanities are somehow unimportant and should be cut from school curriculums.  Wrong! The arts and the humanities teach us how to think.  They teach us how to be good citizens.  They teach us how to be great and help us to measure ourselves.  America can never be great without a comprehensive education system.  And this has got to include the arts and humanities.  The Ancient Greeks and Romans understood this, and we ignore it to our peril.