On Monday evening, I’m going to the latest production of the ballet Spartacus. The Australian Ballet has done it before, using the Laszlo Seregi version, which was inspired by the Howard Fast novel and the film version. Before that, I saw a film with the Bolshoi Ballet, the Grigorovitch version. The male leads were played by Vladimir Vasiliev(Spartacus) and Maris Liepa(Crassus), with Natalia Bessmertnova in the female lead. It was shown at the National Theatre in St Kilda and I saw it several times.
I remember they had several leads in the Australian Ballet version. Greg Horsman, who was married to fellow dancer Lisa Pavane, played both the male leads and did both brilliantly. You have to be able to act as well as dance to play the villain, Crassus! That’s the role you’ll see him in if you get hold of the DVD.
The new version is choreographed by Lucas Jervie, a dancer who was young and still in the corps de ballet last time. Should be interesting! It’s a ballet I love because of the music by Khachaturian - and trust me, you’ve heard the Adagio, even if you have never heard of the ballet! It’s played over and over on the radio and in concerts. It was used for the theme of a TV series called The Onedin Line, but even if you’ve never seen that, I’m betting you’ve heard the tune.
Mainly, I confess I love it because of all those male hunks leaping and twirling around the stage. Don’t get me wrong: I love ballet anyway. I adore Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. Giselle has a male lead who has to be able to act. There are stacks of great ballets out there. But there is something very exciting about men showing what they can do in dance. And I’m going to have a seat that cost me $$$! It started off because I had trouble clicking into the page for the cheaper seats. And finally, after a struggle, I decided that what-the-heck, I was worth it, and it became my birthday gift to myself. Mum says I need to wear something special that night.
The story of Spartacus, that “patron saint of revolutionaries” as he has been described, appears in Plutarch and Sallust. Plutarch was writing well after the time of the rebellion. His version of the story, in the Life of Crassus, mentions that Spartacus had a wife, a priestess who predicted his glorious death in battle. (Well, he did die in battle, contrary to what the film - and later versions of the ballet - said). Sallust was a small boy when it all happened. I got hold of that volume of Plutarch’s Lives when I was at university, but still haven’t acquired the Sallust.
The story has been much dramatised and written into novels. I can think of three off the top of my head. Ben Kane, a popular historical novelist, did a duology, of which I have the first. It goes back to his time in his home country of Thrace, and gives him very good reasons for his desertion from the Roman army. Kane uses elements we don’t find in the classic Spartacus novels, Howard Fast’s Spartacus and Arthur Koestler’s The Gladiators. Howard Fast’s hero is a born slave, first seen in the Nubian gold mines. Koestler’s version doesn’t say anything about his background, though he isn’t a born slave. The first you see of him, he has already escaped and led his men to Mount Vesuvius. He is mostly seen from other people’s viewpoints, but you also get into his head a fair amount. You never really get into the mind of Fast’s hero, except briefly at the beginning, and then somebody else is telling the story. It’s all people’s memories of him, since the novel starts after the rebellion has been squashed.
I actually read the Koestler novel first. I was about twelve or thirteen when I found a copy in the bookshop at Myer’s department store. I didn’t know it was for adults, so I just read it, as I did Robert Graves’ Greek Myths. Certain things went above my head at the time, but I understood enough to enjoy it.
Koestler’s Spartacus was supposed to fight the Gaul Crixus in a battle to the death in the arena when they escaped. For the entire novel, he remembers that and thinks that probably he would have been the one to die. They work together well enough, but that is always in the background and affects their relationship.
This Spartacus meets and is inspired by one of his followers, an Essene philosopher whose name we never learn. He speaks of “the Son of Man” and other things Biblical and then mentions the Essenes’ communal lifestyle. Some time later Spartacus attempts a commune himself. It fails disastrously. His followers want freedom, sure, but as far as they’re concerned, freedom means not having to work. That doesn’t go well with the creed of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
Nevertheless, he cares about his followers. The night before his final battle he goes under flag of truce to meet his enemy Crassus, who offers him - and any chosen officers - life and comfort somewhere nice if he will abandon his people. Spartacus does think about it. Why wouldn’t he? Then he shakes his head, knowing he couldn’t live with himself.
It is mentioned, by the way, that Crassus had a pretty degrading death some years later. Which he did.
The story is mostly seen through the eyes of a small group of rebels - the Essene, a young man who joined the rebellion out of idealism, an old man and his son. Most of them are crucified at the end.
Spartacus, which was turned into the Hollywood film, is very different. I got hold of that when I was fourteen. I remember discussing the two novels with a fellow nerd at school, and we agreed that we preferred Koestler’s hero.
I think I need to reread both novels to decide which hero I’d prefer now. Both books have Communist elements in them. Koestler wrote his novel as the first of three on a theme. The second was Darkness At Noon, which was entirely set in a prison where a former high member of the Party is awaiting his death. He had done a lot of dreadful things in his time for the sake of the Party, out of a sort of idealism - is the end worth the means? The third was Arrival And Departure. I confess I can’t remember much about that one. At least, as far as I can remember, the hero wasn’t dead at the end!
Howard Fast first wrote Spartacus in jail, where he went for refusing to co-operate with the McCarthy witch hunts. He had to publish it in Britain because of the censorship. I think there may even have been a pre-Internet crowd funding effort to pay for it! Fast was a devoted Communist for some time, but the Party hated the novel as much as the McCarthyites, though for different reasons. He had created a rich capitalist pig and showed him sympathetically. The character, Gracchus, was a working class man who had made it as a wealthy politician but was still living in the area where he had grown up. According to Fast’s autobiography he was meant to be the great American politician who had never forgotten his humble roots. And that’s the thing: his Rome was presented as Fast’s view of America.
At one point, Gracchus tells a story to Roman writer Cicero. It was years later when I realised it was a solemn re-telling of a contemporary Jewish mother joke! Cicero doesn’t get it either, any more than I did at the time.
The novel is mostly people telling others their memories of the rebellion. You know the rebellion will fail, already has failed when the story begins, but you can’t help but be moved anyway. There are a lot of characters you can care about. Spartacus himself is basically shown wearing a halo, though.
If you’ve only seen the film, it did change some things. There is no Antoninus, the Tony Curtis character,
for starters. He replaced a character called David, a Jewish boy who had been involved in a rebellion at home and ended up in the arena. Spartacus is his hero. After some years of bitterness he had found someone to admire and a cause to fight for.
And neither in history nor in the novel was Spartacus crucified.
But it was an intelligent movie, with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, who had been another victim of the McCarthy era, having to write under pen names - he got two Oscars while blacklisted! Kirk Douglas, who produced the film, put his name up on the screen once more, and stuff the blacklist.
Another writer was Peter Ustinov, who rewrote his scenes with Charles Laughton, who was convinced that there was a plot against him, according to Ustinov’s autobiography Dear Me.
Anyway, if you want inspiration stuff and touching scenes, go for Spartacus. If you prefer something a bit more literary and philosophical, you may like The Gladiators better.
I enjoyed both!