Consider this: If the Emperor Nero really did fiddle while Rome burned, he might have been playing one of his own compositions (albeit in a distinctly minor key). That’s a supposition one takes from Nero/Pseudo, the glam rock musical now enjoying its world premiere with WSC Avant Bard at downtown Washington’s Fort Fringe.
Written by dramatist Richard Byrne with original music by Jon Langford and Jim Elkington, Nero/Pseudo follows a singer and former Roman slave named Pontus (Bradley Foster Smith), who impersonates the volatile emperor after his death (and the burning of Rome). This is appropriate for an emperor known to have played the cithara (a forerunner of the guitar), been a great fan of the theatre, and to have written his own epic poem (The Fall of Troy) which, some historians suggest, he performed as the towers of Rome began to smoke. Could David Bowie have thought up as much?
“Glam rock seemed the right vehicle for this because Nero was in some ways a very David Bowie, T. Rex kind of character,” says Byrne, a former rock music critic. “When he acted onstage, he played both men’s and women’s roles. There seemed to be a kind of gender fluidity for him, and also a cult of self-obsession, like a rock star.”
If the concept is brash and titillating, the origins of Nero/Pseudo are a bit more mundane. Byrne stumbled upon a copy of the Histories by the first century Roman historian Tacitus at a bookshop and was intrigued. In what he describes as “a throwaway paragraph,” Byrne read that, shortly after the emperor’s death, a would-be Nero appeared in Greece, a look-a-like singer and artist resembling the late ruler. Evidently, the pseudo-Nero caused enough of a stir to be referenced in the literature of the day, including the Book of Revelation now in the Christian Bible.
“The fake Nero thing really leapt out at me,” Byrne recalls. “It seems like a historic accident, but it animated so many people at the time, people who wrote the literature that we talk about and study today.”
Byrne recognized that he had found a rich source for an allegorical story connecting past and present, art, politics, and the cult of personality shared by first century Rome and modern America. Perhaps most intriguing was the paradox inherent in Nero and brought to the fore by impersonators like Pontus: Here was a man who loved to create – his reputed last words were “What an artist the world loses in me” – but also was capable of great destruction. Along with the music and poetry came the purges, the burning of Christians (then a small but rapidly growing cult), and possibly, the firing of Rome itself. Early historians such as Tacitus suggest Nero may have intentionally set the city ablaze in order to create space for his own architectural projects.
“’What is the mindset that would do that?’” Byrne asks. “’How would that person tell the fall of Troy? What are the politics of that?’ Those are the kinds of questions that really animated me.”
Tacitus himself alludes to connections between the fall of Troy – towers burning – and the conflagration of Rome, although he notes that Nero’s involvement in the latter was only rumored. Nonetheless, it would be hard not to imagine the artsy emperor enjoying a metaphorical connection between the two. After all, the Trojan War and resultant fall of Troy were among the great themes of ancient literature. All three of the great epics in the Western canon dealt with them – The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. Why wouldn’t the self-proclaimed imperial artist want to put his stamp on a similar landmark event?
Appropriately enough, Nero/Pseudo opens with a song titled “Ruin,” which bemoans the chaotic state of affairs following Nero’s death. Like all of the musical’s first act, it takes place in a tavern in Greece, the land where the real Nero, near the end of his life, fled to pursue the creative interests Rome’s power players disparaged. (It was ever so for the artist.) Byrne’s story is built around a series of songs that, like Achilles Revels in His Victory and Hymn to Athena, attempt to tell the fall of Troy from Nero the artist’s point of view.
“The temptation to rewrite Nero’s poem was really strong,” Byrne says. “It really animated the play and allowed me to get a lot of other things into it that wouldn’t otherwise be there.”
While Pontus (posing as Nero) sings five of the musical’s twelve numbers himself, other characters, including the wily tavern owner Chrysis (Gillian Shelly) and the actor Stratocles (Lee Liebeskind), also take the stage, offering additional perspectives on the story, including the common people’s love for their late emperor: “. . .Our Nero/A bright new/Apollo/His beauty/Unsullied/By slander/Or shadow.” They are joined by an ensemble and by a “house band” – thousands of years before the jazz or rock club – appropriately named “Suckled by Wolves.” Get it?
Closes June 1, 2014
The Shop at Fort Fringe
607 New York Avenue, NW
1 hour, 50 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
Which brings us to the strangest part of this whole story: Not imagining the Emperor Nero as a glam rock god (what we know of his penchant for performance suggests he would have been flattered); rather, it is Nero’s afterlife in a place decidedly different from a taverna or a concert arena – the church. For surely, one of the imperial artist’s greatest legacies is as the object of fear and loathing for a little-known first century cult that would grow across the globe and the millennia to become the world’s largest religion, Christianity.
According to some biblical scholars, Nero is the beast of Revelation 13 who causes fire to come down from heaven and whose number (666) “is the number of a man.” Written decades after the real Nero’s death, this apocalyptic vision may owe something to that long-ago Pontus whose brief appearance in the East – from whence the beast will come – attracted such attention. Perhaps all press really is good.
As Nero himself says at the end of Nero/Pseudo, “I asked for one thing only: the attention of my audience . . . . [and] a healthy respect for the artist.”