Making Monsters, Making History
“You know, people don’t realize it’s really all a matter of telling the right STORY!” – Scribonius, You, Nero
Why in the theater do we have a propensity for retelling stories from the past? Why are we compelled to make history matter?
Sometimes we look back with nostalgia. We succumb to a dream of a romanticized version of a better and less complicated time. But more often we look back because we acknowledge that history has lessons worth heeding, worth revisiting. As theater-makers we know that truth lies not in the facts of what happened back then but in the way those facts are shaped. It’s only through stories and their repetition that truths emerge and meanings are made.
In preparation for our production of You, Nero, I watched the two seasons of the HBO series Rome that ran a few years back. Rome is a fictionalized and extremely condensed version of the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and the first Emperor Augustus. It takes place about 100 years before Nero’s rule but is an effective way to enter the story of that often retold and mythologized period of history.
Although a republic, the city of Rome is barely civilized and men (and I mean men) live inside and outside rules of law, honor and fidelity. Making laws and creating laws feels like a performance, an attempt to uphold some decorum alongside stabbings, torture, crucifixions, poisonings, and literal bloodbaths. Watching Rome, men seem more monster than man.
In the most unforgettable episode of Rome, Titus Pullo, a Roman legionary (professional soldier) is about to be executed for killing one of Caesar’s men in a brief stint as hitman after leaving the army. He must face a slew of gladiators until he is defeated. At the moment it seems he has killed a hundred men singlehandedly and is so weakened that he must surely die, his comrade and estranged best friend Lucius Vorenus enters the ring, defeats Pullo’s final opponent, and drags Pullo away and so saves Pullo from death. It’s a David and Goliath moment, where loyalty and bravery triumph and the limits of human capacity are transcended. It’s the most compelling revisionist history — larger than life and more powerful as a result.
And it is truly a retelling of what was an historical friendship between two Roman centurions (officers not soldiers) of the same names as the HBO characters, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus. And there likely was a battle, one where one of them tried to outdo the other, but I can’t imagine a more compelling retelling of this friendship-rivalry than the HBO version. Better than the truth or some attempt at accuracy, the HBO writers created juicy entertainment that seeks meaning in the beastly behaviors of men in a constant state of war and lawlessness.
What we know about the story of Nero is sketchy. There are no firsthand accounts of Nero’s life but only secondhand histories that emphasize both his love of the arts and his brutal nature. But Amy Freed knows how to tell a good story, how to make the story of Nero matter to our current political and cultural milieu. She employs a razor-sharp knowledge of history with an expansive imagination. And in Amy’s version of Nero, Scribonius is her muse. Scribonius battles his will and integrity as an artist sorting out how to tell the story of Nero that will both please Nero, save his own life, and hopefully, improve civilization.
Poppaea, Nero’s lover, encourages Scribonius, “I’ve been around LIES so long, who KNOWS what truth IS … but YOU know. A poet like you!”
But is it Scribonius’ job to tell the truth? Or is it his job to save civilization? Or is it his job to save himself? Or is it the job of the poet to simply tell a great story? In quoting de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Tony Kushner suggests a path: “Finding no stuff for the ideal in what is real and true, poets, abandoning truth and reality, create monsters.”
So as you watch You, Nero, you must grapple with questions of truth and monsters. What’s the true story of Nero? What’s the true story of Nero in Scribonius’ play within the play? And how does Amy Freed’s play make meaning that matters now?