Caesar’s Meme

julius-caesar-chicago-shakespeareA dozen Honors students enjoyed second-row seats for Chicago Shakespeare’s epic production of Julius Caesar last night. It had the marks of a Barbara Gaines production. Astonishing performances. Sound effects you feel in your colon. A cinematic scope. Intensity, speed, viscerality.

It also had its YouTube moments.

You’d think this show would be about great speeches and big ideas. There was plenty of powerful oratory. Antony’s speech after Caesar’s murder was a marvel of irony. “For Brutus is an honourable man. So are they all, all honourable men.”

Cue puzzled looks. And when he says it again, cue chastened laughter.

But in many ways, it wasn’t the subtleties of Antony’s irony nor the egomania of Caesar nor the lean, hungry ambition of Cassius that drew attention. It wasn’t the elevated language and the sophisticated arguments. It was the strange little details that make up so much of political life.

Moments like Marco Rubio’s gulp of Poland Spring.
Or John McCain blinking 3,000 times in a single debate.
Or the rudely happy crowd noises at Obama’s Arizona speech after the Giffords shooting.

Last night’s show suggested that it’s not just our political culture that pays attention to performative details. Early in Julius Caesar, Brutus and Casca discuss three major eruptions of crowd sound during Caesar’s downtown appearance. Here Casca serves the function of a YouTube clip as he describes a gesture of Caesar’s that went viral in the talk of Rome. Brutus, who is a tortured soul with a patriotic conscience and a Stoic ethic, asks a question not about Caesar’s political philosophy or ethical investment, but about his manner. He asks, in short, about Caesar’s style. And Casca, for all his political chatterbox ways, is initially flummoxed: “I can as well be hanged,” he says, “as tell the manner of it.” But he gets warmed up and explains that when Antony offered Caesar the crown—and then he interrupts himself. As if crossing a trousered leg in one of the easy chairs on the set of Good Morning America, he adds a delectable little detail: “Yet ’twas not a crown neither, ’twas one of these coronets.”

Did you catch that? Here is the Lord Brutus, the noblest Roman of them all, talking with an astute political observer about the fate of the Republic—and what are they noticing? The latest royal headgear.

Why has politics so often been about style? Today, we’d say that the mass media needs quick content, and the mass audience needs distraction. Political propositions don’t serve either need; gaffes and gestures do. But although last night’s production was set in a right-wing, proto-fascist Washington D.C. with all the performers donning suits instead of togas, it was pretty clear that the interaction of substance and style that bewilders us today bewildered Elizabethan England and Augustan Rome as well.

Last night’s show was an intense piece of work. Caesar’s ghost was genuinely disturbing. The automatic gunfire made you duck. The gash in Portia’s thigh made me writhe in my seat. But the most bothersome intensity of the show for me was the changeable passions of the populace. The director was obviously critiquing the distractibility of political audiences. But I was also struck by the crowds’ confusion. They weren’t just fickle; they were baffled.

What do you make of Caesar’s gesture?
Why did Brutus wave his bloody hands–and smile?
Can anyone trust Antony?

And we felt the crowds awaiting reliable cues. We strained our eyes with theirs, holding out for information, yearning for meaningful action.

And there were moments, as there are for today’s crowds, when they were simply hungry for authenticity and connection and humanness. Because the actors wore modern dress, it was easier for us to slip in among them in our imagination. It was easy to recognize ourselves torn, bemused, fist-raised, exhausted, trying desperately to make out something reliable.

But as much as I appreciate the critique of contemporary politics that the artistic director, Barbara Gaines, was effecting by this show, I came away feeling disappointed by the bleakness of her interpretation. The production represented political life as a ceaseless set of power moves, with each royal figure different but no better than the last. There’s something right about this—something straight out of the book of Ecclesiastes. But construing political life as nothing more than chess does make the suicides of the major characters hard to buy. Why do themselves to death? In Shakespeare’s text, I think the suicides make sense as the acts of Stoics who fear dishonor more than anything. There’s a worldview to support the action. But on the gameboard that Gaines mounts, these players have plenty of other moves still to play.

Or so I’d guess. But that’s the opinion of one of the fawning plebians, ticket-stub in hand, trying to make out what the moneyed and the beautiful and the powerful are finding to do in these wintry days of the Republic.

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