American Caesars: Julius Caesar, Edwin Booth and Orson Welles

American Caesars: Julius Caesar, Edwin Booth and Orson Welles

For much of its history, American Caesars had been pale imitations of their British counterparts. Little performed in the revolutionary years, the play had become a theatrical staple in the nineteenth century, a fact tied both to the rise of Shakespeare’s cultural standing, to its allegedly republican sympathies and to the prominence of oratory in American politics and, by extension, education. Caesar was studied as a model both of Roman, patriotic virtue and of rhetorical performance. Character tended to be subordinated to abstract principle and elocution, though one popular production is especially worthy of mention. It starred Edwin Booth as Brutus and played in New York at Booth’s own (short-lived) theatre in 1871–2. Booth owed much to Macready as an actor, but he was neither tall nor impressively built and had made a name for himself particularly for his performance of Hamlet, which had been very much in the romantic vein. Of course, his name had also been made for him less positively by his brother, John Wilkes Booth, who had assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 while quoting the historical Brutus: ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’ (‘Thus always to tyrants’). By the 1870s, Lincoln was – to many Americans – a martyr, and any production of Caesar risked the possibility of all too concrete an association. Edwin Booth had played Brutus with his brothers Junius and John Wilkes (who took the role of Antony) the year before the assassination as part of the fund raiser for the Shakespeare monument in Central Park, but in the light of subsequent events, attention on Edwin’s later Brutus was unusually heightened. Drawing on his Hamlet, Booth played Brutus as a private and conflicted man, and while some critics accused him of sentimentalizing the part, he both avoided seeming to glamourize the assassin, and introduced a subtler take on the character, one which was thoughtful and reflective, even tortured, rather than heroic and statuesque.

This notion of Brutus was taken considerably further in Welles’s 1937 production (entitled Caesar: Death of a Dictator), which acknowledged recent history in ways no production of the play had done before: it embraced the end of the heroic which had been enacted by the First World War and, even more urgently, anticipated the Second World War, which was already looming in Europe in the rise of Fascist regimes under Hitler and Mussolini. Welles was very much a man of his time, and his notion of what he was doing was in some ways in accord with the actor/manager star-vehicles of the previous century even as it made huge strides into modernism in terms of both the production’s content and the technology he used to convey it.

The production had several distinctive features. First, and perhaps most strikingly, it was probably the first major production of Shakespeare to be staged in the clothes of the present moment since the original stagings at the Globe. Those clothes took a few different forms: military uniforms reminiscent of those goose-stepping through the newsreel footage from Europe, contemporary trench coats and fedoras for the crowds, and a few black shirts for the government paramilitaries who occupied the space between. The production relied heavily on bold lighting, particularly the so-called Nuremberg effect: large spots angled up from the ground such as were familiar from Hitler’s dramatic rallies. Famously, Welles also put the murder of Cinna the poet back in, the first director to do so for over two and a half centuries, and the scene became the highlight of the production.

Apart from the visceral power of the moment itself, one of the reasons for the scene’s prominence was because Welles cut the latter half of the play so drastically, reducing the fourth and fifth acts by two thirds), so that Cinna died surprisingly close to the end of the show. After that theatrical coup de grâce, there was only a truncated version of the tent scene, some lines of farewell between Brutus and Cassius before the battle, and Antony’s speech over Brutus’s corpse. All the fighting was cut, as was the proscription scene which had so recently reappeared in British productions.

The result was that, for all its pointing to what was happening overseas, the production’s final focus was oddly domestic. Its familiarly dressed crowds resembled the strikes and protests known all too well by Americans in the Great Depression, and they focused on one of the key words of the day: isolationism. Welles was portraying the rise of Fascism in Germany, Spain and Italy, but Cinna the poet was clearly an American surrounded by Americans poised to turn lethal when given permission by authority. Welles’s own Brutus was a fumbling intellectual, out of his depth and incapable of withstanding the sheer brute power and theatrics of Caesar and Antony. With the battles gone (and modern dress productions always struggle to render battles written to be staged with swords instead of machine guns), this was finally a show not about military power but about politics, theatrical rhetoric and the crisis of the individual conscience faced with an expressly modern will to totalizing power.

Critical response was largely enthusiastic, if sometimes unclear on what the production was finally saying. Much of the praise fell on Welles himself who, despite his youth, was already both prodigy and theatrical enfant terrible, and in this too the show proved a kind of watershed moment. While Welles was working in the actor/manager tradition of the previous century, he was also very much a director in the new mode, a man who, extraordinarily, used a double to play Brutus throughout rehearsal so that Welles could focus on the energy and stage pictures of the whole. His aggressive cutting, his intellectual, aesthetic and emotional manipulation of the audience was done not in pursuit of the true or complete play, or the embodying of a venerable past, but in presenting a very particular inflection, a ‘take’ on the play designed not to be definitive but, on the contrary, to be partial, to shine a very particular light onto parts of the play and offer it up as new and compelling.

Taken from ‘Performance History’ by Andrew James Hartley, in Julius Caesar: A Critical Reader edited by Andrew James Hartley, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016. Available now at 10% off R.R.P.

Photo from the Carl Van Vechten collection at the Library of Congress