The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar

by Bertolt Brecht

Brecht is one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th Century. In college I saw a black and white movie of his production THREE PENNY OPERA. The play was stark, and the music (composed by Kurt Weill) strange and memorable. When I discovered that a recent publishing of his unfinished novel on JULIUS CAESAR was translated into English, I had to take a look.

 

Editor’s Note*   Getting a copy of this book was steep ($25 on Amazon).  I put in a request through an interlibrary loan and it came in a few weeks.  Try it. 

The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar

The story is about an aspiring ancient scholar determined to write a book about Julius Caesar twenty years after his death.  He relies on diaries and eye witness accounts, to come up with a draft.  He begins with the idealized perception of Caesar, and then is slowly bombarded with the realities of money and power that decided Caesar’s fate. 

At first, the idea of reviewing a book by Bertolt Brecht seemed daunting to me.  “I am not worthy!  I am not worthy!” I thought wildly, risking sounding like the characters from 1992 movie Wayne’s WorldThis is Bertolt Brecht, after all.  Brecht lived from 1898 to 1956. Poet, playwright, and theater producer of the intellectual avant-garde of the 30s and 40s.  Brecht is a big deal.  How do I get the chance to review his work?  “I am not worthy!”  I shout again in my best Wayne and Garth imitation. A librarian “skooshes” me and I head to the car.      

Well, worthy or not, I am going to attempt it. 

Brecht born in Bavaria, escaped to live in the U.S. during World War II.  After the war he came under surveillance during Hollywood’s blacklisting era perpetrated by the ever popular House Un-American Activities Committee.  Face it.  He had some very left-leaning ideas.  However, he was never a communist, though he lived in Each Germany during the 50s.  Though investigated by the American government, like many script writers and film actors of the 50s, he still had a very respectable reputation for his genius. Others investigated during this time included Dalton Trumbo the screenwriter for the movies Spartacus and Exodus, and Ring Lardner the author of the 1970 film MASH.      

Those of you that say, “I’ve never heard of Brecht” may still know something ‘of him’ from the musical Three Penny Opera.  If you are still wondering what I am talking about, you may have heard the song Mack the knife sung by the 60s heartthrob Bobby Darrin.  THAT SONG was borrowed from Three Penny Opera, a socialist critique of the capitalist world.   Darrin may have sung it in a very hip Las Vegas style rendering, but I’ve heard it sung in the tempo of a corner side organ grinder in a movie version of the original Three Penny Opera.

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
And it shows them pearly white

And that brings us to The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar.  I did not expect to like this book, but after all it is Brecht.  The work of German intellectuals was never my thing, but it’s a great read.  The content was riveting, and the translation was unnoticeable (as it should be).  It was easy to read. 

Brecht was determined to bring down a peg or two the great Julius Caesar.  The protagonist looking for details consults a poet named Vastius Alder that describes Caesar in the following way,” People like that are depicted and copied from one to the next over thousands of years.  A few strokes in water colour [sic] are enough.”   

So in modern times there are many interpretations of the great man, and one could say the above quote gave Brecht permission to interpret Caesar in his own way.  After all it’s his book.   I’m not saying he is right or wrong!  I’m just going with the flow of the book.  Much of the book is divided into diary entries that seem to paint Caesar as a man controlled by debt.    The book does not cover his spectacular conquering of Gaul, but Caesar’s wanting a percentage of the silver mines after taking Spain, and moving populations form their mountain homes to the valleys because of the impossibility of taxing mountain people.  Concerns in the book cover the subjects of shepherds not making good slaves to the number of foreigners that are in Rome.  There is even a scandal associated with a Triumph which seems strangely prescient of the funds that disappeared from an inaugural ceremony from the previous president.  There is no ending, by the way.  It’s unfinished.  However the authors provide a section titled:  Proposed Contents of the Rest of the Novel.   I imagine much was found in the remaining notes of Brecht’s outline for the book.  Much of the story is during the Catalina Conspiracy, and the author (considering he is a playwright) provides strong character development.    

Being a history geek I have read all sorts of history.  Mostly works on Cleopatra, Antony and Caesar.  Serious historians get into the weeds of the policies that had to do with the corn dole, The Catalina Conspiracy, voting, and assorted class warfare between the plebian and patrician classes.  In this book, Brecht’s book brings to life these mundane details with the same color and immediacy as President Reagan lauding his “trickle-down theory” and when President Trump gave a tax break to the wealthiest one percent in the nation.   The economics of then, and the economics of now, all seem to come alive with Brecht’s dive into the policies of that age. 

Now, before you say anything, I get it.  What I am comparing to the now, is purely from where I sit in 2021.  What Brecht saw is purely from his perch in the 1930s and 40s.  All you have to do is take one look at any National Socialist Rally.  All you have to do is YouTube (used as an adjective) the black and white propaganda film The Triumph of the Will to see the painfully striking similarities the NAZIs made to visually compare themselves with the Ancient Romans –eagles, symbols, and rallies with backdrops of roman columns.  What’s more, with the rise of Nazi power the German industrialists had no qualms in using slaves – yes, I said slaves – to support their production quotas.  Even Mussolini used Rome as a propaganda tool, and you can prove this by checking out the 1937 movie Scipio Africanus:  The Defeat of Hannibal, a blatant propaganda film to support Mussolini’s foray into Ethiopia. 

So in case if you haven’t caught it, I’ve found my social consciousness being raised by Brecht’s unfinished manuscript.  I don’t claim to believe everything that  Brecht’s claims about Julius Caesar, after all; he is just one of many artists that have used this historical character in the cause of art, but I am seeing a lot of similarities between the past and the present.  The fog of time may have colored our perception of Caesar.  However, Brecht’s perception is just as valid as anyone else, and how an historical piece is written is decided by the he or she that wields the pen.   You write your book about Caesar and I’ll write mine.  OK? 

So forgive me when upon reading Brecht’s book I could see a Trumpian world where the rich get richer, and money is the only reason for power.  Brecht reduced the motivations of Caesar to the compound-interest of banks.  As Caesar, in Brecht’s book, is hounded by creditors, I wonder if Trump’s run for the presidency was controlled less by public interest and more by the compound-interest of Trump’s main creditor Deutche Bank.  The jury is still out on that one.  I said “jury”…”Ha!”

It seems to me, and prove to me that I’m wrong, that most of Trump’s motivations has been to enrich his own purse, but that in itself is not too far off what Caesars hope to gain from the sale of slaves, interest in silver mines, and raiding the holy bank of Rome to pay the legions.  Just as Trump made money being president, so did Caesar in conquering Gaul.  Who says there isn’t money in politics?  A few things on the list are the disappearance inaugural funds, Secret Service assignments to live in his hotels, and the taking of donations for Veterans that have mysteriously disappeared, so did Caesar fill his coffers by the taking of gold and slaves.   

This perception is only if you stare at the problem through a ledger sheet.  So let us leave Brecht’s lefty agenda and just measure the men. 

Here is an excerpt by Brent Renalli from the website THE GLOBALIST making a comparison between Trump and Caesar.   

  1. One was a soldier used to hard campaigning. The other was notoriously soft, a shirker from military service whose primary talents, honed by decades of tabloid celebrity and reality television stardom, are shocking and titillating, bullying and pandering.
  2. One was the scion of an impoverished ancient noble family. The other is gaudy nouveau riche.
  3. One was objectively successful as a general — arguably the greatest general to serve the ancient world’s greatest empire.
  4. The other is a poor spectacle of a businessman, most notable for his unethical practices (such as not paying vendors and contractors, exaggerating his assets) and his spectacular bankruptcies.

End of excerpt.

Frankly, Caesar led from the front, and Trump after telling his supporters on Jan 6 to march on the Capital hid in the Oval Office to watch the riot on TV.

From Trump’s dealings in real estate, he is obviously more Crassus than Caesar.   I suggest there’s a better Brecht masterpiece when it comes to Trump:  The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (German: Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui).  This play is a fictional chronicle of a 1930s Chicago mobster , and his attempts to control the local cauliflower racket by ruthlessly disposing of the opposition.

The story is about…

Adolf Hitler.