Sara Krulwich/New York Times/File
Some people need to brush up their Shakespeare.
This month’s pop culture tempest in a teapot is the news that New York’s Public Theater has staged the Bard’s mighty “Julius Caesar” with a Trump-ified Roman dictator in the lead.
Caveat: I haven’t seen the production, so this is not a review. But no one’s reading things into it. Per The New York Times, the Julius Caesar currently stalking the Delacorte Theater has a blond rinse, a blue suit, a long red necktie, and a Slavic wife. When, in Act I, Casca sneers about the ruler’s popularity with the masses, “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less,” director Oskar Eustis has added the words “on Fifth Avenue.”
It gets a big laugh from Shakespeare in the Park audiences.
Not surprisingly, this has caused the right to erupt in outrage and corporate sponsors to flee. Breitbart News led the charge with an article titled “‘Trump’ Stabbed to Death in Central Park Performance of ‘Julius Caesar’,” and Fox News fed the flames, tweeting “NYC Play Appears to Depict Assassination of @POTUS.” Talking about playing to the base: This isn’t Shakespeare, it’s a “New York City play.”
You can hear the anti-elitist dog whistles all the way up here in Boston.
On the surface, the outrage is understandable, coming after comedian Kathy Griffin tweeted an image of herself holding up what appeared to be Donald Trump’s decapitated head — a lousy joke that backfired widely and immediately. The far right fomenters now trot that image out to “prove” what liberals “really” think, but I don’t know a single person, left, right, or center, who thought that image was witty or welcome.
Nor does the immediate cry hold water that liberals would have had a similar meltdown if a production had killed off a Julius Caesar who bore any resemblance to Barack Obama. That’s because in 2012 The Acting Company teamed up with the Guthrie Theater on just such a production at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York City. (Oh my God, they’re right — it is a “NYC play.”) The American Conservative magazine called that production “riveting.” The New York Times, in a positive review, called it “a tough act to follow.”
No sponsors were reported to have bailed out.
That isn’t the case this time. Obviously spooked by the Griffin incident, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America announced they were cutting their financial backing of the latest production. The former tweeted a statement saying that “While Delta is a longtime sponsor of the Public Theater, we do not condone this interpretation of Julius Caesar,” and Bank of America released a statement saying that the theater “chose to present Julius Caesar in such a way that was intended to provoke and offend.”
The companies have every right to pull their funding, just as their customers have every right to reward or punish them with their business or lack thereof. And it has long been the case that when art does “provoke and offend” — which is often what art is meant to do — the first scaredy-cats to jump ship are the corporate backers.
But the larger absurdity is the belief among some people that Shakepeare’s “Julius Caesar” is pro-assassination. It is not. It is exactly the opposite. And that is a message that everyone, on both the right and the left, needs to hear.
I’m going to say something I probably shouldn’t, which is that most if not all of us are capable of imagining violence against people we do not like. Especially if we don’t know them personally and allow them to serve as projections of our fears.
The vast majority of us understand such fantasies are not to be shared but, rather, to be contained and wrestled with. They’re dark demons of the id, pulling us away from civilization, not toward it.
A few share and celebrate such fantasies, though, mostly when they have the courage of crowds, real or digital. To people furious over the Kathy Griffin photo I ask, where were you when effigies of Obama were lynched and burned across the eight years of his administration, the resulting photos shared on social media to the delight of people defined by their hatred?
Perhaps you hated Obama, too, but were repulsed by those images; I’d like to believe you. Now we have a president who, to many who did not vote for him, is an object of derision and profound anxiety.
The Trump presidency can prompt feelings of powerlessness, and it is on such powerlessness that fantasies of violence feed. I recall being a guest in a college classroom during the 2016 election when the subject of Donald Trump came up and a student, ardent and naïve, blurted out, “I wish he’d get shot.” An ugly silence ensued, followed by a conversation about the dangers of saying such things and, more important, the pitfalls of thinking them.
It is precisely those dangers — of thinking, saying, doing — that “Julius Caesar” warns against. The assassins of the play — including the noble Brutus and the calculating Cassius — have any number of reasons for believing they’re doing the right thing, ridding the Roman Republic of an ambitious tyrant usurping power that rightly belongs to the people.
They believe the public will understand and embrace them. “We shall be called purgers, not murderers,” says Brutus, and Cassius avows that “So often shall the knot of us be called/The men that gave their country liberty.”
Sounds like a Tea Party convention, doesn’t it? Man, are they wrong.
The stabbing death of Caesar unleashes chaos. Marc Antony sees it coming: “Domestic fury and fierce civil strife/Shall cumber all the parts of Italy; Blood and destruction shall be so in use/And dreadful objects so familiar/That mothers shall but smile when they behold/Their infants quartered with the hands of war.”
One lowly character, the Third Plebian, gives voice to a truth of what arrives in assassination’s wake: “I fear there will a worse come in his place.”
True to those fears, the death of Caesar paves the way for a new strongman — Octavian, the Emperor Augustus — and the death of the Roman Republic.
The message of “Julius Caesar” never wavers, no matter who you put in the top spot, even if, especially if, the production caters to an audience’s worst partisan impulses.
Do you harbor violent thoughts about Barack Obama or Donald Trump? This play says be very, very careful what you wish for.
Shakespeare’s underlying message is even less flattering: The public’s a fickle and brutal beast, capable of being swayed first by assassins and then against them, murderously mistaking poets for conspirators, and running riot in the streets. The only difference — call it progress if you want — is that we mostly do that online these days. For now.
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