Orson Welles Julius Caesar

Shakespeare was always a favorite of Welles’. When he was a student at the Todd School in Woodstock, IL, he conceived and produced a Shakespeare festival, directing such plays as Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and Julius Caesar. He would later make a film version of Macbeth.

So it is no surprise that when, along with John Houseman, he founded the Mercury Theatre company, their first production was Julius Caesar.

Orson Welles’ Broadway production of Julius Caesar, debuting Nov. 11, 1937, was staged in modern dress and was intended as a polemic against the fascist forces growing dangerously in Europe.

Upon the birth of the Mercury Theatre company, Welles and (to what degree is unknown) Houseman drafted and presented a Declaration of Principles, published on the front page of the New York Times drama section. On the company’s political intentions, it declared that aesthetics came first and that it would never choose a play on the basis of political content.

Since Welles had a long history with many Shakespeare productions, one doesn’t doubt that he was drawn to Caesar on aesthetic grounds. But the Welles-authored press release for the play also said, “our Julius Caesar gives a picture of the same kind of hysteria that exists in certain dictator-ruled countries of today. We see the hope on the part of Brutus for a more democratic government vanish with the rise of a demagogue (Antony) who succeeds the dictator.”

As far as the production, one of the salient features was Welles use of modern dress. Charles Higham writes

Caesar wore a Sam Browne belt and a dark green
uniform, exactly like Mussolini; the conspirators bent
on the assassination of Caesar wore fedora hats
turned down at the brim and turned-up coat collars,
like gangsters in Hollywood “B” movies; and
Brutus wore an ordinary civilian suit, not unlike
that which a politician might sport during a campaign.

Also of note was the spare sets, comprised of rickety platforms in front of a brick wall painted harsh red. Martin Gabel, the actor who played Cassius, explains one technique:

At the time we used to see newsreels of the Nuremberg
rallies, with the great stream of light going from the ground
to the heavens--very effective theatrically. And Orson
thought Julius Caesar might be adapted to parallel
that, to Hitler...he put these beams in the floor,
and at the appropriate moment they lit the stage.
It was just dazzling! That’s his genius!”

Time magazine was complimentary toward the sets and critics were excited about the play as a whole. The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson wrote, “Mr. Welles’s mind is not only his own but it is theatrically brilliant and he is an actor of remarkable cogency.”


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