Is the shirt supposed to button at the top?
“Oh, that’s a neckpiece. We haven’t even gotten there yet,” replies the woman seated in the folding chair to my side.
I’m standing, half-dressed, in front of a movers truck full to the brim with replica Revolutionary War uniforms. Bluecoats, redcoats, tricorn hats and hunting frocks crowd each wall. I’m in breeches, floppy shirt and vest, waiting for two men from the Battlefield Society and the director of Cato to decide on whether Syphax, my character, is best portrayed as a traitorous American soldier in a bluecoat, or a sort of farmer-partisan in a hunting frock (think Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans). It’s late Saturday afternoon out on the Princeton Battlefield, and I’m ready for whatever coat they can throw me, so long as it gives some protection from the insects that hover in layers across the springy grass.
The decision ultimately is one of necessity; the costumes are mostly sized for much bigger men (“Haven’t seen those in a while,” the costume director says as he hands me a pair of 38-waist breeches), and putting Syphax in a hunting frock frees up a bluecoat for one of the other guys in the cast.
“The vest goes on under the frock,” guides the woman in the folding chair. I’m lost in a sea of buttons.
* * *
The story goes that, in May of 1778, a tired and worn-out general, having just weathered a cruel and vicious winter, decided to put on a play for his troops to boost morale. His government had attempted to discourage theatrical productions, so perhaps his ruse was an attempt to thumb his nose at the authorities, or maybe it was just because he really liked the play and it was the only one he had a copy of with him in the Pennsylvania wilderness.
The play, Cato, a Tragedy, by Joseph Addison, deals pseudo-accurately with the last days of the great Roman orator Cato the Younger, who, having fled with the Roman Senate from Julius Caesar’s victorious entry into Rome, found himself in Northern Africa after a long campaign of resistance against Caesar. Accompanied by his sons Portius and Marcus, a few senators, the noble peacenik Lucius and the treacherous Sempronius, Cato made a last, virtuous stand against Caesar’s corruption before finally deciding to totally peace out and kill himself rather than see the tyrant Caesar rule the world.
Intermixed throughout are the exploits of Juba the Numidian prince, who dreams of being a real Roman and reforming his notoriously corrupt state into a paradise for Stoic virtues. Juba fights for the love of Cato’s daughter Marcia (seemingly because he could not wed her father), while avoiding the machinations of his opportunistic servant Syphax (me!), who wishes to turn him to Caesar’s side.
Surely, such an uplifting play (only three dead bodies on-stage at the end; not bad for a tragedy) would boost morale, decided the general. And so George Washington went to work on the first play put on for American troops.
* * *
It was in honor of this staging by Washington and his men that the Princeton Battlefield Society and the Princeton Shakespeare Company set out to produce Cato this year. While Washington’s show might seem like a minor incident in the grand course of history (essentially amounting to the first USO show to entertain troops), the fact is that the 1778 Cato production is actually emblematic of something greater.
The play, as apparent from the synopsis, hasn’t held up so well over time in terms of dramatic structure, but its impact on American culture has been far-reaching. Two of the most famous quips of the Revolution–“Give me Liberty, or give me death,” Patrick Henry’s rallying cry before the Virginia parliament to convince them to join the battle, and “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country”, the famous spy Nathan Hale’s last words before being executed by the British–are blatant cribs from Cato’s dialogue. Even more fittingly, George Washington once wrote a letter to future turncoat Benedict Arnold with a line paraphrased from Cato (“It is not in the power of any man to command success; but you have done more—you have deserved it.”); it is a line used in the play by one of Cato’s sons to praise the eventual traitor Sempronius. If Cato was enough to convince certain founding patriots to rebel against a global superpower, it must have something going for it; and on that Saturday afternoon on the Princeton Battlefield, we were going to figure out just what that something was.
* * *
The marble portico located on the northern edge of the battlefield (a remnant of a large mansion designed by the architect of the Capitol dome) would serve as the stage, a fittingly Romanesque setting, and Princeton students would serve as the actors. It was in this way that I found myself in the situation described at the beginning of this article, finally coated in a blousy, grayish, rough cotton hunting frock, waiting nervously for the show to begin.
Part of my nervousness stemmed from the introduction to the show by a trustee of the Battlefield Society. A few days prior, the producer had mentioned the importance of the play’s focus on virtue in light of the coming Presidential election. I now feared that I had been enlisted in a sort of Tea Party pageant, a cry for limited government masked in somewhat poorly remembered delivery of pseudo-Shakespearean verse.
I had researched re-enactors before, (Civil War “living historians” in California, long story) for a brief documentary, and found that, despite the spirit of “founder homage” that permeates the community, many re-enactors express a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the political status quo. I half-expected the trustee to introduce the play with a follow-up staged reading of an Ayn Rand text. It certainly did not help my sense of culpability that I played a “wily African” out to trick a gullible youth into supporting the evils of Big-Government Rome.
But no such conspiracy unfolded, outside of the text of the play; as fellow thespian Peter Giovine stepped out to recite the play’s prologue (written by Alexander Pope), all political concerns faded away. Soon, we were just acting, doing our best to create the world that Addison had set on page, to bring to life whatever drama we could find.
The audience, whose faces I could see clearly in the diminishing sunlight, was far from a group of angry old white men. Students who had come to support their theatrically inclined friends huddled together on blankets house left, graciously bussed over from Mathey College. Center house right there stood a group of men in full, custom-designed Revolutionary militia outfits, looking on with rapt attention as each big line was hit–a bunch of history junkies finally seeing something they had only read about come to life. My mom sat in the back center, more focused on getting pictures of me in my outlandish costume than following the actions of the Roman Senate.
All in all, over 120 people came to see our bizarre experiment in site-specific theatre. There was no outright politics going on here–just a group of people coming together to try and understand a different time and place than the present, while, yes, indulging in a bit of worship at the altar of Washington.
Cato (portrayed deftly by sophomore Kanoa Mulling) was stern, harsh, cruel, inspiring, and terrifying as he beheld his deceased son. A farcical scene involving the mistaken identity of a corpse, and the earlier fainting of the frail and womanly Lucia (sophomore Maeli Goren) as she was overwhelmed with love for Cato’s son drew strong laughs. Junior Lagan Trieschmann was perfectly maniacal and calculating as the treacherous Sempronius. The list of excellent performances could go on, and that’s even without my high degree of bias. (I’d like to think that my portrayal of Syphax’s crocodile tears on nearly being outed as a traitor was spot on, and my mother agrees.)
At the end of the night, there was an odd sense of finality. Unlike most student theater performances, Cato was a one-night-only engagement, and I doubt it will be seen on campus (or off) again for a good many years. Its mission was accomplished; we hadn’t necessarily moved anyone to adopt a new, Stoic sense of virtue, or to fight for a certain kind of government, big or small. But we had done our best to hearken back to that May evening on which our first President had sought to inspire his men with a little bit of knock-off Shakespearean verse–or at least to help them blow off some steam.
I stripped myself of my hunting frock, saying goodbye to momentary desires to spear a redcoat with an American flag,, and piled my safety-pinned breeches, vest, shirt and stockings in a bag for the costume couple to clean for their next engagement. I hugged the director, then my mom, then high-fived the rest of the cast, and grabbed my phone, glad to be back in the modern age.
As I left the back-stage tent, a little girl in colonial dress walked over. She briefly congratulated me on the show before heading to the tent to talk to the two women in the cast. I doubt our production will be cited as the source for the last words of future patriots, but if we were able to make even one kid excited about history and the American revolution, well, I think Washington would be pleased with his legacy.