Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Review of Caeser and Cleopatra


The new Playmakers production of George Bernard Shaw's play, "Caesar and Cleopatra" is a comedy with a tragic heart: Rulers are a living sacrifice. The best rulers sacrifice themselves completely, and know that is what they are doing. That self-awareness is their crippling flaw, and their signal virtue.

I liked this production a lot, more than I expected to like it, in fact. A Shaw script always plays out on several levels. It can be tiring, but this production works well. Still, imagine a costumed clown, shrieking a song in falsetto and juggling chain saws.standing in front of Michelangelo's "David." If all you look at is the clown, and the chain saws, you'll miss the art. Shaw's plays require some attention.

Because appearances can be deceiving. Caesar is one of history's most famous rulers. But he was also famous for one of history's worst comb-overs, trying to pull a few scraggly hairs over his bald spot in hopes some of them might take root and grow. The Roman historian Suetonius wrote of Caesar: He was embarrassed by his baldness, which was a frequent subject of jokes on the part of his opponents; so much so that he used to comb his straggling locks forward from the back, and of all honours heaped upon him by senate and people, the one he most appreciated was to be able to wear a wreath at all times. Shaw includes a joke about the baldness, and wreath, and a dozen other barbed comedic touches. It will make you laugh.

The basic setting of the play, Caesar's meeting and initiation of the young Cleopatra into the rigors and rituals of ruling a nation, are easily understood. But I was reminded, particularly in this production and under David Hammond's direction, of another play by Shaw. That
other play is also about an older man transforming a young woman. In fact, Caesar and Cleopatra (written in 1901) presages several of the themes we see 15 years later in Shaw's "Pygmalion." But there is something deeper, and a little darker, in Caesar and Cleopatra.
We first meet Caesar before the Sphinx, or what he thinks is the Sphinx. Thinking he is alone, he tells the Sphinx of his wandering. He had found flocks and pastures, men and cities, but no other Caesar:

"... no man kindred to me, none who can do my day's deed, and think my night's thought.

As a ruler, he is always utterly alone. I was reminded of Eisenhower's famous words to the incoming President Kennedy in 1961: "No easy matters will ever come to you ... If they're easy they will be settled at a lower level." Shakespeare had Henry IV say it more simply: "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown."

Into this ruler's reverie slips Cleopatra. In her, Caesar finds his Liza Doolittle, a girl with no more sense of power politics than if she were the royal housecat. He begins to remake her, to show her her own power as a ruler. Almost immediately, she begins to bloom, saying, "Oh, I love you for making me a Queen"

But she learns, quickly, that for a real Queen, old pastimes no longer satisfy. She rebukes her serving maids. The giggling girls do not realize how much they reveal of themselves because Cleopatra, following Caesar's lead, does not bid them be silent as once she would have done. She promises them, and herself: "You laugh; but take care, take care. I will find out some day how to make myself served as Caesar is served.

Later, as she is speaking to the eunuch Pothinas, we learn how much she has been transformed, from girl to queen. He is surprised, and cowed, by her new-found power, and self­knowledge. In one key passage, she realizes that she could govern, even if Caesar left: "for what Caesar is to me, I am to the fools around me. Pothinus says this is just the vanity of youth, but Cleopatra corrects him: "No, no: it is not that I am so clever, but that the others are so stupid."

Pothinus responds: "Truly, that is the great secret."

So, Shaw has introduced us, with remarkable deftness, to the great paradox of leadership: rulers aren't clever, but the others are so stupid. And the stupidity is feigned: we want our leaders to be our betters, and we pretend that they are. Shaw subtly invokes Machiavelli: Cleopatra must sacrifice a part of her soul, and all of her youth. The State must survive, and be ruled. The consequences are secondary, human frailties are beside the point.

At the end of the play, a murder is committed. Caesar has seemed to argue for justice, for its own sake, but in the end Caesar reveals himself, speaking to the murderer: had you set yourself in the seat of the judge, and with hateful ceremonies and appeals to the gods handed that woman over to some hired executioner to be slain before the people in the name of justice, never again would I have touched your hand without a shudder. But this was natural slaying: I feel no horror at it.

The ruler must do what needs to be done, not because it is right, but because it is needful.
The entire cast is strong, though I thought that Christopher Coucill's Caesar outshone the rest. It is a difficult role, requiring a strength and confidence that must be felt, not just acted. Because, in the end, Cleopatra must be sincerely transformed by Caesar's example.

His work is done, and he can leave, confident that Egypt is secure, and well-ruled. We know, of course, that he is returning to face the Brutal dagger, in the Senate chamber.

Cleopatra will never be the same, however, for now she has vision: "When I was foolish, I did what I liked, except when Ftatateeta beat me; and even then I cheated her and did it by stealth. Now that Caesar has made me wise, it is no use my liking or disliking; I do what must be done, and have no time to attend to myself. That is not happiness; but it is greatness."

Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra gives us both happiness and greatness. This last comedic installment of the Playmakers' season-long meditation on the burdens of ruling others, and ruling ourselves, is well worth seeing.