Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Three Dead Slaves - Prologue, Part 2

Three Dead Slaves - Prologue - Part 2

Caesar and Cicero were as different as arrows and antelopes. Of the two men, Cicero was the one whose face was readable by anyone with eyes. It was Caesar whose features were frozen into a supple mask of distant deference -- you would never be able to look at him and expect to read his inner thoughts, and you would certainly never see him express the flaming vanity that lights up this actor's soul like the Pharos lights the harbor of Alexandria. I suppose that this is what my son refers to when he uses the words "good acting."

It is certainly not the kind of acting that I am used to seeing. I was brought up in Rome, where actors wear masks designed to disguise their features and amplify their voices. Here in Alexandria the current fashion is for the actors to wear vivid makeup and project their voices to the upper benches of the theatre without the aid of artfully-hidden megaphones. Perhaps I am a purist, but seeing the facial expressions of an actor is distracting and annoying because it takes my attention away from the verse. And seeing these strange men pretending to be Caesar and Brutus and Cassius is an even greater threat to my powers of attention. They look nothing like the Caesar and Brutus and Cassius that I remember, and whenever they speak or frown or glare, I cannot help but remember, and compare them unfavorably to, the Caesar and Brutus and Cassius I knew.

Take Casca, for instance. He stands behind the acting Dictator, and because he is being portrayed by one of the local darlings, a charioteer who races for the Greens, he is wearing a tunic that displays the oiled splendor of his naked legs. If the real Casca had ever displayed his naked legs in public, everyone within a hundred yards would have been struck blind, so this is a distinct improvement on history. Which is, I suppose, the definition of good drama. And this towering young Casca is looking very dramatic. From all appearances he is perched on a low platform of white marble. He is raising a sword high over his head with his right hand -- blade up, like a captain about to order a charge.

"Casca carried a knife, not a sword," I say.

Those three heads in the next row turn around again. Judging from their expressions, I have insulted not only their wives but their daughters.

Beside me, my son shushes me with a harsh gesture. Then he whispers that it is obvious to anyone with eyes why Casca is brandishing a sword instead of a knife -- why, indeed, all the conspirators are carrying barely-concealed swords in their togas. "So everyone can see them," he explains.

I nod my head like an idiot, and refrain from observing that a senator, clumsily trying to conceal a two-foot gladius in the folds of his toga, would never have been allowed within striking distance of the Dictator.

Caesar, seemingly oblivious to the man with the raised sword who is standing behind him, takes a firm step to his right. He is now directly in front of Casca. It is my son's turn to play the expert; he leans in to me and whispers: "In the theatre, this is called corrective staging."

"Let the gods defend the right!" Caesar cries, this time throwing his head back and raising both his arms to the sky. Four appeals to heaven in less than a minute -- this is definitely not a Caesar with whom I am familiar.

"Let the gods speak now," announces the gorgeous gladiator who is playing Brutus, and Casca reaches up with his left hand, reverses the blade, and drives the sword two-handed into Caesar's back.

There is a look of satisfaction on Casca's face. He is visibly proud to be the first man to strike a blow against tyranny. He is reveling in the distinction. He is heroic in his anger. He is nothing at all like the real Casca, who was a political backstabber with a loud voice and a weak pair of legs. The kind of blowhard who brags and makes promises and then, when the time comes to act, is usually three streets away drinking wine in the back of a tavern. The only reason that Casca was given the dubious honor of initiating Caesar's assassination in the first place was because everyone knew that if Casca did not strike first, he would have chickened out at the last minute and turned everyone else in for treason.

"Nobody raises a hand until Casca strikes the first blow." That was the only plan the Conspirators had, and to all appearances Casca eagerly embraced it. "Where do I strike him first?" he asked. "In the heart? In the belly?" Cassius smiled and said: "In the back. So that everyone can see you." Men whispered later that you could actually watch the life drain out of Casca's eyes as those words descended from his ears to his heart. He knew then what his fellow conspirators really thought of him -- and knew, too, that there was no way he could get out of performing this particular role without being killed on the spot. The Dictator knew, as well. His actual words, upon feeling the slice of that first knife-blow against his spine, were: "Casca, you coward!" He didn't even have to turn around to see who it was. Not that he could have, with his stiff neck that day.

But here, Caesar's words are: "Casca, you dog!" (in Greek, which is a nice touch), and then he staggers forward, seriously wounded by the blow of Casca's sword. In actual fact, Casca’s great blow for freedom barely pricked Caesar's skin. Because he was so nervous, and because he drove the knife down so hard and at such a wide angle, Casca wound up stabbing himself in the thigh and letting loose the kind of blood-curdling scream that you always hear when a pig is slaughtered in the marketplace. Which is the origin of the rhyme that Aligerius made at the Dictator's funeral:

Albinus did the planning, Cassius did the scheming,
Brutus did the killing, and Casca did the screaming.

[ -- to be continued]

Previous excerpts:

Part 1

copyright 2009 Matthew J Wells

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