Ides of March: Caesar and Welles

 

 

CASSIUS

Stoop, then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

BRUTUS

How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey’s basis lies along
No worthier than the dust!

CASSIUS

So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call’d
The men that gave their country liberty.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 1

I think it would have amused the Romans of Caesar’s generation if they could have learned that the assassination of Julius Caesar would eventually receive immortality through a play written more than 16 centuries after the event by a barbarian playwright in the Tin Islands that Caesar had briefly invaded. It would have tickled their well developed concept of the ludicrous, judging from Roman comedy.

One of the more celebrated performances of Julius Caesar was that of Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre players on November 11, 1937.  Welles was all of 22 and playing the angry young genius in a hurry role to the hilt.  Welles was already a radio star earning the fantastic, for that time, salary of $1500 a week.  The average annual salary in Depression era America in 1937 was $890 a year.  However, Welles was determined to make his mark in the theater, and he plowed back almost every cent into his Mercury Theatre company, after he broke with the Federal Theater Project.  Julius Caesar was the first play of the company.  The play was performed in modern dress, partially because Welles could not afford costumes, and partially because he saw the play as a mechanism to warn about the rise of fascism in Europe.  The uniforms used could just have easily caused the play to be set in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

 

The play received laudatory reviews and caused a sensation in the theater world.  Orson Welles portrayed Brutus, the hero of the play, with such bravura that in one performance he accidentally stabbed the actor portraying Caesar.  The poor fellow was off for a few months recovering.

The play established the reputation of Welles as a genius, a reputation that would prove a considerable burden to Welles over his three score and ten in this Vale of Tears.  It also predicted much of Welles’ subsequent career:  the critics loved it but it failed to turn a profit.  Me and Orson Welles (2008) gives a fictional portrayal of the production.  Christian McKay gave a mesmerizing performance as Welles.

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