‘She is one of the most dynamic figures the world has ever seen,” says Egyptologist Joann Fletcher of the subject of her book “Cleopatra the Great.”
That dynamic figure is currently reappearing in McCarter Theater’s production of William Shakespeare’s “Antony of Cleopatra.” Directed by artistic director Emily Mann, productions run through Sunday, October 5.
“She was the seductive queen of Egypt, and he one of the generals of Rome. Their tempestuous love affair would tear empires apart,” McCarter promotional materials note of the promised “sizzling production.”
Nicole Ari Parker — who has appeared on film and stage — performs as the larger-than-life queen and has been charged to put the heat in that sizzle. McCarter materials cite one critic who says that Parker is “stunning enough to stop traffic in Times Square.”
But what about the real Cleopatra? The subject of plays by Shakespeare and Dryden and numerous other artistic reinterpretations, this powerful female figure shed her mortal clay to become the stuff of dreams.
Cleopatra — born in 69 BCE — was actually the seventh in a series of queens who shared a name — rooted in the ancient Greek for “Glory of the Father.” That father was Ptolemy (or “Savior”) the First. A Macedonian general who participated in Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE, he was given title of ruler of Egypt upon Alexander’s death 10 years later. He later assumed the title of pharaoh and created a dynasty that lasted until 30 BCE, when Cleopatra was unable to defend her nation against Imperial Rome.
“Antony and Cleopatra” depicts the final days of the Ptolemaic reign and the futile attempt by the queen and Antony to endure in the face of unstoppable powerful political, military, and emotional forces.
Egyptologist Fletcher argues that Cleopatra — whose lineage was Greek — was a brilliant and intelligent leader, one whose power was in understanding the use of image. “Cleopatra was a mistress of disguise and costume. She could reinvent herself to suit the occasion, and I think that’s a mark of the consummate politician,” says Fletcher. “She was clearly using all her talents from the moment she arrived on the world stage before Caesar.”
Boston-based writer Amy Crawford says in Smithsonian Magazine that “the image of young Cleopatra tumbling out of an unfurled carpet has been dramatized in nearly every film about her, from the silent era to a 1999 TV miniseries, but it was also a key scene in the real Cleopatra’s staging of her own life. Like most monarchs of her time, Cleopatra saw herself as divine; from birth she and other members of her family were declared to be gods and goddesses. Highly image-conscious, Cleopatra maintained her mystique through shows of splendor, identifying herself with the deities Isis and Aphrodite, and in effect creating much of the mythology that surrounds her to this day.”
Yet, Crawford notes, the real “Cleopatra had charisma, and her sexiness stemmed from her intelligence — what Plutarch described as ‘the charm of her conversation.’” The Greek historian also notes, “Her actual beauty . . . was not so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence . . . was irresistible . . . something bewitching.”
Her allure affected both Julius Caesar — whose aid she enlisted to defeat her brother during a civil war and later bore the Roman ruler a child — and Caesar’s general, Marc Antony — who fathered three children with Cleopatra. It was he who sided with Cleopatra against the advances of his political rival and Caesar’s heir, Octavian, who was intent on making Egypt a vassal to Rome.
The mythic attraction — beginning with her ordering her depiction as a pharaoh on the wall of the Temple of Hathor (a goddess of life) — continued to be an inspiration to artists of all sorts — and especially to filmmakers who re-invented her from the vamp (played by Theda Bara in 1917) to the exotic (Claudette Colbert’s 1934 depiction), and the sensational (the 1963 version featuring Liz Taylor, who mirrored Cleopatra’s adulterous affair with Marc Antony by her own affair with Antony actor Richard Burton).
While the McCarter production attempts a medium-like channeling of the figure of Cleopatra into our area, her image actually has been present in quiet ways.
The Princeton University Art Museum has several depictions. First is the 1520 pen and brown ink drawing on light tan paper attributed to Bologna-based artist Francia Giacomo. Titled “Cleopatra,” the work shows the queen in one of the most sensational situations: killing herself with an asp (a poisonous variety of snake).
Although historians believe that Cleopatra probably took her life to avoid being humiliated by Octavian, it is unclear how she died. But the snake — with connotations to fertility goddesses, to the phallus, to temptation, and to an emblem of the Egyptian crown — has the same mythic and psychological force that the queen herself seemed to employ. The work, museum materials note, is significant because the nude Cleopatra is representative of the artist’s “round sculptural” quality — with the queen becoming a vehicle for expression rather than representation.
Other works in the museum’s collection are less mythic. They include two mainly pen and brown ink works by the 17th-century Italian artist Francesco Allegrini, “The Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra” and “Antony Giving the Library of Pergammum to Cleopatra.”
An intriguing set of Cleopatra-related images is also in Princeton as part of the rare books division of the Princeton University Library. The rare books section has five boxes containing materials related to the celebrated flamboyant French actress Sarah Bernhardt — including pictures of her performing in French playwright Victorien Sardou’s “Cleopatre” (1890).
Like Cleopatra, Bernhardt (1844 to 1923) knew the power of charm and image and had affairs with Napoleon III, Edward Prince of Wales, and prominent writers. And not restricting herself to gender roles, Bernhardt famously performed the role of Hamlet and both roles in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” obviously at different times.
An artistic depiction of Cleopatra that has the most direct connection to this region’s artistry is the 1876 bust of the queen that was created for the Philadelphia centennial by the Trenton-based ceramic company Ott and Brewer. The piece is now in the collection of the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton.
The bust caused a “stir, partly because of the glamorous subject, but more, perhaps, because the object was made in colored parian (unglazed fine porcelain), the tints achieved by the addition of oxides of iron and others. Visitors accustomed to portrait busts made primarily in cool white or cream must have been startled at the sight of the seductive black face and neck above an elaborately decorated gold bodice and with an exotically patterned gold headdress,” say museum notes.
One critic of the era writes, “Mr. [Isaac] Broome has just completed his masterpiece in the line of busts. This is one of Cleopatra, in heroic size, and it comes nearer our ideal of what the beautiful Egyptian queen really was than any other representation we have ever seen. The headdress, draperies, etc., are exact copies of the Cleopatra of the Temple at Philo, and are perfect in the most minute details. The features, while they preserve accurately the Egyptian cast of countenance, are softened and rounded after the Grecian style, and are most striking in their haughty beauty. This Cleopatra looks the queen, at the same time we could see beneath the royal air traces of the fascinating softness of the woman. To the scholar, or to the artist, this bust is a study and a gem. It is the largest parian bust which has ever been made, and it is wonderful how it could be cast so perfectly, for it is without a flaw.”
Although the bust won a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878, American critics were not so kind when the work was displayed at the American Institute Fair in New York City, with a critic noting that the image was “exaggerated and unnatural, reminding the spectator more of a fabled inhabitant of Brobdingnag (the giants’ home in “Gulliver’s Travel”) than of a queen who once lived and ruled.”
The divided opinion on the bust, incidentally, mirrors the divided opinion that earlier historians had on the queen. While Plutarch was positive, others called her a harlot, opportunist, and seducer. But Cleopatra was dead and the words did not sting — not that she would have cared.
Yet one has to think of how the model for the Ott and Brewer bust took it. Miss Mary Thompson was thought to be one of Trenton’s most beautiful women. And what she was really like remains a mystery, just like the dynamic figure she brought to life.
Just as Nicole Ari Parker is doing for the next few weeks in Princeton.
Antony and Cleopatra, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., through Sunday, October 5. $25 to $82.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.