Visiting some family about a month ago, and having a couple of idle hours at bed time, I re-read this play for the umpteenth time after a gap of many years and was struck by the timeliness of it at the present moment (and even more so today — as of yesterday’s unthinkable Brexit vote). Not so much timely in terms of “the tyrant on the throne” (that’s still theoretical in the States, thank God), but in terms of the monstrousness of the mob, and the dilemma for principled leaders when “The People” go horribly wrong. There are many cases (perhaps all of them) when the experts know better…they are in a position to know better, and they have spent a lifeteime studying their fields. But here in America at least WE have spent several decades now scoffing at “elites”, with the result that millions of people are so unmoored and untethered that they’ll listen to Piped Piper demagogues like Trump and Farage whose plan of action is to essentially DROWN them and make Soylent Green out of the corpses. This in turn places existing leaders in the agonizing position of having to contemplate abhorrently anti-democratic measures to deal with the immediate problem…measures that may make things better in the short term, but may also make them worse by setting a bad precedent. Overturn the will of the people for their own good? That is a hard choice for leaders in a republic (or in the case of Britain, constitutional monarchy). There are a lot of potential Brutuses and Cassiuses in Washington and London at the moment.
It’s been 30 years since I’ve seen John Houseman’s 1953 production, but having just read his memoir Run-Through, I am reminded once again what Orson Welles lost by fatally alienating his long-term producer. In my recent post “Weep Not For Welles“, I talked about how much Welles accomplished in the post-Kane years. But the elephant in the room of course is that the split with Houseman meant years of struggle, crazy masterpieces done on a shoestring and stuck together with baling wire and chewing gum. Houseman’s Caesar, released one year after Welles’ Othello, is an illustration of what might have been.
Granted Houseman without Welles is straightforward and competent — something short of “inspired” and “brilliant”. This is not, for example, the Welles high-concept “Fascism” Caesar of 1937; it’s just a well done literal version. But the production is overflowing with prestige talent, and I’ll wager it’s better known among ordinary movie fans than any Wellesian Shakespeare adaptation, if only because Marlon Brando plays the role of Marc Antony. This, along with Guys and Dolls, was a career gambit designed to demonstrate that Brando was more than just a guy who could scream “Stella!” and mumble, “I coulda been a contenda!” And Brando is surprisingly excellent in the role…if he is using the Method here, you might say that he is playing a Shakespearean actor playing Antony. And the balance of the cast is also crazy with stars: John Gielgud bringing the authority as Cassius, James Mason as Brutus, Louis Calhern as Caesar, Edmund O’Brien as Casca, Greer Garson as Calpurnia, Deborah Kerr as Portia, George Macready as Marullus, and best of all (for some of us) — Alan Napier (“Alfred” from Batman) as Cicero!
And directed and adapted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz…whose brother Herman co-wrote Citizen Kane with Welles. Small world!
And one that changes surprisingly little in some ways throughout the ages.