On This Day in 1938: The Mercury Players “dismember Caesar”

“Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers,” Brutus implores his co-conspirators prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar. This line might have served as a motto for the Mercury Players when Orson Welles and company decided to adapt their stage success Julius Caesar for radio. They needed to butcher Shakespeare’s play, or at least trim it down considerably; and they were making such a sacrifice to accommodate a larger audience—millions who might not have had the opportunity to take in a production of such a play in their rural communities. It was the butchery of high art and a sacrifice to lowly commerce.

“O, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit,
And not dismember Caesar!” Brutus (played by Welles), exclaimed. “But, alas,

Caesar must bleed for it. And, gentle friends,
Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully.
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.

The 11 September 1938 broadcast of Julius Caesar is remarkable for several reason. To begin with, it offered an alternative to the not always inspired programming of the commerce and common denominator oriented networks. And not only was the radio-readied production an ingenious exercise in adaptation, but an poignant and timely commentary on the crisis in Europe that was about to plunge the world into war.

11 September 1938 was certainly no less innocent than the day we now commemorate as 9/11. “This is the history of a political assassination,” we are told about the story of Julius Caesar, a “dictator for life” upon whom were bestowed “honors” that “seemed to exceed the limits of ordinary human ambition.” As in the Mercury stage production, the radio adaptation dropped the togas to lay bare the urgency of Shakespeare’s drama, a play that was at once a revenge fantasy and a call to reason. Could a people under the rule of a despot be expected to rise against their leader? Could the forceful removal of such a ruler bring about a new and better world?

To drive home that the broadcast was not an invitation to a literary soiree but a call for a political debate, the Mercury Theater on the Air drew upon the services of H. V. Kaltenborn as a narrator. Kaltenborn was among the most prominent and respected radio commentators of his day. What he uttered was news, not ancient history; and it was certainly not highbrow hooey. His commentary, based upon Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (the source for Shakespeare’s play) but sounding thoroughly contemporary, helped to bridge the gaps in this considerably abridged script, which was acted out by the chief players original cast (Welles as Brutus, Martin Gabel as Cassius, George Coulouris as Antony, and Joseph Holland as Caesar). Kaltenborn assumed a role well suited to Shakespearean theater, which relied on eloquent words rather than elaborate stagecraft to relate its stories.

“How many ages hence” Cassius remarks shortly after the assassination, “Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” In the Mercury Theater on the Air production, these lines are uttered by Brutus, Welles’s ego being comparable to that of Caesar. Yet, rather than playing the ham and exulting the hoped-for glories of the crime—“peace, freedom, and liberty”—Welles’s Brutus is subdued and plaintive, adding a question mark to the lines. After all, the very “peace, freedom, and liberty” of the West was at stake if fascism continued to spread in Europe and threaten the world. A voice like that of the noble, thoughtful conspirator Brutus might not be heard in future “states unborn” or “accents yet unknown.”

Of course, the Mercury Players also had to deal with the limits of liberty and freedom at home—and on the air. In a climate controlled by advertisers and the FCC, a climate that did not allow for overt political commentary, the Mercury Theater on the Air production of Julius Caesar war remarkably bold and as cunningly executed as Caesar’s assassination. To the “common eye” (or ear), Brutus insists, “We shall be purgers, not murderers.” The Mercury Players’ butchery of lines and characters was a worthwhile sacrifice . . .

Could a people under the rule of a despot be expected to rise against their leader? Could the forceful removal of such a ruler bring about a new and better world? Surely the crisis in the Middle East raised similar questions—but when was the last time CBS television presented a play like Julius Caesar?

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