Friday, September 9, 2011

Play Review: Caesar and Cleopatra

I am reviewing a play that was written in 1898, that most people have never seen or read, by a person most people have never heard of. But like most of my reviews, it lets me make a more general point.

I mentioned the play last week and noted that it had a quote I liked and seemed good.

Then I read it, and found that the first impression was wrong. That one scene was the only good part of the play.

I should specify why the play was bad. It was quite well-written, full of good quotes and characterization, and plenty of cleverness and wit. It is bad because of its moral core. It is one more thing to add to the list of art in the spirit of Triumph of the Will: high quality propaganda for a really nasty mindset, just like Gone with the Wind and Bonfire of the Vanities.

The author, George Bernard Shaw, combines a caustic hatred of his own society with a gushing admiration of antiquity. Either one of these things alone is bad enough, but the two of them together is truly obnoxious.

He seems mainly motivated by a Nietzschen morality. Here is what he says in the notes at the end of the play:

Hence, in order to produce an impression of complete disinterestedness and magnanimity, he has only to act with entire selfishness; and this is perhaps the only sense in which a man can be said to be naturally great. It is in this sense that I have represented Caesar as great. Having virtue, he has no need of goodness.


For this raises the question whether our world has not been wrong in its moral theory for the last 2,500 years or so.

Apparently what he likes about the ancient world is that it had 'great' men who used it as their playground. The play of full of contempt for the officers and leaders of his contemporary Britain, which by any objective measure except longevity is the greatest empire the world has ever seen. In terms of power, scope, audacity, morality, and positive effect on the peace and prosperity of the world, it far outclassed ancient Rome.

Anything that is to be admired about ancient Rome or Egypt, and there is much to admire, was even better in Britain. Anything to hate about Victorian Britain, and there is much to hate, was far worse in antiquity.

The one exception might be art and architecture. I happen to agree with his contention that the ancient Egyptians had better taste in interior decoration than the Victorian British. But this is utterly irrelevant to any serious judgment of a society.

The glorification of antiquity is pretty common. Lots of people like to make a political point by saying bad things about parts of their society they do not like. They use places that are far away in either time or space as a kind of imaginary utopia, claiming the imagined virtues of these other places and times as part of their own political ideals.

But the main problem with the play was a moral lesson that was powerfully delivered, persuasive, and totally wrong and evil. The play says, repeatedly and explicitly, that it is better for agents of the government to personally kill people they decide must die, instead of executing them after due process of law. This summary execution is portrayed as a noble virtue, while calling a court session to dispense justice is seen as weakness and vice.

Basically, George Bernard Shaw is attacking the very foundation of a free society, and championing the worst kind of despotism. In order to see how he manages to insinuate this twisted moral lesson into the mind of the reader, you would have to read through the whole play, which I do not recommend unless you are interested in social history and have a well-developed moral philosophy.

It may or may not be a coincidence that George Bernard Shaw was a Fabian Socialist, a eugenicist, and a vocal supporter of Stalin.

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