Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Egypt is very much with us. "Treasures of Tutankhamun" is at the National Gallery, Eliot Elisofon's "The Nile" is at the Museum of African Art and Monday night Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra" opened a three-week run at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
While the first two are still lifes, the third is, so far, lifeless. Whatever its aims and despite its cuts - and additions - the productions is feeling its way from superficialities to, one hopes, the potential depths of Shaw's most admired hero, Julius Caesar.
Essentially this is an intimate play, not conceived of as a spectacle, though Gabriel Pascal's film version with Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh managed to be both, as occasional TV showings remind us. But the essence of the play is Caesar, Shaw's definition of a great man.
He was great, declared Shaw, because "having virtue, he had no need of goodness. He is neither forgiving, frank nor generous because a man who is too great to resent has nothing to forgive, a man who says things that other people are afraid to say need be no more frank than Bismarck was and there is no generosity in giving things you do not want to people of whom you intend to make use."
This intensity, or purity, if you will, is the essence of the conqueror who comes to Egypt, discovers a child-queen anxious to learn and then departs, having confirmed what he already knew - the pettiness of lesser humans.
Rex Harrison's Caesar presently skims above this iron character and one cannot blame him, for the Opera House remains far too large and forbidding for straight plays. The great spaces from stage to most of the house are a serious barrier.
Ming Cho Lee's settings also are affected by the theater's demands. While they suggest the spaciousness of the Tutankhamun exhibit and the Elisofon pictures of the Tombs of the Kings, they are also spare and light, with none of the ponderousness that made the darkly superstitious child-queen speak of a black kitten who was her great-grandmother's great-grandmother. The design, I suspect, is aimed at intimacy, but its effect is merely economical.
It is Caesar's reaction to the plots which surround him that matters - what Pompey may be up to, what Cleopatra is devising to save her own neck. They amuse him, and Harrison is very fine at conveying this - world-weary but keen, never surprised, merely regretful.
But there is something more, something deeper and stronger, to be conveyed, something, perhaps, of the Henry VIII Harrison once defined when the clips were down.
Director Noel Willman's cuts (or whose?) are at least partially acceptable. Neither of Shaw's two preferred prologues are used, and the scene of Cleopatra and Apollodorus with the carpets is omitted. All this excises some of the play's flesh. And it is a bit cute for Britannus to mutter "Peace with honor" and for Ftatateeta to tell Cleopatra, "You are what the Romans call a New Woman." Shaw wrote neither line.
Shaw wasn't talking about any new woman; he was writing how women - and men and soldiers and rulers - do not change. That, in fact, is the point of "Caesar and Cleopatra" - that, as opposed to high scholarship, his own method weas "pure divination." He couldn't prove humanity's change-lessness, but he felt it.
Cleopatra's age has nothing to do with Shaw's "divination" concept: as he wrote, "Some are younger at 70 than most at 17." What matters is her childishness of character, and most of the time Elizabeth Ashley expresses this effectively. But it is an uneven performance, with much flailing about of arms and some dips into gutter English; "I done wanna die." The role has nothing like the potentialities of Caesar and temptations to edge Cleopatra into a Lady Macbeth should be firmly resisted.
Paul Hecht's Rufio has the brio most of the lesser roles lack in a production which smacks of haste, indecision and weakness of purpose. While not Shaw at his best, this is not the play at its best.