Monday, September 10, 2007

A Look Back Thirty Years

There was a piece in USA Today on Saturday that caught my attention:

Some of Britain's most distinguished Shakespearean actors have reopened the debate over whether William Shakespeare, a 16th century commoner raised in an illiterate household in Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote the plays that bear his name.

Acclaimed actor Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theater in London, unveiled a "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt" on the authorship of Shakespeare's work Saturday, following the final matinee of "I am Shakespeare," a play investigating the bard's identity...

This is, of course, a question that has been asked for hundreds of years. I wasn't as interested in the debate over Shakespeare as I was in the mention of Derek Jacobi, an actor for whom I have enormous respect. In 1976, Jacobi played the title role in the 13-part BBC mini-series I, Claudius. The trailer described the series as the story of the family that put "nasty" into "dynasty," which was a very apt description. The episodes contained murder (including patricide), betrayal, infidelity, lust, incest, and--above all--a constant struggle for power.

It has now been thirty years since I, Claudius was released in the U.S.

I, Claudius is the story of Rome's Imperial family over a 77-year period as seen through the eyes of the oldest survivor. Claudius was the grandson of Livia, wife of Augustus Caesar. Although physically disabled (he limped and had a stammer), he was a brilliant man, offended by the excesses of the Imperial family. He hid in plain sight by playing the part of a half-wit. In the end, after surviving the reigns of his step grandfather Augustus, his uncle Tiberius and his nephew Caligula, Claudius himself becomes emperor.

My favorite speech by Claudius is delivered in a stammer to the Senators who question his ability to speak or hear--much less rule. In response to the rumors, Claudius says:

Senators, it is true that I am hard of hearing, but you will find it is not for want of listening.

As for speaking, again, it's true I have an impediment. But isn't what a man says more important than how long he takes to say it?

It's true again I have little experience of government. But then, have you more? I at least have lived with the imperial family who has ruled this empire ever since you so spinelessly handed it over to us. I've observed it working more closely than any of you. Is your experience better than that?

As for being half-witted, well, what can I say? Except that I have survived to middle age with *half* my wits, while thousands have died with *all* of theirs intact. Evidently, *quality* of wits is more important than *quantity*.

In 2002, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of I, Claudius, the BBC released a documentary titled I, Claudius: A Television Epic. YouTube has that show broken into eight or ten parts on its website.

In watching the documentary, I was astounded to realize that I had never before noticed that Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek fame) had played the role of the traitor Sejanus.

I was particularly entranced with the first part on YouTube in which the director, Herbert Wise, talks about how the actors struggled to find their "voices" in this complex family drama. There's an excellent bit on the contrast between comedy and horror as well as the contrast between beauty and evil. Part 2 includes excerpts of Jacobi playing Claudius. I've included them both below.

If you have never seen I, Claudius, I strongly recommend it. I own the entire series and treasure it.

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