By Patrick Mulcahy, Producing Artistic Director
How many ages hence will this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown.” With these words in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare gives Cassius, a leading conspirator in the assassination, the power of prophesy.
In 1864, three brothers from the prominent Booth theatrical family played principal characters in Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden in New York City. Just five months later, one of the brothers, John Wilkes Booth, shot President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. As he jumped to the stage, Booth shouted “sic semper tyrannis” (“thus always to tyrants”), words attributed to the historic Brutus at Caesar’s assassination.
Nelson Mandela shared a smuggled, disguised copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare with his fellow political prisoners at Robben Island. Thirty-two of the prisoners, including future leaders of post-apartheid South Africa, selected favorite quotes from which they drew inspiration in their struggle. One of Mandela’s selections, spoken by Julius Caesar as he responds to his wife’s fears about him going to the Senate:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.”
Amid the sounds of the guns of revolution in 1776, Abigail Adams quoted Brutus as she wrote to her husband John:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”
Each of these acts of revolution could also be described as intimate: a pointblank assassination, keeping company with Shakespeare in solitary confinement, and a love letter to a founding father and revolutionary. So personal in each case.
Most striking to me in Julius Caesar: characters seem to speak for the ages and yet also speak intimacies in the ears of friends and lovers, occasionally at the same time. Thus, the emotional range of the play has a kind of cosmic breadth despite the relative stoic constraint of a few of the principal characters.
Originally, we had planned Caesar for the mainstage, but then moved it to the Schubert Theatre. That’s when I got most excited about this production. The intimacy of that space felt perfect for the intimacy of the play.
Most people probably think first of the assassination scene when this play comes to mind. To me, the scope of that “lofty scene” is beautifully balanced by the play’s humanity, revealed in its many intimate moments: Brutus’ closeness with his fiercely loving wife Portia; his care of his servant Lucius; his dynamic relationship with his close friend Cassius; and even his love of Caesar. Caesar finds intimacy with his wife Calpurnia, with the people of Rome, with the Senators who come to his home to bring him to the Capitol, and with his friend Brutus in his final moment. Antony’s moments alone with the “ruins” of Caesar are similarly powerful and poignant.
Perhaps this full spectrum exploration of both the public and private selves is a key to the play’s popularity. Julius Caesar was among the most referenced plays in Shakespeare’s time even though it was not published until after his death. In 1599, it followed a string of history plays which explored the morality of rebellion in the War of the Roses, and similarly gave Shakespeare’s audience a kind of backstage access to the corridors of power. Our fascination continues, if television series about the U.S. presidency and ancient Rome are any indication. There have been dozens of feature films that tell the Julius Caesar story, several adapting Shakespeare, and our own production of Antony and Cleopatra had record-setting attendance. While our fascination with the otherwise hidden machinations of politics is strong, how much stronger is it when we find that we care about these people, that we see ourselves in them, in their acts of love and compassion as much as in their acts of aggression.
The age-old question is: was it aggression or were the conspirators liberators? While the world continues to struggle with the question of what to do with a leader who is perceived to have tyrannical inclinations, it also struggles more broadly to determine under what circumstances a person in authority can use deadly force against a person perceived as a threat.
Great playwrights don’t preach. Often through immersion in ambiguity and paradox, they illuminate truths about our being that transcend binary considerations of right and wrong. They look across the width of the paradox to reveal what is fundamentally human. In this play, I believe Shakespeare certainly fascinates the audience with the plot history gave to him. His genius though is in exploring with us perhaps the more interesting questions of why and how we do what we do, what it says about human beings that we continue to wrestle with morality, to revisit questions of what should or should not have been done, and how we do so in the context of our relatedness to one another in both intimate and glare-of-the spotlight public relationships.
This play moves from rationality to frenzy, from soaring ideals to impulsive mob violence and civil war. It also translates history into great entertainment, and makes the harder-to-glance nuances of our natures more visible, poignant, and illuminating, as we, like the characters in this play, struggle to create the version of the world we would most want to live in. That’s power, to move the needle.
Julius Caesar is arguably Shakespeare’s first great tragedy. In honor of the play’s timeless qualities, our production will highlight elements of past, present, and imagined future. Unlike documentaries, plays are art objects made of metaphor. Shakespeare wrote a play in Renaissance England, set in ancient Rome, that will be produced for an American audience in 2016. Any production of a Shakespeare play today ideally meets in the magical space between these different eras in human history, including ours. Hamlet asks that the theatre “hold the mirror up to nature.” Our production aims to do so in this momentous and tumultuous year, and to ask the questions the play asks, of our time, of Shakespeare’s time, of Caesar’s time, of all time.