Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss

The Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss
Simon & Schuster, 323 pages, $27

I'm rushing through this post since I want to post it on the Ides of March (and I just finished the book)...

Barry Strauss, professor of history and classics at Cornell University, has provided an insightful study of the actions, motivations, and fallout of the murder of Julius Caesar, "history's most famous assassination," as the book's subtitle puts it. One of the most intriguing features of Julius Caesar's assassination that Strauss investigates is how so many people around the ruler with varying backgrounds—friends and enemies, beneficiaries and slighted, and family members—formed an alliance to commit such a high-profile murder. The plotters may have provided heroic rationales and excuses but it becomes clear there were plenty of self-interested reasons. Strauss stresses the importance of Decimus (Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus) as one of the principle conspirators along with Brutus and Cassius. In addition to persuading Caesar to attend the Senate meeting on the Ides of March 44 B.C., Decimus provided gladiators as (apparent) guards for Caesar, but would in reality prove to be the assassins' bodyguards. Decimus was quickly demonized and then largely dismissed or forgotten by later generations of history writers. The allegiances between the principle characters, including Caesar, his supporters, and his detractors, tends to be extremely fluid. As becomes abundantly clear, "For the Romans, as for most people, principle and profit were inseparable." For many of the principle characters, you could add the importance of dignity as well. What motivated the conspirators will remain conjecture, but Strauss delves into many aspects of their lives and the political climate in Rome, finding interesting tidbit feeding into a broad, swirling pattern. Interestingly enough, as Seneca would later put it, there were more friends of Caesar conspiring to kill him than enemies.

While covering earlier and later events, the book focuses on the time period starting with the return of Julius Caesar to Rome in August 45 B.C. after the Battle of Munda in Hispania and goes through the deaths of the main conspirators, ending with the suicide of Antony and the ascension of Octavian to Augustus. There were major changes in Rome between August 45 and February 44 B.C., when the assassination plot probably began. These events affected both the conspirators personal beliefs, reacting to what they were seeing unfolding, as well as the overall political outlook of the public. Several changes would highlight contradictions in what Romans professed and how they acted, while other events coincided with the claims of protecting the Roman Republic from a tyrant.

Many of the conspirators seemed to truly want peace, hoping that things would quickly return to normal (or at least what they hoped to be a new normal) after the assassination, acknowledging they would need to wage a public relations battle in addition to the actual murder. Many of their actions seem to bank on the public's desire for peace, or at least their weariness over the (mostly) finished civil war. One of the strong points of the book is the almost hour-by-hour recounting of the events during the Ides of March, covering many topics to make the events come alive: what type of daggers were used, what it would take to drive them into the body of a man, the palpable fear present in Rome at the time, the confusion in the close-quartered commotion following the murder, and the assassins' trek afterwards.

The Death of Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Picture source at Wikipedia
(Strauss goes into detail about some items Gérôme got right and what he got wrong)

Once Caesar was dead, the conspirators hoped to rally support for their cause and have the Senate take control of the Republic. One important consideration that the conspirators didn't fully appreciate was the presence of numerous soldiers and veterans inside and just outside Rome. Most of them were about to head out to assignments or their new properties, but their loyalty would be a major issue. The misreading by some of the conspirators of what it would take to earn/buy the soldiers' loyalty closed a brief window of opportunity, although to win such support was paradoxical to their stated aims. Buying off the soldiers for their support would raise the specter of a military dictatorship they claimed to be fighting.
Caesar was dead but Caesarism lived on. That was the secret of Roman politics that was revealed in the third week of March 44 B.C. The Senate still met and issued decrees. The people still commanded enough respect that the magistrates courted them in public speeches. Yet, in the final analysis, it was Caesar's veterans converging on Rome with their weapons who had the last say. They might have forgotten their loyalty to Caesar if the assassins had paid them a bonus or increased their land allotments, but the assassins offered too little to win their trust.
Killing Caesar would have only been the first step in defeating Caesarism. But in order to defend the Republic an army was needed, a paradox that may have doomed the conspirators' stated goals from the start. The conspirators started a revolution, whether they realized it or not, and (as Strauss puts it) moderation has no practical place in such a situation. Caesar had his finger on the pulse of Rome, understanding its violent nature and harnessed it for a while. The winner of the fallout from Caesar's murder, as Strauss shows so well, would be those that could likewise harness or tame that violent nature as needed.

I enjoyed the book and how Strauss presented and paced the story, alternating between different points of view and introducing characters, relationships, events, etc. as appropriate. I found myself unable to put it down at times, wanting to see what would happen even though I already knew exactly what was coming. The book has several things I find useful in such historical recounting, notably a cast of characters section and several well-done maps. Something I look forward to delving into more is the "Notes on the Sources" section, particularly the "ancient sources" notes. During the book Strauss does a wonderful job of laying out these sources, discussing their biases, and lining up where they agree with or differ from one another. One source Strauss stresses is that of Nicolaus of Damascus,
who sometimes offers Augusts's version of event. As [Mark] Toher argues, Nicolaus was a student of the writings of Aristotle and Thucydides, two of the ancient world's finest minds when it comes to political analysis. I am convinced that Nicolaus offers information essential to making sense of the assassination.
The story of Caesar's assassination turns out to be a fantastical epic, and Strauss removes much of the fog from later presentations (including Shakespeare's play) to try and understand what exactly happened and why things happened as they did. He provides a short section musing on whether or not the Republic could have been saved. Strauss believes it could have, but what would have had to happen seems like a long, improbable list contradicting much of what he presented earlier. But then these were monumental, improbable times with events unfolding on a grand scale. Who could put a limit on what was and wasn't possible during these events? Extremely well done and thoroughly enjoyable. Very highly recommended.


Silver denarius of Marcus Junius Brutus
Picture source at The British Museum

About the coin shown above:
Writing centuries later, Dio offers an identification of the two military daggers, making this one of the few coins mentioned by an ancient writer:
In addition to these activities, Brutus stamped upon the coins which were being minted in his own likeness with a cap and two daggers, indicating by this and by the inscription that he and Cassius had liberated the fatherland."
In short, the two military daggers are meant to represent the weapons used by the two leaders of the anti-Caesar movement on the Ides of March. Even for a gathering of soldiers, this was blunt.

... [T]hrough imagery this coin argues that the Ides of March was an honorable act carried out by the tools of Roman soldiers, as the military daggers show. It was an act not of murder but of liberation, as the freed-slave's cap shows.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Wolf Hall on PBS premiers April 5

I wish I could say I've read Hilary Mantel's books Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I want to say that...I really do. But I've been knee-deep in readings about the Plantagenets lately. I'll get to Mantel's books soon, I know I will.

In the meantime I just found out about PBS' upcoming series Wolf Hall, the first episode airing April 5. I wanted to pass this on in case anyone is like I am on usually finding out about events at the last moment. Finally...a little lead time! The fact that I know so few of the actors in the series (Jonathan Pryce and Mark Rylance exempted) says more about me than their achievements and reputation.

The trailer looks like it will be fun, and Hilary Mantel has commented that she liked the adaptation.

On a sidetone: if they really wanted to dominate the ratings, it's not too late to add my visionary adaptation of "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am" with a Bollywood approach. Have your people contact my people...

Friday, March 06, 2015

Steve Rogers' bookshelf

Adding to the continuing series of books in movies...

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Steve Rogers' climbs in through the window of his apartment when he realizes someone has broken in. There are two shelves you see him pass by on his way to see who's in his apartment. He passes by the second one so fast the titles are illegible (although I hope to one day get a good screen-capture of it). The lighting on the first shelf is bad, but I've played with it some to make out the titles better. Here's what I can discern. If you can fill in any of the books or correct what I have, let me know in the comments!

Standing books, left:

Never Surrender: A Soldier’s Journey to the Crossroads of Faith and Freedom by Lieutenant General William G. Boykin

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

(Not completely certain on this) A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Three books I can't identify, although one may be Dispatches by Michael Herr

Stacked books:

Madam President: Shattering the Last Glass Ceiling by Eleanor Clift and Tom Brazaitis

George H.W. Bush by Timothy Naftali

Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss

The Night Stalkers: Top Secret Missions of the US Army’s Special Operations Aviation Regiment by Michael J. Durant, Steven Hartov, and Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Johnson

Standing books, right:

The Second World War: An Illustrated History of WWII, Sir John Hammerton (editor)—two volumes out of the ten-volume series published by Trident Press (1999-2000)—I'm not sure which two volumes, though

What I like about the book choices is that it fits in with one of the running gags in the movie about Rogers trying to catch up on everything he missed from World War II to when he was discovered. These books show he was definitely focusing on history (which is why I'm uncertain on the Hemingway), at least on this shelf.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Firemen’s Ball (1967 movie: Czechoslovakia)

The Firemen’s Ball. 1967. Czechoslovakia. Directed by Milos Forman
Picture source

First a few links, since they provide useful information and background:

Miloš Forman is a favorite director of mine. I realized I had not seen any of the early movies he made while still in Czechoslovakia, and I thought it time to correct that, especially since a few of them are easily available. I started with The Firemen's Ball, his last movie in Czechoslovakia before his exile and often called the funniest one he filmed there. I can't comment on the last judgment, but I found it extremely funny (although very tongue in cheek at times).

The film covers an evening where a local fire department holds a ball in honor of their chief. Of course, everything goes wrong. The prizes for a raffle tend to disappear. The organizers have trouble finding contestants for the beauty contest. The alarm for a fire interrupts the ball, but the firemen are so drunk they are ineffective in fighting it. The evening ends with no raffle prizes, no guests, and no present for the fire chief.

It's a simple tale, deceptively sly. OK, not always deceptively. Forman got the idea for the movie from an actual local fire brigade:

“[Co-screenwriter Jaroslav] Papousek and I headed to the Krkonose Mountains, where we started to write a screenplay about an army deserter living in the bowels of Prague’s Lucerna. [Co-screenwriter] Ivan Passer came to help us, but even he couldn’t get us out of our writer´s block. The three of us decided to forget about the script and go to a ball the local fire brigade was throwing that Saturday. We could watch people, get drunk, talk to some girls, and just relax. The Vrchlabi Fire Department was staffed by volunteers. The men mostly worked factory jobs. They came to have a great time. They held a beauty contest for their homely daughters. They ran a raffle. They drank and they argued with their wives. We were completely astonished. The next day Papousek, Ivan, and I just couldn’t stop talking about the previous evening. On Monday, we were developing our impressions into “what-ifs?”. Then on Tuesday, we began writing. The script nearly wrote itself. When any questions came up, we just headed back to Vrchlabi and checked with the firemen. We found the tavern where they drank, played cards and shot pool. They got to know us and talked to us openly. And six weeks later, we had the first draft of “The Firemen’s Ball”.” Source

Not only were the firemen the inspiration, but many of them were in the movie, too.

Forman said he didn’t intend to shoot a political allegory since he didn't like them, but that's disingenuous. It may have not been his main intent but the movie clearly satirizes the Communist system in place at the time. Fortunately he does it at a low level compared to the heavy-handed messages of some of his other films (which would have benefited from the same treatment). The commentary on Communism comes from many different directions. The fire brigade has found out the chief has cancer but don't know if he knows, since the doctor won't tell him. They comment on how messed up the system is, but they promise that they won't tell, either.

The disappearance of the raffle prizes is a major theme in the movie. It starts with a cake, then a bottle of cognac, then a headcheese going missing. The fireman responsible for guarding the table of prizes realizes his wife has taken the headcheese. She scolds him, "Everyone is stealing here and you only watch, you honest idiot." As Forman expresses it in his interview, stealing was so widespread there was a saying: "Who doesn't steal, steals from his family." By the end of the evening everything has been stolen from the table and everyone is under suspicion. The fireman tries to surreptitiously return the headcheese his wife stole, but is seen by the entire crowd. The other firemen chide him, saying he has hurt the reputation of the brigade by trying to be honest—a sad commentary on it (and all bureaucracy).

Not only are the firemen inept at holding the ball, but they aren't too good at their jobs, either. During the fire the men are too drunk to be of any use. The people of the town don't appear better than the firemen, though. Nobody pays their bill at the ball when they rush out to be spectators at the fire, then lie about what they've had when forced to settle their tab. Their idea of helping the poor man whose house is burning is to place him nearer the fire so he stays warm. Someone decides to gather up the raffle tickets to give to the fire's victim, but there are no prizes to hand out and the victim notes "I need money...what good do these [raffle tickets] do me? Of course, the people are behind most of the raffle-prize thefts, too.

The attempt at a beauty contest provides painful humor. Few of the girls want to participate and are very awkward when they do. Some of the townspeople try to bribe the fire brigade judges, who aren't very sure on how the contest is to be run. Several of them spend most of their time looking at an old newspaper clipping of a beauty contest, more subtle commentary on how poorly things work under the current system.

The communist censors declared the movie ridiculed the common man, and they aren't completely wrong. But the bigger target of the movie, which they obviously knew, was the Communist system. Forman was in danger of being sued for "sabotaging the economy" and producer Carlo Ponti demanded his money back. Thanks to backers and fortuitous timing, the film was released and shown in the West just before the Soviet crackdown in 1968. Forman notes the pressure he received was ideological, not commercial. Under the ideological model he could release flop after flop and still receive medals. While he notes he prefers commercial to ideological pressure, skimming through his official website reveals concern that he didn't do things well enough on certain films because of poor commercial success and critical reviews.

That isn't the case with The Firemen's Ball. It received critical praise and enough commercial success to justify a nice DVD release. I mean it to be a compliment to Forman and the movie when I say that my first thoughts when it finished was both "That was cute" and "How subversive!" To be able to walk that fine line, incorporating a light-hearted touch in a political allegory, highlights how well a job Forman, his co-writers, and the cast did in this film. Very highly recommended.

Sidenote: While Bohumil Hrabal's short stories collected in Rambling on: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of the Gab and Jiří Menzel's movie based on those stories, The Snowdrop Festival are independent of Forman's movie, there are many similarities. Each has a lightness of touch allowing the satire to shine through, a quirkiness and sadness of the characters, their dependence on alcohol, and the ineffectual nature of bureaucracy. They are all delights, touching on similar subjects in similar ways, but with different emphases. In addition to any coincidences, several of Hrabal's short stories in the collection would have been written around the time that The Fireman's Ball was filmed and released.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Leonard Nimoy in "The Balcony"

The Collected Works posted a link earlier today to a YouTube video of Leonard Nimoy as Roger in the 1963 movie version of Jean Genet's The Balcony.  I have not watched the movie, but I was happy to watch these short clips. It highlights the absurdity of the play while providing Nimoy a great role. Here are three of the clips:

Yes, that's Peter Falk as the Police Chief and Shelley Winters as Madame Irma. See here for the movie's cast list. Almost as fun as the clips is their comments. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

King Lear: Stratford Festival movie

This was the first screening of the Stratford Festival HD: From Stage to Screen Series that is now underway. They intend to offer 38 of Shakespeare's plays...similar to that of the BBC's Shakespeare project from 1978-1985 plus Two Noble Kinsmen. If last night's show is any indication of the quality of the series, I am all for it.

The intent of the movie was to capture the stage experience, although I understand there were some re-shot scenes following the live performance. All in all, it provides a great cinematic experience of watching the play. The only problem I had with the movie version was the sound was...well, not lacking, since it was adequate. But it was simple stereo. I know it's a lot to ask for, but I'm hoping future screenings take better advantage of movie theater sound systems.

In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom starts his chapter on King Lear with "King Lear, together with Hamlet, ultimately baffles commentary." If that's the case, that should have been the end of the chapter. But everyone who experiences the play, reading or watching it, seems to feel the need to expound on it (and Bloom did for another 39 pages). I'll keep my comments on this production to a minimum.

Colm Feore was one of the best Lears I've seen. His lucid moments were perfect, and his madness wasn't an over-the-top production. It helps that he was supported with a solid cast. I enjoyed Stephen Ouimette’s Fool, who seemed righteously and rightly pissed. Steven Wentworth as Gloucester drew a nice parallel with Lear, although the rating on his dive from the "cliffs" would probably rate only a 6. The three sisters (Maev Beaty’s Goneril, Liisa Repo-Martell's Regan, and Sara Farb's Cordelia) make you wonder why Lear hadn't gone mad before the play even starts. Well, except for Cordelia, although it may have been Sara Farb I fell for...I can never tell in these matters. Brad Hodder as Edmund and Evan Buliung as Edgar played off each other quite nicely. The full cast list can be found here.

One of the outstanding things about the staging was how unremarkable it was. There seems to be a big debate on whether King Lear is better read than acted, but what I liked about the sparse sets (and the great camera work) was that it allowed the viewer to focus on the language. They seemed to take the attitude that there doesn't need to be a lot of showy acting or special effects to get the full impact of the play across to the audience, to which I thank them.

Next up in the Stratford Festival series is King John on April 8. I will be posting a reminder as the date gets closer.

Update (4 March 2015): There were several articles about the film and quotes from the festival's executive director. I'll just link to this one.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Too good not to share

Picture source

Looking forward to seeing King Lear in the Stratford Festival HD: From Stage to Screen Series tonight. I could do much worse for a cheat-sheet on the play than the above summary. It almost puts me in the mood to review the movie from the standpoint of a Joe Bob Briggs Drive-In Movie Report.

But the main reason for this post is to link to this wonderful recap of movie Gloucesters NOT taking a dive off a cliff. The author of the post isn't the only one that tends to inappropriately giggle at the flop. I love the disclaimer and reminder, too.


REMEMBER, KIDS… The Gloucesters you have seen here are trained professionals. Don’t try this at home.

Enjoy. Be sure and check out the rest of their site! ( or Goodticklebrain on Tumblr)

An Interview with Translator Tim Wilkinson

The Asymptote Blog has an interview with translator Tim Wilkinson. I've read his translations of Imre Kertész's Facelessness and Fiasco, Miklós Szentkuthy's Marginalia on Casanova and Towards the One and Only Metaphor (along with excerpts from other of his books, and I have Prae on deck), and Death of an Athlete by Miklós Mészöly. I have him to thank for many extraordinary books I wouldn't have had access to without his translations.

From the end of the interview, with a couple of my notes:
Q: Which of the translations that you’ve worked on was the most challenging? Why?

A: I suppose the Szentkuthy ones, not least because he was writing on a formidable range of subjects, from what most people think of as fairly abstruse mathematical theory, physics, botany, music, literary theory, painting, and so on.
[It was overwhelming to read. I can't imagine what it was like to translate.]

Q: Which one author do you think most deserves wider recognition worldwide?

A: I could easily add a couple of dozen other living Hungarian authors, but let me content myself with just mentioning György Spiró.
[Yes! I've made the wish that more of his work available in translation.]

Be sure and check it out.

Monday, February 23, 2015

King Lear this Wednesday—Stratford Festival HD: From Stage to Screen Series

Well, despite the press release over two months ago this was news to me:
Three of Shakespeare’s great dramas about the burdens, madness and romance of ruling, all performed by one of the world’s premier repertory theater companies – The Stratford Festival in Ontario Canada – come to select U.S. cinemas courtesy of Fathom Events and By Experience. Presented under the banner of Stratford Festival HD, the series begins with the tragic tale of King Lear on Wednesday, Feb. 25, continues with King John on Thursday, April 8 and finishes with Antony and Cleopatra on Thursday, May 21. Each production features top-notch casts that breathe fresh life into these timeless dramas.

I see that these were three of last year's performances at The Stratford Festival filmed in high definition. Colm Feore will be in the title role of King Lear. There are approximately 320 U.S. theaters currently listed on the location finder. More information for non-U.S. locations can be found here.

Here's the detail page on Wednesday's one-night event of King Lear. I'm planning on going (wishing I had more information on it and that I had found out about it before today).

Stratford Festival: King Lear: Colm Feore (Credit: David Hou)
Picture source

"The Balcony" by Jean Genet by The Collected Works

Saturday evening my wife and I went to see The Collected Works present "The Balcony" by Jean Genet. I've never completely connected with the play, although I do enjoy certain parts of it. I think my hesitancy with the play is in the randomness (for lack of a better word) in parts of it, a trait highlighted in some of Genet's notes on "How to Play the Balcony", such as this one: "Between Irma and the Chief of Police, their brief moments alone should reveal an old tenderness. I don't know why." (translaion by Jason Araujo)

A synopsis of the play:
Most of the play takes place in a brothel called The Balcony. The time and place are not clear, but Genet said he had the Spanish Civil War in mind when writing it. In the brothel run by Madame Irma, clients allow their fantasies to run rampant, satisfying more than just their sexual appetites. The fun with smoke and mirrors is kept alive until a rebellion cuts the house off from the rest of the city while everyone in the brothel await the arrival of George, the Chief of Police. It doesn't help Irma's business when a former employee, Chantal, runs away with a plumber and ends up becoming the face of the rebellion. When the rebellion fails, the Court Envoy, wishing to maintain consistency, 'coronates' Irma as queen and employs certain of her clients to carry out their fantasy roles in real life. The public buys it with help of a fawning media, but conflict arises between the clients and Irma & George regarding the use and sources of their new-found power.

A few notes on this production:

The play was held at The Old Mint in San Francisco, and the building (completed in 1874) was part of the presentation. The first four scenes were held simultaneously in different parts of the basement, allowing us to wander in and out of different clients' fantasies. In the meantime sounds of the rebellion and screams filter in to the different rooms. Or are some of the screams coming from other rooms? I loved this part of the play and thought it a brilliant use of the building. The feel of the old rooms and vaults added to the fantasy feeling of the play. The emphasis on security (such as the "Bishop" wanting to make sure the doors were locked, sealed, shut, etc.) becomes magnified when scenes are taking place in former bank vaults.

The audience followed the action through the building, allowing us to feel like we were visiting different parts of the brothel. Instead of waiting through a scene change, you just walked down the hall to the next scene. But at just over two-and-a-half hours running time, I needed a break. The continuity, though, did allow for the tension and power of the play to build nicely. I was exhausted when the play finished.

This production included the scene from Genet's second version of the play, which provides more insight into the revolutionaries. This insight works both for and against those in the rebellion, showing both personal worries alongside blind cant and desire for personal gain.

Ryan Tacata almost stole the show as Carmen, the former prostitute turned accountant for Irma. His take on the role brought out (and added to) the humor in the play. And I'm not in love with his performance just because he put his arm around me while cooing some of his lines. No, not at all. Val Sinckler hit the right notes as Madame Irma, especially in her transformation from madame to queen. Scott Baker as the Police Chief played the role to its cock-sure hilt, fully showing his awareness of the role in the game that he and the rebels played.

The scene where media photographers take pictures of the false Bishop, Judge, and General (helping the old order to be restored after the rebellion failed) was played in a large hall where the audience had to look up to the balcony at the characters. It was a simple touch but very effective in a powerful scene. The Court Envoy responds to the photographers actions, "A true image born of a false spectacle." In such a setting we were part of that spectacle.

As with The Collected Works' previous play "Princess Ivona", the inventiveness of their productions shines through. I look forward to their future productions. I highly recommend keeping up with and attending any upcoming planned productions of The Collected Works if you're in the San Francisco Bay area.

In my previous post on "The Balcony" there are additional links to The Collected Works' site. It's well worth your time to explore their site.

My used copy (as purchased) of "The Balcony"