Revenge tragedy, political farce

The Public Theatre kills off a Trump-like Julius Caesar, and the outrage flies. What happens when theater and politics clash.

It’s the murder heard ’round the Web. Stab-stab-stab, and the emperor’s dead. Across vast stretches of Blue America, a metaphorical wish has been fulfilled. And lo, a righteous and avenging fury has swept across the nation from stage right, and the shouting heads have shouted ’til they’re blue in the face, and the mighty money spigot has cranked shut. New York’s Public Theatre has done the unthinkable in its Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar. It’s dressed up JC to look like Donald Trump, and allowed the assassination to go on (quite explicitly, according to the reviews), and the play to proceed to the perpetrators’ plummet from the heights, felled by the hubris of their own violent act.

The cultural world is unlikely to have a flashier flash point this summer, although considering the political craziness of the moment, all bets are off. A production of a classic play about politics has itself entered the political theater, where the stakes are higher and the action’s vastly more ruthless. It’s at once a tragedy and a farce, on a level that The Public’s director Oskar Eustis might not have anticipated, even though he courted the controversy.

“Murder of Caesar,” Karl Theodor von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas, Lower Saxony State Museum, Hanover, Germany

Agitators have rushed the stage and disrupted several performances, loudly shouting canned slogans: “Liberal hate kills!” “Goebbels will be proud!” “The blood of Steve Scalise is on your hands!” (This is the same Steve Scalise, shot at baseball practice by a looney who had also been a Bernie Sanders supporter, who has proudly touted his A+ rating from the National Rifle Association.) One such interruption came from an “investigative journalist” and right-wing operator named Laura Loomer, whom up to that point I had had the extreme pleasure of never having heard. “Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!” she shouted, perhaps in defense of the candidate of the right who suggested that his loyal Second Amendment supporters might have a solution to the distressing outrages of his liberal election opponent. Corporate sponsors Bank of America and Delta Air Lines, aghast at the thought that their feel-good marketing support of free theater in the park might make them targets of a backlash that could cost them business, promptly withdrew their backing – and in the process, created a backlash to the backlash that almost certainly will cost them business. Shakespeare festivals across the country (including Oregon’s in Ashland) that had nothing to do with The Public or its Julius Caesar drew vitriolic complaints and even, in some cases, threats of violence from an aroused right-wing faithful. It all made, if nothing else, for “good TV.”

Let’s stipulate a few things:

  • First, Eustis and The Public knew exactly what they were doing. They were getting their own back at a president who among many other things has made clear his contempt for the arts in general and vowed to kill off the national endowments for the arts and the humanities. Putting him in the Roman conspirators’ crosshairs was like throwing red meat into the middle of a pack of hungry Dobermans and forgetting to shut the kennel door.
  • Second, the point of the play is not that Caesar is assassinated, but that his assassins lose everything by doing so. You must know how the play goes to understand this.
  • Third, Point 2 makes utterly no difference in the bitter scrum of actual politics.
  • Fourth, Eustis and The Public had every right to give a harsh contemporary political spin to Shakespeare’s play. It’s one of the messy and debatable and confrontative things that art does, and that separates it, no matter the wishes of corporate sponsors and government overseers, from mere decoration. Like journalism, though different in the way it goes about it, art is a cultural check on business as usual and its drift into things more sinister as usual. During the Soviet years in the U.S.S.R. and eastern Europe, writers and other artists learned to speak in elaborately absurdist metaphorical codes, slipping just out of the censors’ reach. Latin Americans working under repressive regimes created the cloaked language of magical realism. The contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei keeps reinventing himself and his modes of expression. Banksy bops obliquely from wall to wall. Artists in the United States, an intellectually blunter nation, tend also to speak in blunter fashion, like turning a Caesar into a Trump, like tweeting back at the Tweeter-in-Chief. So’s your old man, from sea to shining sea.

Art will always bend and reshape itself, adapting to a bending and reshaping culture. The works of Shakespeare have become a vast repository of reinvention, a bundle of truths and observations and human insights and brilliant language that take on different applications at different times. Julius Caesar has been played by women, and in one memorable production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, played out to the whap-whap-whap of helicopter blades in a modern desert war. In Hillsboro, Bag&Baggage is in rehearsal for an August production of Romeo and Juliet that will add text from Layla and Majnun, by the 12th century Sunni Muslim poet Nizami Ganjavi. The production will include dialogue spoken in Farsi. In producer and director Scott Palmer’s words, the world premiere “seeks to explore the connections between the greatest tragic love story in Western history … i.e. Romeo and Juliet and the 1,000-year-old Arabic folklore that shaped Shakespeare’s work, and also the conflicts between Christianity and Islam during the 12th Century.” Considering the political fierceness of the times, one wonders what knees might jerk in response.

“Lady Macbeth with the Daggers,” Henry Fuseli, 1812, oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches, Tate Britain, London.

Except for its particulars, there’s nothing new about The Public’s Trumpian Julius Caesar. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t spin into existence simply on whim. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Dictator didn’t look and sound like a certain warmongering and detestable political strongman by accident. I remember vividly the 1967 theatrical satire Macbird!, in which playwright Barbara Garson laid a fantasy about the assassination of John F. Kennedy over the plot of Macbeth. It was strange, and compelling, and of its moment, a sort of pre-Oliver Stone exercise in satiric paranoia, and if you scratched just a tiny bit beneath its surface it was nonsense. But at a time when Lyndon Johnson was roundly despised for pushing the nation into the Big Muddy of Vietnam, it served a very real purpose, and sparked perhaps even more controversy and opposition than The Public’s Julius Caesar has today. In the play, LBJ took the Macbeth role, lured into delusions of power and ambition by the Weird Sisters and setting in motion the murder of Duncan, or “John Ken O’Dunc.” One of the dangers of this sort of satire is that the parallels between established scripts and true life break down. It’s a little ludicrous, for instance, to think of Lady Bird Johnson as Lady Macbeth, and easy to forget that for all his flaws, LBJ, like Marc Antony, was a brilliant political tactician. Similarly, the chaotic and vindictive Trump hardly seems an ideal parallel to Julius Caesar, who was vastly more accomplished: Despite his power grab, Julius had a long and distinguished record as a successful politician and general.

What, then, to make of the Affaire de Julius Trump? It’s one skirmish in an intensifying and increasingly bitter cultural war. Was it a necessary skirmish? Was it tactically sound? Will it backfire, like Bank of America’s hasty hustle behind the front lines, or gain a few yards on the Western Front? Win or lose, you could argue, it’s better than going about business as usual and pretending, Vichy-like, that the battle doesn’t exist. The war is far from over. We’re in the middle of it, taking potshots back and forth from the trenches, with lousy sight lines and no clear vision of whether, even if we could see better, an end’s in sight.

We do, however, know how Julius Caesar turns out. It’s not a pretty sight.


One Response.

  1. KMW says:

    I saw a review of this production of Julius Ceasar. When the Trumpesque Caesar first appeared, with an Ivanka non-speakig actress by his side, the audience, after a gasp or two, laughed. Same when Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife appeared, looking a lot like FLOTUS and speaking with a decided Eastern European accent. No one in the audience, to my knowledge, vocally objected during the performance or headed for the exit.

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