Friday, May 8, 2009
Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, is based off Plutarch’s recount of the assassination of the great, Roman ruler. Despite its historical subject matter, the play is seems to say little, if nothing, about that historical period. This play was meant for Shakespeare’s time, in pre-Enlightenment England. The play addresses issues of power and the public sphere in the Elizabethan Age. In much the same way, the 1953 film production of Julius Caesar, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, isn’t meant to comment on the Roman Republic. The film is a product of its age as well, that being the tumultuous era in American history known as the Red Scare. A quote by Richard Halpern from his essay “Vicissitudes of the Public Sphere” helps understand how the film production, using the same material as the play, was able to achieve contemporary relevance centuries later. “The historical meanings which later periods were able to derive from Julius Caesar are ultimately based on the play’s complexly non-synchronous relation with its historical moment” (213). Because of the play’s ability to apply historical material to the issues of the era of its production, future interpretations were also able to do so. Through placing similar emphasis on the political and ideological divisions of the story, both Shakespeare and Mankiewicz’s productions were able to achieve relevance in their age.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar divides Rome into two worlds. On one hand, there are the politicians who govern the people; on the other hand are the plebs of the public sphere. The public sphere of the Enlightenment would’ve included individuals using reason to come to conclusions about important matters. However, the public sphere of the Roman plebs resides in the economically fueled Forum. As an important figure of a patrician class meant to serve the public, Brutus is our tragic protagonist. He is tragic for the fact that his public sphere is not of the Enlightenment, but of the Forum. Brutus is lured into conspiracy when Cassius appeals to his dedication to the people. Through use of fake letters from the public, pleading with Brutus for help, does Cassius manage to ensnare his passion. It is in this false perception of his public that Brutus is able to go through with the murder of his dear friend Caesar. Caesar’s potential for tyranny and unchecked power was too great for Brutus to let alone. By expressing this sentiment to the public, Brutus was able to win them over, but only momentarily (Halpern 211-14).
Coming from an economically-minded group, the plebs were easily won over by Marc Antony’s appeal to their materialism. Antony sees them rightly as “consumers of both rhetorical and economic address” (Halpern 225). He sets them up by presenting them with the corporeal form of bloody Caesar, and he ultimately steals them away from Brutus by exposing the financial benefits that they still reap from their deceased leader. According to his will, his properties were to be donated for public use and every Roman was to receive a modest sum of money. They could easily abandon loyalty to the usurped Pompey because he no longer provided for them, but they kept Caesar in their hearts due to his generous will. This was something Brutus could not contend with. The public sphere can support ideology, but only to a point that is without conviction. Brutus has nothing to show the plebs, nothing of monetary value to bestow upon them, only the invisible ideology of a safer and better future. Antony is savvier when it comes to the ways of the people. He is an opportunist because of his ability to take advantage of their self-serving tendencies (Halpern 222-25).
Apart from the men addressing the fictional public of the Forum, they also got a chance to address Shakespeare’s audience. Brutus made an appeal for the importance of good ideology and of enlightened thinking. Marc Antony appealed to the materialism in the real audience as well. They got to make the choice of who to side with just as the plebs of the Forum did. It would be hard not to get swept up in a passionate performance of Antony’s words, but the play truly focuses on Brutus and sympathizes with him. His death is tragic and the greatness of his character is even commented on by his enemies. The manner of the conclusion gave the audience a chance to reflect on the actions of their counterpart, the plebs.
In the 1950’s, another audience was being addressed by Shakespeare’s words. The late 40’s gave rise to great anti-Communist sentiment in the United States. Wisconsin senator, Joseph McCarthy, was the nation’s fear monger. He worked hard to out members of the Communist party and Communist sympathizers. His aim was to ruin their lives because, to him, they were enemies of the nation. In 1947, there were hearings to expose Communist influence in Hollywood. It was here that the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) suggested that Hollywood take aim at making more blatantly anti-Communist films. The 1950 film Kim, based on the English classic by Rudyard Kipling, was revised to accentuate the novel’s minor focus on a conflict with Russians into full out warfare. In the years following, Joseph L. Mankiewicz set out to adapt Julius Caesar at the same studio (MGM). He was intent not to let his film be given the same treatment (Lenihan 42-7).
Just before Mankiewicz began production of his Caesar, he was involved in a conflict as the head of the Director’s Guild. He was known for leaning toward the political left, so this made him a target of prominent Hollywood conservative, Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille was adamant to have directors sign a loyalty oath, due to perceptions of the film industry as being liberal. Anyone who didn’t sign the oath would essentially be blacklisted. Mankiewicz opposed the action. When popular director, John Ford, asked why a man should not stand up and be counted, Mankiewicz replied that no one had appointed DeMille to do the counting. DeMille then tried to have him secretly removed from his office. He failed (Mitchell 13). At a future guild meeting, DeMille tried to sway other member against Mankiewicz with an impassioned speech. He chose to begin his speech with words that may have affected the direction of the 1953 Julius Caesar: “I have come before you neither to praise Caesar nor to bury him”. He continued his speech with more allusions to the play; he even referred to Mankiewicz and his supporters as “honorable men” just as Marc Antony refers to the conspirators during the funeral oration scene. He concluded by reading off a list of suspected Communists within the guild, just as Antony transitions into condemning Brutus (Lenihan 51-2). The context in which DeMille quoted Antony gave Mankiewicz the perfect motivation for his film.
The Mankiewicz film utilizes the unique applications of the cinema to generate a specific response to the Shakespearean material. The film opens with a high-angle shot of imperial guards carrying flags during Caesar’s procession through Rome. Producer, John Housemen, fought for the film to be shot in black and white. Although the studio initially insisted that he use the standard Technicolor, he was able to appeal to them by alluding to potential financial benefits of the method. The black and white is supposed to bring up the image of news-reel propaganda and when coupled with the opening scene is meant to recall the work of Leni Reifenstahl (Miller 97). This effect certainly paints the film’s Caesar in a dictatorial sense. Adding to this notion is the film’s use of mise-en-scene. There are many statues and busts of Caesar that can be seen throughout the film and on numerous occasions they dominate or frame the shot. Caesar isn’t the only one to be developed by these cinematic tools. All of these elements help define characters in their roles throughout the film.
Perhaps the most remarked upon scene of the film is the one that harkened Mankiewicz back to his dispute with DeMille, the funeral oration. James Mason gives an emotional, but reserved performance of Brutus’ speech to the plebs. They respond well to his good intentions for Rome, but, as in the play, they are quickly turned by the words of Antony. After slowly carrying Caesars bloody body down onto the steps of the Senate, Antony begins slowly to speak about the qualities of Caesar. Once he begins to sense a change in the mood of the public, he turns from them under the pretence of emotion, but the camera, through its powers of narration, is able to capture the performance of Marlon Brando as he shifts his eyes widely, contemplating his next move. He returns to the people with increasing emotion. He works them further into agreeing that Caesar was wronged and that the “honorable men” are traitors. After divulging to them the contents of Caesar’s will, they become frenzied. Chaos erupts in the background as Antony turns to the camera and gives a wry smile.
This scene is meant to further the image of Antony as a demagogue. He is depicted as acting upon the emotions of the public and opportunistically taking power for himself. The black and white photography works here as it did with Caesar. Brando’s emotional gesturing on the footsteps of the political center could be likened to historical footage of popular dictators. This characterization also recalls the image of Senator McCarthy in numerous ways: he seizes power by his own authority, he opposes political obstacles of treason, and he produces a document to make his case. Just like McCarthy, Antony becomes a great stirrer of trouble (Miller 98). His only loyalty is to his own ambition, not to his country or the deceased Caesar; he does not even shed a tear for his former friend.
In the next scene, Antony, Lepidus, and Octavius compile a list of traitors over Caesar’s table. Their scene furthers the comparison of Antony to McCarthy, but it is strictly out of the play. However, what follows after Lepidus and Octavius leave is a scene added for the film by the director. In it, Antony walks over to a bust of Caesar, stretches smugly, adjusts the statue mockingly, and proceeds to sit himself down in Caesar’s throne. This, again, displays Antony’s desire for power and his satisfaction with usurping it. Mankiewicz wants to be sure that Brando’s Antony is seen as the villain.
Conversely, the director strives to show that Mason’s Brutus is the tragic hero of the film. His idealism is contrasted against the dictatorial Caesar and the demagogic Antony. Producer, John Houseman, commented that Brutus reflected the tragic figure of the age, for he was a man a reason living in violent times. Both Houseman and Mankiewicz compared the character to the 1952 Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson, for he was an intellectual up against a charismatic General in Eisenhower (Lenihan 50). Like in the play, Brutus pleads with the people for reason, for a dream of a better Republic. He is never show acting on self-interests, for his interests are truly to the people. His deliverance of Caesar’s death stroke is depicted as a personal sacrifice. He backs away with angst as the conspirators stab Caesar and when it comes time for him to act, he does so with pain written on his face. He took no pleasure in the act, for he was not acting out some coup of power; he was doing it for a cause he truly believed in. Antony does not show half as much grief over the death of Caesar as does Brutus.
The death of Brutus is also meant to emphasize his role as protagonist. His body is show lying upon a table with Antony looking on. Antony delivers his final speech about the goodness of Brutus (5.5.74-81 of the play), ending with the line “this was a man”. From here, Mankiewicz utilizes the cinema once more by focusing the final shot on Brutus’ lifeless face. The shot seems to say “here was our man”. The final words of the play are actually spoken by Octavius, but his speech (5.5.82-87) is deliberately omitted from the film. His lines would’ve taken away from the sorrow over Brutus’ death by remarking on their glorious victory. Leaving this out of the film allows for more focus to be put on Brutus. “The tragedy then of Houseman's and Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar is not that Brutus has been seduced to traitor's cause… but that he is wrongly labeled a traitor by a conniving demagogue” (Lenihan 52).
The plebs fail Brutus by siding with Antony. He gave them a chance for a better future, free from tyranny, but they chose the material benefits of Antony, allowing themselves to be ensnared by another demagogue. They refused to fight for the man who fought for them when he was labeled a traitor. This reflects the quiescence of the 1950’s public sphere. In the era following WWII and preceding the intense activism of the 1960’s, the people were not politically active. They were given their choices and they voted on them, but they didn’t fight (Miller 100). Out of fear or sheer laziness, the public allowed the atrocities of the Communist witchhunt to be carried out. They themselves did not want to be labeled traitors, nor did they care to speak up when they were not being personally affected. The plebs of Mankiewicz’s film could not see the changes that Brutus secured, so any devotion to them was quickly cast aside in the face of Antony’s obvious benefits and power. It would have been easy for Mankiewicz to include the murder scene of the poet Cinna by the plebs to reflect the mob mentality inspired by political agitators, but it was left out. Perhaps the studio thought this was going too far, but more likely he did not want to show his plebs being inspired towards any sort of action. Their inaction is reminiscent of the inaction of the times. The people are practically a non-factor in the film, the public sphere is absent. The politicians are the focus of the film because the public put all the power in their hands, leaving none for themselves.
The film maintains strong fidelity to the play, but through its own mechanisms and slight omissions/additions, it is able to achieve relevance in a new age. This is a testament to the versatility of Shakespeare. He was able to apply history to his own particular moment in time, which allows for future interpretations to do the same. Both versions of the story were meant to show a division between the political a public spheres. The goal of Brutus in both was to help bring the two together, but in both he was rejected and power was handed over (or sold) entirely to the politicians. Each version showcases the inability of the public to resist tyranny in the face of an easy or financially beneficial resolution. This issue was relevant to both pre-Enlightenment England and the Red-Scare, just as it is relevant today. Brutus still pleads with us from the Forum to believe in something that we cannot see. It is our job not to be swayed from that course by the entertainment of Antony and the politicos.
Halpern, Richard. “Vicissitudes of the Public Sphere.” Julius Caesar: New Casebooks. Ed. Richard Wilson. New York: Palgrave, 2002. 210-28.
Lenihan, John H. "English Classics for Cold War America." Journal of Popular Film & Television 20 (1992): 42-52.
Miller, Anthony. "Julius Caesar in the Cold War: The Houseman-Mankiewicz Film." Literature Film Quarterly 28 (2000): 95-101.
Mitchell, Greg. "Winning a Battle but Losing a War over the Blacklist." The New York Times 25 Jan. 1998: 13.
Posted by The Schmoo at 10:08 AM