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Whose Tragedy Is It Anyway?

By Tony Tambasco

Sitting in my tenth-grade English class, I can remember the lesson on Julius Caesar was more or less focused toward proving the point that Julius Caesar was, in fact, all about Brutus. It didn’t seem right to me then: this was Shakespeare, after all, whom in those days would more properly be written SHAKESPEARE, and you would almost think a guy like that would know what he was doing when he gave the play a certain title (which, for those keeping track, in the First Folio, the earliest printed source for this work, is given as “THE TRAGEDIE OF IVLIVS CÆSAR.”).

My English teacher, and so many others, are to be forgiven for this, though, as centuries of tradition have focused on Brutus as the center of the play. He has the most lines, to be sure, and the idea that the most important character in the play is the one with the most lines is hard to shake, but Shakespeare seems pretty clear that this is Caesar’s tragedy in the same way that King Lear is Lear’s, Hamlet is Hamlet’s, and Macbeth is Macbeth’s.  To put it another way, when was the last time you sat there watching Macbeth hoping that the tyrant and child-murderer would come out on top?

Brutus has been one of the roles that top actors have tackled with vigor in their centuries; Edwin Booth, son of Junius Brutus Booth, is probably the most famous actor in that role in this country prior to the twentieth-century, when Orson Welles would re-define Julius Caesar as Death of a Dictator, and his anti-fascist creed would color most productions that followed. Brutus not only had the most lines, but was also the tragic hero dying in service of the cause of freedom, liberty, and the American way.

It’s a story as beautiful as it is wrong.

The republic of Rome that Shakespeare gives us in Julius Caesar is a far cry from the American way. It is a government run by a privileged few who exploit the petty passions of the commoners for wealth and power. At rise, Shakespeare’s Rome is a place where elections determine who governs, but only the sons of wealth and privilege are on the ballot, and political alliances are kept within families. It is a bloated and diseased state where freedoms are weighed down by the tallow of economic oligarchy.

No, wait, on second thought, that’s pretty close to America in the 21st century. Sorry.

The real tragedy of Julius Caesar, from where I sit, is that there is no way out of this mess. Caesar can fix things, but he can only do it the way he knows how, and that means infringing on the privilege of the few, who, fearing their freedoms will be reduced in the new regime, react the only way they know how: by killing the man they fear will oppose them. The people are hopelessly caught in the middle of this, and while Antony and Brutus inflame their passions, they are ultimately helpless to even form an opinion about Rome’s inevitable slide into imperial government.

Whose tragedy is Julius Caesar‘s? Ours.

Shakespeare, writing without the benefit of the Enlightenment, takes only the position that assassination leads to bloodshed, and doesn’t think much of the common people, but we know better, or at least we should. As politics in America is increasingly governed by the whims of a duopoly of corporations and wealthy individuals, we ought all look to Julius Caesar as a warning from the year 1599: we are citizens of a free republic, and if we allow smooth-talking rhetors to use our passions to lead us by the nose against our own interests, we will suffer the same fate.

And we will deserve it. The only ones we have to blame are ourselves.

What we think about when we think about Sweet Tea Shakespeare shows

People often ask us how and why we pick the shows we do at Sweet Tea Shakespeare. As we look ahead to our most ambitious schedule yet, we wanted to share with you some answers to these questions.

Sweet Tea Shakespeare is, first and foremost, a Shakespeare theatre company. This means Shakespeare’s work is at the center of our performances. On the surface, this means we have done and will do quite a number of Shakespeare plays. If you’ve paid attention to our first few productions, however, you’ll know we’ve eagerly and joyfully presented Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Anton Chekov’s The Seagull. This is because we believe that to be a Shakespeare theatre company, we need to share and celebrate Shakespeare’s own obsession with words. So we’ll occasionally depart, as Shakespeare’s own company did, to revel in the rich wordscapes of plays that are not by the Bard himself. Over time, this will play out in commitments to more Wilde and Chekov, but also to Jonson, Marlowe, Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, Racine, Moliere, Strindberg, Ibsen, Behn, and others.

We also believe that to be doing theatre in the way Shakespeare did theatre, we need to be concerned, as his company was, with developing new works for the stage. Early modern playing companies thrived on new works performed alongside known favorites and we will, too.

We also believe that Shakespeare and the other early modern play-makers were masters at developing plays based around the materials they had on hand and the conventions that dominated the stage at the time. One of these conventions involved using only male actors. Women didn’t appear on stage. Men comprised the leadership positions in the playing companies of the time. Women wrote very few plays during the period. The result is that a lot of Shakespeare and other early modern plays have very few roles for women and, even when there are some great ones, they’re often voiced with a male perspective (sometimes very kind, sometimes not kind at all). Jump forward to the 21st century. We think Shakespeare, if alive today, would embrace women as collaborators, actors, and fellow writers without a second thought.

And so, we look forward to our next several shows with all this in mind. A heart for Shakespeare, a commitment to great language, an entrepreneurial investment in new work, and a love for all kinds of voices. Take a look at what we have planned in our main STS season and in our new Honey series, an initiative for women artists and voices.

Julius Caesar | September 23 at 9:30am, Seabrook Auditorium | September 24-28 at 7pm nightly, 1897 Poe House

Antigone | Honey Series | November 5-9 at 7pm nightly, Capitol Encore Academy

The Winter’s Tale | January 9-11, 16-18, 23-25 at 7pm nightly, Capitol Encore Academy

Sweet Words: New Work | Honey Series | February 11-15 at 7pm nightly, Capitol Encore Academy

Bottom’s Dream | A new, experiential, promenade production based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream | March 27-29, 1897 Poe House

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekov | June 11-14 and 18-21 at 7pm nightly, 1897 Poe House

The Tempest | July 16-19 and 23-26 at 7pm nightly, 1897 Poe House

Sense and Sensibility | A new adaptation | Fall 2015