A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 6 - Summer 2013

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Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra, The Gingold Theatrical Group, New York City
reviewed by Anastassiya Andrianova

George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra performed by Gingold Theatrical Group at The Players in New York City on Monday, February 25, 2013. Produced, adapted, and directed by Mr. David Staller. Sponsored by Ms. Anita Jaffe. AEA assistant stage managers: Katie Kavett and Andrew Slater. This staged reading of Caesar and Cleopatra was part of the 8th annual Project Shaw festival (, which presents monthly readings of Shaw’s works at The Players Club (

Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra: A History (written in 1898, first performed at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1899, and first published as part of The Three Plays for Puritans in 1901) is an imaginative dramatization of Julius Caesar’s visit to Cleopatra’s palace. There he becomes witness to political intrigue, bystander to the fire at the Library of Alexandria, and Henry Higgins to Egypt’s Eliza—a teenage Cleopatra in need of instruction who, under Caesar’s guidance, grows from “a little nursery kitten” into a wise Queen that “do[es] what must be done” (Shaw 438-9).

Against the backdrop of folding chairs, the staged reading’s minimal mise-en-scène, and the plain black attire of the Gingold Theatrical Group actors, Caesar (Daniel Davis) stood out with his checkered shirt and unbuttoned blazer; his casual look also contrasted with Cleopatra’s (Nikki M. James) elegant gown and sparkling gold necklace, thus highlighting (perhaps unintentionally) one of the play’s main themes: power stems from action, not regalia.

Due to his involvement with the Fabian Society (1885 to 1911) and the socially conscious as well as politically charged timbre of everything he wrote, Shaw is more readily identified with “the literature of social consciousness” than with the Decadent movement, two dominant theatrical trends in the 1890s. Yet, this particular play is interesting with respect to the Fin de Siècle. As Elsie B. Adams notes, Caesar and Cleopatra—especially Act IV—is “closely akin to literature of the decadence” (79). It is rife with violence “both verbal and physical—that is rare in a Shaw play” (namely, the murder of Pothinus, who serves Cleopatra’s brother and rival Ptolemy, and that of her nurse Ftatateeta, along with threats to exert physical force and actual throat-cutting). In the midst of this “savage spectacle,” Shaw stages a “gorgeous banquet,” in Adams’ words: no longer the impressionable young girl who is afraid of being eaten by the Romans, Cleopatra becomes the epitome of decadence: the femme fatale who executes orders and orders an execution at a banquet worthy of an aesthete, not without exotic “Peacocks’ brains” and “nightingales’ tongues” (Adams 80-1).

The play’s savagery and decadence aside, ultimately Shaw does take us to more familiar territory. While atypical in its decadence, the work is also a characteristically Shavian history and a play of ideas that explores the nature of power, vengeance, and clemency. It provides an occasion to reflect on social and moral issues, and to make a point about a leader’s greatness: this quality, Shaw tells us, is absolutely “natural,” an inclination a figure like Caesar exercises spontaneously by “simply doing what he naturally wants to do.” The Shavian hero is no martyr; he is “neither forgiving, frank, nor generous” since he resents nothing, speaks his mind, and gives what he wants to whom he wants (and plans to use to his advantage) (Shaw 479-80).

Caesar’s greatness is, however, ironically undermined.  At the same time that Cleopatra is meant “to grow from a girl into a woman and into a queen” under Caesar’s tutelage (the common interpretation of the play), she is also meant to act as “deflater of Caesar’s vanity” by musing at his old age and baldness; in effect, we observe “Caesar shrink from a king and a god into a man” (Bertolini, “Ironic View” 332-4).  We notice the play “come full circle,” John A. Bertolini argues, when Cleopatra accuses Caesar of never sounding serious: “the ‘old gentleman’ who thought Cleopatra a ‘divine child’ [becomes] in her eyes ‘a great baby’.”  We are invited “to look at Caesar ironically,” Bertolini concludes, “to see him as an essentially comic figure on the stage of history, not merely as a heroic figure with human weaknesses” (“Ironic View” 341).

Davis was able to capture the complexity of Caesar’s character: as an aging gentleman keen on playfully conversing with a stubborn child, on the one hand, and as an awe-inspiring agent on the world-historical stage, on the other.  Davis (famous for his role as Niles, the clever British butler on the TV show The Nanny) carried himself with poise and imperial gravitas, but he was also able to bring out the humor in Shaw’s play, reminding us that while subtitled “A History,” Caesar and Cleopatra is also quite comedic.  “As to his sense of humor,” Shaw notes, “there is no more reason to assume that [Caesar] lacked it than to assume he was deaf or blind.”  He could have been “an incorrigible comedian” (Shaw 479-80).  Caesar’s repeated failure to pronounce Ftatateeta’s name elicits a laugh each time; in the closing scene where he apologizes “for that poor Totateeta” who was executed by his order, he makes Cleopatra laugh “in spite of herself” (Shaw 468).  Davis had the same effect on the audience.

As Cleopatra, James demonstrated equally admirable breadth.  In the scene where the young queen first meets the old gentleman—not suspecting he is the very Roman whom she fears—she delivers her lines with childlike trepidation.  As the drama grows in intensity as well as in seriousness, so does its heroine, a transformation James convincingly conveyed. 

Yet this Egyptian Eliza perhaps never fully graduates from Caesar’s school.  After she orders the execution of Pothinus (John Bolton) and the mob rises to defend him, Cleopatra begs Caesar “not [to] desert [her]” and “defend the palace.”  Referring to her as “my child,” he bids her farewell because he is “busy”—presumably with proper adult affairs: war, government, and civilization (Shaw 457-66).  Additionally, her last request is that Caesar not forget to send Mark Antony, a man with whom she is infatuated and a “swop” that Rufio, Caesar’s newly appointed Roman governor, deems “a bad…bargain” (Shaw 469). 

This sort of “bad” judgment is what leads Annie Papreck King to assert that Shaw’s Cleopatra, unlike her more “Shavian” Shakespearean counterpart, “would never overshadow his Caesarian Superman” (166).1  Shaw’s heroine “remains a desexualized child who must take a backseat not only to the male star of her play but also to the strong women of the corpus of Shaw’s work who overshadow her—Saint Joan and Ann Whitefield.”  Asking for Mark Antony in the final moments of the play, she is still “childishly myopic” (King 173). 2  James maintained this quality throughout, resisting the temptation to turn Cleopatra into a feminist icon.

No less of a challenge for a performer is the character with the monstrously unpronounceable name, the chief nurse Ftatateeta (Sharon Washington).  In the stage directions she is described as “[a] huge grim woman, her face covered with a network of tiny wrinkles, and her eyes old, large, and wise; sinewy handed, very tall, very strong; with the mouth of a bloodhound and the jaws of a bulldog…dressed like a person of consequence in the palace” (Shaw 370).  Oddly canine in the household of a queen who claims to have descended from a cat, Ftatateeta projects a commandeering spirit up until the moment Cleopatra is mature enough to take over, and Washington was electric as this severe and resolute figure.

Also noteworthy was Matthew Schechter’s brief performance as Ptolemy Dionysus to whom we are introduced in the company of his tutor Theodotus (David Drake).  Ptolemy is directed to speak “without any vocal inflexions” (because “he is evidently repeating a lesson”), and Schechter was able to project the right amount of awkwardness and entitlement one would expect from a ten-year-old pharaoh.

Finally, equally thrilling as the performance itself was the venue that housed it.  The Players was founded in 1888 by the Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth (1883-1893); modeled after London’s Garrick Club, it was “the first theatrical club of its kind” committed to “[t]he promotion of social intercourse between members of the dramatic profession and the kindred professions of literature, painting, architecture, sculpture and music, law and medicine, and the patrons of the arts” (Playbill).  At first a men’s club, it was opened to women on April 23, 1989, Shakespeare’s birthday (whose As You Like It inspired the club’s name), admitting the actress Helen Hayes (1900-1993) as one of the first Players.
This is a perfect space for drama: stepping into what was originally Booth’s private residence, we are transported into a late nineteenth-century salon with hardwood floors, fire places, and walls decorated with framed playbills of performances, oil paintings, stained glass portraits of actors Richard Mansfield (1857-1907) and David Garrick (1717-1779) as King Richard III, and other remarkable artifacts, including Mark Twain’s card table.  It also has a dining area, though one wonders whether Shaw, a committed vegetarian who avoided alcohol, would have appreciated the club’s meat- and poultry-heavy menu or its extensive list of “libations.”

In his prefaces to the Plays Unpleasant (“Mainly About Myself,” 1898), Shaw criticized contemporary actor-managers for not adhering to the text, while also admitting that all plays are “transfigured” “even when…performed without omission or alteration by actors who are enthusiastic disciples of the author” (xix-xx).  “[T]here are fifty ways of saying Yes,” Shaw explains, “and five hundred of saying No, but only one way of writing them down.”  This does not mean, however, that the author’s message will be lost: “But if my readers do their fair share of the work, I daresay they will understand nearly as much of the plays as I do myself” (xxiv). 

Although we may be more attuned to the spectacle of a fully staged, costumed drama, this carefully rendered performance invited the audience to focus on Shaw’s words and ideas.

Directed, performed, and attended by Shaw’s “enthusiastic disciples,” the staged reading of Caesar and Cleopatra at The Players was definitely not too true to be good.

1 Caesar and Cleopatra is also, of course, an attempt to revisit a subject Shakespeare had immortalizedin Antony and Cleopatra, a herculean feat Shaw undertook not by rivaling “his biggest literary forefather,” in Bertolini’s words, but by writing a kind of “prequel” and thus transforming Shakespeare into “a literary son” (Playwriting Self 12).

2 Even more damning is Michael Mason’s characterization of the queen as “belittled…[by Shaw] almost to the level of a juvenile delinquent confronting an understanding but firm probation officer” (qtd. in King 166-7).

Works Cited:
Adams, Elsie B. “Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra: Decadence Barely Averted.” The Shaw Review, 18.2 (May 1975): 79-82. JSTOR. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

Bertolini, John Anthony. The Playwriting Self of Bernard Shaw. Southern Illinois UP, 1991. Print.

-----. “Shaw’s Ironic View of Caesar.” Twentieth Century Literature 27.4 (Winter, 1981): 331-342. JSTOR. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.

Couchman, Gordon W. “The First Playbill of ‘Caesar’: Shaw’s List of Authorities.” The Shaw Review 13.2 (May 1970): 79-82. JSTOR. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.

Caesar and Cleopatra. By Bernard Shaw. Dir. David Staller. Perf. Sharon Washington, Daniel Davis, and Nikki M. James.Gingold Theatrical Group’s Project Shaw. The Players, New York. 25 Feb. 2013. Performance.

King, Annie Papreck. “Shakespeare’s Shavian Cleopatra.” Shaw 27 (2007): 165-174. JSTOR. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.

Shaw, George Bernard. Seven Plays. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1951. Print.