Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: John D. Cox
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Julius Caesar: Performance History

Julius Caesar in Performance

1 Julius Caesar is unusual among Shakespeare’s plays in that a book-length study has been devoted to the history of its production on stage from the beginning to the late twentieth century. John Ripley’s census of English and North American theatrical performances alone for 1599 to 1973 runs to twenty-four pages (287-311), and his book remains unsurpassed, with its thorough attention to changes in play text, actors in various parts, alterations in acting and theater style, costume, and venue. Scattered among his book’s informative pages are suggestions about why production values changed, but his real strength is in recording the changes themselves. It will be useful here to summarize his findings by distinguishing the same four shifts in theatrical style that mark the history of criticism outlined above—from the original performance at the Globe in 1599 to neo-classical, Romantic, modern, and postmodern, with particular attention to concurrent political changes in each case.

2The Globe Theater was one of several public theaters to which Shakespeare remained committed throughout his entire career. All were located in the London suburbs, with competing political authorities, social ambiguity, and relative freedom from official control (Mullaney). Shakespeare’s commitment to the public theaters suggests in itself that his political ambition was more modest than that of his contemporary, Ben Jonson, if only because Shakespeare appears to have made no attempt to succeed as a court playwright, as Jonson did. Yet Shakespeare’s plays are seldom as caustic and dark as those of another contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. (Oddly, two plays with settings in ancient Greece are the principal exceptions: Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens.) Moreover, Shakespeare arguably took the moral context of his theater more seriously than Marlowe did. At the same time that the public theaters were located in a socially and politically ambiguous space, they also symbolically located their stories between the “heavens” above and “hell” below. For many critics, such as Stephen Greenblatt, this symbolic location is no more than a vestige of the biblical history plays—a symbol that has been “emptied out” by the secular stories of the plays themselves. While Shakespeare’s plays indeed deal exclusively with the saeculum (the “secular” world of common experience and observation), it is not clear that they proceed as if the sacred context of human action were irrelevant, especially where moral expectation is concerned. As several critics have urged, sorting out the sacred and the secular in Elizabethan and Jacobean England is not as straightforward as it seemed to become during the Enlightenment, and Shakespeare plays arguably appealed in a serious way, as his theater suggests, to the Christian assumptions of his audience (Cox, Knapp, Shuger).

3The earliest recorded performance of Julius Caesar is in the “straw-thatched” Globe Theater, as seen by Thomas Platter on September 11, 1599 (Schanzer, “Platter,” 466). The theater had been newly rebuilt (a story well told by Shapiro 1-7), using the timbers of the Theater in Shoreditch, originally constructed in 1576. It was polygonal and open to the sky in the center, like its modern counterpart, built near the original in 1997. The thatched roof covered three vertical tiers of seats, the large thrust stage, the “tiring house” behind the stage, and a small second-story acting area built into the tiring house. The actors wore elaborate costumes, perhaps with some recognition of Roman togas and short swords (rather than fashionable rapiers, as in Hamlet) for Julius Caesar, but they performed without sets on the main stage bare of all except minimal properties—a movable statue of Pompey and a “seat” for Caesar. The “pulpit” specified by the Folio as the place for Brutus’s and Antony’s orations is likely a “literary” stage direction, not a theatrical one, since no other pulpit is indicated in the stage directions for a Tudor or Jacobean play. North’s Plutarch refers twice to the orators using a “pulpit,” and this is probably the origin of Shakespeare’s usage. With enough crowd noise and confusion, both Brutus and Antony could have exited the main stage, ascended to the gallery through the tiring house, and emerged “above” to make their orations. The upper acting area was also probably used later for “that hill” that Pindarus ascends, at Cassius’s command, to survey the progress of battle at Philippi (TLN 2500).

4 Julius Caesar requires no recourse to a curtained “discovery space” at the rear of the main stage, beneath the upper acting area. Brutus’s “tent” is referred to several times, in connection with his quarrel with Cassius (TLN 1961, 1967) and his sighting of Caesar’s ghost (2247, 2251, 2255), but the “tent” was an imaginative space on the main stage, created simply by allusions to it, like the “Senate House” where Caesar is murdered. Caesar’s ghost may have entered from under the stage, by way of a trap door, as the ghost of old Hamlet seems to do at least once in Hamlet. If so, then the area beneath the stage was a symbolic “hell,” with “heavens” (several times referred to in Julius Caesar) likely represented by a blue ceiling above the main stage, with stylized starts, moon, and constellations painted on it. The gods never appear in Julius Caesar, though they are repeatedly alluded to and even appealed to. The play’s emphasis is decidedly on the “middle earth,” represented by the main stage, between heaven and hell.

5A perceivable shift toward more distinctively secular and explicitly political assumptions is evident in the fortunes of Julius Caesar in the theater. The performance text remained little changed from the Folio until the publication of six quartos after 1682, almost certainly in response to the popularity of Thomas Betterton in the role of Brutus at the Drury Lane Theater (Bartlett), which was an indoor acting space, with a proscenium arch and artificial lighting. John Ripley’s analysis of Restoration acting editions indicates “some modernizing the vocabulary, clarifying the syntax, and preserving decorum of expression” in the neo-classical manner (26). Also noticeable is an increasing Whig-liberal interpretation of Brutus as the de facto hero of the play in his opposition to tyranny. Two couplets were added, for example, to Brutus’s dying speech:

6Now one last look, and then farewell to all.
That wou’d with the unhappy Brutus fall.
Scorning to view his Country’s Misery,
Thus Brutus always strikes for Liberty. (Ripley 29)

7A few years later, John Dennis wrote a prologue to be spoken by “the Ghost of Shakespeare,” making the Whig emphasis clear by comparing Caesar to Philip II of Spain (and implicitly recalling James II of recent memory for audiences in 1706):

8Then I brought mighty Julius on the stage,
Then Britain heard my godlike Roman’s rage,
And came in crouds, with rapture came, to see,
The world from its proud tyrant freed by me. (Ripley 23-24)

9Betterton’s redefinition of Brutus as a champion of liberty may help to account for the great David Garrick’s never accepting a role in Julius Caesar in the eighteenth century. Garrick claimed he “would never willingly put on Roman habit” (Ripley 317n. 2), but his own political inclinations were strongly Tory, so the role of Brutus as acted in Betterton’s Whig manner by James Quinn may not have appealed to Garrick, and he would not have wanted to play the secondary part of Cassius to Quinn’s Brutus.

10Whatever Garrick’s motives, the record indicates a decided decline of English interest in Julius Caesar in the second half of the eighteenth century, at the very time it was first performed in the American colonies, and this coincidence may well be related to the play’s acquired Whig reputation. As Mrs. Inchbald observed, “when the circumstances of certain periods make certain incidents of history most interesting, those are the very seasons to interdict their exhibition” (Ripley 317n. 6). The American production at Philadelphia’s Southwark Theatre in June, 1770, depicted “The noble struggles for Liberty by that renowned patriot Marcus Brutus . . . shewing the necessity of his [Caesar’s] death” (Ripley 100), and the tyrant Caesar would not have brought King Philip II or King James II to the mind of this audience as readily as King George III. Despite the compatible subject, few colonial productions of Julius Caesar seem to have been mounted, probably because competent male actors were hard to find, and because Lewis Hallam (who played Brutus in Philadelphia) preferred “one-man plays in which he could shine alone” (Ripley 101).

11English interest in Julius Caesar revived with the production directed by John Philip Kemble in 1812. Strongly influenced in his conception of both Brutus’s character (which Kemble played himself) and his preparation of the text and stage by the beau idéal theory of the portraitist Joshua Reynolds, Kemble strove for ever greater classical severity in presentation (Ripley 50). He arranged actors on stage in statuesque and often symmetrical groupings, and he took advantage of his elaborate indoor acting space to surround the actors with painted flats that evoked an ideal Rome as their setting. He cut the text more heavily than any previous director, emphasizing Brutus’s stoic aspirations more strongly than his republicanism. Kemble eliminated the few remaining ambiguities from Shakespeare’s Brutus, playing the role with severe restraint and resisting the impulse to evoke audience sentiment with displays of feeling (Ripley 67). So successful was his reconception of the play that “throughout the next eighty years audiences saw no production which did not owe a direct and profound debt to the 1812 revival” (Ripley 73). Principal among these were William Charles Macready’s productions at midcentury, notable for even greater historical realism in setting than Kemble had achieved and for a more lavish use of supernumeraries—as many as 107, according to Macready’s promptbook (Ripley 79). Macready directed the crowd not only in stunning tableaux but also in elaborately choreographed movement so as to give “purpose and action to the various members of our groups” (Ripley 80). Kemble’s emphasis on historical realism was complemented in Macready’s productions by Macready’s own acting, especially in the part of Brutus. While retaining a façade of stoic control, he allowed himself a greater range of emotional expression, so the sense of self-suppression came through more strongly in his acting, and audiences were riveted by the contrast (Ripley 89-90). The Romantic emphasis on expressive feeling as the definition of character may well have contributed to Macready’s innovation.

12The precedent set by Kemble for historical realism in the theater reached its climax in the productions of Julius Caesar by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, beginning in 1898. Tree was fascinated by the visiting German Meininger Company’s focus on Antony’s oration, so he shifted the emphasis in his production for the first time since the Restoration away from Brutus and toward Antony. This shift had the incidental effect of emphasizing Caesar’s vengeful spirit and thus anticipating the imperial view of Caesar that MacCallum would shortly articulate in Shakespeare’s Roman Plays and Their Background. Tree cut the text more heavily than any of his predecessors, aware that the time required to change elaborate sets and to move large numbers of supernumeraries around the stage required the sacrifice of dialogue. Tree’s acting was not the equal of Macready’s, but Tree’s staging was the most elaborate and stunning of any production in Kemble’s vein of historical realism and splendid theatrical pageantry.

13The twentieth century saw two important innovations in productions of Julius Caesar, and the first of these, paradoxically, was a return to the Folio text, as directors deliberately turned away from the heavily cut scripts of Kemble and his successors. Important names in this development are William Poel, who founded the Elizabethan Stage Society in 1895, and Harley Granville-Barker, who studied with Poel and influenced criticism as much as theater production by means of his Prefaces to Shakespeare. Both moved decisively away from nineteenth-century production values to emphasize what they thought of as an Elizabethan style, including open staging, ensemble acting, swift-moving action, and minimal background scenery, in addition to an uncut text. Poel also influenced Frank Benson, who introduced the new theatrical style to audiences in Stratford-upon-Avon between 1892 and 1915. When it came to Julius Caesar, however, the weight of Kemble’s authority was too great for Benson, so the first uncut production of the play since the Restoration was directed in 1919 at Stratford by Benson’s successor, William Bridges-Adams (Ripley 197). It was well received, and Bridges-Adams revived it six more times during his tenure at Stratford (1919-34) and modeled other productions after it. By reducing scene changes and encouraging actors to speak briskly and to the point, without declamatory emphasis, he was able to get through most of the Folio’s scripts with few cuts in about three hours and still retain audiences’ interest and approval (Ripley 198). Elizabethan revivalism soon spread beyond Stratford, marking the directorships of Robert Atkins and Harcourt Williams at the Old Vic Theatre in London (1920-34). In 1926 Williams directed a production of Julius Caesar with John Gielgud playing Antony as the “undeniable star,” despite ensemble acting. The complexity of the character in the full text was compellingly developed by Gielgud’s “natural dignity, simple gesture, and a keen concern for the psychology and poetry of the part” (Ripley 237).

14The second important innovation in twentieth-century productions of Julius Caesar was the use of modern costumes in modern settings. Credit for this idea goes to Orson Welles and his remarkable Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre in New York in 1937. Nineteenth-century American productions had found their counterpart to John Philip Kemble in Edwin Booth (1833-93), whose style dominated the staging of Julius Caesar until Welles swept it aside in the most popular production of the play in American history (157 performances). Welles professed to admire Elizabethan production values, but his admiration did not include the text, which he cut severely and rearranged, so it could be played in less than two hours. His point was to evoke a setting so contemporary and familiar that “theatre-goers found themselves startled to hear the characters speak blank verse” (Ripley 227). In both costume and action, Caesar was imagined as a fascist dictator; Antony, a demagogue; and Brutus, a well-meaning but hapless intellectual, played by Welles himself as “a quiet, thoughtful man, rather like a liberal-minded college professor” (Ripley 230). Welles thus implicitly repudiated the imperial Caesar in his production at just about the time it was gaining traction in criticism of the play. The Mercury Theatre set was abstract, multi-leveled, and unchanged throughout the performance, departing completely from the huge realistic flats depicting ancient Rome in nineteenth-century productions. What Welles sacrificed in the set he more than made up for in the lighting, designed by Jean Rosenthal, who “defined space, narrowing and widening it at will, faded scenes in and out with cinematic freedom, picked out key faces and threw them into sharpened focus as a camera might, and created atmosphere with a speed and flexibility undreamt of by conventional scenery” (Ripley 226). While Welles’s electrifying production drove American competitors from the field for many years after it, modern-dress productions of Julius Caesar were mounted in Cambridge in 1938 and in London in 1939, and the BBC’s first television production of Julius Caesar in 1938 imitated Welles’s fascist theme (Ripley 243).

15John Gielgud’s promise as Antony in the 1926 Old Vic production of Julius Caesar was more than fulfilled in the Cassius he played at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford in 1950—the first major revival of the play after World War II. Jointly directed by Antony Quayle (who played Antony) and Michael Langham, the production used the Folio text almost uncut and borrowed heavily from Elizabethan revivalist presentation while using the huge stage of the Memorial Theatre and elaborate Roman costuming to full advantage. Gielgud did justice to the complexity of Shakespeare’s character. “No longer merely a passionate foil to Brutus’ tranquility, Gielgud’s lean and hungry Roman emerged as the coiled spring which vitalizes the tragedy” (Ripley 247). Not surprisingly Gielgud was invited to reprise his role as Cassius in the first major film production of Julius Caesar, directed by Joe Mankiewicz in 1953, though the actor that everyone remembered from that film was Marlon Brando, who was nominated for an Oscar as best actor in his role of Antony. Mankiewicz’ film was shot in black and white, using historically suggestive Roman costumes and large crowd scenes as adapted previously to film by Cecil B. DeMille from the nineteenth-century theater. John Hoyt’s straight-arm salute to Caesar, when Hoyt’s Decius enters Caesar’s house, may be authentically Roman, but for most people in 1953 it must have suggested a Nazi salute, and it may be a tribute to Welles’s use of the straight-arm salute to enhance his conception of Caesar as a fascist dictator. A second film of Julius Caesar was directed by Stuart Burge in color in 1970, with Gielgud again in the cast, this time as Caesar. Considerably shorter, at seventy-six minutes, than Mankiewicz’ version, Burge’s movie cast Charlton Heston as Antony and Jason Robards as Brutus. The full-bearded conspirators (Brutus excepted) may have been inspired by bearded radicals of the 1960s, but the costumes and realistic setting, as in the earlier film, were meant to be Roman.

16The second production of Julius Caesar for television was again undertaken by the BBC, almost fifty years after the first. Departing entirely from the Welles-influenced modern-dress version of 1938, director Herbert Wise used color photography, Roman period costuming, and several elaborate sets, including debris, standing water, and stained pavement on the streets of Rome and live horses before the battle of Philippi. Virtually uncut at 161 minutes, Wise’s film took full advantage of the medium, emphasizing close camera work, often depicting full faces and thereby emphasizing expression, eye contact, and glances both voluntary and involuntary. When Cassius mentions Brutus’s ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus (TLN 258), Brutus (Richard Pasco) looks straight at the camera, widening his eyes, as Cassius’s argument sinks in. Soliloquies were shot as voice-overs, with the actor saying the words as if thinking them, so that every expression of the face is emphasized as the soliloquy progresses. In Cassius’s soliloquy about Brutus (TLN 415-29), the camera closes in on the actor’s (David Collings) face until his eyes fill the screen as he concludes the speech. Nothing on stage or in film had ever done the like for Julius Caesar.

17Major theatrical productions of Julius Caesar since 1950 have offered various versions of the two twentieth-century innovations: Elizabethan revivalism and free-wheeling adaptation, ultimately inspired by Welles. Michael Langham directed the play for the first time in a “functional Elizabethan setting” (Ripley 252) in Stratford, Ontario, in 1955, using a thrust stage designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, with the audience seated on three sides and entrances and exits made from every direction. For the first time, the fluidity of Elizabethan staging combined with the nineteenth-century splendor of historical Roman costuming and military insignia to produce a “complex texture undreamt of in proscenium settings, however flexible” (Ripley 252). Tyrone Guthrie, Peter Hall, and Peter Brook, on the other hand, turned to contemporary dramatists such as Artaud, Brecht, and Beckett for inspiration in adapting Shakespearean texts to their own visions. John Blatchley looked to Brook’s Lear of 1962 in his conception of Julius Caesar in 1963, staged by the newly established Royal Shakespeare Company. Blatchley aimed to expose the hypocrisy of power by suggesting that “the ends do not justify the means” in politics (Ripley 262), and designer John Bury created a Brecht-like “alienation effect” by costuming actors in togas worn over modern military uniforms and designing an abstract set that suggested nothing historically Roman.

18Highly conceptual productions of this kind, with abstract sets and deliberately anachronistic or merely suggestive (rather than literal) costuming, have become characteristic of “postmodern” staging, a term that suggests the deliberate rejection of classical correctness and historical accuracy that marked “modern” production values in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Used in this sense, “postmodern” describes Orson Welles’s modern-dress production of Julius Caesar in 1938, though the term is usually reserved for more recent developments. Sean Holmes’s final production of Julius Caesar in Stratford’s Shakespeare Memorial Theatre before it was closed for extensive remodeling in late 2006 thus combined a fairly complete text, ensemble acting, and Roman togas with a set that suggested ancient Rome rather than trying in any sense to reproduce it on stage. When Caesar was assassinated, he fell at the feet of a realistic statue of Pompey, but the orations of Brutus and Antony were delivered from a steep, almost ladder-like metal construction that was installed mid-stage for the purpose. Bearing no resemblance either to a marble Roman rostrum or to the pulpit on a movable wooden platform that presumably was used at the Globe in 1599, this ad hoc podium advertised itself as intrusively artificial and thereby visually reminded the audience that they were witnessing a sixteenth-century play about a first-century event in a twenty-first century setting.

Works Cited

  1. Bartlett, Henrietta C. "Quarto Editions of Julius Caesar." The Library, 3rd ser., 4 (1913), 122-32.
  2. Greenblatt, Stephen. "Shakespeare and the Exorcists." Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1988. 94-128
  3. Mullaney, Steven. The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
  4. Ripley, John. Julius Caesar on Stage in England and America, 1599-1973. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.
  5. Schanzer, Ernest. "Thomas Platter's observations on the Elizabethan stage," Notes and Queries 201 (1956), 465-7.
  6. Shapiro, James. A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.