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.” more