When I was doing my MA, I stumbled into taking part in a local production of Julius Caesar. I had a tiny part—literally, about two lines, plus some shouting during the crowd scenes—but because the director had the idea that the Roman mob should double as a sort of chorus and witness, I spent about eighty percent of the play draped around the apron of the thrust stage with the rest of the non-principal cast.
The run was an interminable four weeks; at the time I did not appreciate just how exploitative that is for an amateur show, where the theatre company makes money but none of the actors do. For me it was a lark, and the fact that I managed to get decent grades in all my classes that term still amazes me somewhat. But it did grind on after a time, and to this day I still have most of the text of the play embedded in my unconscious.
One line in particular: the play started with a large mound of people pulsating and chanting “Caesar!” in murmurs as the house lights came slowly up. The actor playing Cassius then boomed “He doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus!” and the people in the heap peeled away in slow, stylized fashion, revealing Caesar, Antony, and the other principals.
Every night I heard that line, and every night it tugged at something in my subconscious, until it suddenly struck me: “He doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus” scans almost exactly the same as Darth Vader’s line to Princess Leia, “You are part of the Rebel Alliance, and a traitor!” And from that point on, I have never heard either line without thinking of the other.
I’ve been thinking about that production lately, in part because I had the privilege yesterday of organizing and directing a play reading for my good friend and colleague Andrew Loman’s “48 Months of Finasteride.” Andrew, whose encyclopedic knowledge of theatre is truly astonishing, decided that he wanted to publicly read a play for every month of the Trump presidency—selecting politically themed plays dealing in some capacity with fascism or tyranny, political buffoonery, or really anything that could be used to reflect upon the current clusterfuck inhabiting the White House. Months forty-eight and forty-seven featured Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and A Bright Room Called Day by Tony Kushner, respectively. I suggested that he do the version of Julius Caesar first performed under the direction of Orson Welles at the Mercury Theatre in 1937. Welles, who starred as Brutus as well as directing, made the play explicitly about Nazi Germany—the lighting evoked that of the Nuremberg Rallies, the actors dressed in Gestapo-esque outfits, and pamphlets advertising the play read “JULIUS CAESAR: DEATH OF A DICTATOR!”
Andrew liked the idea, and suggested I direct it. Which I did, and, thanks to a lovely cast of readers, last night it received an enthusiastic response.
I’m always amused and gratified by the little serendipities of life, which seem to appear all the time in my teaching and research—it doesn’t really matter how dissimilar the classes I’m teaching in a given term are, I can be reliably guaranteed to find points of connection in my lectures that are surprising and enlightening (to me, at least). Given that I’ve been expanding research I’ve been doing, on zombie narratives on one hand and militaristic SF on the other, into theories of crowds and mobs (militaristic SF shares a tendency with popular narratives of elite soldiery to depict the enemy as an undifferentiated mass), sitting down to work with Orson Welles’ vision for Julius Caesar was fascinating.
Shakespeare’s Roman plays have long been fecund ground for pointed political stagings, which is entirely unsurprising considering their preoccupation with individual versus collective power, divine right versus egalitarianism, the Great Man versus the mob (and of course, the persistence of ancient Rome in the political memory of the West—no less acute for Shakespeare than it is for us today). At the heart of these plays, especially Coriolanus and Julius Caesar is the spectre of populism and its discontents: Julius Caesar has functioned since its first performance as a cautionary tale about the dangers of the mob, depicting the Roman masses as fickle, dumb, violent, and easily led. Indeed, the manner in which Shakespeare depicts them is almost risible at times. One of my favourite moments is almost Monty Python-esque in how quickly the mob’s attitude turns. Emerging enraged at the assassination of Caesar, they listen to Brutus’ impassioned argument that it was better Caesar was dead than Rome crown him king, and thus sacrifice their native freedoms; so taken is the mob with his words, so happy are they that Brutus saved them from making Caesar king, that they then cry out that Brutus should be crowned.
BRUTUS: With this
I depart—that, as I slew my best lover for the
good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself,
when it shall please my country to need my death.
ALL: Live, Brutus! live, live!
First Citizen: Bring him with triumph home unto his house.
Second Citizen: Give him a statue with his ancestors.
Third Citizen: Let him be Caesar.
Fourth Citizen: Caesar’s better parts
Shall be crown’d in Brutus.
As they say today: <facepalm>.
Such a scene does resonate, however, whether we’re Shakespearean groundlings or 21st-century social media users, for a simple reason helpfully distilled by the British Marxist critic Raymond Williams in his landmark study Culture and Society (1958): “The masses are always the others, whom we don’t know, and can’t know … To other people, we also are masses. Masses are other people.” This basic fact, to my mind, is the contradiction at the heart of both mass culture and populism: we partake but cannot conceive of ourselves as part of the mass, something played for comic effect in The Life of Brian when Brian leads his followers in an affirming chant of “We’re all individuals! We’re all different!”, only to have a small voice pipe up, “I’m not.” As much as I hate explaining a good joke, it’s funny because it’s an unthinkable sentiment, even as it undercuts its own claim of non-individualism by being a lone voice of dissent in a chorus of groupthink.
My own research in this area has been about the critical mass of zombie films, television, and fiction in the past fifteen years—teasing out a sense of the relationship of the undead hordes to our ambivalent relationship to mass culture. In the past two years it has taken on an added resonance with the resurgence of “populism” as a political force. Re-reading Julius Caesar—and this is what I mean by serendipity—touched a nerve, as the ravening crowd, riled to bloodlust by Antony’s oration, sets upon hapless Cinna the Poet and tears him to pieces. To be certain, this is the dystopian view of populism, but then one’s view of populism is entirely based on where one stands. If you’re on the left, Trumpian populism is pernicious, a melding of unreconstructed racism and white resentment, framed in nostalgia for an America that never really existed, whereas the Bernie Sanders version was an organic grass-roots revolt against systemic injustice and a broken political system. And if you’re an Establishment elite, both groups are the Roman mob—your political leaning only changes whether Antony or Brutus is the hero.
What I loved about sitting down with Welles’ script was seeing how carefully he’d orchestrated the crowd scenes. And I mean “orchestrate” quite literally—he made them much more complex than the original Shakespearean text, arranging the lines on the page in a way that indicated when people should talk over one another or speak in succession. Considering how exacting a director Welles was, I have little doubt he tortured his cast until the scene played symphonically.
Where Shakespeare identifies the crowd-shouters as “First Citizen” and so on, Welles instead just assigned specific lines to specific cast members. This allowed for a more precise allocation of speaking roles, but in reviewing the script, it also individuates the mob—Welles’ Roman masses have more personality, and come across not as a chorus but a series of individual voices. This dramaturgical change is interesting, considering that the overt object of the play’s critique is the terrifying rise of Nazism in Germany. As a friend of mine once drily observed, Nazis make the best villains—for the simple reason that you don’t ever have to explain why they’re villains. But Welles has another object in his sights: not an always-already malleable mass of “gullibility, fickleness, herd-prejudice, lowness of taste and habit” (to again quote Raymond Williams), primed to give in to their basest hatreds at the slightest provocation, but a heterogeneous group of thinking people convinced to throw over their own freedoms by a talented demagogue.
Most tellingly, Welles completely dispenses with the crowd’s sudden eagerness to crown Brutus—they are swayed by his arguments, but understand them enough to not seek a substitute king. Antony’s funeral oration thus becomes that much more masterful, as he leads his initially skeptical audience through four stages of his speech: sarcastic rhetoric (“And Brutus is an honorable man”), pathos (showing them Caesar’s wounds, and pointing out where each conspirator stabbed him), and then to the crowd’s own material self-interests (revealing that Caesar had left every Roman seventy-five drachmas in his will), and then finally riling them up to rage (“there were an Antony / Would ruffle up your spirits, and put a tongue / in every wound of Caesar, that should move / The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny!”).
Also telling is Welles’ stage direction: when Antony reaches the climax of his speech, there is no mad yell from the throng as they charge off to wreak havoc. Rather, the script says “Silence. The lights dim as the mob turns slowly upstage and moves to exit with an increasing tempo and crescendo of footsteps.” Such an exit is not about collective rage but chilling unity of purpose—the suggestion being that this is not a fire that will burn itself out, but a movement. This cold implacability—so different from the more typical raging mobs of Caesar productions—surfaces again immediately in the notorious Cinna the Poet scene. Typically, the hapless Cinna, who has the misfortune of sharing a name with one of Caesar’s murderers, is set upon by the mob and torn apart. Welles’ thugs, however, emerge quietly from the darkness and behave in a specifically Gestapo manner.
In some ways, it is clear that Welles’ Caesar was a pre-war production—it allows for a differentiation amongst the rank and file that would become unthinkable in years after the war when Nazis became synonymous with unthinking evil. But it is for this reason that this production is such a valuable document today, as it offers an unusually nuanced depiction of populism. If the masses, as Raymond Williams says, are always other people, it is always worthwhile to remind ourselves of how we become part of the masses.