home     authors     titles     dates     links     about


31 january 2016

Addison's Cato is an amazingly symmetrical play. We call this kind of play "neoclassical," but the fact is that classical plays are never this neat. Eighteenth-century neoclassicism is a blend of fussy Renaissance pattern-construction with stripped-down, clean modern language and lines.

The first act of Cato sets up all the play's pairs and pairings, without introducing the title character, who is the keystone that holds them together. Cato and the Roman Senate have fled to Utica (the one in Numidia, not the one in upstate New York) to resist the triumph of the dictatorial Julius Caesar. Cato has two sons, Marcus and Portius, who both love the fair Lucia. Cato has one daughter, Marcia, who is beloved of the young Roman Sempronius and the young Numidian Juba. An elder Numidian named Syphax is getting tired of Cato's steely-badass act and would like to ditch him and make peace with Caesar, and Sempronius is sympathetic, because it would be easier to get at Marcia with sex-negative old Cato out of the way.

Cato himself shows up in Act 2, holding a Miltonic council of war, and wouldn't you know it, he gets two opposite bits of advice: Sempronius for war (though he's playing it both ways, we know, intending to betray Cato to Caesar) – and Lucius, father to Lucia, for peace. Cato sort of rejects them both, because, as noted, he is a moral force unto himself and just basically wants to go on being Cato, inspiring everybody to virtue but not doing much of anything:

Such is that haughty man; his towering soul,
'Midst all the shocks and injuries of fortune,
Rises superior, and looks down on Caesar. (Act 2, Scene 6)
Things go about as well as you'd suppose. Despite the corniness of the setup and the general absence of character notes, Addison writes some good scenes. In one, Marcus asks Portius to woo Lucia on his behalf; since she and Portius are actually in love with each other, this turns into a scene of commiseration that backfires on Portius.

In another, the perfidious Sempronius, who has graduated from mere two-facery to rebellion, treachery against his fellow rebels, and attempted sexual assault, dresses up as the handsome Juba. Juba kills him and leaves him lying around. Inevitably, Marcia finds the body and, believing it to be Juba, goes on about how she loved the guy. Juba is hiding and, inevitably, believes she's talking about Sempronius. I wouldn't call either scene hilarious, but in an edifying neoclassical tragedy you take your comic relief as you find it.

Caesar's troops are knocking on the door, young Marcus is killed after slaying the reptilian Syphax, and Cato begins to long for the noble-Roman way out. He is comforted by Plato's reflections on the immortality of the soul, and serenely contemplates doing the bare-bodkin thing. Various surviving characters try to talk him out of it, and Cato at first seems amenable, but as soon as he's offstage he falls on his sword. Boys get girls, and Caesar apparently gets everybody. Exeunt.

It's a very skillful play, and one can see why it held the stage and the popular imagination for a long time, and is still (barely) in print. I say "barely" because the edition currently available is subsidized by the Liberty Fund, a right-libertarian think tank. This is a perfectly cromulent scholarly edition, bound with several of Addison's essays. Actually the Liberty Fund, for all its tendentiousness, seems to sponsor some interesting archival research into proto-right-libertarians of the past. Their back-of-the-book take on Addison is that he "sought to educate England's developing middle class in the habits, morals, and manners he believed necessary for the preservation of a free society," which is coincidentally their goal too, substituting America for England. They are quite adamant that the Founding Fathers never went a day without thinking on Addison's Cato, and they blazon the fact that George Washington had Cato performed for the troops at Valley Forge. Indeed, James Monroe owed his Presidency to his stunning turn as Marcia. And I just made that up.

Cato is indeed full of more "Live Free or Die" sentiment than a Portsmouth parking lot, and one can see its appeal to both American revolutionaries and Tea Party wannabes. Yet overall I'm not sure how one applies its message. Cato is an uncompromising fellow who gets his followers panting for virtue. He opposes Caesar's military-coup approach to republicanism, and that's certainly a good thing. But then Cato gets kind of weepy about the family and friends he's led into certain proscription. And finally, with the tiger at the gates, he does himself in. This seems a rather fatalistic approach to Obama coming for your guns.

Addison, Joseph. Cato: A tragedy. 1713. In Cato: A tragedy, and Selected Essays. 1-99. Edited by Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark E. Yellin. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004. PR 3304 .C5