Jubilant Julius: Tree’s Spectacular Theatre

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Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Mark Antony

 

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Greg Doran’s Julius Caesar at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and the striking set made me think about the grand visual feast of Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s production at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1898. Like Doran’s production, Tree’s was mounted in the wake of jubilee celebrations and monarchical enthusiasm, for by June 1897 Queen Victoria had ruled for 60 years as England’s sovereign. With pomp and celebration, nationalism and orations, the jubilee is perhaps the perfect time to consider Shakespeare’s play about the qualities of leadership.

Tree as Antony

 

For Tree, Julius Caesar meant spectacle, pageantry and showmanship. Both as the play’s producer and its Mark Antony, Tree dazzled his audiences with costumes, sets and rhetoric.

Programme for Julius Caesar

 

Tree famously lived in his theatre and made theatrical ‘illusion’ his business. So for his 1898 production of Julius Caesar, Tree engaged the artistic services of Dutch classical painter Alma Tadema, who had already collaborated with Henry Irving at the Lyceum on various Shakespearean projects.

Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema

 

As Maud Tree would recollect after her husband’s death, ‘Sir Alma Tadema not only designed and with his own hands draped every dress in the play, but also with his own hands made […]shields, armour and insignia’ (1917). In fact, Bernard Shaw even claimed that ‘the real hero of the revival is Mr. Alma Tadema’ (1898). The scenery, which consisted of eight separate sets in three acts, was overwhelmingly spectacular, and punctuated with three tableaux featuring Tree’s Antony as the chief figure.

Addressing the crowd

 

Arranged in three acts, the production built up to the great speech with Tree centre-stage surrounded by an enormous mob of cheering, bustling and entertainment-seeking Romans. Taking his cue from the skilled Saxe-Meiningen company, renowned for its ability to depict crowds, and perhaps even the crowds that gathered to celebrate their queen’s diamond anniversary, Tree produced one of the most memorable and celebrated oration scenes on the late-Victorian stage.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be thinking about Victorian spectacular productions of Shakespeare, so please do join in with the discussion by adding your comments below.

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Author:Anjna Chouhan

Anjna is Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
  • Picking up on your comment about ‘facile Africanisation’ you might find blog post on the current production interesting: http://bloggingshakespeare.com/a-post-colonial-view-of-julius-caesar

  • Paul Edmondson

    I love thinking about what this production would have been like. I’m sure you know St. John Hankin’s marvellously candid review, but here’s snippet in any case…

    ‘Mr Tree’s Julius
    Caesar is a triumph of actor-management. 
    It is also, in myhumble opinion, a grievous insult to Shakespeare.  Shakespeare wrote a playof which the central
    character was an idealised Brutus.  It
    was the story of how a noble minded Roman, partly from a traditional worship of
    ‘Liberty’, partly through being worked upon by astute plotters like Cassius,
    took the life of Julius Caesar.  How for
    a few hours it looked as if all were going well with him and his
    fellow-conspirators, until the fiery Antony, by a successful appeal to the
    greed of the mob, turned the tables on them so that they fled from Rome, only
    to fall at Philippi under the avenging swords of Antony and Caesar’s nephew
    Octavius.  That is the play as
    Shakespeare – a considerable dramatist after all – conceived it.  Here it is as Mr Tree conceives it:

    There was a Roman named Antony, who was an intimate friend of Caesar, wore a
    distinctive costume, and always stood in the middle of the stage.  When Caesar was killed he came into the
    Senate-house and made a speech over the body. 
    He was left making facial contortions over it when the curtain
    fell.  After Caesar’s death this Antony
    made a speech in the Forum and was loyally cheered by a splendidly drilled
    crowd of supers, as an actor-manager should be. 
    He subsequently hurled defiance at the conspirators on the plains – or
    hills – of Philippi, and delivered a famous speech over the body of
    Brutus.  And that’s all.

    Now the question is, is that what the playgoing public want?  Do they go to Her Majesty’s to see
    Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or to see Mr Tree?  If the former, then the present performance
    is an unqualified failure, for the whole proportions of the play are spoiled by
    the present arrangement, a relatively minor character is thrust violently into
    the front place, and the action of the drama becomes incoherent.  Any performance of Julius Caesar which
    impressed a leading dramatic critic with the opinion that the tent scene
    between Brutus and Cassius was superfluous, and was not of the faintest concern
    to the audience, stands condemned on the face of it.  If Mr Tree was bent on playing the principal
    part at his own theatre, he should have played Brutus.  But I imagine that he could not make up his
    mind to let anyone else deliver Antony’s oration.  If this is so, the only course for him was to
    become a sort of Shakespearean Prisoner of Zenda, double the roles of Brutus
    and Antony, deliver both orations in the Forum, and after killing himself (as
    Brutus) in act v., get up and make the last speech (as Antony) over his own
    body.  Perhaps Mr Tree will try this
    arrangement at a special matinee.’

  • phinbo

    Interesting, but surely Victoria was queen of Great Britain, not just England?

  • Wweepingwillow

    Orwell said of Graham Greene’s End of the Affair , he couldn’t understand why he set his tale of infidelity in Sierra Leone. Same could be said about this truly dreadful excursion into Brechtian irony or bathos. No understanding of the plot, or character, or Roman history, facile Africanisation ( something to do with reverse imperialism perhaps?), with only the superb Ray Fearon relieving the gloom.
    Another woeful attempt by the RSC trying to engage with one of the very greatest of the Bard’s plays.
    Drama, and insight into an age, please, not tortuous agitprop.

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