Norman Lloyd’s Exit: The Death of a Poet Stops the Show
By Stuart Mitchner
Now you see in Hip Talk, they call William Shakespeare “Willie the Shake!” You know why they call him “Willie the Shake!” Because, HE SHOOK EVERYBODY!
—Lord Buckley (1906-1960)
There was a time long long ago when I thought the best thing that ever happened to Shakespeare was Marlon Brando. Even as Elvis was singing “Heartbreak Hotel,” high school kids in southern Indiana forced to memorize “Friends, Romans, and Countrymen” could take heart from Brando’s presence in MGM’s Julius Caesar. Or you could listen to Lord Buckley’s album Hipsters and read his version of the speech, “Hipsters, Flipsters, and Finger-Poppin’ Daddies,” in the City Lights paperback Hiparama of the Classics.
Enter/Exit Norman Lloyd
Me, I had to wait until James Shapiro put Lord Buckley’s rendition of Antony’s funeral oration into his anthology, Shakespeare in America, which was published by The Library of America in 2014, the Bard’s 450th anniversary.
In November of that year, Norman Lloyd celebrated his 100th birthday. If you’ve heard of him, it’s most likely because he died last week at 106, remembered in the New York Times obituary as “the young actor” who moved audiences as Cinna the poet in Orson Welles’s 1937 fascist production of Julius Caesar, which Welles subtitled The Death of a Dictator. I recognized the man in the Times photograph as the title character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), described in the obit as “the chilly fascist sympathizer who had kept audiences on the edge of their seats as he dangled from the Statue of Liberty.” He didn’t just dangle, he fell, the sleeve of his jacket tearing as Robert Cummings tried to pull him to safety. The mother of all vertigo paranoia is Hitchcock’s shot of Lloyd falling to his death. Thus, the young actor, who “died” at the hands of a jackbooted Nazi mob in a modern-day Caesar and five years later as a Nazi agent, outlived everyone involved in both productions. He and Welles, who died in 1985, were both 22 when Lloyd’s onstage murder stopped the show at the Mercury Theatre.
What made Cinna’s fatal misadventure in Act 3 a show-stopping sensation? Introducing Stanley Whipple’s New York World-Telegram review in Shakespeare in America, Shapiro notes that while Welles drastically cut Shakespeare’s text, “his focus on fascism and mob violence led him to stage in full, for the first time in America, the scene in which Cinna the Poet is attacked … by the kind of mob that gives you a Hitler or Mussolini.” According to Lloyd himself in a July 2014 interview on eatdrinkfilms.com, “the show stopped for about three minutes. The audience stopped it with applause” because it showed them “what fascism was; rather than an intellectual approach, you saw a physical one.” The immediacy of the act electrified the audience. Said Lloyd, “In 1937, Hitler was in power and the Germans were killing people on the street. If your name was Jewish, you were gone. I wanted that, so I said to Orson, ‘This is just a guy who gives the wrong name.’ “ In the play all Cinna can say, over and over, is “I’m Cinna, the poet,” not the Cinna implicated in Caesar’s assassination.
A second notice written by Whipple during the opening week refers to “the trance” the play induced among theatregoers. The “tragedy of Cinna the Poet” is singled out as “a triumph for the direction of Mr. Welles and the playing of Norman Lloyd.” Whipple’s account focuses on “the slender figure of the poet” confronted by “a little knot of man hunters obviously trying to mop up the conspirators.” To their questions, he keeps mildly repeating the words “I am Cinna the poet” and “handing out his scribblings with polite bewilderment, to prove his identity.” As he starts to move free, another group of men blocks his way. Then another, and another. “Around him is a small ring of light, and in the shadows an ever-tightening, pincer-like mass movement. Then in one awful moment of madness the jaws of the mob come together on him and he is swallowed up and rushed into black oblivion.” Clearly still seeing and feeling the moment, Whipple takes a breath and concludes: “Mr. Lloyd’s gently comic bewilderment, his pathetic innocence and the crushing climax as the human juggernaut rolls down upon him make this one of the most dynamic scenes in today’s theater.”
“Tear him, tear him!”
On the page, the scene needs no stagecraft to stun the reader. Perhaps it’s another tribute to Welles’s theatrical prowess that the reviewer downplays the enraged citizens’ rapid-fire interrogation of the embattled poet (“There are questions”) and the savagery of the attack the instant he mentions his profession: “Tear him to pieces! —Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses! —Tear him, tear him!”
The effect is of a sudden blast of murderous rage coming seemingly out of nowhere — except for the blaze lit by Antony’s oration and imagined before the event by Brutus (“Between the acting of a dreadful thing / And the first motion, all the interim is / Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream …. and the state of man, / Like to a little kingdom, suffers then / The nature of an insurrection”).
In Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom traces the scene to Shakespeare’s wariness of the state power that had murdered Christopher Marlowe, as played out by the “fine joke of the raging mobs dragging off the wretched Cinna the poet for having the wrong name,” for “whatever his nonpolitics, Shakespeare did not want to be torn for his good verses, or even for his great ones.”
“Me and Orson Welles”
Anyone making a 21st-century film about the theatrical production of a play from 1937 most likely assumed that no actor involved in the Mercury Theatre Caesar would still be around in 2009 to see the finished product. But Norman Lloyd lived to loathe Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles. In a November 2015 interview on wellesnet.com, he thought Christian McKay’s performance as Orson Welles was “the best rendition of him I’ve ever seen,” but he considered the rest of the characters “just ridiculous. They’re all made up. I didn’t even recognize myself.” And when he did: “It’s terrible! I loathed myself. It has nothing to do with me.”
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll sympathize with Lloyd, whose character comes off as little more than a licentious gossip. Even so, Me and Orson Welles is worth seeing for a lively, luminous pre-Homeland Claire Danes, and a pre-Plot-Against-America Zoe Kazan, and the natural rapport each actress has with Zac Efron’s Richard, who is new to the world of Welles. No surprise, given what Linklater accomplished with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in his classic Before Sunrise series.
In Our Time
In the aftermath of the Trump presidency and the oration that inspired all the “honorable” men and women in the “tour group” that visited the Capitol on January 6, it’s hard not to flash on the consequences of Mark Antony’s speech, the resonance in terms like “insurrection,” Senators, and Capitol, not to mention the slight resemblance Norman Lloyd’s sinister Hitchcockian saboteur bears to Vladimir Putin as he falls screaming from the Statue of Liberty’s torch.
After he picked himself up and dusted himself off, alive and well, the Jersey City-born actor-producer-director had a remarkable career, as noted on Imdb.com. His most interesting interview is with the New Yorker’s Alex Ross (“The Magnificent Memory of Norman Lloyd”), on the 100th anniversary of Orson Welles. As Ross presents it, Lloyd not only acted but conceived and directed Cinna the Poet. Apparently he even talked Welles into restoring the scene when he brashly decided to drop it (as shown in Linklater’s film). Welles thought of Cinna as a Byronic figure, wearing a beret. As Ross makes clear, “Lloyd wanted to pattern Cinna on someone he knew: the Greenwich Village poet Maxwell Bodenheim, who used to sit on the stoops around Washington Square, offering to write poems for twenty-five cents. Lloyd pictured Cinna as a bum in a suit, foolscap spilling out of his pockets. Welles said, ‘O.K., do it your way.’ ”
Shakespeare the Shaker
Lord Buckley was hip to the true hero of Julius Caesar. In high school we never doubted it was Brando’s Mark Antony. Bloom goes with Brutus, but he knows it’s ultimately Willie the Shake. Says the Lord:
They give this Cat five cents worth of ink, and a nickel’s worth of paper, and he sat down and wrote up such a breeze, WHAMMMMMMM!!! Everybody got off! Period! He was a hard, tight, tough Cat. Pen in hand, he was a Mother Superior. … The Roman Senate is jumpin’ salty all over the place so Mark the Spark showed on the scene. faced all the studs, wild and otherwise, and shook up the whole Scene! As he BLEW: ‘Hipsters, Flipsters, and Finger-Poppin’ Daddies, / Knock me your lobes!’”
Note: Mark Antony (George Coulouris) is addressing the crowd in the image from Orson Welles’s production of Julius Caesar shown here.