culture wars

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.”

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ArtsWatch Weekly: tweet charity

"Hamilton" and Trump's tweets, artists in crisis, new holiday shows, shakeups at Disjecta and Post5, Moses(es) and more

And then he tweeted. The president-elect of these United States is, of course, a thumbmeister of prodigious proclivity, hurling 140-character putdowns and opinions into the Twittersphere with disruptive glee and strategical savvy. It’s a brave new political world out there, and Donald Trump has shown a mastery of its evolving mechanics.

This particular tweet, as most any arts follower knows by now, was a finger-wagging at the cast and creators of the Broadway musical hit Hamilton, a show that Vice President-elect Mike Pence had attended, and where he became the recipient of a post-show plea from the stage to recognize and support the American diversity that the people on the stage represented. It was a highly unusual shout-out, but these are highly unusual times, and Pence, who has a history of hardline opposition to LGBTQ rights (he is even widely believed to have supported shock therapy to “cure” people of their homosexuality, though Snopes.com says that’s not entirely true) seemed a highly unusual attendee at a Broadway musical, an art form suffused with gay culture.

Teddy Roosevelt advocated the "bully pulpit." Donald Trump prefers Twitter.

Teddy Roosevelt advocated the “bully pulpit.” Donald Trump prefers Twitter.

Was the Hamilton cast rude or presumptuous? Maybe, although its spokesman spoke softly and carried only a verbal stick, lecturing in the politest of tones. He implored the audience not to boo Pence, and yet boo it did, which in its own way is intriguing, because a theater full of people who can afford tickets to the highest-priced show on Broadway is hardly a cross-sampling of the downtrodden.

Pence, asked later about the incident, said he wasn’t bothered by it, and the pushback was “what freedom sounds like.”

Trump was not so mild. “The theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!” tweeted the man who tosses out insults with abandon and does not apologize.

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