Writing about Mrs. Brandenburg last month got me thinking about Julius Caesar. My sixth-grade class put on a production of a young person’s version of Shakespeare’s play. I most recently read the Bard’s original (or as I tend to think of it after my sixth-grade experience, the “full-length” version) in year 2 of my reading plan, before I started blogging. I wish I had thought to write about it a couple of months ago when I read Suetonius’s account of Julius. But thanks to Mrs. Brandenburg, I’m thinking of it now.
After that last reading of the play (while visiting Oxford and London), I wrote in my notes that attitudes about death come up often in the play. Caesar says that he thinks it best to give death no thought since it “will come when it will come.” Cowards think about it often, he says, and as a result “die many times before their deaths.” Brutus may well fear death, but he says his love of honor outweighs the fear. Cassius argues that they will do Caesar a favor by killing him since the act will “cut off” several years of fear. Brutus responds by saying that death in that case should be welcome, since it shortens the period of terror. Besides projecting his own fear into Caesar’s head, Brutus’s argument makes no sense since, if death were welcome, we wouldn’t fear it, and thus it wouldn’t be welcome.
Ah, but Brutus says it is so, “and Brutus is an honourable man.” I love Antony’s funeral speech in which he turns the crowd against Brutus by continually calling him an honourable man. After a while, he starts to include Cassius in his damning praise and then declares that he wrongs “the honourable men whose daggers have stabb’d Caesar.” And then, what a powerful moment when Antony performs the first C.S.I. forensic exercise and recreates the sequence of the assassination by looking at the bloody knife marks in Caesar’s mantle. The Bard of Avon at his best!
Sadly, I knew nothing about this famous speech until I read the actual play; the sixth-grade version ended with Caesar’s death. Maybe Antony got to say that Nature could stand and declare that “This was a man!” But Caesar got stabbed, and that was pretty much it. What a shock to find later that the play went on for another two-and-a-half acts! Ah, but this was American public education in 1969. Starting the next year, I became aware that traditional curricula and standards were crumbling around me. If I had known more about Shakespeare (in other words, if I had known anything about Shakespeare), I would have noticed it one grade sooner.
I actually got to play Julius Caesar in that production. Mrs. Brandenburg had tryouts and I went up for the lead against Randy Webber. We each read a scene, and then later that day, Mrs. Brandenburg asked us both to come back up to the desk and read, “You too, Brutus? Then I die.” Randy read it with a voice like a cross between the Emperor in Star Wars VI and that guy from Nickelback. And I thought, “Ooh, he’s going to get it. He’s so good!” So I headed in a different direction with my reading and tried a simpler approach. I think maybe I was going for Linus Van Pelt reciting the Nativity story from Luke. I suppose I read it OK, but I was really, truly shocked to find I had landed the role.
The experience of putting on that play was a total blast. My mom made a very nice stola and toga for me. (I don’t know that she ever got to see the play. Mrs. Brandenburg only had us perform it for each other and for another sixth-grade class.) Over the course of several weeks, I learned all the lines, even though I’m as weak at memorization as Linus. I looked good, and I sounded good, and as far as I knew Mrs. Brandenberg was pleased and everything was going well.
Almost everything, that is. Mrs. Brandenburg told me during one rehearsal that I wasn’t dying right. “Collapse your knees,” she said. “You know, you’ve seen your mother faint.” Oddly enough, I had seen my mother faint. Again, this was 1969. But still that didn’t help. I was probably clutching and falling ridiculously like a kid playing Cowboys and Indians, and then making it worse by bracing myself because I was falling on gray speckled linoleum and not Kentucky bluegrass.
So one day before the big premiere, we’re playing softball outside for P.E. I’m in the outfield, as I always was, since infielders have to have some degree of coordination. But very few sixth graders can hit to the outfield, so I started doing what sixth-grade boys do when standing in a field with nothing to do: I started daydreaming. I may have been thinking about the dandelions. I may have been dreaming about a career in acting. I don’t know. I only remember that a lot of dim, distant screaming slowly worked a tiny toehold into my consciousness, and then suddenly my stomach hurt like never before. All the air I had ever breathed left my lungs (including, no doubt, some molecules breathed by the noblest Roman himself), and I collapsed on the ground. A fly to left field had done the statistically impossible and hit me squarely in the gut.
I started realizing that that fly ball was what the kids had been screaming about. Then I noticed some kids starting to run my way: maybe a couple to check on me, and probably one or two of my teammates to shag that ball back to the infield and try to cut off the home run. But Mrs. Brandenburg stayed safely behind the backstop. I’m pretty sure she didn’t know the rules of the game and had no idea how the accident affected the play. I’m certain she had no idea how the accident, or anything that might occur to her to say about it, affected my feelings. But the woman knew her acting. She cupped a hand to her mouth and yelled loudly enough for everyone in the schoolyard to hear – heck, loudly enough for everyone in the neighborhood to hear. And I’ll never forget these words. My teacher, the woman entrusted with the care of helpless, innocent babes, screamed at me:
“THAT’S THE WAY I WANT YOU TO DIE!!!”