Julius Caesar used to be a common text for high school english textbooks (is it still?) I had read just enough about the play by the time my class read it in high school to know the basic hero/villain classification – Brutus was the tragic hero and Mark Antony the villain. But I fell into the trap of too much reading and not enough understanding, and when my classmates challenged me on this viewpoint, I was unable to defend it. “But he kills his best friend, how can he possibly be the hero of the play, or any play?” “Umm. Well yeah. But Mark Antony is definitely the villain.” “How? He revenges the death of his friend and mentor and puts down a government takeover. That sounds heroic to me.” “Ok, you got me.” And what else could I say – that I had read a book, etc?
Years later, life experience has vindicated the position of “the book”. Mark Antony is a sleazy demagogue, an amoral patrician who despises the very people he claims to lead and who uses revenge as an excuse to make a shameless power grab, followed by a savage and bloody purge of everyone who might be a potential adversary.
Brutus, on the other hand, recognizes that a brutal dictatorship is about to assume power and engages in a plot to prevent the catastrophe even at the cost of personal loyalty. While it’s arguable that the violation of ethics at a personal level can never be justified, even if it prevents evil in the longer term (a classic ethical “exercise” is the kill Hitler scenario. If you could go back in time, would it be ethical to find and kill the pre-Nazi Adolf Hitler? Even if he were still a child?), Brutus cannot be faulted for his intentions. He is trying to save the world, and his tragic flaw is not his murder of Caesar, but his assumption of responsibility for forces over which he has no real control. The consequences of his murder of Caesar are as bad or worse as would have been the results of doing nothing.
In the Argo recording from 1957, the highlight is Anthony White’s Mark Antony, the most overtly villainous take on the character I’ve heard or seen. His fury during the funeral speech becomes out of control and his silence afterward is excruciating – he is trying to calm himself down and it takes a while. His palpable contempt for Lepidus, his calm hatred for the masses, all played perfectly in character. This is a rare thing, as most Mark Antony’s seem to want to be liked. Not a problem for White, apparently.
In supporting roles, Anthony Jacobs as Cassius and Tony Church as Casca are both excellent – Jacobs reptilian in his hatred of Caesar and Church deftly navigating Casca’s comic transports between chattiness and misanthropy.
The weak link is John Barton’s Brutus. The part is difficult enough on paper, and very few actors seem to have made a success of it – only Orson Welles famously made it a star part by approaching him as a failed liberal whose high-mindedness was not matched by the necessary backbone and follow-through to succeed fully. If the radio version is anything to go by, this brought sensitivity and warmth to the performance that ironically made Brutus an even more powerful figure than Welles’ schematic approach would have suggested.
But Barton doesn’t manage that level of sophistication. At the age of 28, he sounds much older, having assumed a convincing but alienating vocal characterization that drives the performance away from tragic empathy. He sounds like an elderly Cambridge don.
Which is ironic, because of all the recordings in this series, at least the ones I’ve heard so far, this one has the largest population of academics – Julius Caesar, Octavius, Cicero, Publius, Trebonius, Ligarius, Decius Brutus, the Soothsayer, Clitus and Strato are all played by Cambridge faculty. Of these, John Wilders is a standout – an excellent Caesar, but the others are firmly, if enthusiastically raw.
Julius Caesar with John Wilders, John Barton, Anthony White, Anthony Jacobs and Tony Church.