This image is from the 1937 Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar, directed by Orson Welles, and subtitled Death of a Dictator.
Why is this production notable?
Contemporary reviewers recognised in Welles’s production references to the rise of fascist dictatorships in 20th-century Europe. Various aspects of the production reminded audiences of the Nazi Congress in Nuremburg a few weeks previously. This was particularly true of the lighting design, and the straight-armed salutes which are visible in other photographs of the production. Welles denied his production was straightforwardly anti-fascist, and argued that the play was really about Brutus, whom he played. Brutus, Welles thought, was ‘the bourgeois intellectual, who, under a modern dictatorship, would be the first to be put up against the wall and shot’.
According to the scholar John Ripley, the production is also notable for being the first time Act 3, Scene 3 was played uncut on the American stage. In this scene, the poet Cinna is torn apart by a mob because he shares a name with Cinna the conspirator. Welles described this mob as ‘the kind of mob which gives you a Hitler or a Mussolini’. The artist Jacob Landau recorded the powerful visual impact of the scene in his piece Cinna the Poet (1959).
In September 1938, Welles made a radio version of the production for the broadcasting company CBS. He employed the newsreader H V Kaltenborn to explain the action via a voiceover taken from Shakespeare’s source, Plutarch. The month before, Kaltenborn’s had been the voice which reported to the American public the escalation of tension in Europe known as ‘the Munich Crisis’.
How have approaches such as this been criticised?
Many subsequent productions have sought to relate the play to contemporary versions of fascism and tyranny. Writing about a 1987 Royal Shakespeare Company version directed by Terry Hands, the critic Michael Billington asked ‘if Caesar is so nakedly fascist, does it not detract from Brutus’s moral qualms about his murder?’
To highlight the contemporary relevance of the play, Welles had cut it drastically; it has been described ‘not so much as a revival as a recreation’. The scholar David Daniell argues that ‘Shakespeare’s play, in this and other similarly mangled versions, had gone from sight’. However, Welles’s use of passages from Plutarch as a radio voiceover reminds us that Shakespeare was reworking, rather than simply reviving, his own source material. It could be argued that Welles was merely working in this spirit.
- Article by:
- Kiernan Ryan
Despite their dazzling diversity, the tragedies of Shakespeare gain their enduring power from a shared dramatic vision, argues Kiernan Ryan.