Monday, June 01, 2009

George Bernard Shaw--Caesar and Cleopatra--Part 1 (1907)

I had a dream the other night that my wife had decided that our lives had grown stale and that we had consequently moved to Los Angeles (the chance of this happening in real life is zero). This Los Angeles was more like a wine-growing country or at least the back lot towns and villages in movies from Charlie Chaplin's era than anything like Los Angeles is supposed to be now. Being me, I naturally went straight to a TV studio to look for work (I apparently arrived in town unemployed), and all the employees talked in the exaggerated style of commercials and game show hosts. And I loved it. I was quite confident I was going to be offered a good position in the industry too--perhaps acting like a person on television?--based on these positive first impressions. I was thinking this was really a brilliant and invigorating midlife move, just what I needed. My wife seemed happy to be in California too. In reality of course I have never been to California. I would still like to go someday, but it strikes as a place you can't really go to on vacation and get much out of it, unless it's for six weeks at least. Probably you really have to live there for a time, and trying to achieve something that you haven't achieved before and can't achieve in the same way anywhere else. That is what people do there. You have to have some purpose.

George Bernard Shaw is a funny kind of writer to read today, about a hundred years after his heyday. It is easy to tear apart his political and social opinions, declare their fallacies and feel generally superior about oneself from the internet commentator understanding of the world, but from the literary point of view he was really quite brilliant. His plots and situations are truly funny and ingenious compared to almost all other writers. He was a great iconoclast, in a time when the whole of cultural life was dominated by icons and idols in which people had a lot invested, and it is this that I take to be the main object and value of his assertions. I think you have to be wary of taking much of what he says literally and seriously. I can pretty much be brought to believe in anything if it is presented well enough, but there are always several occasions in any Shaw play where I find myself writing "This guy is totally full of shit" or something to that effect. That, and all the doubts one has about this author's sincerity, decency, courage, that you either detect from the writing or see hinted at in the commentaries of other authors, aside, Caesar and Cleopatra is a highly entertaining--not to mention short--piece of literature. Take it to the beach even, if you go to a beach where it would not be wholly unreasonable to whip out a copy of G.B. Shaw. I think you could do this at East Hampton town beach in NY, Ipswich in MA, Rye and nearby state beaches in NH, York (Long Sands), Ogunquit and Kennebunk in ME, among doubtless many others. It's a very smart play, even if half the opinions or more expressed in it are dubious; indeed, it even causes one to question the importance of having correct opinions, or if these are actually possible given the absurd state of human existence.

My Model Hasn't Figured How to Pose the Cover of the Book For the Camera Yet. Which is why you see a struggle taking place for the positioning of the book. Act I begins with more irreverent stage directions than are customary. Examples: "Below...are two notable drawbacks of civilization: a palace, and soldiers." "The not so ugly as Buckingham Palace." "(Belzanor, a warrior) Is rather to be pitied just now in view of the fact that Julius Caesar is invading his country." It is thus established right way that one must be wary of taking anything seriously with George Bernard Shaw.

A soldier entering the camp in flight from a battle with the Romans ("I am Bel Affris, descended from the gods." (Auditors) "Hail, cousin!" states that their javelins "drove through my shield as through a papyrus." I thought that was funny.

The Romans seem, after some degree of consideration, to be an exteme case of a race of men that is more exciting to read about than to experience first hand.

There is an absurd exchange among the besieged Egyptians regarding whether they should kill the women to protect them from the Romans. At length it is decided that it would be cheaper to let the Romans kill them, because they would have to pay blood money if they did it themselves.

This Was a Picture of the Box of a Caesar and Cleopatra Card Game. I am surprised they do not allow it to be shown, as it would be good advertising for them. Who is more likely to buy this kind of game than the kind of person who would find this site distracting?
The stage directions for Act II, ostensibly laying out for us the scene at Cleopatra's palace, include one of George Bernard Shaw's most cherished hobby horses, a direct dig at the English bourgeoisie ("The clean lofty walls...absence of mirrors, sham perspectives, stuffy upholsteries and textiles, make the place handsome, wholesome, simple and cool, or, as a rich English manufacturer would express it, poor, bare, ridiculous and unhomely"). Bourgeois sensibilities never change of course, because such people, I gather from my reading, have no other distinguishing personal characteristics than what can be glossed from their possessions and their manner of ornament, so the observation can more or less be applied to the same crew in our own time and nation.

The part where Caesar's aide-de-camp Rufio "with Roman resourcefulness and indifference to foreign superstitions" dismantles the tripod where incense was burning upon entering the palace because it was in Caesar's way I thought was presented amusingly.

Cleopatra is 16 in this play, and Shaw writes her as a silly and totally naive (though intelligent) schoolgirl ("Mark Antony, Mark Antony, Mark Antony! What a beautiful name!"). I don't know how accurate this take is--my impression is that 16-year old girls from educated backgrounds in the Victorian and Edwardian eras were more sheltered from the sordidities of worldly social life than has been common historically--but it does add a degree of charm to the play.

At one point in Act II the famous library of Alexandria catches on fire (though something like this does seem to have happened during Caesar's invasion, the big and final destruction especially lamented by scholars, historians, book lovers, etc. occurred several centuries afterwards). Shaw presents the occasion as the notorious fire however, or at least implies it, and naturally uses the opportunity to skewer anyone who might be inclined to regard the event as some kind of tragedy:

CAESAR (on hearing from an hysterical scholarly type that the library is in flames): Is that all?
THEODOTUS (the hysterical scholar) (S.D. unable to believe his senses): All! Caesar: will you go down to posterity as a barbarous soldier too ignorant to know the value of books?
CAESAR: Theodotus: I am an author myself; and I tell you it is better that the Egyptians should live their lives than dream them away with the help of books.
THEODOTUS (kneeling, with genuine literary emotion: the passion of the pedant): Caesar: once in ten generations of men, the world gains an immortal book.
CAESAR (inflexible): If it did not flatter mankind, the common executioner would burn it.
THEODOTUS: Without history, death would lay you beside your meanest soldier.
CAESAR: Death will do that in any case. I ask no better grave.

While Shaw may have (sort of) believed all of these things about books, I find it highly improbable that Julius Caesar would have been in quite as close agreement with his sentiments on the matter as this play would suggest. Do I agree with any of it? I agree that books and other entertainments--and if you are of a pedantic nature, even a work of incomprehensible philosophy can still serve as an entertainment for you in the contemplation of reading/understanding it, etc--often have the unfortunate effect of substituting for any other engagement in life. It is not clear to me that removing the books will necessarily force an improvement in the typical faux-intellectual's level of engagement with life however.
Reading much Shaw at any one time can quickly become exasperating however, and leads one to ask the question, O.K., so what did Shaw like? I was able to come up with three possible things that he seems not at least to have openly detested. 1. I remember reading somewhere that he liked Wendy Hiller , who acted in a lot of his plays, and was the female lead in the outstanding movie versions of Major Barbara and Pygmalion. She was very good at playing the humor, which she clearly "got", and without which watching a production of Shaw would be excruciating. 2. Music? His mother was one of those fanatical Dublin singers and music aficiondos whose passion led so far as to bring trouble to her domestic life, and Shaw's early writing career consisted largely of music criticism, so it was at least central to his view of life. He probably would not have liked this though. 3. Caesar, evidently, at least in that he writes his character as being a great deal like George Bernard Shaw himself, which is a high compliment from the pen of this author.

Shaw loves to teach lessons and set people straight. Nowadays he would probably be the host of a talk radio program.

CLEOPATRA: "Those Roman helmets are so becoming." This is followed by a discussion of Caesar's baldness, which of course only someone with the mentality of a teenage girl would think important. Rules of playwriting for the entertainment of a bourgeois audience #1: Exploit any popular and easily recognized cliches your subject offers to the full (See Amadeus or any other popular biographical drama of a Great historical figure).

1 comment:

Vince Czyz said...

RE: JOyce (Gil's Blog).

I don't hate Joyce. I don't think he's untalented. But Ulysses is hardly a novel--let alone the best of the century. I based a Master's essay on Ulysses. And "forging the uncreated conscience of his race" is a pull-out from from PORTRAIT--a pretentious and overblown line. As if he was the only one in Ireland with a conscience or the ability to give his country one (he didn't). Is it a good novel? Portrait? Probably not top 20. Not remotely. It's about a self-absorbed kid who's arrogant enough to think he's the only one watching the soup. Not much of a story. No much to say other than expound an aesthetic theory. yeah, Joyce is a great writer, but blown way out of proportion.