On The Public’s recent misreading of Julius Caesar.
“How many ages hence/ Shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er/ In states unborn and accents yet unknown,” marvels the conspirator Cassius as he bathes his hands in the blood of Julius Caesar. Despite the grisly scene, audiences often laugh at this meta-theatrical nod in Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy. Usually, it is a moment of dramatic irony: we in the audience know Cassius will not be remembered as a liberating hero, like he hopes, but as an archetype of treachery.
In the Public Theater’s now infamous Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, which closed on June 18, the irony was redoubled, as the whole staging sought to bend Shakespeare’s text into something far more favorable to the assassins, who appear as Democratic senators conspiring against a Caesar costumed, made-up, and performed as a rote caricature of President Donald Trump. The conceit was thoroughly, albeit incoherently, applied: Calpurnia’s lines were smothered in Melania Trump’s accent, the Soothsayer sported an Anonymous mask, Octavius Caesar wore a Kushner-esque blazer and flak vest. The caricatures garnered chuckles but hollowed out Shakespeare’s scenes into low-tier Saturday Night Live sketches. Only when the production got out of its own way and let its talented actors simply perform Shakespeare did it come alive, as in the electric tent scene between Corey Stoll’s Brutus and John Douglas Thompson’s Cassius.
The decision to stage Julius Caesar with “Trump” as the dominant production idea has generated controversy and was enough to make sponsors like Delta Air Lines withdraw their support. Ultimately, the production was not a threat or an incitement to violence, but merely tacky—and it mangled both the meaning of the play and the progressive causes its creators hold dear.
Shakespeare’s Caesar is no vulgar political neophyte, but a successful general and career politician remaking Rome in his image. Yes, he is something of a boastful demagogue, opposed by the “establishment” of Rome’s Optimates. But he is neither a fool nor a voluptuary. Bedecking him in the trumpery of a golden comb-over and golden bathtub undermines the central conflict of the story. Brutus loves and respects Caesar, yet chooses to kill him for the good of Rome. “We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,” he says, “and in the spirit of men there is no blood./ O, that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,/ And not dismember Caesar!” Brutus’s faith that other Romans will so cleanly divorce political and personal considerations proves the undoing of the conspirators and of the republic.
Trump’s political opponents have no respect for Trump-the-person, yet they honor the office of the President—and so they are not very much like Brutus at all. The director Oskar Eustis has tried to frame his production as a warning against “fight[ing] for democracy by undemocratic means.” Perhaps a noble cause, but it fits neither the play nor this production. Shakespeare’s conspirators (not to mention Shakespeare) would not conflate Rome’s arcane aristocratic republic with a democracy. Casca jokes that he dared not laugh at the people’s fawning over Caesar “for fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air.” The people’s champions these conspirators are not, and the Public can’t fool us by having Cassius don a pink pussy hat from the Women’s March.
The production, in fact, shied away from Shakespeare’s indictment of mob violence. This is the theme that comes closest to cautioning against “undemocratic means” and yet it is suppressed. The scene in which an innocent aristocrat, Cinna the poet, is torn limb from limb by rioters was reframed into a scene of a homeless-looking poet being beaten up by riot cops—instead of a classic of grisly humor, the scene was a paint-by-numbers police brutality tableau.
As the play careens from assassination to civil war, the production became baffling. Brutus, Cassius, and their subordinates played out their scenes as if they were commanders with a fraction of Rome’s legions fighting a risky but winnable battle for the fate of the republic (as Shakespeare, echoing Plutarch, portrayed them). Then the stage was flooded with what look like student protesters, flinging themselves ineffectually against the riot shields of Antony and Octavius’s cops. (For no discernable reason, the Anonymous-masked Soothsayer was back, now fighting on the anti-Caesar side.) This lame pseudo-battle was repeated, with minor variations, until the fed-up cops gun down the protesters. Staging Shakespeare’s battles is always a challenge, but “four or five most vile and ragged foils” would have been more fun than this self-pitying nonsense.
The production choices, throughout, did not cohere. They ran counter to the text to score cheap laughs—Calpurnia’s impassioned speeches were accented into oblivion, and so she convinced Caesar to stay at home by sliding into his bathtub. And the production cast the anti-Trump “resistance” as the foolhardy, blue-blooded conspirators—when in fact Trump’s critics are mostly progressive small-d democrats rather than reactionary aristocrats. It’s the worst kind of presentism to take literature and history grossly out of context to fit it into our precise contemporary distempers.
It’s likely that other producers will see the headlines the Public is garnering, and will plow ahead with their own Trumpian concepts for classical theater. Theatergoers should brace themselves for a dynasty of Richard the Thirds, a herd of Rhinoceri, and a bevy of competing Antigones. And perhaps they ought to approach with caution any theater company that works the phrase “now, more than ever . . .” into their publicity materials.
Theater can be a powerful forum for political commentary and pointed satire. And yet it takes a deft hand to mount a classical piece as a direct critique of current political figures without flattening or betraying the text. In this case, the Public manhandled Shakespeare’s play to make a simplistic point, wiping out the nuances of Shakespeare’s portraits of great, flawed men in conflict.
The production should not have inspired outrage or inane protests. But it should disappoint thinking people everywhere to see great art wasted in the name of political posturing. Eustis and his collaborators are better theater-makers than this production would indicate. At its best, the Public produces accessible and energetic productions of Shakespeare that expose a broad audience to the play by offering it for free on a beautiful outdoor stage. It would be a shame, though, to see this as one’s first Caesar. Would the play remain, in one’s life, merely a muddled Trump protest piece?
The anxieties of what we so grandly call “the Trump era” can, if we let them, make us better readers of Julius Caesar. But we have to come to Shakespeare’s text with an attitude of receptivity, accepting that this play may be older and wiser and stranger than we overeager modern readers. Cassius reads all the dire omens of the second act (“A lioness hath whelped in the streets/ Graves have yawned and yielded up their dead”) as incitements to assassinate Caesar rather than warnings of what will follow that crime. Caesar is even cajoled into thinking that his wife’s dream of a bleeding Caesar statue was “a vision fair and fortunate.” We should be wary of assuming every augury we read is about us—or that it tells us primarily what we want to hear.
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