Sunday, June 14, 2009

Caesar and Cleopatra--Part 3

After the play ends there are ten pages of Shaw's own "notes" which attempt to address predictable stupid questions and misunderstandings provoked by the play directly, one presumes to avoid the agony of having to read discussions of them in every paper. These explanations are full of statements like "it will strike us at once as an unaccountable fact that the world, instead of having been improved in 67 generations out of all recognition, presents, on the whole, a rather less dignified appearance in Ibsen's Enemy of the People than in Plato's Republic." Well, the world has a less dignified appearance in so far as the arts and literature have become, over time and the extension of their study and practice into ever wider and less exclusive swathes of society, less generally dignified endeavors.

This is nothing really to the point, but my wife found the film versions of Major Barbara and especially Pygmalion highly entertaining, and her views on the relative value and significance of the overall human condition in relation to everything else that exists aren't actually that much different from Shaw's own. Nonetheless she is not to be put on record as any kind of GBS fan. He throws out too many lines disparaging of the capacities of women that are not to be forgiven. Shaw was of the opinion, contrary to Plutarch and therefore most English writers on the subject, that "Cleopatra was a queen, and was therefore not the typical Greek-cultured, educated Egyptian lady of her time...I do not feel bound to believe that Cleopatra was well educated. Her father...was not at all a parent of the Oxford professor type." I suspect this is an example of him trying to unsettle the middle class playgoer's comfort zone with regard to the latter's own learning by suggesting that his ambered received wisdom may not contain a shred of truth. At a certain point of course, if Cleopatra is neither really beautiful, nor educated, nor cultured comparative to the majority of humanity--someone has probably put forth that she was a total moron to boot, though I am not familiar with him--the legend ceases to offer much possibility of dramatic interest, and the personal aspects of its historical interest are greatly diminished. I don't feel bound to accept this view of the matter.

Shaw compares Caesar to Charles XII, Nelson, Joan of Arc, and modern self-millionaires, which latter group consists of "half-witted geniuses, enjoying the worship accorded by all races to certain forms of insanity.

"...in civil life mere capacity of work...enables men...to distance all competitors in the strife of civil ambition. It was this power of work that astonished Cicero as the most prodigious of Caesar's gifts, as it astonished later observers in Napoleon before it wore him out...a prodigy of vitality." I touch on this subject frequently in these pages.
There is a long paragraph in which Shaw explains that in contrast to most historical figures whom he deservedly makes fun of, he believes that Caesar was genuinely Great, and the source of this legitimate Greatness lay in his being Original. "Originality gives a man an air of frankness, generosity, and magnanimity by enabling him to estimate the value of truth, money, or success in any particular instance quite independently of convention and moral generalization...His lies are not found out: they pass for candors...He knows that the real moment of success is not the moment apparent to the crowd...Having virtue, he has no need of goodness." I found many of these points to ring true.

"Indeed it is clear from his whole history that what has been called his ambition was an instinct for exploration. He had much more of Columbus and Franklin in him than of Henry V." The second sentence is another taunt meant to confuse the earnest masses, probably, but I included it as I love to pepper my posts with famous names wherever I can. The point is that it is true that the whole biography of Caesar is quite uniquely interesting from many aspects; I still find it hard to get a sense of what he was like temperamentally; for if he was a man of the sort I imagine him to be, brilliant and perceptive mixed with hard and pitiless and violent, this is not a kind of guy most people have much direct familiarity with anymore.

Are there any "great men" in the Shavian sense living among us today? I can't think of who he might be, unless there is a warload somewhere in Africa with a perfectly clear perception, a biting wit and a better education than all of the journalists who will fail to properly understand him. But I don't think there is, and such a character would be rather insignificant in the global picture anyway.
The edition of this I have was published in 1966 and belongs to a series called "Airmont Classics" ranging in price from The Call of the Wild at $0.40 to The Portrait of a Lady at $0.95 (Caesar and Cleopatra was $0.50). There are 116 titles in the series, of which I have read 36. This isn't bad, though when you figure every single book in the series is something everyone has heard of, it gives you a good demonstration of how much reading it takes to put a dent even in a list of long-established classics. The first five books in this set that I haven't read for example are Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, Kidnapped, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, all of which are pretty standard favorites, as are pretty much all of the other 75 I haven't gotten around to yet. (By the way, R.L. Stevenson, Jules Verne and Jack London--all 0-fers).

I was going to link to clips of some of the movie versions, though none of them look too good. There is a '76 TV version starring Alec Guinness, who I believe has been in at least one version of every work of British literature adapted for a screen, as Caesar, and some woman who doesn't seem to get Shaw as Cleopatra (Where are you Wendy Hiller!). Here is the trailer for the '45 movie starring Vivien Leigh at least, which is slightly amusing. Fans of the TV show Rome seem to like the part where Cleopatra seduces Caesar, but I couldn't get through it.

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