Julius Caesar (06/27/1955)

Shatner returns to the stage!

After a very productive (but not very lucrative) season of television working for the CBC in Toronto, and directly following his appearance in “Billy Budd,” William Shatner packed his bags and headed back out to Stratford for the 1955 season. It was the festival’s third year, and Shatner’s second there, and it meant about four months of steady work and experience. Television was just a day job, a way to make ends meet for actors. The real goal, for Shatner at least, was to become a stage actor on Broadway. To get there though, he would need to continue to save up enough money for the move as well as to firmly establish his bona fides as a theater actor. Progress could made on both of these fronts at Stratford.

The famed English director Tyrone Guthrie was still acting as the festival’s Artistic Director, that much had not changed. However, unlike in the first two seasons, the 1955 troupe did not include a high-profile British lead. In 1953, the big draw was Alec Guinness. For 1954, it was James Mason. For the third year, the leading actor was a homegrown Canadian…no, unfortunately not William Shatner. Lorne Greene.

Close up of Lorne Greene
See, I told you. Lorne Greene.

At the time, Stratford was putting on three productions per season. The productions ran concurrently for the most part, alternating each evening between the shows, with multiple productions on the weekend days. In keeping with past years, the headliner had one large role per season and then usually one smaller one so as not to burn out. Lorne Greene’s big role was as Marcus Brutus in Julius Caesar.

If you haven’t read or seen Julius Caesar recently (or ever,) you might be surprised to discover that the role of Caesar in the play is actually fairly minor. He has a few small scenes early on, is killed halfway through and then sporadically shows up as a ghost in the back half.  Indeed, Brutus has roughly 5 times as many lines as Caesar, and some of the meatier stuff goes to the character of Marc Antony (think “Friends, Romans, countrymen…lend me your ears!)

But although the role is relatively small, the presence of Julius Caesar (what he has done, what he might do in the future, how people feel about him, his place in the government and how he is perceived) drives all. The play is a rather fascinating meditation on ambition, politics, and the surprising repercussions that can occur even with the best of intentions. When is it OK to act against possible tyranny, and is the threat of tyranny enough to justify murder? Caesar was actually a fairly benevolent dictator who took a republic mired in chaos, disorder, and inefficiency (not to mention corruption) and fashioned it into a prosperous and mostly-unified whole. In so doing he both took and was bestowed by the people almost total power.

Noble Brutus decides, after much wrestling with his thoughts, to participate in the assassination of Caesar as kind of a preemptive strike against the ruler who might become too ambitious in the future and who might start acting against the will of the people and the best interests of Rome. And yet he is led to this conclusion only after some other conspirators, ambitious themselves, make up false evidence against Caesar.

Caesar is assassinated; Stratford 1955
Die Caesar!

And once the deed is done, Brutus is convinced that the people will cheer the outcome and feel “free”, allowing the Roman Republic to rise and flourish once again. In fact, just the opposite happens. Most of the lower class loved Caesar, and turned immediately against the men who assassinated him. The death of Julius Caesar led to years of civil wars, followed by the end of the Republic and directly to the true and lasting rise of Imperial Rome. With the best of intentions, Brutus’s act leads to the one thing he never wanted.

Antony and Octavius prepare for war; Stratford 1955
Battle plans are drawn. Civil war begins.

Lorne Greene would have been the perfect choice for the stoic, thoughtful and respected Brutus. Shatner plays his young servant Lucius, a very small roll that mostly sees Shatner announcing visitors to Brutus’s home and strumming the lute peacefully for his evening enjoyment. So…not much to talk about on the Shatner front. However, in just a few years time he would return to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in a much flashier role (see Shatner’s Web section below for more on this.)

Julius Caesar kicked off the new Stratford season and ran for exactly two months, from June 27th to August 27th, 1955. It was directed not by Tyrone Guthrie but by Michael Langham, his first directing job for Stratford. Guthrie would instead personally direct the other two productions of the ’55 season, King Oedipus and The Merchant of Venice, both of which also featured Shatner.

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Shatner’s Web

It’s time to detail all of the connections between Julius Caesar and other Shatner appearances! 

Pretty much the entire company, with the exception of Lorne Greene, would appear in both of the other 1955 Stratford Festival plays. Many had also acted in the 1954 season, as well as in subsequent Stratford productions with Shatner. Indeed, many of them would also appear in the Tyrone Guthrie directed Broadway production of Tamburlaine the Great in early 1956, and the Guthrie directed film version of Oedipus Rex in 1957. Rather than list all of those actors here, and name each and every production they appeared with Shatner in, I’m going to cherry-pick some of the more interesting connections.

Let’s start with Shatner himself. Although he only played the very minor role of Lucius in this production, he would again appear again in Julius Caesar in 1960 for an episode of the CBC series Festival. No minor role for him there, thankfully…instead he gets to tear into the very memorable character of Marc Antony as seen in the lengthy clip below.

39 years after his performance in the above clip, Shatner would revisit that climactic speech (and other lines from the play) while “rapping” at the finale of the film, Free Enterprise. Please watch at the risk of your own health and sanity.

Lorne Greene, in addition to playing Brutus in this production, would also appear in the other Shakespeare play performed during Stratford’s ’55 season, The Merchant of Venice. He had first appeared with Shatner the previous year for the General Motors Theatre episode, “The Big Leap.” He would again appear with Shatner in the 1970 variety special John Wayne’s Tribute to America, and then one last time in the 1985 HBO comedy, The Canadian Conspiracy.

Fellow Canadian Lloyd Bochner who played Cassius, the less than noble co-conspirator of Caesar’s assassination in Julius Caesar would go on to have a very prolific career, appearing in a number or films and television programs for next six decades or so. One of my favorite Bochner roles was in The Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man.” It’s a cookbook, Lloyd!

He also appeared as “Cecil Colby” in the TV series Dynasty in the 1980’s. He is most famous in that role for having a heart attack while fucking Joan Collins, in one of the most hilarious scenes ever filmed.

Bochner performed at Stratford for at least all three years Shatner was there and then would appear again with Bill on Broadway in Tamburlaine the Great. Bochner also appeared in a 1960 TV movie made for the CBC titled Point of Departure. They would work together again when he appeared on a 1965 episode of Shatner’s first TV series For the People, titled “Seized, Confined and Detained…” Ten years later, he would work with Le Shat in “Jesse Who?”, an episode of Shatner’s only live-action “Lost Years” TV series, Barbary Coast. Finally, they would both appear in the sprawling Canadian film, Riel, in 1979.

Donald Harron and Tony Van Bridge would also appear in Riel.

Robert Christie, who played the title character in Julius Caesar, also worked with Shatner prior to Stratford in CBC Theatre’s “The Man Who Ran Away.” He also appeared in Scope’s “The Verdict Was Treason” and in the film version of Oedipus Rex.

David Gardner previously worked with Shatner on the General Motors Theatre episodes “I Like It Here” and “The Black Eye.”

Douglas Campbell had just appeared with Shatner in “Billy Budd”, an episode of General Motors Theatre.

Douglas Rain would play “Cassius” alongside Shatner’s “Marc Antony” in the “Julius Caesar” episode of Festival.

William Hutt had previously appeared in a 1955 episode of General Motors Theatre, “The Coming Out of Ellie Swan.”

Eric House would also appear in “The Verdict Was Treason”, as well as in the 1960 TV Movie, Point of Departure.

Bruno Gerussi would be seen with Shatner in “Forever Galatea”, an episode of General Motors Theatre, and in 1960’s Festival production of “Julius Caesar.”

Ted Follows would follow Shatner to a 1956 appearance of On Camera’s “Dreams,” as well as to Festival’s 1960 “Julius Caesar.”

James Manser also appeared with Shatner in “The Big Leap.”

Robert Goodier appeared with Shatner at Stratford for all three seasons The Shat was there, plus in the 1956 Broadway version of Tamburlaine the Great and the 1957 film version of Oedipus Rex. In addition, he was in an episode of Omnibus with Shatner in 1956, Moliere’s School for Wives.

Neil Vipond would also work with Shatner in the 1958-1960 Broadway play, The World of Suzie Wong.

Further Studies

Some cool pictures of the festival (most with Shatner) can be found here.

Shatner

Author: Shatner

I give myself to him, William Shatner.

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