After a few weeks of heavy works, it’s time to take a small breather. To celebrate the recently passed Ides of March, it’s a good time to look at the classic Wayne & Shuster sketch, “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga“.
The death of Julius Caesar at the hands of Roman senators led by Brutus became fodder for William Shakespeare, who turned the assassination into a tragedy. The play, Julius Caesar, was first performed in 1599 and has been a regular in the repertoire of many a Shakespearean company. Julius Caesar is also a common play taught in high school English classes, thus continuing the legacy of those fateful Ides of March.
Meanwhile, Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster* created their duo, Wayne & Shuster, after working together since high school. They went professional in 1941 on radio with CFRB in Toronto. “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga” was released on LP in 1954, and was then used for their big break with American audiences on The Ed Sullivan Show. After the show, New York City bars were offering “martinus specials” after a line from the act**. Sullivan had the duo back a record sixty-six more times over eleven years.
“Rinse the Blood Off My Toga” is a hard-boiled detective story using Julius Caesar as the starting point. The obvious place to start is after the big murder, the assassination of Caesar. Wayne’s character, Flavius Maximus, is a private Roman eye, hired by Shuster’s Brutus to find who killed Caesar. As Brutus, Shuster is giving a wink and a nod to the role the character had in the play. The sketch plays out as advertised, a hard-boiled detective story, with the various suspects coming up and being interrogated, including Calpurnia, Julius’ wife. The play’s characters are treated as if they had Mob connections as Flavius looks for Mr. Big.
As a comedy sketch, “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga” toys with the source material, going for laughs instead of accuracy. Yet, the sketch does show another way to adapt a work, by taking a different angle, either through the eyes of a minor character on the edge of the events or by bringing in a new character as an observer. Flavius Maximus wasn’t in the original Julius Caesar, but the mixing of genres allows him to insert himself into the aftermath of the assassination and bring Brutus to justice.
* Frank Shuster’s cousin Joe also became famous, through Superman. His son-in-law, Lorne Michaels, also is famous, having created Saturday Night Live.
** Flavius: “I’d like a martinus.”
Cicero: “Don’t you mean a martini?”
Flavius: “If I want two, I’ll ask for them.”