You, Nero

You, Nero

You, Nero

Written by Amy Freed
Directed by Sharon Ott
Co-produced with South Coast Repertory
Main Season · Thrust Stage
May 15–June 28, 2009
World-premiere production

Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

In a new comedy from local writer Amy Freed, not only does Nero fiddle while Rome burns, he fills the Colosseum with an incendiary mix of sex and decadence. The egotistical emperor commands a washed-up scribe to create an extravagant show which flatters his regime. But to stage the script he must survive the real spectacle at the palace, where his mother, his mistress and an entourage of eunuchs play an elaborate game of deceit and seduction. Sharon Ott directs this smart and sassy show, as beloved actor Danny Scheie portrays the preposterous king. In You, Nero, Freed lets loose the tigers on a crumbling empire obsessed with shallow celebrities, violent sports and sensational entertainment. When Rome unravels like it’s reality TV, everyone wants to get in the emperor’s new clothes.

Creative team

Amy Freed · Playwright
Sharon Ott · Director
Erik Flatmo · Scenic Design
Paloma H. Young · Costume Design
Peter Maradudin · Lighting Design
Stephen LeGrand · Original Music and Sound Design
Eric Drew Feldman · Original Music and Sound Design
Julie Haber · Stage Manager
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Joanne DeNaut · Casting
James Calleri · New York Casting
Mina Morita · Assistant Director
Dave Maier · Fight Director

Cast

Richard Doyle · Seneca / Zippo / Patheticus
Donell Hill · Ensemble
Lori Larsen · Agrippina
Kasey Mahaffy · Fabiolo / Oxus / Octavia’s Ghost / Young Nero
Maggie Mason · Ensemble
Jeff McCarthy · Scribonius of Carthage
Mike McShane · Burrus / Beppo / Batheticus
Sarah Moser · Ensemble
Danny Scheie · Nero
Susannah Schulman · Poppaea

Leaping man“Two hours of almost uninterrupted delight…You can’t help loving that despicably cute monster Nero. Not the way Danny Scheie personifies him in a tour de force of murderously comic, canny and catty derangement…Scheie rules the stage in leopard briefs, flipping in an instant from preening prima donna to bloody tyrant, charming artiste, cutting critic or sensitive egomaniac…Nero is a romp, but one that works on many levels, leavened by some serious concerns about the politics of art.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Berkeley Repertory Theatre ends a spectacular 41st season with local playwright Amy Freed’s You, Nero…In a theater world that seems to be contracting and cowering, Berkeley Rep continues to prove its mettle by challenging and rewarding audiences at every turn…Danny Scheie solidifies his reputation as one of the Bay Area’s best, most original actors as the title character…This sharp, thoughtful comedy is definitely on the ascendant.”—Theater Dogs

A “gleefully apocalyptic comedy about the fall of the Roman Empire…Revels in gloriously madcap juxtapositions of period and theme that land the laugh as well as make the point…genius for marrying shtick and subtext gives Nero its over-the-topical depth charges of wit and warning…Danny Scheie’s flamboyance as the title emperor fuels the outrageousness…He came, he saw, he conquered this production from start to finish. Half academic, half imp and all camp, Scheie lights up the stage like a fireworks display.”—San Jose Mercury News

A “wildly hilarious tale of the wretched excesses of Emperor Nero…The show will keep you riveted and laughing until the end with what is a tour de force performance by Danny Scheie.”—Bay Area News Group

“The funniest play that I’ve seen in years.”—KGO-AM

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Prologue: from the Artistic Director

A new world is upon us. It is a world marked by fear about the economy and worry about the future, concern about resources and the need to exercise caution. Everywhere there are people trying to make do with less, trying to adjust their personal and collective expectations as to how they will live. Cutting budgets, slashing payrolls, getting leaner and meaner, these are the standard strategies being implemented as businesses try to survive an unforgiving capitalist meltdown of global proportions. It is a cycle, to be sure, but as harsh a one as we have seen for a very long time.

In the midst of all this strife, however, there is an amazing opportunity. Intense reflection on the habits, behaviors and patterns of experience that brought us to this juncture offer us the chance to re-evaluate the good and the bad; what we like about the system and what we don’t. Moreover, we can use this time to look at ourselves: who we are and who we want to be. Like an animal shedding its outworn skin or a life form attempting to move to the next stage of evolution, we find ourselves at a crossroads in the development of our identity.

At Berkeley Rep, we are using this crisis to re-affirm and embrace what we feel is important: the production of fearless new work and the sustenance of the artists who create that work. It may seem counterintuitive, but we feel this is the best time to take intelligent risks: when the world is wide open, when our ideas about the “familiar” and the “tried and true” no longer carry their former weight. Formerly “safe” formulas used by regional theatres to program seasons (five or six familiar titles taken from the classical canon) seem somewhat tired and irrelevant. As painful as the economic situation is, we find ourselves on the brink of a different era with the chance to make a difference in regional theatre history.

Fortunately, we are in an excellent position to do just that. A generation of terrifically talented playwrights and directors has reached full maturity, capable of creating dynamic, enthralling, meaningful theatre. Grounded in history and comfortable with their craft, these artists are fulfilling the 50-year-old promise of regional theatre: they are producing a body of original work that has a living and lasting impact, that enhances the discourse in our communities, that entertains and sustains us.

Amy Freed is one of these artists. Amy’s work is distinguished by a salacious wit, a fervent critique of the culture and an unbridled imagination. Her plays use every kind of comic invention to make deadly serious points. It is great pleasure to welcome her and her subversive band of colleagues to our stage. It is a great pleasure to be able to boldly move forward into the future.

Tony Taccone

Prologue: from the Managing Director

Want your son or daughter to win a Nobel Prize? A recent article in Psychology Today hints at how to help that happen. Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein, authors of The 13 Sparks of Genius, have published a study in which they’ve found that Nobel laureates are 25 times as likely as average scientists to sing, dance or act; 17 times as likely to be visual artists; 12 times more likely to write poetry and literature; four times as likely to be musicians; and twice as likely to be photographers. Creativity and imagination are essential to an individual’s success, and you can invest in this success by signing your children up for summer classes at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre.

My father was not a Nobel laureate, but he was a research scientist. He often talked about the need for scientists to access their creative selves in order to imagine things that had not been imagined before. Einstein considered art and science to be branches on the same tree, and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck said it best: “The creative scientist needs an artistic imagination.”

Imagination, of course, is something that must be nurtured and developed. With current budget cuts in our schools, and the increasing demands on our daily lives, it’s easy to allow artistic pursuits to fall to one side. But at what cost?

Next door at the Nevo Education Center, the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre provides children, teens and adults with classes like improv, hip-hop, stage combat and—of course—acting to explore their own creative impulses. In local classrooms, the School augments under-funded arts budgets through literacy and play-creation programs which provide core curricular standards alongside imaginative play. Most students touched by these classes will not pursue careers in the arts, but hopefully they will discover that innovation and imagination are intellectual tools to be treasured.

As I write this, public-school funding is at the forefront of the national agenda. We are at the low point—we hope—of an international economic crisis. This is a time of terrible hardship for many in this community. Yet it is also a monumental opportunity for us to rethink our priorities. As we consider what kind of country the United States will be in 10, 20 or 30 years, we need to ask ourselves how we plan to nurture the innovative and creative spirit that has distinguished this nation.

We can help nourish that spirit by ensuring that the arts be reinstated as an essential part of the American education. While our children may not end up winning Nobels, there is no telling what they will be able to accomplish with fully educated imaginations.

And in the meantime, I invite you to explore the offerings at the School—for yourself and for your family.

Warmly,

Susan Medak

Lifestyles of the rich and Roman

By Alex Rosenthal

Salacious sex, brutal violence and binge consumption of strange and exotic foods set amidst the grandiose real estate holdings of the rich and famous: long before reality television began airing such extravagances, the affluent citizens and rulers of ancient Rome had perfected the art of perverse indulgence.

Conditions at the beginning of the first millennium AD were ripe for the accumulation of wealth. An era of peace following several hundred years of Roman territorial expansion provided the perfect environment for the Empire’s economy to grow. A workforce consisting of millions of farmers, skilled laborers and merchants greased the wheels of the civilization’s various enterprises. During previous centuries, private fortunes had been owned and controlled solely by aristocratic families. By the time Nero became emperor in 54 AD, however, a commercial boom made it possible for a new class of professionals—traders, bankers, creditors, investors, lawyers and others—to build up their coffers.

The low cost of living combined with easy access to money to create the economic phenomenon we now refer to as “disposable income.” Members of the middle and upper classes found themselves with a surfeit of time and money. The notion of buying things for pure enjoyment became a source of personal pride and political power, and led to a glut of excessive and extravagant expenditures. The following represent some of the specific examples of Roman decadence that resulted.

Parties

Rich Romans were master party-planners. Their dinner parties, which doubled as social functions and entertainment venues, provided opportunities to indulge in every variety of bizarre and exotic experience.

Menus at feasts varied greatly, but some of the more colorful dishes included sheep-brain pâté, stuffed sow womb, sow udders, camel’s feet, ostrich ragout, flamingo brains, boiled parrot, fried electric eel, stuffed sea urchin, jellyfish salad and dolphin meatballs. One man dissolved a pearl worth about $900,000 in vinegar and drank it. Nero himself found a way to make the simplest drink an object of excess—his decocta Neronis consisted of water boiled and then cooled in snow (the term translates to “the distilled water of Nero”). And the spending did not end when hosts had bought the most expensive foods possible; there were still gifts to be given. The emperor Lucius Verus spent $5.5 million on a feast wherein he sent his guests home with gifts of slaves and ornate carriages complete with mules and drivers.

The meal was not always over when guests had sated their appetites. Some dedicated connoisseurs made use of emetics to induce vomiting so that they could keep the culinary experiences rolling. This may have been the exception to the rule, but it was sufficiently commonplace that doctors penned guides for the proper practice of regurgitation.

Roman epicures displayed such a penchant for lavish dinners and expensive ingredients that the government felt a need to curtail their spending. During the Republic (509–27 BC), the government passed a series of (mostly ineffectual) laws limiting the amount a host could spend, the number of guests at a dinner and the foods that could be served. Even Nero passed a law effectively limiting the size of public picnics. That a government as extravagant as Nero’s saw need to rein in the lavish gourmandizing of the rich is indicative of the extent of the excess.

Dinners were accompanied by all manners of entertainment, ranging from drinking games, music and poetry reading, to performances by jugglers, acrobats and dwarves. The term “Roman orgy” is a bit misleading in a modern context; very little record exists of these parties devolving into sexual free-for-alls. “Orgy” referred to a ritual in which dancers worked themselves into a trance and gave control of their bodies over to Bacchus, the god of wine. Events such as these, however, did not occur on a regular basis during parties thrown by the rich.

As if to make up for this lack of prurience, some of the Roman emperors immersed themselves in perversions beyond belief. As recorded by Roman historians, Caligula allegedly not only committed incest with his sisters, but also prostituted them to his friends. The boy emperor Elagabalus dressed in drag and prostituted himself in Rome’s brothels.

Games

Politically inspired entertainment had a long history in Rome. During the Republic, senators up for election sponsored gladiatorial games in the hopes of winning the votes of their impressed constituents. The situation changed when Augustus, the first Roman emperor, limited the size of games held by anyone other than the emperor himself. For most emperors, the games served as a celebration of their divine cults of personality. At the same time, the games provided an opportunity for the people of the empire to see their ruler on a very human and personal level, enjoying the gory spectacles alongside them (similar to when a president throws the first pitch of a baseball game, the difference being the substitution of a deadly weapon for the ball).

Under the emperors, gladiatorial games reached an acme of excess never dreamed of during the Republic. The opening of the Colosseum, with a seating capacity estimated between 50,000 and 80,000, was celebrated with 100 consecutive days of games. Aside from the innumerable gladiators who battled and killed each other, around 10,000 animals—including foreign creatures such as elephants and rhinoceri—fought against each other. Entire battles were staged, both on sandy terrain and as naval encounters in water-filled arenas.

While 100 days was a particularly long celebration, this degree of spectacle was not uncommon, and emperors seemed to be in a constant struggle to outdo themselves. Free food was not only handed out to spectators, but one account describes sweetmeats, dates, cakes and other goodies being showered upon the heads of the audience. And these were not the only blessings from above: sweaty patrons were sprayed down with water, and tried to catch little wooden balls tossed into the crowd which were redeemable for everything from clothing to slaves to the deed for an apartment.

A typical day at the games began with a parade of various political figures, followed by musicians and the gladiators themselves. The morning events consisted of animal acts which involved exhibiting dangerous creatures and placing them in mortal combat with warriors. This was followed by midday executions, wherein criminals were put to death in a variety of creative and gruesome ways. For example, “Mt. Aetna,” a bandit nicknamed after a local volcano, was placed on a scaffold which “erupted” and sent him hurtling downward into the cages of ravenous animals. In another case, criminals’ clothing burst into flames in the middle of a ritualized dance.

The main event, gladiator fights, followed the executions. The usual form of combat consisted of gladiators, paired by skill level, dueling until one combatant found himself incapacitated or deprived of his weapon. While gladiators might be killed or mortally injured over the course of combat, the preferable outcome was for one to disarm the other. At this point all eyes turned to an official called the editor. He issued an order to either kill or spare the loser as influenced by the chanting of the masses, many of whom had placed bets on the outcome.

More than simply providing an entertainment and a gambling opportunity, the games served as a major social attraction and, for some audiences, a singles mixer. Some men went to the arena with the express purpose of picking up women. The poet Ovid even published a manual with tips as to how to seduce a love interest at the games.

The emperor Commodus (fictionalized in the movie Gladiator) saw himself as a gladiator, and subjected the populace to displays of him winning rigged matches and slaughtering hapless creatures such as giraffes and ostriches. In one case, which he advertised as a battle against giants, he collected those in the city who had lost their feet, dressed them in serpent costumes, gave them sponges to throw at him as simulacra of rocks, and proceeded to club them to death. Firsthand accounts portray Commodus’s displays as distasteful and embarrassing; such extremes of excess apparently alienated and frightened the populace, but it must be remembered that this was in a context in which the large-scale slaughter of animals, criminals and warriors was met with thunderous applause.

Real estate

Another fashionable showcase for wealthy Romans was the display of one’s home. Millionaires competed to own the most lavish and enormous estates. Nero had a palace built for himself which was dubbed the Domus Aurea, meaning Golden House. The historian Suetonius describes it in all its gaudy immensity as follows:

“A huge statue of [Nero], 120 feet high, stood in the entrance hall; and the pillared arcade ran for a whole mile. An enormous pool, more like a sea than a pool, was surrounded by buildings made to resemble cities, and by a landscape garden consisting of ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures and woodlands—where every variety of domestic and wild animal roamed about. Parts of the house were overlaid with gold and studded with precious stones and mother-of-pearl. All the dining rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let a rain of flowers, or of perfume from hidden sprinklers, fall on his guests. The main dining room was circular, and its roof revolved slowly, day and night, in time with the sky.”

Nero’s home marked an attempt to install a countryside villa in the heart of Rome, as if George Bush had had his Texas ranch erected within the borders of Washington, DC. The impracticality of this venture was met with some hostility, but Nero was not alone in this tasteless idealization of large, ostentatious edifices.

During Augustus’s reign, a proto-Rococo craze emerged for bizarrely colored marble constructions, such as violet-spotted marble pilasters alongside red, yellow and green columns. One rich man filled his private reservoir with water shipped from the Dead Sea. Luxurious baths featured silver faucets and ceilings covered in crystals along with mosaics, statues and pillars. The Emperor Hadrian’s villa displayed copies of buildings and monuments from around the world.

The wealthy were not content to merely own one such dwelling. Certain men could effectively travel throughout Italy and stay in their own homes at every stop. A fourth-century senator owned at least 16 homes scattered throughout the empire. Cicero, a famous Roman statesman and lawyer, owned eight large villas in addition to a number of smaller homes along main roads. Besides the enormous amount of capital required for the construction and upkeep of these—usually empty, homes—colossal estates put a strain on Rome’s resources by absorbing large swaths of otherwise farmable land.

Another consequence of this building mania was that individuals incurred massive debt. It was not uncommon for the rich to spend irresponsibly and beyond their means, and Rome had a thriving creditor market. Nobles who found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy could actually go before the senate and make a case for government bailouts, which were, at times, granted. Others who could not face the shame of poverty sought another way out: when a man named Marcus Gabius Apicius had whittled his fortune down to the modern equivalent of $100 million—having previously accumulated ten times that amount—he killed himself, unable to face the prospects of living with so few resources!

Nero’s Rome was a society of excesses on both ends of the economic spectrum; the enormous wealth of the few contrasted with the destitute poverty of the many. While the base cost of living was relatively inexpensive, and a class of professionals was able to attain a certain degree of wealth, hard, gritty labor was the norm for the poor, and violent crime was prevalent. The gap between the rich and the poor was one of the great strains placed on the slowly crumbling Empire. Perhaps, if ancient Romans had been able to look back upon the collapse and failure of a previous decadent society, they would have been able to foresee and prevent their own fall. Perhaps.

Amy Freed on what’s funny and how to get there

I never set out to write comic plays. My themes as a writer are usually serious, even though the delivery is not. I’m often asked about this, which forces me to think about why I write in this way and what comedy is and how it works on me. Each time I do this, it’s with some caution: A writer’s voice is like a fingerprint of the mind, conscious and unconscious—and it’s dangerous to know too clearly what makes you tick. But when I sneak a peek between my fingers at my own process and voice, this much I see.

I wrote my first play, Still Warm, standing up at the cash register in the hotel bar where I was working as a waitress. After some pretty crushing years, it was becoming clear to me that my talents were too frail and my courage too limited to ever fulfill my dreams of being an actress. And time was running out. The first image of the first play I ever wrote was that of a woman in Hell crawling out of an overturned car where she’d just drowned in six inches of muddy water. She could get out of Hell if only she could renounce her ambition.

My play was about the newscaster Jessica Savitch, of course, not me. Although the piece was incredibly flawed, wild and ugly, it was alive. Painful, sure. But because it was born of a need to expose—and because exposure is bringing darkness to light—it had a macabre exuberance to it, and was, in its weird way, celebratory. Comedy always moves toward the light, even when a character might be moving into the dark.

In comedy, we deal with the unmanageable person within—the posturing ego, the inner crazy person, the howling child, the monster. When you write comedy, you must surrender your grandiosity and your aspiration to be thought important and beautiful, even though every person on the face of the Earth wants to be exactly that.

In You, Nero, which deals with the effect Nero had on the theatre scene in ancient Rome, I wrote a speech for the Ghost of Agrippina, the emperor’s mother. It was modeled on the great death speeches in Shakespeare. I wanted it to have the flavor of Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet. The speech is satire, of course, but how I worked on it! It took me days. The phrasing at times brought a thrill and a flush of pride. I cherished it. I studied similar speeches, listened to the assonance, the matching sounds, the changes in meter, and I learned from them. I chose my words with as much elegance and precision as I am capable of. And now, undercut by a key phrase or two, they will become a source of comedy in the play, delivered by an actor who is blessed by the Ridiculous Muse.

My point is, the nature of the investment in comedy is as whole-hearted and emotionally sincere, up to the final tweak of consciousness, as in high art or tragedy.

This is equally true for comic performance and production. When a stage comedy is playing really well, the performers and the audience go into a kind of altered state. There’s a sense that nothing can go wrong. Huge choices are not too much, and tiny choices explode the house into sheer delight. Everything seems to communicate, and a willing suspension of disbelief allows us to buy anything. At the same time, no false goods are being sold to us. Good faith on both sides of the footlights abounds. It’s fantastic to watch how an audience hangs on each thought of gifted farceurs and seems to read their intentions and inner life even in the way they draw breath…

But getting to that point of seeming effortlessness takes days and days of precision work. Previews are full of strange mysteries: Why did they laugh there? What was funny about that? Why didn’t they laugh there? That should be funny.

Sometimes the answers are simple: They didn’t laugh because they could see only one of the actor’s eyes, and they need to see both. (That in itself is a mystery: For some reason, it’s hard to land a laugh in profile.)

At other times, the line might not be funny (my fault) or it might be funny but not in a way that earns spontaneous laughs (also my fault). There’s a variety of absurdity, for example, that works well on the page and in the rehearsal room but that flops on stage.

At still other times, the missing laugh has to do with the actor’s delivery, which brings up a slew of intricate, maddening, fascinating questions about pacing, pausing, pointing by gesture after the key word or sometimes before the word, more rarely on the word. The problem might be physical. An actor might diffuse a laugh by moving on the line—or diffuse another actor’s laugh by moving on the line, or stepping on it. Some actors even do that on purpose, to deny a laugh to a colleague. Those actors, thankfully, are the exception.

Finally, the problem could be in the setup, which means it’s either my fault, or the actor’s, or the director’s or a combination—and we have to figure it out. The challenge is this: To set up a joke requires stabilizing the audience’s attention in a misdirected focus, so that the departure of consciousness—the unexpected juxtapositions upon which comedy depends—can come with the force of surprise and delight. This requires control of the audience’s attention and expectation, and it’s both an art and craft. It’s practically science. And it’s why, incidentally, I have no great love of the “wacky,” which to me is a low and unskilled glancing at comedy, depending on winking attitude and screwball sets to signal wit but with none of the real clarity of attitude that wit requires.

The work is never-ending. The question is not only can we get it right, but can we get it right in time? I’m writing this between rehearsals for You, Nero—rehearsals that, I hasten to add, are going well. I have the deep and humbling pleasure of seeing some of the finest actors in the country (seriously) lending themselves to the realization of my fantasia—and a terrific and unflappable director, Sharon Ott, coping with the task of actualizing a script that calls for leopards, sea battles, gladiatorial contests and the burning of Rome. But I know that, no matter what comedy you’re staging, if you were to stop the rehearsal in mid-process, half the jokes would be lost, along with the show’s overall themes and impact. The trial and error and rigor of what we’re doing now are what’s required to bring out everything that’s in this comedy. We’ll be ready for you when the doors open, and working every second until then.

An old comedian supposedly once said that “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Let’s amend that cliché, once and for all, and say that comedy is seriously one great reason to stay alive. As anyone who ever took a theatre history class remembers, the origins of comedy are festival. It comes out of the celebration of fecundity, fertility, the defeat of winter by the spring. Laughter is a fountain of renewal. It’s not physiologically possible to really laugh and be in pain at the same time (which is probably why the old comedian was making wisecracks on his deathbed).

And yet comedy is intricately mixed up with pain, from the early delight a child experiences in watching someone else take the pratfall: A pratfall, by definition, is somebody else’s problem.

And so: A dog makes a meal of a cream pie. Buster Keaton spots the dog, whose muzzle is now dripping with whipped cream, and thinks the dog is rabid. Buster takes off at a dead run, and the dog, excited, chases him around and around a construction site. The chase includes the dog crawling up a ladder after Buster and continuing the pursuit around the perimeter of an uncompleted house. At the end of the short (The Scarecrow), you want to stand up and cheer both performers, human and canine, for their commitment, athleticism and ability to transform hydrophobia and panic into anesthetizing comic ecstasy.

My hat’s off to the comics and the comedians who help keep our nightmares at bay.

This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on January 4, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

Nero: Emperor, artist, entertainer, monster

By Kimberly Colburn

Nero was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in 37 AD. His mother, Agrippina (sister of the notorious Caligula), married Emperor Claudius. Lucius was officially adopted by Claudius at age 13 and became Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus, heir to the throne.

In 53 AD, Nero married stepsister Claudia Octavia. Less than a year later, Claudius died, possibly by poison at the hand of Agrippina, and at age 16, Nero was established emperor.

His early reign was strongly influenced by his mother and his tutors, Seneca and Burrus. Competition quickly arose among the three; Nero responded by becoming progressively more powerful and impeding all possible rivals.

In 58 AD, Nero became involved with Poppaea, the wife of a friend. While there are reports that Nero ordered the death of his mother the next year in order to divorce Octavia and marry his mistress, it is unlikely, as Nero did not marry Poppaea until 62 AD. Historians theorize that Nero executed Agrippina in response to her plotting against him. Octavia’s execution followed.

Ancient historians report that Nero, never having found wedded bliss, kicked Poppaea to death after she complained about his coming home late from the races. Modern historians suspect bias against Nero and propose that Poppaea actually died from childbirth complications.

Nero’s policies were often designed to garner support from the masses, and he was criticized for being obsessed with popular opinion. He lowered taxes on the poorer classes, imposed restrictions on fees, supported the rights of freed slaves and arrested numerous government officials on charges of extortion and corruption. He also enacted a series of wide-reaching and expensive public works projects.

Nero had a great love of entertainment, and built a number of gymnasiums and theatres. He held enormous gladiatorial shows and established his own festival, the aptly named Neronia. Nero was known to sing and perform in public, much to the dismay of ancient historians. They felt it was shameful, believing theatre was for the lower class and led to immorality and laziness.

Did Nero fiddle while Rome burned? No, the fiddle wasn’t invented until after Nero’s death. There was a great fire in Rome during his reign, but historical accounts vary widely as to where Nero was and what he was doing. The etymology of the phrase is traced to the 17th century, and refers to his predilection for performance and the suspicion the Roman people had that Nero did not do everything he could to stop the fires, as he subsequently took advantage of the cleared space to build himself an enormous “Golden Palace,” complete with an artificial lake.

Nero’s demise was imminent after being declared a public enemy by the Senate. He prepared for suicide but lost his nerve and ordered one of his companions to commit suicide first. Finally, at the sound of the approaching carriage, Nero plunged a dagger into his throat. His last words were: “What an artist the world loses in me.”

Originally written for South Coast Repertory. Reprinted with permission.

Odds and bitter ends

In the book The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Roman historian Suetonius describes Nero as “about the average height, his body marked with spots and malodorous, his hair light blond, his features regular rather than attractive, his eyes blue and somewhat weak, his neck over thick, his belly prominent, and his legs very slender.”

“Nero at this time was at Antium, and did not return to Rome until the fire approached his house…However, to relieve the people, driven out homeless as they were, he threw open to them the Campus Martius and the public buildings of Agrippa, and even his own gardens, and raised temporary structures to receive the destitute multitude. Supplies of food were brought up from Ostia and the neighboring towns, and the price of corn was reduced to three sesterces a peck. These acts, though popular, produced no effect, since a rumor had gone forth everywhere that, at the very time when the city was in flames, the emperor appeared on a private stage and sang of the destruction of Troy.”—Tacitus, Annals

Early Christian writings foretell Nero’s return as the Anti-Christ. These may have been fueled by reports that Nero was one of the first to persecute Christians. In his Annals Tacitus wrote “to get rid of the report [that he had ordered the burning of Rome], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace…Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car.”

Nero has been portrayed many times on the silver screen, often by well known actors. Peter Ustinov played the emperor in the 1951 film Quo Vadis, based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz. Charles Laughton played him in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1932 film The Sign of the Cross. In a 1955 Bugs Bunny cartoon called “Roman Legion-Hare,” Nero was drawn to resemble Laughton. (Nero also appeared in a Daffy Duck cartoon and in an episode of “Peabody’s Improbable History” on the Rocky and Bullwinkle series.) In the 1976 BBC television adaptation of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius (which aired on PBS in the US) Nero was played by Christopher Biggins. And Dom DeLuise played Nero in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I.

After building his Golden Palace as a result of the Roman fires, Nero reportedly said “that he could finally start living like a human being.”

From the Historian’s History of the World: “It is said that [Nero] never traveled with less than a thousand attending him with his baggage: the mules being all shod with silver, and their drivers dressed in scarlet clothes of the finest wool; and a numerous train of footmen, and Africans, with bracelets on their arms, and mounted upon horses in splendid trappings.”

Originally written for South Coast Repertory. Reprinted with permission.

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