Some people peak young; many is the cheerleader or high school football star who found that it was pretty much all downhill after 17. I’m not quite in that category, but one of my memorable moments was to appear in a sixth grade production of “Julius Caesar.”
The staging of that same play by Shakespeare Orange County at the Festival Amphitheatre in Garden Grove (opening this weekend! Get your tickets!) awakens memories of me being, quite frankly, one of the great 11-year-old Marcus Brutuses.
Way back then I was in a program where the sixth-grade teachers decided to stage a “Shakespeare Festival,” with “Caesar,” “Hamlet” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream” presented in an abbreviated form.
(Marilyn, by the way, was Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mom.)
Most of the boys immediately gravitated toward “Caesar” because we figured there would be lots of swordplay. Shows you how much we knew! There was more killing in “Hamlet” and more girls in the cast of “Midsummer Night.”
I had wanted to be Marc Antony, because of his famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, but instead I got “stuck” with Marcus Brutus. What I didn’t understand at the time, is that Brutus really is the star of the play, certainly the moral center.
We rehearsed that play, both in the classroom and on stage, endlessly. Slowly but surely it sunk into my pores, and planted an appreciation for the beauty of language that only a Shakespeare could create.
I can’t tell you what I had for lunch yesterday, but – with a little prodding – I can recite almost all my lines as Brutus and most of Marc Antony’s, too. Having those words burned into my memory has come in handy over the years.
In my senior year of high school, my quasi-girlfriend Cynthia dumped me (that happened a lot …) and so I walked over to the front of the old Language Arts building (which had a classic Roman look), ascended the stairs and said to my audience of zero, “Pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth/That I am meek and gentle with these butchers …”
As far as self-indulgent self-pity goes, you can’t do better than the Bard.
When President Nixon was forced to resign, I can recall intoning “Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead to live all free men?”
In my newspaper career, when pressure was on me to run a flattering article for a potential advertiser, I could respond with “Shall we now contaminate our fingers with base bribes? I’d rather be a dog, and bay the moon, than such a Roman.”
When people complain about their bad luck, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves” works, but only if you’re willing to be punched in the nose.
It’s difficult for some folks to penetrate the period language and settings of Shakespeare’s plays, but if you look carefully (and especially if you are required to do so) you will find many treasures of insight into human nature, philosophy, even politics.
Ever since I trod the stage back at Lampson Intermediate (now Ralston) wrapped in a sheet and wielding a plastic sword, a special appreciation for the wise poetry of Shakespeare has been planted in me.
Brutus, as you probably know, doesn’t exactly triumph in this story. I mean, he ends up dead. But even his enemies respect him, and his devotion to principle is honored.
We’re all going to go someday. Sticking to your principles isn’t a bad legacy to leave behind. My first introduction to many of those ideas came to me on that stage. I’m still not sure I understand completely, but my devotion to the concept is “as constant as the northern star.”