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You're writing a play about Cicero and ancient Rome. You want to make it historically accurate, but you hardly know where to begin. What did the Romans write on? Paper? Papyrus? Scrolls? Did they shake hands? How easy was it to get divorced?
When Sam Segal found himself in exactly this situation, he knew just where to turn for help. He called one of the world's foremost Cicero experts--Pope Professor of the Latin Language and Literature D.R. Shackleton Bailey--who provided him with all the answers.
So if the play Cicero which opens tonight in the Samuel Beckett Theater in New York City is historically accurate, in large part it will be due to Bailey's efforts. As an official consultant for the play, he has given those involved advice on exactly how to make the play true to Rome in the first century B.C.
At opening night this evening, Bailey will see the fruit of his efforts. "I'm not much of a theater-goer. I've never been to an opening night before," he says. "One is a little nervous about how the play will go--one hopes it is reasonably well-received," the British-born scholar says.
Segal, who wrote the play, asked Bailey questions about everything Roman, from specific historical details to broad societal customs. Segal said, "In that period of the Roman Republic, much like the present, divorce was rampant. Cicero's daughter was divorced from her husband, and I wanted to know exactly how divorce took place. Shackleton said that all someone had to do--either the husband or the wife--was say they wanted a divorce, and that was that."
Segal says that Bailey was especially helpful with those little details that you just can't find in history textbooks. "I wanted to know what the Romans did when they saw each other. Did they shake hands? Did they embrace?" Segal says Bailey explained to Segal that Romans would join their right hands but this was not an everyday occurence.
Over the last two years, Bailey met with Segal a number of times, and recently also met with the actor who will portray Marcus Tullius Cicero, the star of the show.
But Bailey, who is spending the fall at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, contests the notion that he is `just' a Cicero scholar. "I sometimes get slightly irritated when people act as if Cicero is all that I'm interested in. I think I've published articles on nearly all of the major figures of the period," the scholar says, adding that just last year he published a work about Horace, a poet of the Golden Age of Roman literature.
Bailey is a somewhat myth-like figure for students in the Classics department. Known as much for his attire--suits and striped sneakers--as for his erudite texts, he is generally thought to be, as one student put it, "as inaccessible as he is scholarly--and he's very both."
"He seems typical of what people say about Harvard faculty being indifferent--he doesn't seem to care much about his students," says Literature concentrator Francis Quinn '88 who took a Latin prose composition course from Bailey.
Andrew M. Rigby '87 couldn't decide whether or not to take Bailey's composition course freshman year--he was afraid it was too advanced. Rigby says that when he went to discuss his concern with Bailey, the scholar responded, "Well, we certainly don't need you." Rigby says he chose to take the class.
But there is a more positive side of the `Bailey myth'. One Classics concentrator said that in one class, a woman had a cold, and was sniffling. Bailey got up, left the classroom, and returned moments later with a box of Kleenex.
And of course he is well known for his scholarship. "I'd heard of him before I even came to Harvard," Quinn says. Another student mentions that not only does Harvard require Classics students to read Cicero's letters, but they recommend the Shackleton Bailey translation of Cicero's leters.
Segal says he went to Bailey "to see that the history was accurate in its essentials." He says, "I wasn't concerned with every single factual detail, but I was concerned that overall it was accurate in tone."
Bailey says that he thinks that Segal sincerely wants his play to be historically accurate, "but since he's not a classical scholar, I wouldn't be surprised if there are certain elements of the play that aren't precise."
The 68-year-old classicist says he first became interested in Cicero when he was a high school student in England. By any measure, Cicero was an important political figure in Roman history, but Bailey says he is especially interesting to study because he was a voluminous letter writer, and many of his letters have been preserved. Bailey has authored a comprehensive translation of Cicero's approximately nine hundred letters which still remain--it is likely that the letters which exist today are just a fraction of those that Cicero actually wrote.
Bailey says it is unusual to have so many letters of ancient figures preserved. "It's very rare--these are actual, personal, quite uninhibited letters written to close friends. They bring you right into touch with him and his life," he says.
"The letters are about politics, personal affairs, business affairs, and personal details keep cropping up. He didn't write so much about general topics like life and death--he focused more on everday things," said Bailey.
Segal got the idea for writing the play when he read Cicero for his own edification. "It occurred to me that the end of his life was a ready-made tragic drama," Segal says.
Segal's play starts one year after Julius Caesar's death, when his adopted son Octavian returns to Italy. Octavian wants to reclaim his inheritance, which Mark Antony has stolen, and he is determined to fight for his fortune. Octavian was confident of his military power, but he needed some political clout, so he persuades Cicero to come out of retirement, go back to the Senate, and challenge Mark Antony's supremacy.
But Octavian gets corrupted, and makes a deal with Mark Antony--"at that point, Cicero is finished," Segal says. Octavian is forced to sign for Cicero's execution--reluctantly, he does it.
Cicero is an unlikely hero, Segal says, because for most of his life, he was the quintessential politician. "He was a Lyndon Johnson type. He was very successful, and basically bent with the wind. He was never a moral leader," says the writer. "Cicero was a major figure in contributing to the world of great power, great money and great corruption, but at the end of his life, he fought against this corruption. It was heroic, because he didn't have to do it. He could have just led a rich, quiet and safe life in retirement."
"Shackleton explained to us that Cicero took on Mark Antony because he thought he could win--he didn't do it to be a martyr. But at the end, he decides he prefers death to running away," Segal says.
Segal says that if Cicero is a success, he has discussed with Bailey the possibility of working on even bigger projects, including a television miniseries about Cicero and ancient Rome. Cicero, who always wanted to make a name for himself, would never have expected to go from ancient Rome to off-off Broadway to the television screen.
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