My friend Richard Byrne, author of Burn your Books, has a new play, Nero/Pseudo being performed by the WSC Avant Bard at The Shop at Fort Fringe in Washington DC. After watching Friday night’s performance, I sat down with him for the following conversation in which he discusses his “glam rock musical” about the first and most successful of the imposters who pretended to be the Emperor Nero after his death.
Ibishblog: Let’s begin with the title, which is not Pseudo-Nero but Nero/Pseudo. And the subtitle is “Imposters Rule” which seems to me to be intimately connected to the same idea, if I’m not mistaken.
Richard Byrne: The subheader was one of our marketing tools. But that’s very much one of the things that the play is about.
Ibishblog: Okay, so what are the principal themes of the play? The basic conceit is that in Greece, a little bit remote from Rome, as with the rest of the Empire, people can’t quite believe that Nero is dead and the end of the Empire, or at least the old Augustinian empire, is at hand. The Augustinian system is gone and they can’t quite believe it. And so a guy shows up, or is discovered, and is either willing or compelled to pretend to be Nero for a time. That’s the fundamental conceit. But you’ve done it in the form of a glam rock musical. But let’s begin with the question, why did you want to write about the most successful of the pseudo-Neros?
Richard Byrne: It began when I read that little digression in Tacitus, which is the main source of information about this and which was so startling. It was profoundly jarring and I felt drawn to it immediately. This was the kind of thing that happens when there is a tremendous rupture in the system and things that normally wouldn’t happen at all are not just happening, but are normal. And that appealed to me profoundly, so I almost immediately started making notes about it and dove into it, researching it. And it was interesting to me too in that there have been a lot of portrayals of Nero, and in fact even recently there have been some theater pieces about Nero and about the family drama of Nero. Another thing that appealed to me is, how do you get at Nero without having someone try to portray Nero as such. And that challenge really appealed to me too.
Ibishblog: Well, that’s really interesting, because you actually do stage the family drama with Agrippina and Poppaea, and all that legendary horrible family drama, as a play within a play with masks. But it’s a mocking and satirical version of it. You’re making fun of it.
Richard Byrne: Yes, it’s sort of a “Behind the Music” of Nero. And that’s what I wanted to do with it. It’s such an improbable and, on some level, a profoundly oppressive story. The carnage is just so intense in the story of Nero, his whole rise to power and then his maintenance of power. And, you know, the other thing that appealed to me was that you get a sense from the historians that Nero was always being acted upon, as opposed to acting directly; that he was capricious and you didn’t want to be in his immediate orbit, but that this was not a political player in any way, shape or form. The real politics of the Empire were happening outside his orbit and people were just sort of trying to keep him in some sort of lane, and yet he was persistently veering out of his lane.
Ibishblog: Okay, so Nero was like Mao Zedong between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution? An icon who was basically being ignored?
Richard Byrne: Exactly! There’s a lot of that in Nero.
Ibishblog: But I guess he didn’t have Mao’s political genius to destabilize and overthrow the whole system and then take it over again from within.
Richard Byrne: No, he kind of had someone else do it for him. And why that is a particularly interesting comparison is that within Mao’s personal orbit during that time you could be destroyed very easily.
Ibishblog: Many of them were.
Richard Byrne: Right, but the larger events were happening sort of outside the room at some level.
Ibishblog: Well, Mao could only get to Peng Zhen, and then one by one all the others, culminating in Liu Shaoqi, through the streets. He couldn’t get at them, especially Liu, just through committees.
Richard Byrne: It is really interesting is that that model perpetuates itself a lot, of being very personally powerful but then the larger ripples are happening somewhere else, inside rooms and meetings that you’re not really in. It’s interesting.
Ibishblog: In a sense Nero/Pseudo is about “imposters rule,” but it also might’ve been called Nero, The Sequel. What I want to sort of get at is that you frame it in terms of a set of dynamics that emerge during a time of rupture, but also it’s very much reflective of a kind of static, frozen contemporary Hollywood culture where movies are expensive to make, and really almost the only way to pitch a movie, or play even now, is nostalgia. Tell the money people they’re going to get their cash back because people will attend due to familiarity. Or it has to be explained in terms of “this movie meets this other movie meets a third movie,” or it’s got to be based on a TV show or comic book that people grow up with or something. So what’s the relationship, if any, to this in Nero/Pseudo, or is it a very different kind of repetition compulsion?
Richard Byrne: No, I think that’s right, and it’s reflected in the history of that time. The Julio-Claudian empire was doomed. It was not going to last. The question is what was ultimately going to kill it. And what’s interesting historically is that the first pseudo-Nero was such a reflective phenomenon. What happened historically was that Nero was out, and then a more responsible military guy came in, but he didn’t last 3 months before they brought in Nero’s best friend to the throne. And then Nero’s best friend ended up in a miserable Civil War that bled the Empire. And then Vespasian basically reasserted order in a different way.
What was interesting was that the first pseudo-Nero had ripples way beyond his own brief misadventure because this first pseudo-Nero was seized upon by the Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writers. The whole notion that Nero could die and then return was, well, basically the Book of Revelation on some level.
Ibishblog: Or the much older myths of all the dying and resurrected gods.
Richard Byrne: Exactly, it also plays into all of those older myths, so it was at once familiar and very disruptive, and it had immense ripple effects. Which is why again, as I started researching and wanting to write it, this was one of the things that drew it to me most powerfully. It was clearly a very desperate and misbegotten episode, but it had all of these ripples in the culture that continue, well, until now. It was a very powerful, weird thing.
Ibishblog: So the present ripples include monotheistic apocalyptic millennialist thought?
Richard Byrne: I think there’s a direct link from the sort of thing to David Koresh or directly to all the Elvis sightings. There’s all sorts of these things.
Ibishblog: Or the “bin Laden isn’t really dead” phenomenon because, yeah, we need to see the body. Show us the body! “Where is your birth certificate, President Obama?” This business of, “I won’t believe it even if I see it.” It’s that old trope of Groucho, “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”
Richard Byrne: I think when you’re not in it, you know, when you’re not soaking in it, it seems gullible. But the power structure and the need to buy into the power structure and maintain it is very, very powerful and it can induce what we would see objectively as gullibility. I don’t tend to reach for Freud too quickly, but it is a big concern in his writing: how do these things perpetuate themselves through time. How do these conflicts, desires and needs for structure, order etc. perpetuate themselves over time? That’s what the play’s getting at too.
Ibishblog: And so obviously that has a lot of contemporary resonance.
Richard Byrne: Definitely!
Ibishblog: So it began as a play, and then became a play with songs, and then it finally developed into a full-blown glam rock musical? Why a musical, apart from the fact that Nero was a “rock star” God-Emperor? Or is that basically it?
Richard Byrne: Honestly, I think it’s a play with music. It’s definitely flouting, and then tweaking, and at some points wreaking some havoc, with the traditional musical. But I basically call it a play with music.
Ibishblog: Here’s what it looks like from the audience: it looks like a play and a concert that oscillate back-and-forth.
Richard Byrne: Yeah and I think it’s very much what I wanted it to be and what it needed to be, because if we were going to go back a little bit to that family drama of Nero, I don’t think that that’s something that lends itself to anything interesting musically or emotionally. What’s interesting is how does the performative aspect of his rule play on the audience? What is it trying to do? How do people use it or not use it? Now that, for me, was interesting. And just knowing that he had written this epic poem about the fall of Troy, I wanted to use that.
Ibishblog: Is it true that those passages about Priam and such appear mainly at the end, because that’s how it seemed to me?
Richard Byrne: There are only three lines of it that actually survived. And they are towards the end. And again, that’s another thing that just kind of blossomed in my head, because this was probably the most famous poet of his age, and yet only three lines of his have survived. And why? Of course you can be the most famous poet of your time and still be horrible. It seems to have been doggerel on some level. Or worse than doggerel. I mean, when you read people writing about Nero there is a sense that he was competent, but not distinguished. And that it took him a hell of a lot of practice even to be competent. So, that again suggests that there was probably somebody in a monastery who thought Nero was a monster and just burned all his writings instead of transcribing them for us. And that’s a really interesting thing too.
Ibishblog: Okay, so we’ve got the musical, which is a concert playing merry havoc with the form, but specifically it’s very glam. Why?
Richard Byrne: I just thought that was the music that best reflected it. On some level it was a process of elimination, because Nero is not punk at all, and Nero is not really acid rock or anything like that. There are a lot of genres that aren’t bombastic and narcissistic enough to really lend themselves to a Neronian concert. Glam really does.
Ibishblog: Maybe there are some that are too much so, like prog? That should be bombastic enough, but maybe too much?
Richard Byrne: Yes, but also too musically subtle.
Ibishblog: Too cerebral?
Richard Byrne: Yes, too cerebral. It can’t really cow an audience.
Ibishblog: So you needed a genre that’s glamorous, bombastic and narcissistic and hard-driving but also very simple, and glam fit the bill perfectly.
Richard Byrne: Yes, exactly, that’s it. That’s why it’s perfect.
Ibishblog: And glam is also outrageous, and Nero was outrageous and flamboyant.
Richard Byrne: Yeah, and I think there is a lot of debate as to how exactly gender bending or whatever he was. But it’s very clear that he did marry this boy who looked like Poppaea. There’s a lot of debate about the other thing about him marrying his freedman, and whether that was just sort of vile gossip or whether that was part of a initiation rite into a specific cult. There’s just a lot of question about how ambisexual he was, but the historical residue about him is very ambisexual and pansexual and glam helps bring that out.
Ibishblog: Yes, you can build that into glam. There’s a lot of androgyny in glam, but also, which brings me to the other point about the genre, glam is such a broad category that there’s that saying, “it’s just rock ‘n roll with glitter.” Your musical cohort and co-author Jon Langford said it best when he pointed out, “glam covers everything from Brian Ferry to Slade.” So glam has a certain set of theatrical or modish stylistic touch points, but it doesn’t have a coherent set of musical stylistic identifiers, does it?
Richard Byrne: No, and that’s the thing, it was a mode. It was more than a fad, but it was a mode. And what’s interesting is to take just one very clear example of it. Mott the Hoople was essentially a pub rock band. They were a throwback. They were kind of an anachronistic band for 1969-70. They weren’t blazing any musical trails. But David Bowie just sort of, like Tinkerbell, gives them THE glam anthem.
Ibishblog: “All the Young Dudes.”
Richard Byrne: Exactly, and it’s the most “glam” song of all done by probably the least “glam” glam band of all. I find that very interesting. Roxy Music was much more consciously glam than Mott the Hoople. But what’s interesting is that you see groups like T. Rex and Slade who could not transcend the mode versus actual geniuses like Eno and Ferry and Bowie who transcended the mode: who went into the mode and then emerged from it again.
Ibishblog: Bowie came close to inventing it. T. Rex maybe comes first, but Bowie really solidifies what glam meant. By the time you get early Roxy Music, you’re getting at least 50% satire.
Richard Byrne: Yeah, but there’s just so much churning energy and intelligence that you know eventually it is going somewhere else.
Ibishblog: Completely, of course, you can already hear it in early Roxy Music because it’s such a bizarre mashup of styles and you’re talking about very intelligent people playing with everything they can dig out of everybody else’s dumpsters, usually making fun of it.
Richard Byrne: And take note of the way, especially after those first two Roxy Music records, how the third and fourth Roxy albums really run the gamut. There is everything there, from straight pub rock to prog rock. It’s all kind of muddled and mixed up. Like you say, it’s all there.
Ibishblog: I do think if you had to single out a specific glam band for maximal achievement artistically in that mode, it would have to be Roxy Music. With all due respect to Bowie, I think they went to a lot of different places a lot more quickly and moved beyond it really fast. Maybe they were seeing through it from the start. With Bowie, on the other hand, he simply leaves it behind.
Richard Byrne: He was bored with it, and he felt like ultimately it was both career defining and ending.
Ibishblog: It would’ve been.
Richard Byrne: It would have been, and he needed to reject it publicly and categorically.
Ibishblog: Probably the biggest difference is that he had more to say than anybody else, so he keeps on exploring, which is not quite true of Ferry. David Bowie’s the guy in that mix with the most ideas. Bowie and maybe Eno.
Richard Byrne: Ferry is comfortable now.
Ibishblog: With Bowie, you get the sense that he’ll never be comfortable. I mean he’s always going to be looking for the next thing, probably in his wheelchair.
Richard Byrne: So that’s why for me, glam was the most useful mode for this play.
Ibishblog: I have to say I think that it works spectacularly well, by the way. It’s something that makes no sense on paper, but the minute you walk into the theater, even before the play begins, as soon as the musician start playing you enter into that world very, very quickly and the glaminess of it all.
Richard Byrne: I have to give my applause to the director, Patrick Pearson, and the designers because they really did embrace the kind of anarchy and artistic anachronism that I was trying to foist on people and it really does work. They made it work, and I’m grateful to them for that.
Ibishblog: If there is a song that seems to define the mood, “Soul Love” seems to be a very strong presence.
Richard Byrne: Yes, and while I can’t speak for them, I think that when Jim Elkington and Jon Langford, who wrote the music, were looking for a way into the project that was helpful. Often you look for a touchtone first, that gives you an entry into a project. I think this was that for them. It’s a song that’s very recognizable from Ziggy Stardust, but it’s not one of the hits.
Ibishblog: Moving on from the glam stuff, at the end you have a remarkable piece of writing that’s beautifully delivered by your lead, Bradley Foster Smith, which is the decapitated head of the pseudo-Nero speaking in what would appear to be the voice of Nero himself. His voice certainly changes, and becomes contemptuous and angry and sounds embittered and imperial – whether of a monarch or a rock star. I find that passage, even though it comes at the end, to be a sort of the epicenter or the navel of the play. And most of the crucial ideas in the play, in my view, and correct me if I’m wrong, are expressed in that soliloquy. But the irony of the soliloquy is that it is in what would appear to be the voice of Nero, but coming out of the decapitated head of the pseudo-Nero, and so what is the audience to make of that, if you want to help us?
Richard Byrne: There are a couple of things, but I don’t want to tell you what to think. It’s not one thing. I tried to achieve a careful layering effect. I thought was very important that three things had to happen. One thing that had happened was that the two schemer characters of the play, the ones who make it all happen, had to see Nero for real. And I also felt that the audience needed to see Nero for real. The question is, how does that happen? And the ending is very much my attempt to, within the universe of the play, make that happen. And I do think it’s crucial, in a play about imposters, to have some nod to the real. Or at least to the author’s understanding of the real. I think the other thing that’s really important is that this was probably a very desperate and misbegotten misadventure, but it did have such powerful ripples and I wanted to acknowledge that. I felt responsible to the characters. I felt I needed to give them their due.
Ibishblog: Which character is getting his due here?
Richard Byrne: All of them. All of them are getting their due on some level. It helps to do a couple things. It gets the audience to a certain place. It recapitulates and underscores some of the earlier points. It brings the strands together. It serves a lot of functions, and the audience reaction to it has been really positive and I’m happy about that.
Ibishblog: Well, it’s a very thoughtful moment, I think without doubt the most powerful moment in the play, and anyone who thinks they’ve been watching a lark will be immediately disabused once that speech starts. I’d like to just push you a little bit more on the intersection between this ancient phenomenon and the quasi-contemporary, at least early 70s style, that you have put together here. What can we learn from this?
Richard Byrne: When you write something like this you want it to have layers, you want it to speak in different tongues, but with the unity within that difference. You want different voices that harmonize. Doing a play like this as a mere allegory on X is just not useful. I’m a little baffled by people who find it unclear. The spine of the play is an Emperor singing songs about the glory of elective war and conflagration as creative destruction as his acolytes are celebrating his divorce from the so-called reality-based community. There are definitely points of reference to our times.
Ibishblog: There is a hint of the “known unknowns” here?
Richard Byrne: There is definitely some of the “known unknowns” here, but I don’t want to give anyone answers. I really want people to use this collision of history and glam and politics and celebrity to just reflect a little bit on where we are, what do we clap for, and why do we engage or not engage with this very messy and often very narcissistic phenomenon of politics and celebrity and so forth.
Ibishblog: So what’s the future for Nero/Pseudo? This production cannot be the end of it! There is no way it’s just having this one run.
Richard Byrne: I’m talking with my musical collaborators and we will certainly be pursuing another production of it, and hopefully it will be as good as this one. I’m really proud of what we’ve done with it.
Ibishblog: You should be proud. I fully intend to see it again before it closes.